Satori in the Bedroom

Tantra and the Dilemma of Western Sexuality

Freud once said that four people–two mothers, two fathers–lie in bed with every couple making love. If only that were all. Hugh Hefner is under the covers with us, and Carl Djerassi, who invented the birth control pill, and Alex Comfort, who wrote The Joy of Sex. Shere Hite is there taking notes, and a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control, and Pope John Paul II and Kenneth Starr. Cindy Crawford’s perfect body may float in space above us, or Long Dong Silver’s, daring us to turn on the light and look at how we don’t measure up.

When a man sleeps with a woman, he sleeps with her past as well, including her memories of pregnancy, date rape, abandonment or shame. When a woman sleeps with a man, she sleeps with the young boy caught reading his father’s Playboy magazines and the teenager in the back seat, expected to know everything without being shown. Each of us in the industrialized West carries into the bedroom not only personal memories, but collective ones: we are layered with exhortations, like sedimentary rock. Sex, the Victorians told our great-grandmothers, is dirty: Save it for the one you love. The mature female orgasm, said Freud, is the vaginal orgasm: That comes only to women who resolve their penis envy. Women’s sexuality, said the marriage manuals of the 1950s, is problematic, like the delicate wiring of an old MG: Husbands must be master mechanics. Vaginal orgasm is a myth, said the feminist theorists of the 1980s. Find the clitoris. Now.

Sleeping around will ruin your reputation, we were told in the fifties: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk through the fence? Sleeping around will free you, we were told in the sixties: Smash monogamy. Men and women are pretty much alike, we were told in the seventies. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, we are told today.

Many of us enter the bedroom now as if we have been told we are about to play a high-stakes game. There is no rule book, or else it’s been hidden. Everyone else, we think, knows how to play. We charge down the field. We pass the ball. A whistle blows. The rules have changed. The teams are being shuffled. We’ll be playing with a shuttlecock now instead of a ball, and the goalposts have been moved to the other end of the field. We start running and the crowd roars, but we’re not sure what we did right. Now we are on the bottom of a pile of bodies. We are given five different rule books and told to choose one that suits us. (We have no idea what book the other team is playing from.) Bleeding from the shin, we strap on our battered equipment again and once more run down the field.

We lie down with all of this, and more, when we lie down in bed with each other. We sleep with the war between men and women fueled by patriarchy and differences in physiology, and with the uneasy cease-fire in the erogenous zone that followed the feminist and sexual revolutions. We sleep with the legacy of the 1970s, when you could find, on many a middle-class nightstand, the dry, clinical bestsellers of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneers of behavioral sex therapy. The bright lights of their science were supposed to banish our fears and superstitions, like crucifixes held before a vampire. Yet the fear of pleasure, and of being discovered having pleasure, still runs beneath our bedroom floors like an underground river.

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For most of us, our first sexual act was also an act of secret rebellion against our parents. The memory of this defiant split lives on in our cells in the disembodied, suppressed yet obsessed way our culture approaches sex today. Few of our fathers talked to their sons about how to enhance a woman’s pleasure or prolong their own; few of our mothers ever told their daughters about the delights or even the location of the clitoris. We found out anyway, and paid the price.

In the dark recesses of our mental closets lies a negative cultural dowry–the muumuus that missionaries gave the naked Polynesians; the penitentes’ cat-o’-nine-tails; the chastity belt; and the confessional–all the trappings of the Augustinian Catholic tradition that declared sex a dirty distraction on the path to God and the source of original sin. (“As the caterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on,” wrote the poet William Blake two centuries ago, “so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”) All of this we bring into the bedroom.

When we sleep with each other, we sleep with images we’ve absorbed and, without knowing it, those our lovers have absorbed as well. Like fast food, images of other people’s orgasms, stripped of context and connection, are now available 24 hours a day and consumed alone and on the cheap. They demand of us a bravado we rarely feel. They lurk eternally on the Internet and in the phone-sex banks, at the corner video store and in the Congressional Record . Our bedrooms are colonized by them. When a woman lies down in bed with a man, a light show of images plays over her body without her knowing it: red-satin garter belts, perhaps, or beaver shots or Marilyn Chambers or Monica Lewinsky or the Penthouse Pet of the Month. When a man lies down with a woman, images of imaginary men play over his face without his knowing it–the hero of Tristan and Iseult, perhaps, or a Tammy Wynette song or a romance novel. No wonder we feel split within ourselves and from each other. We expect sexualized romantic love to carry a greater psychological burden than does any other culture on earth while we simultaneously denigrate the sexual. And so we reverberate between sexual obsession and sexual shame.

Last September, we found on our doorsteps newspapers full of the details of the president’s intimacies with Monica Lewinsky–the thong underwear, the cigar, the joke sunglasses, the rejected girl crying in the rain. It didn’t matter what the details were or the context in which they occurred. All that mattered was the telling of them. Opening the paper, some of us imagined how our own intimacies would read some morning, printed in black and white and dumped on our neighbors’ doorsteps.

What we read in the papers that day reflected the impoverished language we bring to sex. In 1931, the English novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in The Waves, “I need a little language such as lovers speak, words of one syllable.” But we can speak of lovemaking everywhere except the bedroom. For the delicate skin that touches our lover’s most tender places, we have no words except the pornographic, the childlike and the scientific. We speak of vaginas, labiae, clitorises, cunts, hair pies and “down there.” We call it a prick, a dick, a sledgehammer, a penis, a pee pee or Mr. Happy. Our worst insults are sexual: cunt, slut, whore, dickhead, pussy-whipped, cocksucker.

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And so we lie in bed with each other, reaching for pleasure, tenderness and connection, with both too much and too little to guide us: Hustler on the newsstand, Dr. Ruth or Dr. Laura on the radio and Debbie Does Dallas on the VCR. “You do not have to be good,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” But that’s a big only. No wonder we are sure that someone, somewhere, is having better sex than we are. No wonder someone, somewhere is pretending to have better sex than we are. No wonder we fear we will never get it right.

Yet sometimes we do get it right–or it gets us right. Many of us have experienced something in bed that the languages of pornography, sex therapy, feminism and the double standard could not contain. It might have been the afternoon we washed our partner from head to toe in the shower, kneeling under the spray to scrub even the soles of her feet, until washing became a ritual of tenderness and awareness. It might have been a dawn when we woke from a dream experiencing what the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich called a “full-body orgasm,” in which we were the wave and also a body drifting at the water’s edge, pulsating to our fingertips as the wave broke on the shore. It might have been a night a man looked into our eyes and stroked our nipples for hours until we gave in to our own responses rather than following what we imagined to be his timetable. Or a night a woman looked into our eyes while we were coming and we felt safe, seen and known.

In these moments, lovemaking is sensed as healing, wholesome and holy. Our focus broadens out beyond orgasm. Our small selves are no longer in command, and we give ourselves over, little boats on a deep river. The fear of not performing well disappears, the ghosts are banished from the bedroom and the present moment absorbs us. The West’s self-created divisions–between sacred and profane, heart and pelvis, male and female, victim and predator, body and soul–are temporarily healed. We understand what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred,” and what the 16th-century Anglican marriage ceremony meant when it included among its vows, “With my body, I thee worship.” Our bedroom is no longer hostage to the porn palace, the sex lab or the unfinished war between men and women. For a moment, the bedroom becomes a ritual space where we enter trance and forget time.

For most of us, such moments are rare and random, despite the mixed sexual blessings of the past three decades. The sexual revolution rightly told us that sex could be a domain of pleasure and self-expression. But its prescription–quantity over quality–did not free us. The feminist revolution challenged the practice of sex as a ritual of loving female submission and encouraged women to speak of their sexual desires and sexual violations. It lit up ancient chasms between the genders, but did not bridge them.

Modern sex therapy helped thousands with simple, effective behavioral techniques, usually focused narrowly on achieving erection, intercourse or orgasm. Yet few of us have much of a clue about continuing to create the more profound joys of sexuality–especially after the first six months to two years of a relationship, when hormones subside and desire fades. We may move from arousal to contentment or indifference or contempt. We may not know how to contend with softer, slower erections and other changes related to aging. A surprising number of stable couples stop making love much, or altogether. The ghosts return to the bedroom. We may lie down in resignation in the bed we’ve made together, or walk once more out the door.

Or not. Some of us will embark instead on a quest for a fuller experience of intimate sexuality. We will use whatever tools we can, depending on who we are and the decade in which we set out. We may enter Reichian therapy, wrap ourselves in Saran wrap, read Nancy Friday, follow The Rules, or repeat phrases from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, but we will not give up. We want to banish the bedroom’s ghosts or at least replace them with more benign presences. Risking the humiliation our culture visits on those who speak of their own sex lives rather than other people’s, we will try to decolonize the bedroom. We sense that this quest requires not “more of the same”–not more sexual perfectionism or ever-more-exotic partners or positions–but a broader context, a change at the metalevel. If we embark on this quest today, we may buy a book, watch a video or go to a weekend workshop on Tantrism, which is now the West’s most popular form of adult sex education.

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Presaged by the popularity in the 1960s of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, a 3rd-century Indian sex manual, Tantra has become a postmodern hybrid. On the most prosaic level, it is nothing more than a pastiche of positive sexual attitudes and techniques drawn from Western humanistic psychology, Chinese Taoist sexology and classical Indian Tantrism–a wild sexual and religious tradition that influenced both Buddhism and Hinduism and flourished in India about 500 A.D.

This esoteric system used breath, visualization and other yogas to arouse, channel and transform energy throughout the body. Its meditations often took the form of visualizing gods and goddesses in sexual union. In India, adherents of the tiny sect of “left-handed” Tantra took things a step further: in secret rituals, they broke all the rules of their caste-bound society, consuming taboo foods, such as alcohol and meat, sounding yogic bijas or sacred syllables and coupling with one partner after another. In contrast to monastic traditions that suppressed sexuality and avoided women, Tantrikas welcomed the energies of aggression and sexuality and transformed them. Men did not ejaculate, and the goal was to move arousal up the spine to the brain in an explosion of enlightenment and bliss. Sex was not a dirty detour from the path to God, it was the path

Today, Tantra’s esoteric practices are being pressed into the service of goals that are tamer, more domestic and less religious: uniting sexuality and intimacy, and enhancing sexual pleasure for long-term couples. It’s not the techniques that count so much as Tantra’s enlargement of the context in which sex is held–as pleasurable, inclusive, healing, and holy. This widening of the lens was apparent as soon as modern Tantrism first registered on the American cultural radar in 1989, when a 450-page book called The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The Path of Sacred Sexuality for Western Lovers tried to sweep the clutter of negative sexual images out of the Western bedroom. Written by Margo Anand, a writer and sex workshop leader who had studied psychology at the Sorbonne and meditation in India, it was like no sex manual the West had ever seen. She spent eight pages alone describing how to prepare a bedroom for lovemaking. Think of the bedroom as a “sacred space,” Anand wrote. Vacuum the bedroom and take out the newspapers and coffee cups. Bring in plants, flowers and candles. Drape a scarf over the bedside lamp to create soft lighting. Walk three times around the room with your partner, misting the air with a plant sprayer of scented water while saying “As I purify this space, I purify my heart.” This, Anand implied, was as much a part of sex as kissing.

The suggestions might seem impossibly precious. But ceremonially cleaning the bedroom and bringing in flowers and soft lights contained a metamessage: You do not have to go somewhere else or become a sliver of yourself to have sex. You don’t have to “do the nasty” while hiding in the dark from your disapproving parents. When you bring flowers into the bedroom, you bring in more of yourself as well, and that can make you realize how much you had previously left outside the bedroom door. And if the bedroom is already inhabited by ghosts, why not bring in flowers as well?

In the place of pornographic slang and Latin words, Anand suggested Taoist phrases that were free of negative Western sexual connotations. Try saying “jade stalk”or “wand of light” for penis, she suggested; for vagina, substitute “cinnabar cave” or “valley of bliss.” Or call them “yonis” and “lingams,” after the Sanskrit words used to describe the stone sculptures of sexual organs that are still bedecked with flowers and worshiped in rural temples in India. “Behold the Shiva Lingam, beautiful as molten gold, firm as the Himalaya Mountain,” she quoted the “Linga Purana,” a Hindu ode to the penis of the god Shiva, Lord of the Dance. “Tender as a folded leaf, life-giving like the solar orb; behold the charm of his sparkling jewels!” It was heady stuff for a culture where “testosterone poisoning” is a running joke and the only goddess worshiped is a virgin mother. And it cleared the decks for something new.

Anand and other teachers of modern Tantra suggested that sex could involve all of us, including the warring inner parts we think we’ve transcended but have merely avoided: the lustful and soulful; the wounded and voracious; the slutpuppy in her Victoria’s Secret lingerie and the good girl in her flannel nightie; the sensitive postfeminist man and the crude teenage boy.

Last October, at a five-day, $795-a-person workshop for couples at the Esalen Institute, yoga and Tantra teacher Charles Muir wove these warring inner and outer sexual worlds together. On the first night, he spoke about his own sexual upbringing to 23 couples sitting before him in a circle. His listeners ranged in age from 22 to 73. Among them were two Latin American academics, four lawyers, a black woman doctor, two construction managers, two women who worked in television, several massage therapists from the Esalen staff and an Irish farmer. Some sat as entwined with their partners as trailing vines, while others betrayed, in their gestures and body language, uneasiness with each other and an inequality of love or desire.

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Muir, who is now separated from his wife and coteacher, Caroline (she wanted sexual fidelity; he didn’t), runs the Source School of Tantra in Maui, Hawaii, and leads frequent workshops around the country. He was wearing a silk shirt and an amethyst pendant. He was slim, in his early fifties, with brown hair, protuberant eyes and spatulate fingers that gave him the look of an elongated frog. His language was closer to New York street than Hindu temple.

He had come of age in the Bronx, he said, during “The Great Fuck Drought of the Fifties.” Everything he knew about sex, he said, he had learned from Johnny Patanella, the leader of his childhood street gang: Get it up, get it in, and get it off. Fuck ‘em hard and fuck ‘em deep. Muir said that before he discovered Tantra, he was a yogi on the mat and a “sleazebucket” in bed. He said that men give nicknames to their penises because they want to be on a first-name basis with the one who makes all their important decisions.

There were shocked laughs, a snigger. The men thought they were long past this. The women didn’t want to think their men had ever thought this way.

But there was a method to his crudeness. Once Muir bonded with the part of the men that had eternally remained the teenage boy, he gently, without emasculating them, brought them into the sexual realm of context, emotion, feeling and intimacy traditionally defined as female. “In lovemaking, women lead with their hearts,” he went on more softly. “Men lead with their second chakra [their groins]. We hurt each other.”

Tantra, Muir said, could help them make love stay. “The average couple makes love 2.3 times a week for the first two years,” he said. “After two years, the average couple makes love once a week–and making love can be a well of energy and healing.

“Chemistry is temporary. You’re going to learn to base love not on chemistry–which lasts six months or two years, if you’re lucky–but on alchemy. When the chemistry is no longer there, alchemy says you take what is there and you change it. Become a master alchemist.”


Easier said than done, given some of the histories that the couples revealed in private conversations. One couple came to Esalen to put the “pizzazz” back in their marriage; later they acknowledged they’d hardly made love in the nine years since the birth of their son.

Paula, a Mexican American academic in her fifties who was there with Carlos, the professor with whom she lived, had not had an orgasm in the year since her hysterectomy. She had been raised a Catholic and was date raped in college. She still couldn’t shake off a notion her mother had given her–that only bad girls are good at giving men sexual pleasure; at night, she still put on her pajamas behind the bathroom door. Carlos was in his forties; he had been divorced twice and had been raped and tortured a decade earlier in a South American prison.

Russ Solomon, a retired San Diego real estate developer, had raised four children with his wife, Liz, during 40 years of marriage. They looked as comfortable together as old shoes and clearly liked and respected each other. But sex, they said, had been disappointing on their wedding night when they’d both been virgins and disappointing ever since. “All I knew,” Russ told me one day, “was that I was to get my penis in her vagina, and that was it.” He had lain back, expecting Liz to arouse and satisfy him.

She said nothing that night, and nothing for many nights to come. She had no language then, no woman had language then for what she felt or wanted. “When you were born in 1937,” she says, “it wasn’t your place to show him.”

Since then, they had rarely taken more than 15 minutes to make love. She spoke frequently, in front of Russ, of “40 years of shit and disappointment in the bedroom.” Russ didn’t treat her like a woman, didn’t measure up. “I would love a flower on the pillow or a note,” she said one day. “But Russ cuts articles out of the newspaper that he thinks I would be interested in. And I am. But it’s not the intimacy I long for.”

Couples like these could have taken their “sexual dysfunctions” and marital issues into the private confines of a sex therapist’s office. But they were seeking something that Western sex therapy, for all its strengths, does not provide. Sex therapy’s pioneers, Masters and Johnson, had brought thermometers, charts and transparent vaginal probes mounted with tiny video cameras to the study of sex. Sexual problems, they argued, weren’t usually rooted in intractable intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict; they could often be solved by learning new behaviors. They, and those who followed them, taught women to masturbate to orgasm and men to squeeze their penises just below the coronal ridge, before they reached the “point of no return,” to resolve premature ejaculation. Their techniques often worked with amazing ease, and they drained sex of some of its shaming power by making things seem as brisk, practical and scientific as a good recipe for apple pie.

But they also drained sex of magic. If their governing metaphor was the bedroom-as-medical-lab and sexual practice as an antiseptic medical-behavioral prescription, Muir’s guiding metaphor at Esalen was the bedroom as temple and sexual practice as worship. And if sex therapy was predicated on healing people so that they could have sex with each other, Muir suggested that sexual pleasure itself could be healing.

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In the course of the week, Muir gasped, held his breath, bugged out his eyes to demonstrate how men could use yogic breathing, pauses in lovemaking and finger pressure on their perineums to delay or forgo ejaculation. He and his coteacher, yoga practitioner Diane Greenberg, showed women how to take a man’s “soft-on” and “use it like a paintbrush” to stimulate their clitorises and outer lips, or stuff it softly into the vagina. And he extolled the sensual pleasures of the half-erect penis. Referring to the Kama Sutra , he talked of varying strokes, pressure and speed. “If we go straight down the fairway–deep deep deep–we’ll only be stimulating one area, guys,” he said one afternoon, stroking a Plexiglas wand inside an anatomically correct, purple-velvet and pink-silk “yoni puppet” from San Francisco’s House of Chicks. “Try shallow, shallow, shallow, deep! The more variety, the more information floods the brain, and the more you wake up.”

A sex therapist, or in a more enlightened society, a sex educator, could have said the identical words, but the context–playful, normalized and semi-public–would not have been the same. A miniature culture, as transient and self-contained as a dewdrop, was being formed. For a handful of days, as the couples strolled the Esalen grounds above the Pacific, moving from cabin to hot tub to class, nobody was too busy or too tired to have sex. Nobody read anything about Kenneth Starr, or looked at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or downloaded pornography from the Internet. Every night, in their TV-free, phone-free cabins, they looked at and touched each other’s flesh-and-blood bodies rather than electronic images and paper dreams.

In class, Muir held out to them the possibility that sex could be more than a source of pleasure: it could be a source of intimate bonding as well. He taught them how to lie together spoon-fashion and breathe in unison. Sex, he said, could be more even than emotional intimacy: it could be an interplay of invisible energies that coursed through each lover’s body and radiated beyond it. Every day, he led participants in yogic breathing and stretching, and then asked them whether they could feel an “energy hand” the size of an oven mitt growing beyond their flesh-and-blood hands. He had them fluff and clean their “auras” by sweeping their hands in circles a few inches from the body.

He acted not only as sex educator and yoga teacher, but priest. He taught them to chant one-syllable Sanskrit mantras designed to activate each of the body’s seven chakras or energy centers that are believed to ascend the body’s core. And he formed them into slow Tantric circle dances in which the men and women stared into the eyes of partner after partner while visualizing sending love and healing to virtual strangers.

If the West has defined male sexuality as the norm and female sexuality as the problem, Tantra glorifies the female: a woman’s orgasms are said to increase her capacity to act as a channel for the flow of shakti, the universal female energy that powers the universe. And by deemphasizing the moment of ejaculation and emphasizing energy and context, the workshop provided the women with more of what they often complain is missing from standard-issue sex–love, sensuous touching and intimacy.

Under Muir’s tutelage, lovemaking was not, as some feminists put it, a recapitulation of the power inequalities of rape, but a worship of the female and a reenactment of the drama of Shiva and Shakti, the Hindu god and goddess whose lovemaking created the universe. Partners were to see in themselves the flow of divine fundamental energies; the act of love as reproducing the first stages of the creation of the world.

Women, Muir declared, could and should have multiple orgasms, while men were depleted by ejaculation and should sometimes try the “valley orgasm”–orgasm without ejaculation. And he transcended the no-win squabble Freud started over the virtues of clitoral versus vaginal orgasms by teaching effective techniques for vaginal stimulation of the G-spot; he declared that women, too, could ejaculate when sufficiently stimulated.

This is a tall order for a culture in which 24 percent of women surveyed say that they, like Paula, have not had an orgasm during the previous year. A complex history lies behind this statistic. If the sexual lives of many men begin with repeated sexual rejection and shame, the sexual lives of many women begin in choicelessness: breasts stroked in a laundry room by a best friend’s father; the struggle lost in a back seat; the unwanted kiss from uncle, teacher, boss or neighbor. When women sleep with men they sleep as well with their fear or memory of the peeper, the flasher, the child molester, the rapist, the Don Juan, the womanizer, the sexual predator, the horrible first husband and the just plain jerk. Women, too, have a double standard: we divide men not into virgins and whores, but into predators and marriage material. In a reverse of the fairy tale, we fear that while we lie in bed, our lovers will metamorphose from Beauty to the Beast.

Such memories and fears, Muir suggested, are embedded not only in the brain, but in the cells of the body. His cure was a sexual ceremony to be held in the privacy of each couple’s bedroom on the third night of the workshop. In a men-only meeting beforehand, he showed videotapes and coached each man on how to do for his lover what no therapist or body worker could do–massage her “Sacred Spot,” the G-spot inside her vagina.

The G-spot, Muir said, is a little known and widely misunderstood area of sexual sensitivity–a raised, furrowed area of tissue about the size of a quarter, an inch and a half inside the front wall of the vagina, against the pubic bone. When stroked, it can become erect, firm and responsive and can trigger vaginal orgasms and ejaculation of a clear liquid. But it is also the dark closet in which old sexual pain is stored. “Sacred Spot” massage, he said, might release ecstatic sexual pleasure. It might also release old memories: the women might complain of numbness or bruising, or explode in fear, sobbing or rage. “This is Tantra kindergarten,” he said, coaching the men to simply be loving and to be there, no matter what. “You get an A just for showing up.”

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After supper, before the ceremony began, the men fanned out to their cabins all over Esalen to take on the traditionally female task of “preparing the space” for the ceremony. While Liz and the other women relaxed and giggled in the Esalen hot tubs, Russ cleaned their cabin, combed his white hair and took a shower. In another cabin, one of the construction managers lit incense and paced his room. On the other side of the garden, one of the lawyers scattered rose petals on the sheets. Carlos, the Latin American academic, arranged a vase full of flowers he had cut from the Esalen garden, cued up a CD on his laptop, lit candles, put on a formal Mexican shirt called a guayabera , turned back the sheets and waited for Paula.

When the couples shared their experiences in the group the next day, it was almost as though the sexes had exchanged roles. “Carlos massaged me so gently so tenderly,” Paula said. “The other times he had massaged me it was like, let’s hurry up and get this over with.” After an hour or so, she said, Carlos had turned her over and asked permission to stroke her “sacred spot” with his finger. Not long afterward, she had her first orgasm in a year. “I just had a whole strand of pearls full of climaxes,” she said. “It kept going on and on, the pleasure.”

One woman–whose husband had left her for another woman 14 months earlier–was floored by the tide of anger and fear the exercise released. It was, she said, “like a bad acid trip.” Other women came close to bragging about having multiple orgasms and ejaculations (one woman had 22 over an hour and a half), while their men were quiet, tearful and open. The men had taken on the traditionally feminine role of focusing wholeheartedly on the pleasure of another, and it had changed them. The construction manager cried, describing how he’d waited nervously for his girlfriend, terrified that he wouldn’t measure up. Another man told the group that whenever he’d made love before, his consciousness had zigzagged back and forth, first checking in on his own erection and then checking in on his partner. “Last night, my presence was so totally focused on Andrea that I didn’t have to worry about myself at all,” he said. “When she came, I was wailing with her like I was having the biggest orgasm of my life, and I was totally limp.”

Here, in a context where differences between men and women were not only acknowledged but glorified and mythologized, and where men’s performance fears were out in the open, women were getting what they wanted.

The next evening came the turnabout. After supper, Muir took off his amethyst crystal pendant, blue silk shirt and oatmeal jeans. He lay on pillows on the floor in his boxer shorts, holding a clear black plastic wand from a magic store at his groin like a surrogate penis. One man pushed his girlfriend to the front of the crowd. “I don’t want you to miss any of this,” he said.

Diane Greenberg knelt between Muir’s legs and showed the women an unbelievable range of ways to pleasure a man’s penis. She was competent and sure. She twirled her fingers around the wand like a feathery screw. She squeezed it at both at the top and the bottom, explaining that this way the blood wouldn’t be forced out. She slapped it and tapped it and pretended to use it like a microphone. She clasped her fingers and encircled the wand, running her thumbs in circles up and down the frenulum as though winding a bobbin.

She was leading the women into the dangerous territory of the slut goddess. If some women’s sexual lives begin in choicelessness, others begin with an inner war: lying on a blanket on a hill on a warm night, grabbing at the hands that give such pleasure and pulling them away, worrying what the owner of these hands will call her to his friends the next day– slut, pig, whore. There are years of this, and then the rings are exchanged, the rice is thrown, the church doors open and the woman is expected to become as sexy and free as the bad girl she struggled for years not to be. Fear of taking on the slut archetype can persist through years of financial independence and supposed liberation, narrowing the range of pleasure a woman dares to give a man in the bedroom. By way of antidote, Muir and Greenberg spoke of Uma, a Hindu female divinity who “wears her sexuality on the outside.” They lauded Hindu temple dancers and sacred prostitutes, and urged the women to try on this aspect of the powerful divine feminine. They encouraged the couples to let loose with noise–Esalen had heard lots of it, they said, and if couples got too self-conscious, they could shout or wail into a pillow.

Then Greenberg coached the women on the coming evening’s ceremony. This time, the women would “honor” the men, first massaging their bodies and their penises. (“First get him hard, ladies,” Muir interjected. “Then he’ll agree to anything.”) Next, Greenberg said, the women were to insert one finger into their man’s anus and stroke and stimulate the exquisitely sensitive “sweet little hollow” at the base of the prostate. This, she cautioned, was a delicate business. “Rather than me entering him, I’ll have him sit on my finger,” she explained.

Then Greenberg turned to the men. “You’re going to be penetrated, guys” she said, “as we are penetrated.”

As Greenberg pulled the women into new territory, Muir took the men into the unknown as well. “Every man has gone through a war of his own that has robbed him of his yin [female aspect],” he said. “Each young boy is taught that men don’t cry, don’t feel. The job of reclaiming your yin is sweet. You won’t wake up the same guy in the morning. Tonight, you get to be the illogical one. You get to have feelings tonight. Ladies, I want you to show up big. He may test you, he may be irrational. He may become terrified.

“You give and you’re strong and you fix things.” he said, turning to the men. “You’re gigantic. How much can you let yourself be small and feel? Allow yourself to be penetrable and vulnerable? Five million homosexuals can’t be wrong. There must be something up there that’s good.”

When Carlos and Paula described their night’s experience in the group the next morning, Carlos was in tears–deep, strong tears. During the ceremony, he had reexperienced being raped and tortured in a South American prison and had not “left his body,” as he had when having flashbacks before. He had also experienced something beyond the personal as though a great wind were blowing through him and breathing his body for him. And Paula had faced something she’d once held at arms’ length. “Being raised Mexican Catholic, women who do that are sluts,” she said, referring to the way she’d stroked Carlos’ penis and penetrated his anus. “I gave myself permission not just to touch it with my eyes closed, but to look at it and be there in all my glory, and I felt pure.”

On the last day of the workshop, Muir urged the couples to try a “10-day test drive”–to connect somehow sexually, physically and emotionally for at least 10 minutes every day. By the time the couples were packing their bags, few of the men displayed the sexual bravado they’d come in with–the bravado this culture trains them for. One man, a lawyer, had told the group the first night that he’d come to the workshop because he wanted to experience a 30-minute orgasm. He left muttering about “Tantra kindergarten.”

His desires had become simpler and more ambitious: to only connect with his wife of 22 years. One busy day he left work, met his wife at their son’s soccer game and drove with her to the far end of the field, where they kissed and held each other for 10 minutes in the car.

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Some couples–like the pair who told me brightly that they wanted to put the “pizzazz” back in their marriage–left with little. Others took away all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a sex workshop: sobbing, wailing, energy releases, multiple orgasms, female ejaculations. Others left with something perhaps more precious: the understanding that good sex–wholesome, healing and holy–is an accumulation of small mercies, beginning with whatever mercy you need right now. Like being able to take off all your clothes in front of your lover, and touch his penis in all your glory and feel pure.

They went home–to San Diego and Cleveland and Denver, to the impeachment hearings and football games and a larger culture reverberating, more publicly than usual, between sexual obsession and sexual shame. Ghosts inevitably reentered their bedrooms. Old marital squabbles reared their ugly heads again. But sometimes old disappointments were held in a new way.

If anyone had come to understand the meaning of small mercies, it was Liz and Russ. On the night that Russ had pleasured her, Liz had come to their cabin door and found him still in the shower. Something about that melted her heart. “I brought to last night 40 years of lack of trust and feeling I’m not seen as a woman,” she had said in the group next day. “I’ve stayed in the relationship oftentimes with doubt.”

“I was so touched Russ was washing his body for me, that he would even be late to do this,” she said. “All the resentment and fear was gone. I felt like a woman. It was enough.”

“He put on a Japanese robe,” she told the group, turning to her husband. “You looked very manly in it. I wore a white silk Dior nightgown and felt like a bride. When we slipped it off, I loved the look of my body. If we had only done this on our honeymoon, what a difference it would have made.”

“She could have said, ‘This is your obligation,’” said Russ. “But she dismissed all that. We didn’t shout and cover our faces with pillows, but it’s nice to know that it’s possible. We take away the hopes and stories we’ve been told. I pray that we will remember.”

“It was enough.” said Liz. “Russ was willing, after 40 years of marriage, to try something. That was enough.”

When they returned home, they followed Muir’s suggestions for the “10-day test drive.” Every day, she and Russ lay down with each other in the morning and the evening, and snuggled and held each other. “It’s been wonderful,” Liz told me. “There’s been no anxiety, no repulsion. It’s not about making love. It’s about breathing together, holding hands, the eye contact, touching the heart, the forehead. We are doing our homework. But I’m not sure we’re doing it right.”

In her last sentence, I heard the reverberations of our culture’s sexual perfectionism. She and Russ had returned to a society with bigger work to do than any person or couple can do alone. Yet they had grasped the essence of classical Tantra as practiced in India nearly two thousand years ago, and that essence is not purely sexual. At its base, it involves welcoming and transforming all energetic and powerful states, even negative and difficult ones, by holding them in a different context.

That context involves knowing that Saint Augustine and all his intellectual and spiritual heirs, including our parents and Larry Flynt and Kenneth Starr, were wrong: Sex is neither a nasty secret pleasure nor a sin, but a part of the pattern of the universe. To put it one way, the desire to make love, connect, procreate and survive has been programmed, along with pleasure, into our genes and dreams. To put it another: Sex is sacred–intricate and dangerous and pleasurable and utterly ungraspable.

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This article was originally published on December 30, 2008

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