Most of us who have had our share of shagging experiences, a la Miss Jones, know by now that it’s not as if having lots of sex really lands us in a spiritual Mecca; nor does it land us in an endless, meaningless voice either. Sex is many things for us: it can be at once painful and wonderful, a tremendous risk and giving of self, a mistake or an amazing realization of love. We are girls who are enlightened enough to know that, though the shagging lives of Becky and Bridget go off with nary a hitch (aside from a pregnancy scare or two), that the reality of our own sex lives, while thrilling, can also be disappointing and more complicated than these novels reveal. (Though I will add here that the extensive discussions among Bridge and friends about the emotional “immaturity” off bosses like Daniel can make sex, though fun at the time, lacking in meaning after the fact and not the best experience from which to unite our spiritual and sexual selves.)
As the audience of Chick Lit, we are also old enough to know that there’s no one way to go about expressing ourselves as sexual beings either; we “make our own beds” on this issue. For some of us, no sex is still the best sex of all, and waiting until we fnd a soul mate is the appropriate way to fulfill our desires (though must admit, feel as if this is a dying breed of women). For others (dare I say most of us), waiting until Smug Marriage finds it way into our life (again, if it oes at all) to have sex is simply not an option; we are not about to wait. So in support of the spiritual, Singleton shag, here are my suggestions.
Despite the rather across-the-board idealization of marriage as the only acceptable receptacle for sex (am rhyming), surprisingly, somewhere within the vast majority of spiritual traditions across the world there are heavy streaks of eroticism (take, for example, the Kama Sutra). Desire for God expressed metaphorically through the language of human sexuality, kissing, touching (and all that good stuff) is actually celebrated in one of the most famous books in Hebrew scripture (which is also Christian scripture): The Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is as sexual a poem as you can find, and the fact that it is considered a sacred text is a step in the right direction as far as sexuality and spirituality goes. Though while there is a positive kernel in the erotic expression of divine desire, it only gets us so far, since spiritual traditions that use erotic language and ecstasy to describe divine love do so metaphorically (the metaphor part being especially important for religious folk here). But my advice is to take this seed of the erotic and not read it as merely metaphorical, and instead allow it to help us see the spiritual side of sexuality, regardless of whether we are Smug Married or not.
In an interview with The Believer, scholar Elaine Pagels (recently in the news constantly due to The Da Vinci Code craze) discusses the etymology of the word authority. She mentions authority because of a turn in conversation about how so many people today are “disenchanted” with religious authority, since the sets of rules we continue to be given do not seem to add up with our lived experiences. (For example—and this is my example, not Dr. Pagels’s: we experience that sex can be good, as in virtuously good, even when we are not married.) Pagels explains that the word authority comes from the Greek word, autors, which means “self.” Regarding the claims of religious authority, she argues that, “Basically one has to go back and verify for oneself what authority one is going to accept.” The way in which we experience authority and allow authority to direct our beliefs and actions ultimately rests within us: it is within us to decide whose authority is valid and where the moral rules that govern our lives and sense of self come from (v. promising idea).
Elaine Pagels’s reminder to us of the origine of authority as a concept, and the fact that it is historically rooted within the self is helpful as we try to reconcile spirituality and shagging, Singleton style. Seeking Inner Poise with regard to sex should involve remembering the following: that regardless of the choices we make about sexuality, none of these choices need alienate us from the spiritual life. We don’t have to keep our sexuality and our spirituality separate; it’s just that we are made to think unmarried sex and religion are incompatible. Ultimately, it rests within us to understand our sexual experiences as either valuable to our spiritual journeys or as hopelessly selfish and vacant of love, as Christopher West suggests. We have the authority (if we choose to take it) to read The Song of Songs as metaphorical or as a sacred poem that helps us to see the spiritual side of our sexual experiences, if indeed we experience sex as meaningful, poetic, romantic, and loving in the same way that this beautiful poem portrays it.
While it is empowering to realize that the authority to accept or reject certain rules or moral imperatives lies within us, we must temper our sense of authority by remembering that Inner Poise is not a solitary affair, in the same way that our experience of sexuality encompasses another person. In thinking about the power we have to enfold the spiritual into the sexual, we should remind ourselves that the process of discovering the spiritual dimensions of our sexuality is a communal affair, even if the community consists only of two.
Ultimately, it takes the authority and willingness of both persons to affirm the spiritual significance of sexuality. Who our partner is and the nature of the relationship we have with that person will influence the degree to which we can draw spirituality into our sexual experiences, or whether any degree at all is possible (as experiences that are one-night shags and sex with emotionally deficient partners are probably not good candidates for discovering the spiritual side of shagging).
As we think about the spiritual side of sex, we must also think about the parameters in which we are experiencing it: sex in a loving relationship will obviously have more spiritual significance than sex with someone we barely know at all. It’s the difference between Bridget’s wild yet ultimately unsatisfying shagging relationship with Daniel (as she does not love him, just lusts after him rather badly) and her experiences with Mark Darcy, the man who loves her deeply and with whom she has a much better chance of becoming the irresistible sex goddess she would like to be.
To conclude here on this most important topic for us: the thinking that we need to divorce our spiritual identities from our sex lives until we are married is a perspective that we have the authority to change as a generation (both men and women, straight and gay). Those of us who’ve experienced the ups and downs of Singleton sex should be confident that, despite the complications that sexuality presents within relationships (any relationships for that matter, including Smug Married ones), sex ultimately can be a way to celebrate and love the body, both our own and that of another (who perhaps has the body of Colin Firth which, I think, would probably be easy for most of us to love if the opportunity arose!).
Learning to have authority over our sexuality is a subversive act; it takes away the taboos and prescriptions we learn from religious authority and allows sexuality to become an important part of our spiritual journeys and growth in relationships. Inner Poise, when it comes to sexuality, truly starts within us, as it is up to us and our partners to discover the sacred nature of our sexuality, regardless of whether we experience sex as Smug Marrieds or Singletons. (Insert Ms. Jones’s sigh of relif here, that Inner Poise, reaching spiritual epiphany, and shagging Mark Darcy can all exist happily together if she just lets them.)