If we are ever to understand the complex ways in which we have been manipulated into creating not only unhealthy partner relationships, but also family and social relationships, this book is to me of greatest importance. Without this knowledge, I do not see how we can move forward to create a healthy society. It seems to me that once again, the truth will surely help to set us free.
The author helps us to see that the dominator model under which we are now living did not always exist, and it is not a foregone conclusion as the way of the future. Except for a brief introduction, the section that I’ve chosen to share with those of you who have interest is at the beginning of the second half of the book. It gives a simple summation of the first half and introduces the second half.~J
PS Riane is also the author of a book I have mentioned several times before. The Chalice and the Blade.
By way of introduction from a later section of the book:
Today, all around us, once firmly established beliefs and institutions are being challenged, as the old dominator system is disintegrating, moving us ever closer to chaos. But this does not mean that a new partnership culture will inevitably emerge. As cultural transformation theory states, during periods of social disintegration or extreme systems disequilibrium there is an opportunity for transformative social and ideological change. However, there is another possible outcome. This is for the dominator system to reconstitute itself in seemingly new institutional and ideological forms that merely co-opt some partnership elements while still preserving the same basic configuration that provides social and economic rewards for domination and conquest and idealizes, and even sacralizes, pain. Hence, as during any other systems bifurcation, more than disequilibrium is required for a different social organization to emerge. What is needed are enough modules of transformative change to, in the language of nonlinear dynamics, form a new “attractor” that can— while the system is in flux— reconstitute it in a new basic configuration. 36
The awareness, today mounting all over our world, that we urgently need to alter our institutions and values is a hopeful sign in this direction. But if we are to successfully use this period of both crisis and opportunity to complete the shift from a dominator to a partnership model as the primary cultural attractor, we need to go much deeper. We need to address not only how a society constructs its economic, political, religious, and educational institutions, but also how it constructs such basics as sexuality, gender, and spirituality— and even beyond this, how it uses pain and pleasure to maintain itself.
I should say here that because fundamental change entails the dismantling of many existing beliefs and institutions, the contemporary struggle to complete the shift from a dominator to a partnership social and ideological organization inevitably entails pain— a subject I will return to. I also want to say that even if we succeed in our efforts to leave behind a system that so heavily relies on pain for its maintenance, we will still have pain. Pain, as well as pleasure, is part of evolution and of life. In fact, in some ways pain can be very useful, not only as a warning that we must heed but as an avenue to both personal and spiritual growth. However, in dominator systems, we cannot even make full use of pain for this purpose, since one of the effects of chronic pain is a blunting of both perception and emotion.
This is one reason there is so much talk today of coming out of denial, of becoming conscious of our pain. Indeed, some of what follows will be painful. But much of it will also be heartening, and even funny.
Certainly the challenge of fundamentally transforming ourselves and our world— even to the extent of changing how we think about our bodies, sex, power, pleasure, and the sacred— is a daunting one. But if there is one constant in evolution it is change. Change is quite literally the essence of what we call evolution, be it biological or cultural. Except that what we will deal with in the pages that follow is a brand new chapter in this creative adventure: the amazing, sometimes amusing, story of how, for the first time in the history of our planet, women and men are consciously trying to recreate nothing less than how we live and love.
WHERE ARE WE AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
From Ancient to Modern Times: Setting the Stage
The wonder is not that there are so many problems, so many personal and social tragedies, that we so often form dysfunctional relationships and cause ourselves and others so much pain. Given the load of distortion, misinformation, negative conditioning, and just plain nonsense we have lived with for so long, the wonder is that we have functioned at all.
That even staggering under this load we have still managed to love one another is a tribute to the human capacity, and tenacity, for seeking pleasure rather than pain, caring rather than conquest, and above all, connection— with one another and with all that is creative and loving in ourselves and our world. This human capacity and tenacity also offer us realistic hope that we can at this critical point in human history create a social system that is more balanced and less insane— one where violence and domination, along with sexual and spiritual dysfunction, will no longer be considered “just the way things are.” And this hope is today further supported by the fact that much of modern history has been the struggle to break free from our dominator bondage— from millennia-long traditions of violent coercion, inhuman repression, and endless bloodshed. 1
In the chapters that follow, we will look at this struggle. We will see how almost in the twinkling of an eye— which is what a few centuries are in the history of our species— there have been dramatic changes in how people perceive almost everything, from sexuality to spirituality. These changes have gone along with equally dramatic changes in the structure of the family, government, and other social institutions. For during the last three hundred years, despite massive resistance and intermittent regressions, the dominator “givens” of violence and repression have been challenged with increasing success. And now, as we move out of the twentieth into the twenty-first century and a new millennium, this epochal struggle over our future is coming to a head.
In Part I, we saw that both the partnership and dominator models are possibilities for our species and that even among our closest primate relatives, the so-called common and pygmy chimpanzees, there are significant differences in social organization. We saw that the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution seems to have been more toward partnership, and that this profoundly affected the social construction of both sexuality and spirituality. But then we saw how during a time of great chaos and dislocation there was in our prehistory a major cultural shift.
From here on, we will look at the powerful movement in our time to reverse that shift— and at the strong resistance to it. We will continue to look at the different ways a society can utilize the two most basic levers for human motivation: pain and pleasure. We will continue to look at cross-cultural materials as well as homosexual relations, although we will still primarily focus on heterosexual relations in mainstream Western culture. 2 We will also still focus on the central role traditional stereotypes of sex and gender play in interlocking systems of political, economic, religious, and military domination that rank nation over nation and race over race. But in many ways our course will be very different in this second, and final, part of our journey.
Up to now, we have moved quickly through a very long span of time. It has been like traveling on a river, flowing first in one direction and then, after a very sharp turn, in another. Now, to continue this analogy, our task is to prepare a new riverbed— one that can take us in a partnership rather than dominator direction. But in the process, we still have to navigate extremely turbulent rapids full of sharp rocks and dangerous shoals, with strong currents and crosscurrents going in many directions.
As we look at these currents and crosscurrents, we will take a close look at all our intimate relations: not only our sexual relations, but the relations between children and those responsible for their care. For it is through these foundational relations involving touch to the body that we acquire many of the building blocks for later patterns of either partnership or dominator relations in both our sexual and nonsexual lives. We will also take a fresh look at contemporary developments, not only in sexuality and spirituality, but also in politics, economics, technology, education, communication, and other important aspects of our lives. And we will further expand cultural transformation theory by looking at how, on the most basic bodily level, pain and the threat of pain are inherent in a dominator model of social and ideological organization.
But before we go on, I want to first set the stage for what follows. I want to say a few words about the title of this book, how it evolved out of my own changing consciousness, and how it relates to the fact that both pleasure and the sacred are defined very differently in societies orienting primarily to a partnership rather than dominator model. I want to briefly discuss some of what we are today learning about the biology and chemistry of love and the nature of consciousness. And I want to place what is happening in our time in its larger evolutionary context. For more and more I have come to see that underlying the massive ferment of our time is an impasse in our cultural evolution: an impasse that can only be resolved through fundamental changes in how we construct human relations, including our most intimate personal relations.
I also want to speak of something still generally ignored in discussions about personal and social change: the human body. Because stripped to its essentials, social and personal transformation revolves around matters that directly involve the human body. It revolves around how we image our bodies, both our own and those of others. It revolves around who should have the power to define these images. It revolves around how we are touched and in turn touch the bodies of others. And ultimately it revolves around fundamental changes in consciousness about how two very different kinds of power— the power to inflict pain on the body and the power to give it pleasure— can be socially constructed, and thus what kind of power is most highly valued and rewarded or devalued and not rewarded.
The Politics of the Body
One of the most dramatic changes that occurred in my own consciousness in the course of writing this book is that I have become acutely aware that how we image the human body plays a central role in how we image the world— and that this in turn directly impacts how we view ourselves in relation to both. I had long been aware of important feminist writings that directly or indirectly address these issues, from Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born to more recent works such as Carter Heyward’s Touching Our Strength and Paula Cooey’s, Sharon Farmer’s, and Mary Ellen Ross’s Embodied Love. 3 But now, more vividly than ever before, and from a new perspective, I began to see that how sex, power, and love are conceptualized at a particular time and place cannot be understood, much less changed, without also understanding, and changing, how we image our bodies as women and men. I also began to understand, on a far deeper level than before, that the way we view our bodies, what we do with our bodies, and who has the power to decide both, are intensely political.
In fact, in terms of the contemporary struggle to leave behind entrenched patterns of domination and violence, they are key political issues. How we image the relations between bodies— and most critically, how we experience these relations in our own bodies— is not only a metaphor for politics in its most basic sense of the way power is defined and exercised. It is how we first unconsciously learn, and continually reenact, the way our human bodies are supposed to relate in all relations, in both what has traditionally been defined as the public and the private spheres.
If early on, in our intimate parent-child relations, and then in our intimate sexual relations, we become conditioned to accept domination and submission as normal, these patterns will unconsciously affect all our relations. Conversely, if early on, in our parent-child relations, and then in our sexual relations, we learn and continually practice mutual respect and caring, it will be very difficult for us to fit into a social system of force-and-fear-backed rankings of domination.
This is why the reconceptualization of the female body from a symbol of sexual and spiritual power to an object under the control of men was integral in the prehistoric shift to a dominator social organization. 4 This reconceptualization of the female body as an object to be controlled by someone outside that body had a number of important results. It certainly justified men’s domination and exploitation of women’s bodies— be it as instruments for procreation and/or recreation, or to render men services and work in their households. It also gradually led women themselves to image their bodies from a male perspective shaped by the dictates of a dominator system. For while the particular image varied from culture to culture— it could be a heavy or a thin image, an image of a distended neck, a mutilated foot, or mutilated genitals— it was an image that conformed primarily, not to women’s own desires and needs, but to what the men in control defined as desirable in women. Even beyond this, in this new social order women themselves gradually learned to control their bodies and those of their daughters to conform to male requirements and tastes — a legacy we still struggle with today, as evidenced by anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders resulting from women’s compulsive attempts to reshape their bodies according to outside dictates, no matter how much pain is involved. However, it was not only women but also men who were profoundly affected by this externally determined, instrumental view of the human body. For what now occurred was that the bodies of all women, and most men, came to be viewed in terms of the needs and desires of those with the greatest power to hurt, and thus exercise control over, the bodies of others.
As we have seen, this was the prevailing view in the slave societies of Western antiquity, where the bodies of all women and most men (the slaves) were seen as possessions over which a small group of men had absolute life-and-death power. Moreover, in these highly warlike ancient societies, the mass of men were seen as instruments for this elite of men to engage in power struggles, struggles in which he who could inflict the most pain to the bodies of others won— yet another aspect of our dominator heritage we are still struggling with today. Which is why the highly muscular, armored, tough male body of the warrior celebrated in Greek heroic epics, along with an equally armored male psyche, became the ideal norm for men, 5 who, in return for offering their own bodies for sacrifice, were then given the bodies of captured women— as we can still read in the epics of Homer and in the Bible.
The view of the female body as merely male property also profoundly affected the social construction of both female and male sexuality. Because if one body was there only to serve the other— to give it care, pleasure, and offspring— this not only provided a basic template for all superior-inferior rankings; it also imposed a particular view of how the bodies of women and men should relate in their most intimate sexual relations. And this view, which once again we are still struggling with today, was that both women and sex are “naturally” to be controlled by men.
This in turn required a number of mechanisms designed to maintain the ranking of male over female. One, which we have already glimpsed, is the vilification of both sex and woman. Another, which we will look at in some depth, is the erotization of domination and violence— a mechanism that is central to the contemporary barrage of pornographic images of men chaining, whipping, cutting, and in other ways causing pain to the bodies of women.
Much of the debate about these images has focused on whether they directly incite crimes of violence against women or whether they just desensitize those who perpetuate those crimes from perceiving that they are causing pain, while at the same time creating an atmosphere of tolerance for this kind of behavior. But viewed in terms of the contemporary tension between a mounting movement toward partnership and the strong dominator systems resistance, the proliferation of these images can be seen as a response to the partnership thrust by a system that, at its most basic level, maintains itself by inflicting or threatening to inflict pain on the bodies of others.
These images of the human body, and of how two human bodies “pleasurably” relate to one another in ways that are physically and/or psychologically painful to one of the two, vividly communicate a social organization in which the highest power is the power symbolized by the blade: the power to cause pain and to destroy. Even beyond this, they condition us to unconsciously image human relations in terms of someone dominating and someone being dominated.
This is not to say that a dominator-dominated model of sexuality is the only way women and men are socialized to accept, and even welcome, repressive controls. As we will see, there are many other ways of socially conditioning us, in the words of the former Jesuit priest Don Hanlon Johnson, to “become sensually, not just attitudinally, obedient” to our “superiors.” 6 There are the bodily habit patterns inculcated in us through the painful authoritarian child-rearing practices we will look at in the next chapter. Much of religious asceticism (which Johnson links to sexual sadomasochism) is also an effective way of accustoming the body to dominance and submission. 7 Then there is the threat of eternal bodily pain found in some dominator religions. As Johnson writes, a “profound source of Catholic authoritarianism” has been that “one may burn forever in one’s personal flesh.” For, as he notes, “with suffering of that order at stake, democracy is out of the question,” 8 since it is far too risky to rely on one’s own (presumably flawed, tainted by “original sin”) choices and perceptions, rather than on higher (presumably divinely ordained) authority.
Pain, Pleasure, and the Sacred
Before going any farther, I want to reiterate a point I made earlier: that underneath the overlay of dominator teachings and myths there is in Christianity and most other world religions an important partnership core. In fact, it is this core that accounts for the continuing appeal to many women and men of these faiths. However— and this is a matter we will later explore in some depth— the dominator elements in these religions have served, and continue to serve, as powerful means of conditioning women and men to accept, and even sanctify, unjust authority. Moreover, as Johnson notes, they have done this in ways that directly impact such basic matters as our bodies, pain, and pleasure.
Indeed, one of the most dramatic differences between the sacred imagery of the earlier, more partnership-oriented societies and many of our own images of the sacred relates to these basic matters of the body, pain, and pleasure. Because if we stop and look at the sacred images from our dominator heritage, we see that they focus far less on the giving of pleasure than on the infliction of pain— be it in battles between Olympian deities, bloody feuds between Hindu goddesses and gods, or Christ’s crucifixion and the martyrdom of Christian saints.
This sacralizing of pain rather than pleasure makes eminent sense from a political perspective, since these images came out of societies in which the power to dominate and destroy represents the highest power. And it also makes sense that in these kinds of societies people have often been conditioned to associate pleasure with selfishness and insensitivity, and even, as we will explore in detail, with dominating or being dominated— and particularly in the case of sexual pleasure, with sadism and masochism, with hurting or being hurt.
All of which takes me directly to the title of this book, Sacred Pleasure. At first glance such a title may seem startling, even sacrilegious. But this is precisely why I chose it. Or more accurately, it is why as my own consciousness about both pleasure and the sacred was profoundly altered in the course of writing this book, the phrase “sacred pleasure” kept presenting itself as a way of conceptualizing both pleasure and the sacred that is very different from what we have been taught. For just as the social construction of the body and of power are different in dominator and partnership societies— with the most important symbol of power in the latter being the life-giving and illuminating chalice rather than the life-threatening and destroying blade— so also is the social construction of both pleasure and the sacred.
So when I use the term “sacred pleasure,” it is by no means the kind of “holy” pleasure Christian women and men were during the Middle Ages encouraged to derive from self-inflicted tortures and abuses of their bodies. It is certainly not the kind of “pleasure” men were said by Freud to derive from humiliating and debasing women through sexual intercourse, as when he asserted that “as soon as the sexual object fulfills the condition of being degraded, sensual feeling can have free play and considerable sexual capacity and a high degree of pleasure can be developed.” 9 Neither is it the kind of “pleasure” people have been taught to derive from the ridicule of others falling down, having pies thrown in their faces, or otherwise being humiliated or hurt. It is also not the kind of “pleasure” we are supposed to derive from winning wars, as when Christians (or Muslims) celebrated the slaughter of infidels in their holy Crusades or, in our time, after the Gulf War, when the United States was full of celebratory joy— with hardly a mention of the thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children maimed and killed. Nor by any stretch of the imagination is it the same view of the sacred conveyed by thousands of religious representations of cruelty and sacrifice— of the human body pierced, crucified, incinerated, impaled, and otherwise hideously tormented— that to our day fill both our museums and our churches.
But I also want to say that my awareness that we have been taught to think of both pleasure and the sacred in very strange ways did not come just as I wrote this book. It came out of a very slow awakening, something akin to what mystics have described as the lifting away one after another of many veils concealing that which we call spiritual or divine. Only what I found in the course of my own spiritual journey— a sometimes tortuous and sometimes joyous quest that took me not to some isolated mountain but to a new way of looking at my day-to-day life— was very different from what I had been led to expect.
I began to recognize that my most important and most deeply felt spiritual moments— the moments when I most intensely felt that inexpressible awe and wonder at the mystery of life— had been possible not because of my social conditioning to associate the sacred with some all-powerful ever-judging entity, but despite it. I also began to see that spiritual development is not something different and apart from such earthly pleasures as sexual ecstasy and loving touch— be it of a child or a lover. On the contrary, I gradually began to understand that these experiences were at the core of my own spiritual development. And I also began to understand, not just on a theoretical but on an experiential level, the urgency of my need to untangle what I had been taught about both pleasure and the sacred.
Still, it was only as I wrote this book that I started to sort some of this out, and most important, that I began to put the many pieces I discovered along the way together in terms of a very different kind of sacredness: one appropriate for a partnership rather than dominator view of what is holy. This is a sacredness that is of this world, rather than of some disembodied, otherworldly realm— a sacredness that derives from a reverence for life, not for what comes after death or before birth. It is a sacredness that does not make a sharp divide between us and what we call the divine. Above all, it is a sacredness that does not view the bodily or carnal as lesser, and therefore unimportant, but rather as an essential part of what, in its basic or integral sense, is holy.
So when I speak of a partnership rather than dominator spirituality, it is in this holistic sense of the word, where what happens on this earth and in our own and others’ bodies is not divorced from our so-called higher selves. This is why the works of theologians such as Carol Christ, Matthew Fox, Elizabeth Dodson Gray, and Carter Heyward focusing on an immanent spirituality are so important. 10 For I believe that spirituality is both immanent and transcendent— and that the integration of the two lies at the core of the spirituality that is today in bits and pieces emerging as part of the contemporary struggle to shift from a dominator to a partnership world.
This partnership spirituality will express both our human need for connection in the bodily sense— as in physical union with the loved one— and our yearning for oneness with what we call the divine. And rather than presenting great suffering as the road to higher consciousness, and even as the essential attribute of a divine savior, it will focus on showing how we can attain higher consciousness, and thus union with what we call divine, through the great joy that has uniquely and miraculously been given us as human beings to experience from loving and being loved. But once again, this will not be love in the abstract. Since this will be a spirituality that derives from a sense of connection rather than detachment, it will also be a spirituality in which love is not otherworldly but very much of this world.
The Human Yearning for Connection
I think one of the great tragedies of Western religion as most of us have known it has been its compartmentalized view of human experience, and particularly its elevation of disembodied or “spiritual” love over embodied or “carnal” love. As we have seen, this compartmentalized view of human experience is not unique to the West. And it is certainly not unique to religion. For instance, the common wisdom (part of our legacy from both ancient Greek philosophers and medieval Christian savants) is that sexual sensations are of a “lower order,” that love resides in the heart, and that what we today call higher consciousness is connected only with mental rather than physical states.
In fact, contemporary scientific research indicates that the locus of the sex drive is not in our genitals but in our brains. Even experiments on rats show that electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain directly results in erections and/ or ejaculations, without any genital stimulation whatsoever. 11 And it is not only scientific studies but our everyday experiences and observations that verify this. We know that sexual arousal can come from sexual pictures, or even sexual thoughts. Who a woman or man is sexually attracted to, in all its idiosyncratic variations, is largely a function of something that happens in our minds. And how we interpret states of both sexual and emotional arousal, and what actions we take or do not take as a consequence, are largely determined by what we have learned to think and feel rather than by any innate or mechanical physical drives or “instincts.”
The emotion of love likewise involves our brains. In fact, all feelings and sensations— be they associated with sex, spirituality, or love— are in humans mediated by what psychologists call cognition or thought, which is processed in our brains. But since our brains are part of our bodies, it is in our bodies that we physically experience all feelings and sensations, regardless of whether they are conventionally labeled higher or lower.
Thus, it is actually what happens in our bodies that brings on spiritual or trancelike states. People experiencing “higher” states of consciousness, such as yoga masters, often engage in rigorous bodily exercises and are able to sit for hours in positions that most of us could sustain for only a few minutes. This physical dimension of spiritual states is now also being documented in a growing scientific literature on what researchers call altered states of consciousness (in scientific shorthand, ASCs). Experiments show that meditative or trancelike states involve measurable changes in the electrical activity of the brain (or brain waves) as measured by electroencephalographs.
Most interesting, and relevant to what we are exploring, is that sexual orgasm is also increasingly recognized as an altered state of consciousness— as indeed it is. 12 As Julian Davidson writes in The Psychobiology of Consciousness, although there are immense individual differences (as there also are in the experiences of individuals in other ASCs), “all orgasms share some of the criteria found in full-blown ASCs.” These include changes in “the senses of space, time, identity, as well as strong emotions and great changes in motor output.” And as Davidson also notes, “orgasms have been used extensively to induce mystical states.” 13 So it is not surprising that, as we saw in Part I, mystics have often described their experiences in the language of sex. Or that the common— and central— word in the language of both sexual passion and spiritual illumination is love. This common theme of love in the literature (and experience) of both sexuality and spirituality is not coincidental. It reflects an underlying link that prehistoric civilizations seem to have intuited and modern science is beginning to rediscover. For while we have been taught that human sexuality (which is a striving for connection or oneness), the emotion of love (which is again a striving for connection or oneness), and the spiritual striving for union or oneness with what we call the divine are completely different from one another, at opposite poles, in reality they all stem from the same deeply rooted human need: our powerful human yearning for connection.
Because this yearning is in our species so powerful and so persistent, I believe it is biologically based. This is not to say that only humans have a strong striving for connection. Actually this striving is a recurrent evolutionary theme. Its earliest roots go back billions of years, to the symbiotic union of single cells into the first multi-celled organisms that the biologist Lynn Margulis aptly called the first partnership between life forms on our planet. 14 Among colonies of insects, swarms of birds, schools of fish, and herds of mammals, this need for connection is expressed in what we call the grouping or herding instinct, which enhances survival through the greater safety of being close together in large numbers. In life forms as diverse as ladybugs, kittens, monkeys, and humans, we see evidence of a need for physical connection through touch. This physical connection through touch is integral to the survival of species that reproduce by sexual mating. And particularly in mammals, touching is essential for the survival of offspring, who would die without adult protection and care.
But although the striving for connection is by no means unique to our species, it is most highly developed in humans. This is due to a number of peculiarly human traits. Notable among these are the much longer period of helpless dependency of human infants, the human female’s capacity for nonseasonal sex and multiple orgasms, and humanity’s much greater mental capacities, which play such an important part in the phenomenon we call consciousness.
Looked at from this larger perspective, it becomes apparent that, contrary to prevailing views, humanity’s highly developed mental capacities are not of such a different evolutionary order from our highly developed capacities (and needs) for female-male and adult-infant connection. Rather, these are all related evolutionary developments: developments that came together in the emergence of our species. Specifically, they are the evolutionary developments that together give our species the potential for two uniquely human— and related— characteristics. One is the phenomenon we call higher consciousness. The second is the complex of feelings and behaviors that in the realm of both spirituality and sexuality we call love.
Eisler, Riane (2012-01-03). Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. HarperCollins.