Are you having conscious sex?
When we think about people having sex for long periods of time, we tend to think of Sting and his love of tantric sex. It can seem ridiculous, particularly when it’s the guy who sang Fields Of Gold doing it for most of the day. In Britain, these cold northern islands, sex happens behind closed doors, even if it is happening all around us. And while legislation surrounding sex and reproduction has become less shame orientated since the late 1990s, the legacy of guilt lives on in the UK.
But sex plays an enormous part in all our lives – even if we’re not having much of it, we’re thinking about it. Recently, psychologists and psychotherapists have begun talking about something that’s been dubbed, ‘conscious sex’. It’s not new, but it is an idea that’s been given a name and one that is having a moment, perhaps because, in a world in which sex has been increasingly commodified by dating sites and porn, more and more of us are having sex that might look good when reflected in a 70s style ceiling mirror, but which leaves us feeling somewhat empty.
In long-term relationships, sex can become functional and unimaginative. In casual relationships or one-night stands, it can be disconnected and dangerously or depressingly anonymous. In both cases, people can feel under pressure to perform or to act out what they imagine are the fantasies of whoever they are with. Brandy Engler is a sex therapist and author of The Women on My Couch. ‘Conscious sex’, she tells me, ‘is about a greater awareness of oneself and others. Rather than blindly following cultural scripts about what is desirable or what my partner wants, you are in touch with your own eroticism and emotions and you express that… There is a conversation going on – instead of than both people closing their eyes, retreating into their respective fantasy worlds and making only limited contact with each other.’
Conscious sex, then, is a fight for connection. It is, to use the language of Zen, about ‘being present’. This is something that TurnOn Britain, which organises orgasmic meditation classes across the UK, is key to emphasise. Orgasmic meditation, it says: ‘Is a consciousness practice that is designed for singles and couples to experience more vitality, pleasure, and meaning in every aspect of their lives. It involves a partner stroking a woman’s clitoris for 15 minutes with no goal other than to feel and connect with her.’
Proponents of conscious sex stress a connection between people that we might simply think of as, ‘good sex’, but which can be hard to maintain in a long-term relationship and hard to find or bear in a casual relationship. We might imagine that in being emotionally engaged, we are making promises outside of the bedroom. That by having anything other than mindless sex equates to a form of marriage proposal. Ryan Westrum, a marriage and family therapist specialising in sex therapy, sees a wide variety of patients in Minneapolis and is currently working toward a PhD in Transpersonal Psychology. He stresses the importance of valuing the act of sex in and of itself. ‘There’s no accountability to the other person – you can be respectful and not co-dependent. You don’t have to have lunch with them six days later,’ he says. You can connect to someone and have that connection only last one night. That doesn’t cheapen the experience, though it may sound emotionally jarring.
Self-help guru, Steve Pavlina, is polyamorous – he carries on sexual relationships with more than one person. He is on something of a mission to explain his preferences to English and American audiences. When he ﬁrst started writing about polyamory and conscious sex on his blog, he was told that he was doing it ‘just for the sex’. Initially, he rejected this thesis. ‘I explained that my primary interest in polyamory has to do with sharing emotional intimacy, not physical intimacy.’ After a while, he realised that there was something more puritanical behind the suggestion that he was only in it for the sex than he’d originally thought. ‘The hidden assumption is that enjoying sex with multiple, consenting partners is somehow wrong,’ he says. He came to realise that, for him, it was OK to be in something for the sex because, after all, what’s wrong with sex?
If thinking about conscious sex can allow someone like Steve to feel like it’s OK to enjoy sex with more than one person, it is also about re-injecting connection into the sex lives of those in all types of relationship. Ryan Westrum says the problem that recurs with his patients is one of not being able to talk honestly about what they want. ‘We ﬁnd our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others hard to bear. It’s dificult to be honest with people – after all, they might end up hating you, or laughing at you.
‘Sex is still stigmatised in many ways. There is still some lingering idea that good girls don’t like sex, and so the Madonna-whore complex remains at large, leaving people unable to have sex when they are in loving relationships with people they respect.’ Conscious sex, then, can also be linked to female empowerment.
Of course, it’s not like we can be like Sting, all the time. I mean, everyone gets tired, right? And it’s not to say that purely carnal sex is bad, or wrong – in fact, in many ways conscious sex is about taking what is exciting about carnal sex and adding a layer of emotional connection and celebration, so that you are enjoying the pleasure of sex without being alienated from the experience of it. What the champions of conscious sex hope is that thinking about this can help people escape any feelings of shame, detachment or revulsion they might have about sex.
In a 2002 interview, the incomparable David Bowie explained how in the 1970s he ‘wanted to be very emotionally involved with people, but I didn’t know how to do it’. If you look too hard, you won’t ﬁnd what you want.
‘I really love the fact we’re having some awareness around conscious sex,’ says Ryan Westrum, ‘but isn’t it what practitioners of tantric sex have been doing for thousands of years?’ Probably.
So the message is loud and clear: yes, it’s good to have conscious sex, as long as you’re conscious about who you’re doing it with and why. Understood?
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