Jottings: On tantra and heteronormativity
“To fit perfectly a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. They are polar opposites, and that polarity is needed. It is just as if you are trying to create electricity without polar opposites, without positive and negative.”
If liberation could be attained simply by having intercourse with a śakti then all living beings in the world would be liberated just by having intercourse with women.
In the wake of some of my posts discussing approaches to gender in a variety of Indian contexts, I’ve been engaged in some thought-provoking correspondence. One correspondent recently commented – “don’t you find that traditional tantra is well, really heteronormative?”
What’s “Traditional Tantra”?
This in itself raises the question of what constitutes “traditional” tantra? I often come across authors attempting to periodise tantra into “historical” vs “modern” – where “historical” is the texts and practices which came out of India (and Tibet, China, Japan, etc.) and “modern” is what contemporary writers and practitioners are doing. But such distinctions are tricky – after all, tantra is a living tradition, and many of the texts, practices and ideas that I’ve raised on enfolding from time to time are still being used, discussed, and reworked, on a worldwide basis. Of course “tradition” is a door that swings both ways, as it were – it can be used to signify something which is more “authentic” than the present; or equally, something that – compared to the contemporary – is antiquated and of not much relevance. How do you decide though, as to whether or not something is “historical” in the first place? Take the Kularnavatantra (“ocean of the heart tantra”) for example. It’s thought to have been written (or compiled) somewhere between the 10th and 14th centuries – which, you might think, qualifies it to be “historical”; yet it’s one of the most widely quoted and circulated tantric texts amongst contemporary tantra practitioners, regardless of sectarian affiliation.
As it turned out, for this particular correspondent, “traditional tantra” meant the tantra-sacred-sex workshops and writings he’d encountered – which tend to be grounded (to varying degrees) in discourses of gender polarity and other binary oppositions. This brings me to another popular distinction which is often drawn – between “Classical” and “Neo-tantra”.
“Classical vs Neo-tantra”
Here, “classical” tantra is often used to denote the “original” tantra (which emerged from India and other parts of Asia) and “Western” tantra a.k.a “sacred sex”. The term “Neo-tantra” was originally coined by Georg Feuerstein in order to make a distinction between what he saw as authentic tantra and what he sometimes referrred to as “Californian Tantra” which, in his view, was “based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path.” Some contemporary exponents of neo-tantra argue however, that some contemporary western approaches to tantra have removed the elitism (i.e. the precondition of initiation & transmission of knowledge via a guru) lengthy dependence on ritual (and its underlying theology) and the emphasis on worldly power which can be found in some classical tantras. How useful is this distinction? In his Tantra Illuminated Christopher D. Wallis states:
“…in some quarters at least, the word “Tantra” has become almost wholly severed from its orginal meaning. It is safe to assume that when the word “Tantra” is used in connection with sex and partner work on the New Age and alternative spirituality scene, in almost every case that teacher or workshop has no connection to the original tradition. … By making a distinction between something like “original” or “classical” Indian Tantra and what we may call “modern Western neo-Tantra” I do not intend to suggest that the latter is useless or illegimate, it may be very helpful for some people in improving their quality of life. What I would like to challenge is the historical claim some of these teachers make that what they teach is linked in some way – or in any way – to the Indian tradition and the contents of these mostly unpublished Sanskrit texts. If what they teach is valuable and effective, no such historical claim is necessary. if it is not, no such claim can render their teaching otherwise.”
I think Wallis is being a little harsh here. After all, one might point out that the meaning of the term tantra has shifted over time even within the “classical” Indian traditions and that it may continue to acquire new meanings as it diversifies into different contexts. Also, locating “authentic” tantra as entirely based within Sanksrit ms is also a little bit tricky. But having said that, this quotation gets us closer to the heart of the issue here.
In some ways, as Hugh B Urban points out in his Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion “…the imagining of Tantra will be different in every historical moment and in every new cross-cultural encounter.” (p272). It’s undeniable, I think, that “tantra” now operates as a kind of generic, globalised brand-image that is so caught up with contemporary representations of sexuality – and in particular, sex therapy, healing, and sexual liberation – that no amount of finger-wagging and distinction-making is going to dislodge it. Many people who encounter tantra in this context are surprised (at least judging from some of the comments I get) that there are other “kinds” of tantra which are, at times, seemingly at odds with the tantra/sacred-sex representation – and that these tantras are widely practiced by people all over the world.
But leaving the problems of periodising and sorting out classical vs modern aside, let’s come back to the heteronormativity issue. One of my correspondents wrote: ” you must have noticed that a lot of people who do tantra training and workshops are very heterosexually-oriented and go on about male-female polarity.” Well yes – apart from a few exponents of tantra who are questioning such tropes – these are fairly common themes in the tantra-as-sacred-sex workshop circuit. What interests me particularly though, is where these ideas came from. Do these ideas reflect attitudes found in precolonial cultures? And for that matter – is heteronormativity even a concept that we can apply to say, precolonial India or Japan? Did these cultures even have a notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ in the same way that we’ve come to view contemporary European culture?
Heteronormativity – a term originally coined by Michael Warner – refers to the ways in which majoritarian society constructs and reifies the assumption that heterosexuality is made normal, inevitable, and compulsory – and casts both non-heterosexual desiring subjects and some forms of heterosexuality – as marginal and deviant.
Heteronormativity is not simply about desiring subjects though – it encompasses a wide range of social practices and institutions, such as: ““gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, masturbation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body” (Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet, 1991).
Heteronormativity isn’t just a fancy way of referring to heterosexuality – nor, as Annamarie Jagose points out (2012) is it merely a consequence of the bifurcated categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality – but heteronormativity as a critical concept indexes the emergence of heterosexuality as a function of the modern disciplinary regime of sexuality.
Heteronormativity can be thought of as a complex regime of disciplinary power which regulates sexual and social identities and practices – granting ideal, normative status and privilege to (some forms of) heterosexuality as the basis of social identity and excluding others:
Heteronormativity is more than ideology, or prejudice, or phobia against gays and lesbians; it is produced in almost every aspect of the forms and arrangements of social life: nationality, the state, and the law; commerce; medicine; and education; as well as in the conventions and affects of narrativity, romance, and other protected spaces of culture.
(Berlant and Warner, Sex in Public, 1998)
Again, I’m going to leave the question of heteronormativity in relation to precolonial India aside (for now) as it’s my contention that the gender essentialism that is so prevelant in much of contemporary approaches to tantra arises from sacred-sex discourse itself (and I’ll come back to this, in future posts, as time allows).
When I first started to get interested in tantra in the early 1980s binary gender essentialism was all too common in many popular books on tantra and “sacred sex”. In fact there were a lot of people stating fairly unequivocally that if you weren’t heterosexual, you couldn’t do tantra – for various reasons, all of which I came to view as spurious. A book I found particularly irritating, was Nik Douglas and Penny Slinger’s best-selling Sexual Secrets (first published in 1979) which was hailed as “the definitive, all-encompassing text on sacred sexuality” and which included the following gems:
“Homosexual freedom can be associated with the decline of Greece. from the first Century onward, homosexuality flourished in Rome; male prostitution developed to an extraordinary extent and another great empire fell.”
“An active, aggressive male homosexual is in a great position of responsibility. By practising oral or anal sex with his male lover, he transmits his karma as well as his hormones & vitality. The links in a chain of destiny are established and invariably passed on to others … Homosexual men transform one another psychically but pay the price of complex metaphysical entanglements.”
“Surely it is time for homosexuals themselves to wake up to the reality of their situation and seek solutions to their problems, rather than campaigning for more acceptance of homosexuality. Eastern techniques offer practical techniques for overcoming the wiles of destiny.”
Douglas and Slinger also assert, confidently, that: “Anal sex between men was unheard of India until the Moslem invasions and is not a traditional sexual practice of the Chinese or Japanese. The Taoist and Tantric texts unilaterally condemn anal sex between men.” 1 Their solution – being obviously no friends of homosexual emancipation – was that gay men should use yoga techniques to suppress their desires and thus avoid “karmic consequences”.
Douglas and Slinger’s assertion that the promotion of homosexuality was the cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire seems to come straight from Edward Gibbon’s 18th-century Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and their assertions regarding anal sex in “traditional” China and Japan ignores texts such as the Japanese The Great Mirror of Male Love or the Chinese Poetical Essay on the Supreme Joy which has been dated to the Tang Dynasty.
This sort of thing was pretty much common currency across the whole spectrum of “alternative” subcultures throughout the 1980s, with occult writers such as Gareth Knight asserting that “homosexuality, like drugs, is a technique of black magic” and “In spite of the modern state of apologetics for this form of lower emotional and physical relationship it is a perversion and evil” 2 and my all-time favourite; Kenneth Grant’s wonderful “Thus the blasphemy of the homosexual formula, for it denies Babalon and breeds devils in chaos.” Occult, Pagan (and “new age”) “theories” for sexual deviance ranged from “blocked chakras”; an “imbalance of yin or yang energy”; “reversed kundalini” (a “tantric” theory of degenerate and perverse sexual practices, at least according to Douglas and Slinger); explanations of polarity which drew on electro-magnetism or just good old “plugs and sockets”; to some bizarre ideas that homosexuals were simply “not human” but were elemental or demonic entities inhabiting human bodies.
I went through stages of being initially confused by these pronouncements, to being annoyed – and challenging these views through writing, public speaking (and occasionally just being a camp-ish presence at occult events) – to largely, deciding to ignore them as far as my own practice went. Coming out of a background of witchcraft and ritual magic, what I found particularly lacking in books on tantra at the time was any reference to tantra as a magical practice – which was basically where my interests lay, rather than what seemed to be an increasing emphasis on a western biomedical model of sexuality – which presented sex as an innate drive contained within the body, untroubled by differences of culture or historicity. It all seemed very factual, and much of it was presented as immutable cosmic laws or psychological and “scientific” theories (Freud and Jung being particularly popular) which were applied to everyone without exception. In this, sacred-sex advocates largely followed the pronouncements of turn-of-the-century sexologists (which is hardly surprising, given that sexologists and sex therapists have become the new “tantric gurus”) anthropology, and much colonial-era writing about India. Some seem to have uncritically taken up the view that Indian civilisation was static and unchanging – and only had “traditions” whereas only the West was capable of progress and change. This kind of romanticism can quickly shade into racist ideas about sexuality and primitivism.
It wasn’t until I started reading the work of Arthur Avalon and found some copies of the AMOOKOS magazine Azoth that I began to make inroads into quite a different presentation of tantra – and largely left all the “sacred sex” stuff behind. It seemed to me that what these texts and their advocates were promoting was a kind of liberation – sexual liberation – that only applied to heterosexual couples and encouraged experimentation whilst at the same time setting boundaries for the “normal” and relegating anything they disapproved of into the category of “the perverse” backed up with dodgy justifications about reverse kundalini, etc.
Gradually though, ideas changed – and the boundaries of what constituted “sacred sex” began to accomodate – to varying degrees – non-heterosexuals. Ashley Thirleby’s litte book Tantra: The Key to Sexual Power and Pleasure (1982) was one of the first books I came across which although “written for heterosexual couples” at least allowed that “…the Rituals of the Seven Nights of the Tantra are equally intended for, and adaptable for, use by homosexual couples.” By 1989, Margot Anand was making similar accomodative statements: “Even though I address myself in this book to heterosexual partners, I know from experience that these practices can be beneficial to partners of the same sex.” Anand, in a complete reversal of the Douglas & Slinger position, says that: “In the ancient Hindu and Greek traditions of sacred sexuality, as well as in many other cultures, there were no such judgements about loving a person of the same gender.” She was, at least in this edition of The Art of Sexual Ecstasy unwilling to move away from the notion of gender polarity:
” …the goal in High Sex is for each individual to explore both the masculine and feminine aspects of his or her nature, thereby expanding the range of experiences which are available in lovemaking. From the Tantric perspective, this expansion – especially in the beginning of the practice – can take place more easily when the male and female polarites are present in the form of a man and a woman. Any relationship in which male and female qualities are consciously developed, can create support for exploring High Sex. For example, in a sexual relationship between two men, there is likely to be one man in whom the male qualities are more dominant and one who is more feminine. The same is true of most sexual relationships between women. “
Barbara Carrellas’ (2007) Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century takes the perspective that the “myth” that tantra has to be done by a man and a woman has “kept more queer people out of tantra than any other myth”. In posing the question of “How did this myth start?” Carellas states (p.9) that “…Tantra, being the path of acceptance of everything, has always embraced opposites: good/evil, sacred/profane, higher/lower, earthly/spiritual, ying/yang, light/shadow. In embracing these opposites, Tantra is able to accept and contain “all that is,” which means not only the opposite poles but everything in between the poles. In our Western society, however, most everything is regarded as either/or, and there’s not much in between. Therefore, the Western mind reasons, if Tantra unites opposites, it must require “opposite” genders.”
What’s notable here is that although Carellas seems to accept that binary gender essentialism is a western misunderstanding of tantra – she still treats her list of opposites – “good/evil, sacred/profane, higher/lower, earthly/spiritual, ying/yang, light/shadow” – as transcultural universals, rather than western binarisms that may not be even applicable to tantra. Although she later says (p85) that “Yin and yang can no longer be assigned according to the shape of one’s genitals” (see this post for some related discussion), she goes on to say that “yin and yang can be closely aligned with the hormones that predominate in the body. People with testosterone-based bodies (whether they were born male or take testosterone as a supplement) tend to be more yang. People with estrogen-based bodies (whether they were born female or take estrogen as a supplement) are typically more yin.” Even whilst she states that gender is more of a “rainbow” than an either-or proposition, Carellas seems loath to totally move away from the gender binary.
Some closing thoughts
So, back to the original question: is tantra heteronormative? It depends. If you’re talking about the way that tantra has emerged as an element within the wider discourse of “sacred sex” then yes, you could make that case. As I said, it’s my contention that this is a result of the ways that sexology, sex therapy, and other disciplinary regimes had made use of tantric themes – or at least creatively re-interpreted them to bolster up the inevitability and normalcy of heterosexuality. But this is now changing, as more queer-identified people are challenging these views.
If however, you mean “classical” tantra – then this is something worth looking into – but it might well be a more difficult proposition.
Margot Anand The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The Path of Sacred Sexuality for Western Lovers (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989)
Barbara Carrellas Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century (2007)
Nik Douglas and Penny Slinger Sexual Secrets: The Alchemy of Ecstasy (Destiny Books, 2000)
Annamaria Jagose Orgasmology (Duke University Press, 2012)
Gareth Knight A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism (Red Wheel/Samuel Weiser, 2001)
PJ McGann, Healing (disorderly) desire: Medical-therapeutic regulation of Sexuality in Seidman, Fischer, Meeks (eds) Introducing the New Sexuality Studies: Original Essays and Interviews (Routledge, 2006)
Ashley Thirleby Tantra: The Key to Sexual Power and Pleasure (Jaico Publishing House, 1982)
Hugh B Urban Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Christopher D. Wallis Tantra Illuminated (Christopher D. Wallis, 2012)
- Such sweeping assertions are reprinted in the celebratory “20th edition of Sexual Secrets in 2000. ↩
- From A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism first published in 1965, and republished in 2001 by Red Wheel/Weiser with no changes to these sentiments, although in the preface he does refer to his earlier remarks as “draconian” and says “it is a cause of great regret to me if, as a result of my words, anyone has been given a bad time on account of their sexual orientation.” ↩