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Queery-ing Western Tantra – Some Initial Thoughts

What might a queer Western tantra look like, feel like, or be? That’s a good question. The answer is that if we want it, we will have to imagine it into being.

Let’s start with a different question – what does tantra mean in the popular imagination of the contemporary West? Well, of course it means sex, strange and possibly “sacred”, but sex of some kind.

Let’s dig a little deeper. What does tantra mean when we peruse the popular Western “how to” book market on the subject? Sex is very central, generally married to a narrative of goddess worship and self-liberation. As for the type of sex described in such books, it is usually partnered heterosexual sex, where orgasm, often particularly male orgasm, is delayed or abjured in order that both partners may experience a heightened state of bliss.

A Cautionary Note

As you will discover on the pages, the tendency of many Western re-workings of tantra to reduce it to “sacred sexuality” is rather like a newcomer to planet Earth forming the notion that Christianity is all about prayer. Prayer is certainly an element of many (although not all) forms of Christianity, but our impetuous alien anthropologist would be missing rather a lot of information were they to study Christian prayer and from that extrapolate the Christian religion.

This particular piece does however take Western re-workings of tantra, and the centrality of sex/gender therein, as its springboard.

A number of the thought formations held by popular Western tantra need to be examined critically if we are to imagine a queer Western tantra.

Western Tantric Practice as Inherently Heterosexual?

In The Passionate Buddha (2002: 151), a Western interpretation of Tibetan tantric Buddhism which focuses on sexual relationships, Robert Sachs writes, “According to Buddhist teachings, the polarity of male and female energy is needed to perform dual tantra; the penis and vagina serve as the most important ports of entry and exit. Thus, by definition, homosexual partners cannot perform dual Tantra as such”.

This narrative, which says that real religious “right living”, real love, real magic, real tantra etc. can only take place where a body with a penis and a body with a vagina are involved, is a narrative which can be found across the religious and spiritual spectrum, including in new Western formations such as Neo-Paganism.

Speaking as a queer practitioner of magic I can tell you that this narrative is mistaken. Magic works just fine if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or inter-sex, and so does the sort of erotic tantric practice Robert Sachs is referring to. Nor is it necessary, if undertaking partnered work in boy-boy or girl-girl pairings, to perform contortions of identification where one of you takes on a “masculine” aspect and one of you takes on a “feminine” aspect as advocated by some forms of Wicca, for example by Bruce K. Wilborn in his (really rather dreadful) The Gay Wicca Book (2002). You might want to of course, and that’s fine. Heterosexual magic is magic, moreover it is true wild and important magic. And polarity working has its place too (although I would not personally want to limit chosen polarities to penis/ vagina, masculine/ feminine or to map one simply onto the other).

But can Western tantra (which some refer to as Neo-Tantra) involving sexual/ spiritual rites, really be practiced without a conceptual heterosexuality? Doesn’t the union of Shiva with Shakti lie at the heart of the tantric universe? Andre Van Lysebeth in Tantra: the Cult of the Feminine (1995) which seeks to introduce Westerners to Hindu (as opposed to Buddhist) forms of tantra, discusses various “reasons” for homosexuality, citing “abandonment by the mother”, “an inadequacy of heterosexual partners”, “a female soul which has chosen the wrong body” (pp151-154), all of which are familiar speculations from the nineteenth and early twentieth century Western imagination. However, Van Lysebeth, unlike Robert Sachs, believes same sex couples can fully practice tantric union because “A male homosexual couple is actually a heterosexual couple although they may not realise it. One penetrates as the other takes the female part”. Again, that might work for you, and if it does, by all means… but, queery-ing Western tantra does not stop there.

Can the union of Shiva with Shakti itself be “queered”? The sort of Western tantric practices Sachs and Van Lysebeth are delineating (which do have roots in written sanskrit tantric texts) involve playing with or moving at will the electricity of desire that arises in you and/ or between you and another (or others). It does not depend on types of body parts or insertion of body parts. You can do it on your own (as indeed orthodox tantric Buddhism teaches you must do) or you can do it with anyone you choose to move erotic energy with, penis schmenis. But can you do it whilst conceptualising the universe as the union of Shiva with Shiva or Shakti with Shakti? Can you enclothe Shakti in an inter-sex body entwined with Shiva in a butch body in your mind’s eye whilst you, a femme bisexual, are entwined with a fey gay man? It’s heterodoxy. You won’t find such visions in traditional tantric texts or in popular Western texts about tantra. But the answer is yes, if you want to queer Western tantra in this manner you can.

But will it “work”? If it works for you, it will work. Magic, as Lou Hart writes, “is a many gendered thing” .

One writer on practical queer friendly Western (erotic) tantra whom I can recommend is Dossie Easton, who combines bdsm and tantra in her book Radical Ecstasy: SM Journeys to Transcendence (2004).

Towards a Queer Western Tantra

For me, a queer Western tantra might be one involving the possibility of the free play of gender and sexuality and/or (because free play doesn’t work for everyone) involving multiple gendered, sensual and participatory possibilities. For me a queer Western tantra might be one that breaks down the binary of the couple (i.e. is not just about lesbian couples and gay couples “doing tantric sex too”). A queer Western tantra might be one that fractures the link between genitals and ecstatic exchange altogether and one that travels across the human/ non-human binary (why not ecstatically and erotically merge with the bliss-being-beyond-being of a tree?). Just as tantra is in fact so much more than “sacred sex”, so formations of sacred sexuality/ sensuality/ bliss within it can be infinitely more variant than heterosexual karezza and corresponding visualised god forms (which is not to denigrate those forms, for they are beautiful, but rather to dare to diversify them).

Many rivers run into the ocean of ecstasy.