You see things dif­fer­ently on a bike, mostly because you’re trav­el­ing more slowly, you’re not enclosed, and you’re pay­ing atten­tion to dif­fer­ent stim­uli than when you’re in a car. This morn­ing I saw, lying dis­carded on the tar­mac at an inter­sec­tion, a condom.

I don’t bring this up for the squick fac­tor. I bring it up because the first thing I thought of in response to it was that bliss is ephemeral. (Well, to the extent you can think of sex as being bliss­ful.) My next thought was, hey, at least they used a condom.

From there I began think­ing about the val­ues we seem to have as a soci­ety. It occurred to me that our entire pre­vail­ing social atti­tude toward sex can be summed up with the image of a con­dom tossed onto the side of a road: Something to be indulged briefly and imper­son­ally, then care­lessly dis­carded, because hey, we’re not even sup­posed to be doing it in the first place.

We empha­size sex in our enter­tain­ment, our adver­tis­ing, our very cul­ture, but we don’t seem to want too many peo­ple to actu­ally be doing it unless they hap­pen to be involved in a monog­a­mous social con­tract that is every bit as arbi­trary and unnat­ural as any other con­tract that’s ever been invented. (Marriage is fine for those who wish to under­take it, of course; but I don’t think we have the right to demand it of any­one.) We attempt to leg­is­late sex, which is as absurd as — and will be as suc­cess­ful as — attempts to leg­is­late food choices.

We don’t want teens doing it. We don’t want gays or les­bians doing it. We don’t want groups doing it. We don’t want … we don’t want … we don’t want. And it seems to me that an awful lot of these don’t-wants are rooted in per­sonal dis­com­fort. I don’t per­son­ally like the idea of so-​​and-​​so doing such-​​and-​​such with whomever; there­fore, I will for­bid it.

Well who the hell do I think I am?


We cre­ate the neg­a­tiv­ity that’s been attached to sex, and we own the results of our restric­tive stance on it. The result of all our inva­sive nose-​​poking-​​into is that sex often becomes furtive, joy­less, incon­ve­nient, dan­ger­ous, ‘dirty’. We’re so patho­log­i­cally ter­ri­fied of sex that there is one state try­ing to ban teach­ers from hold­ing hands in front of stu­dents. Holding hands!

Why? Because hold­ing hands is a ‘gate­way activity’.

Yes. The exact same lan­guage used to make pot ille­gal is the lan­guage being used to jus­tify for­bid­ding two peo­ple from hold­ing hands in front of schoolkids. As though sex is pre­cisely the same as metham­phet­a­mine, as though if kids see two adults hold­ing hands, they’ll spend recess get­ting sweaty with each other in the janitor’s closet.

That, as much as any­thing else, exposes just how twisted up we get about sex. What exactly is the thought process on that one? My daugh­ter saw her teacher hold­ing hands with her hus­band, and the next after­noon she slept with the foot­ball team? Come on.

We can’t talk about sex, we can’t dis­cuss it, we can’t treat it as any other human behav­ior. Our kids might get bet­ter instruc­tion in using the toi­let than they do in using their gen­i­talia, and that is absolutely shame­ful. Education, intel­li­gence, and wis­dom have a pretty good track record for keep­ing peo­ple out of trou­ble; igno­rance does not.


I can’t tell any­one how to raise their kids; that is none of my busi­ness. But it seems to me that the most use­ful stance to take with sex is to lis­ten to what’s being asked, and the way it’s being asked, and to use con­text to deter­mine just how much infor­ma­tion a given child is ready to absorb.

But in order for that to even be pos­si­ble, we have to decide for our­selves, indi­vid­u­ally, how we feel about sex. What ten­sions sur­face in the mind when we think of it? What behav­iors draw us? What repels us? What val­ues do we attach to sex, and what do those val­ues sug­gest about our­selves? Where do those val­ues come from, and why do we feel attached to them? What activ­i­ties do we think are unnat­ural — and why?

Sex pro­duces very intense responses in each of us, some of them organic, some of them emo­tional; so it can be extremely hard to be objec­tive, to fol­low those responses to their sources, to see where our attrac­tions and revul­sions come from. Even more than anger or fear, I think sex is a dif­fi­cult thing to process. That might be one rea­son why we use terms such as ‘unnat­ural’ to define behav­iors we’re opposed to — we sim­ply can’t see past our own neu­roses, and believe them to be as con­crete and invi­o­lable as our need to breathe. Thus, some of us oppose gay or les­bian sex (or group sex, or polyamorous sex) for the same rea­son we oppose mur­der; we think it’s wrong, period, and stead­fastly refuse to look any deeper than that.


Sex is rarely directly dis­cussed in Buddhist canon, apart from gen­er­ally advis­ing against sex­ual impro­pri­ety. (That’s for the laity; monks and nuns have dif­fer­ent guide­lines, as would be expected; and Tantric prac­tices are another realm entirely.) It might be a case of refrain­ing from speak­ing, leav­ing it up to each of us in per­sonal, social, and his­tor­i­cal con­text to deter­mine for our­selves exactly what we define as impro­pri­ety in the first place.

In vipas­sana and shikan­taza prac­tice, I’ve been able to unravel some of the knots in my ‘self’ per­tain­ing to sex, but it does take quite a while to get there — not the least because explor­ing those threads can bring some intense dis­trac­tions — so I do have an idea just how dif­fi­cult a thing it is do to. What I’ve also found, though, is that many things which used to obsess me have loos­ened their grip (more accu­rately, I’ve been able to loosen my grip on some things that I used to obsess upon), and that my views of oth­ers’ choices and activ­i­ties have become con­sid­er­ably more relaxed. To me, as long as whomever is involved is all right with whatever’s going on, by and large it’s just not my place to offer judgment.

This is reflex­ive, by the way, as are good man­ners in gen­eral. (There are times when it seems that a lot of Buddhist phi­los­o­phy and world­view can be brought down to good man­ners. Minding one’s own busi­ness, live and let live, accept­ing diver­sity.) The need for good man­ners, I think, is starkly brought to light in our approach to oth­ers’ sex­ual behav­ior. I don’t want any­one pok­ing into my busi­ness, so it would be rude of me to do the same to any­one else.

Here, I think the mid­dle path can help us along. I think we can agree that cheap sex which results in a blown-​​out rub­ber being tossed from a car win­dow is less than ideal; and I think we can agree that wrig­gling, sticky, free-​​for-​​all behav­ior is not only unre­al­is­tic (for some), but prob­a­bly not par­tic­u­larly pro­duc­tive over­all. Somewhere between those two extremes there lies a vast ground in which we can exist, per­haps a bit uneasily, with the val­ues of our neigh­bors — but we should take care to keep our views from turn­ing into demands, with sex as with any­thing else.

It’s all right to be repulsed by what I saw this morn­ing, but I think there are plenty of cases where all we have to do, if we’re dis­turbed by some­one else’s behav­ior, is close the blinds and get on with our own lives.

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