…For the Bible Tells Me So
“I seem to recall that, according to the RCC (via JP2), that mutually-desired acts within the marriage bed, so long as they are conducive to both procreation and the unity of the couple, are the gist of the matter, and if that involves either or both partners swinging from the chandeliers in a latex unitard and a Vaseline-coated tarp and lengths of rope and a little spanky-panky, that’s just fine!” (Catholic.org forum user quote)
It’s difficult enough for many of us to reconcile the spiritual traditions and religious viewpoints that we carry with our modern views of sexuality: admonitions against masturbation, homosexuality, pre-marital and extra-marital relations pepper various religious texts, not to mention directives from various pulpits and sage advice from leaders of the faithful. While most current major religions espouse that a healthy sex life is an integral part of being a healthy human being, there is a wide range of definitions of what “healthy” might mean. While all agree on sex within a married relationship for procreative purposes, the rest of it is a bit blurry—even more so when we try to figure out what the consensus might be about kinky sexual behavior.
Christianity, while not statistically the largest religion in the world, is, according to census data, the most prevalent faith overall in the United States. And while there is a tremendous diversity in denominations, the great majority view sexuality as a healthy part of a married couple’s life, and only a few specifically suggest that sex be for the purposes of procreation.
Judaism has a bit more flexibility in its beliefs about sexuality, but their more conservative traditionalists agree—sex is reserved for married people.
Muslim men and women traditionally live in a very segregated and, some would say, a very misogynistic culture; yet even in Islamic religious texts, Mohammad proclaims that sex is a pleasure that, while reserved for committed marriages, is not solely for procreation.
But what about when one partner in the relationship wants to do something that isn’t just plain ol’ sex? What if it involves spanking or hitting their consenting partner—or wanting their partner to spank them? What if a man wants to be dominated by his wife? What about bondage, or roleplay? And what if the partners aren’t married?
The challenge for people of faith to reconcile their physical and emotional desires for non-traditional sexual practices with the tenets of their belief is difficult—and for some, has been enough to bring them to a crisis not only of spirit, but of body and mind.
Body, Mind and Spirit
There are certainly plenty of aspects of sacredness and spirituality that are present in BDSM activities. A fantastic example of that is the aspect of service. In most religions, adherents are taught that to submit to their deity and be of service to them (or to the world in general) is one of the highest forms of faith. So for a submissive or slave to offer themselves to a dominant, and to serve the dominant’s needs and desires, can fulfill the same need to serve that missionaries, ministers, and others who follow a religious calling experience. There is a deep sense of satisfaction at the core of service, for those who do it for religious reasons as well as within relationships; many people continue to offer service simply because of the feeling of rightness that they experience as they do it—regardless of the context in which they serve.
A number of religious traditions also involve enduring trials and overcoming ordeals in order to experience a sense of transcendence or to gain self awareness through the loss of external control. From the self-flagellation of Catholic monks, to sweat lodge and vision quest rituals of the native Americans, to the physical trials of yogis, to the routine fasting in a number of religious traditions, undergoing and enduring painful or challenging situations has long been regarded as a path to transformation and communion with one’s higher power. When compared with the experience of “sub space” that many people experience during a S/M scene, or the sense of dissociation from an intense bondage or mummification experience, it makes perfect sense that people may use a BDSM context for exploring these deep unknowns in life, and using them as ways to alter their perspective of a situation, or even of their lives.
Community building in both religion and kink provides another aspect to consider. Many people get involved in churches, synagogues, temples, or other faith communities as a way to experience a sense of extended family with people that they share basic fundamental ethics with—a shared sense of life’s purpose, of worship traditions, and of witnessing. The many subcommunities under the BDSM umbrella likewise act as ways for kinksters to find greater depth and a sense of belonging; many groups focus on topics like education, charitable giving for local non-profit group, self-exploration and mentorship, or even simply a sense of family for people who cannot be totally “out” to their own families (or, even worse, who have been written off by family members who find their lifestyle inexcusable).
Sex Isn’t Bad—It’s Just Preached That Way
BDSM and spirituality have had an intrinsic connection for many people; sexual experiences—including non-traditional desires—are often described in semi-religious terms (and really, how many of us have yelled out a deity’s name in the throes of passion?), and thought of as moments that are sacred—set apart—from our daily lives. The practice of sexuality as a spiritually condoned human experience reaches into every major religion’s scriptural heritage. The Christian bible’s “Song of Solomon” (also known as the “Song of Songs”) is a classic example of a positive depiction of sexuality. Even Mohammad taught that sex is a divine blessing.
The process of making peace with desires that run (at least socially) contrary to what we’re taught is one that is fraught with self-doubt, shame, and guilt for some people of faith. “I fought with my desires for years,” says Bill*, who was raised Catholic. “I knew that what I wanted was ‘wrong.’ I was taught that sex was something reserved for marriage and children, and I saw enough reactions from others to realize pretty early that what turned me on wasn’t okay.”
Like many people whose desires conflict with their spirituality, Bill went through a few phases of totally ignoring his non-typical sexual desires, until he finally made an uneasy peace with it. “I went to UCC (a more liberal denomination) for a while, and have since moved into my own sense of what my faith is,” Bill says. “At this point, I feel comfortable about who I am, but I still have times when I feel that shame and guilt from earlier in my life come back to haunt me.”
On the other hand, some people don’t experience that dichotomy at all. My friend Vinny put it to me this way in an email: “In spite of practicing a relatively mainstream form of Judaism, kink integrates surprisingly easily into my faith. I think this is because of two key pieces of knowledge: First, I really don’t think God cares if I get my rocks off licking my lover’s boots or begging for her cane. As long as I’m happy and not hurting anyone, I don’t think God cares. And second, the feeling I get from kink is, at its core, the same as I get from prayer. At the base of both these experiences is an ecstatic wonder that comes from being centered in my body and intimately connected to the world. Knowing these two things, kink is a completely natural fit into my spiritual life. Kink is a celebration of my body, trust, and connection with others. What could be more divine?”
Ideally, we are able to talk openly with our ministers and religious teachers about role sexuality plays in the lives of the faithful; however, sometimes those conversations happen quietly among those people who are willing to question, but not within the walls of their religious institutions. Fortunately, a large number of websites exist for people from most every mainstream religious tradition to discuss sexuality, BDSM, dominance and submission, and open relationships; these websites offer forums for support, education, and community for people whose faith is as important to them as their fetish. And when it comes down to it, what could be more divine for them than a joyful, sexual, spiritual life?
*Name has been changed.