The thread by chownah about triggered these thoughts which I have been contemplating for a while....... Bear with me while I sort out my thoughts...
What I often see in discussions about sexuality--whether in a Buddhist context or in the more general context of popular culture--is the constant emphasis on DESIRE, DESIRE, DESIRE. However, sexuality is not just about desire: it also involves the BODY and PLEASURE. Yet, the overwhelming focus in contemporary culture is on desire. I suspect this has something to do with the influence of Christian morality on our thinking about sexuality. Whether we come from a Christian background or not, Christian morality has strongly shaped our attitudes towards sexuality. The Christian attitude towards sexuality is one that emphasizes DESIRE. It is important that Christianity stresses DESIRE and ignores the BODY and PLEASURE because according to the Church the only desire that is acceptable is that between a man and a woman. Sex must only be for the purpose of procreation. Accordingly, under such a framework of sexual morality, DESIRE becomes the central aspect of our sexuality which we must focus on. For Christianity, the way to deal with our desire is through confessional practices. We must confess our desires to God in order to be saved. With the overwhelming focus on desire, the Church could then also regulate what is considered the 'proper' conduct with regards to the BODY and PLEASURE. So, intercourse between two male bodies or two female bodies, for instance, is a transgression of divine law. Similarly, any kind of PLEASURE that doesn't derive from the contact of the male and female genitalia (i.e. oral or anal stimulation, etc) is a transgression of divine law.
However, in contemporary times people are no longer willing to take such a framework of sexual morality for granted. A main reason for this is simply because it demonizes certain people and is used to perpetuate various acts of injustices. Yet, traces of such a sexual morality persist in the way we think and talk about sexuality. It is a DEEP CONDITIONING of our culture. But at this historical juncture, we are also in a great position to rethink and reformulate a new framework of sexual morality. As a Buddhist I believe the Buddhadhamma provides us with productive ways of thinking beyond traditional Christian sexual morality.
I do not have a clear idea what this new sexual morality should involve--this remains an open question and is something that has be worked out collectively. But what interests me about the Buddhist perspective is that it allows us to talk about the BODY and PLEASURE. To begin to have a better understanding of sexuality, I’d say that we need to become aware of PLEASURE: to see WHAT IT REALLY IS and to understand HOW IT ARISES. From a Buddhist perspective, the teaching of VEDANA allows us to inquire into this aspect of sexuality which has been overlooked and subsumed by all the emphasis on desire. What we deem as pleasurable or not derives from the way we relate to vedana. And according to the teaching of D.O., vedana (feeling) conditions tanha (craving). Desire and libido are important aspects of our sexuality. But they are the secondary formations that arise from VEDANA. These secondary formations in turn condition the way we relate to VEDANA. If this is the case, then, to come to terms with our sexuality we need to also understand PLEASURE and the BODY. We cannot simply focus on DESIRE.
Monastics are in an environment which discourages the arising of the vedana and desire associated with sexuality—or at the very least they are in an environment which allows them to deal with them in wholesome ways as and when they arise. We laypeople are not usually in such an environment. If anything, we are in an environment in which there many conditions for the vedana and desire associated with sexuality to arise. Given this to be the case, I have learnt that the most productive for me to deal with sexuality is not to suppress it but to allow it to arise under wholesome conditions rather than unwholesome ones. For me, the best way to set these conditions is to be in a monogamous relationship--rather than, say, picking up women in bars and clubs, indulging in pornography, etc, etc. When the vedana and desire associated with sexuality arise, I do my best to express them in the context of the relationship. In this way, I begin, so to speak, to ‘make use of pleasure’. Sexual pleasure becomes something that I share with someone whom I respect and care for. The vedana and desire associated with sexuality—because it is expressed in the context of a trusting relationship—becomes a means for me to better understand and cultivate wholesome qualities associated with care, concern, respect and appreciation for the other.
To be clear, I am not claiming that I have become a sex guru. Nor am I saying that the Dhamma encourages us to indulge in sex. What I am saying is merely: as a layperson I cannot easily deny sexuality. Given this to be the case, and given my commitment to following the Dhamma, I choose to bring awareness and lovingkindness to my experience of pleasure.
To do this, I had to begin by observing sexuality through the teaching of VEDANA—I had to slowly begin to see that sexuality is not simply about DESIRE but also about the BODY and PLEASURE. And to be clear, while I chose to be in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship, it is NOT to say that a heterosexual, monogamous relationship is the only ‘right’ one. I do not subscribe to such a view. For me, it is simply the case that my past conditioning has made this relationship the most conducive one to express my sexuality--this is, in other words, my kamma. For other people, it could be a different kind of relationship with people of different genders.
I suspect that if I continue to bring the awareness of the Dhamma to my experience of sexuality, I might one day find it to be quite irrelevant. But that day has yet to arrive. So in the meantime, when the vedana and desire associated with sexuality arise, I do my best to bring awareness to it and 'make use of pleasure'.
Given how threads about masturbation/visiting prostitutes/pornography/obsessive thoughts about sex keep cropping up, it might be useful to discuss: how has the Dhamma (and specifically its teachings about pleasure) influenced your experience of sexuality?