Our sexuality is an expression of the innate desire, the longing we all have to connect with God, others, our deepest selves, and creation. We long for intimacy, for touch, warmth, and understanding. We want to know and be known.
When we speak of sexual energy, we naturally think of having sex. But sexual energy is larger than that. Alternate terms include libidinal energy, life-force, psychosexual energy, joie-de-vivre, Élan vital, prana, or the chi. Whichever term you prefer, we’re talking about the creative energy within all of us. It is an essential spiritual energy that only sometimes expresses itself sexually.
Libidinal energy is creative energy; it is our life force. It is erotic in the sense that erotic means life-giving. We feel it in our bodies, on a physiological level. It is a passion towards a person or task; it makes you feel alive. When libidinal energy flows through you, you feel very positive, invigorated, lifted above your circumstances, tingling with energy. Decisions become very clear. Colors seem more vivid.
Libidinal energy draws you, magnetizes you to someone or something. Getting in touch with it helps you unearth your potential and bring repressed passions into your conscious mind. It is the instinctual love of our essential life-force. It’s what you feel when you fall in love. It’s what you feel when you’re in a creative groove, highly focused on painting, or playing music, or writing a poem.
A seasoned spiritual director was talking with a young single minister about his sexuality. Among many other things, the spiritual director told the young man that he would fall in love many times over the years. His natural libidinal energy would magnetize him towards potential partners. He needed to learn how to deal with the intense feelings of being in love when they arose.
I so wish a wise spiritual guide had talked to me like that when I was in my late teens or early 20s. No one ever talked to me about sex other than a very uncomfortable (for both of us) brief lecture on biology from my father. No one taught me how to deal with powerful libidinal energies.
No one told me that humans fall in love multiple times over the course of a lifetime and can choose how to direct that energy for good or for ill.
No one told me that humans of both biological sexes could live together and interact collectively in mutually fulfilling altruistic piety or that innocent friendships with people of the opposite sex were possible.
No one told me that we never get over those to whom we give our hearts, no matter how badly the relationship ends.
No one bothered to explain to me that being in a position of authority, like a pastor, could warp the passions and wills of those under authority.
No one ever told me that sexuality is a part of libidinal energy. Because our sexuality is both something we’re born with and something that develops in stages, it involves energies buried deep in the subconscious mind.
God made us sexual beings. Yet the only message I got as a young Christian man was, “Sex is wonderful. Don’t do it! (Except with your lawfully wedded wife). And, by the way, you’re even better off unmarried. Oh, and just so you know, sex outside marriage is an unforgivable sin almost as bad as divorce.”
I was taught that sexuality was the great enemy of spirituality. When I preached abstinence from the pulpit, I failed to point out that in biblical times most people were placed in arranged marriages in their early teens and died in their early 40s. Instead, I substituted legalism – never be alone with a woman other than your wife. Never touch a woman. Be as separate as possible from women. Live like a cloistered monk, a strict Muslim, or an Hasidic Jew. Indeed, the three great demons that would kill any ministry were said to be money, pride, and women. Women were to cover up, eschew attractiveness, yet turn into sultry seductresses for their husbands, fulfilling wild fantasies. All of this was taught in the name of purity. Instead of accountability, healing and restoration, there was condemnation and rejection.
Making matters worse, here in America, we live in a culture obsessed with sex. It’s our primary advertising tool. Fundamentalists are up in arms about what they consider to be sinful sex. They rarely speak of sins like racism, misogyny, greed, or gluttony.
Ancient Israel valued human sexuality. Christianity grew out of Judaism and initially embraced a healthy understanding of sexuality. That changed when Christianity became the state religion of Rome. Most of those we now refer to as Church Fathers were Gentile scholars steeped in Platonic philosophy, Greek culture, and incentivized to homogenize Christianity with the Roman Empire. Chief among those theologians were Tertullian and Augustine who both had a great deal to say about sexuality.
It was Tertullian who first taught that sexual lust was the original sin. Lifted from ancient Greek medicine, women were seen as “cold blooded” and weak; men as “hot-blooded” and strong. To gain dominance over men, women seduced them. According to Augustine, humans were created with freewill, but it was lost in Adam and Eve’s original sin. Hence, women cannot help but be seductive, and men are destined to a lack of sexual restraint. Women need to cover up. If they get raped, it’s their fault. Men can’t help themselves.
Tertullian and Augustine taught that grace combined with chastity could save. A chaste and celibate Jesus saves men. A chaste, celibate, and perpetually virginal Mary saves women. Sex is only within marriage sanctioned by the Church, and only for procreation. Lust during sex is sinful. They believed that all human attributes come from spermatozoa; women’s wombs are only incubators. They thought women could only conceive lying on their backs. Missionaries instructed indigenous people on the proper position for sex – missionary. The most spiritual people, however, remained celibate.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian priest. Although he rejected celibacy and got married to a former nun, the Protestant Reformation changed little regarding sexual mores. From the fourth century on, most of Christendom viewed sexuality as a necessary evil.
Hedonists maintain that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of life. We live in a hedonistic culture – if it feels good, do it. Puritanical people react to hedonism by concluding that any physical pleasure leads to damnation. Both are wrong.
Sexual energy cannot simply be expressed willy-nilly or we wind up in an immoral exploitative mess and create a heap of badly damaged people. Unbridled sexuality leads to serial divorces, adultery, psychologically bruised children, sexual assault and abuse, and STDs.
Nor can sexual energy simply be repressed. It will always emerge sideways. Oppressed sexuality is the pathway of the fundamentalist, the puritan. It leads to judgementalism, Phariseeism, and the blatant hypocrisy of those big shot ministers caught with prostitutes. Oppressed sexuality can lead to oppression and violence.
We all have this life-force, this libidinal energy. It is unhealthy to just let it out without any guard rails. It is also unhealthy to suppress it. So, what do we do with our sexuality?
No one taught me how to sublimate, redirect, libidinal energy in healthy ways. I was unaware that that energy and passion can be poured into social justice, a work of art, or a piece of music. Watch the pure love flow from Yo Yo Ma with his cello.
Obviously, libidinal energy can be expressed romantically and sexually in loving healthy relationships. There are times and seasons when that isn’t possible or advisable, however.
Libidinal energy can also be sublimated, redirected. Psychosexual energy can be refocused on non-sexual expressions of affection for others, on doing things for others to bring them joy. Libidinal energy can be channeled into things like working out, writing, playing sports, yoga, contemplative prayer, imaginative scripture reading, dancing, painting, playing or composing music, reading, meditation, sculpture, pottery, learning, cooking, designing, or any other form of creative thought.
How do you do that? Perhaps with the help of a wise spiritual guide, you get in touch with that essential life force, learn to welcome it into your conscious awareness, and then learn how to focus it in ways that are healthy, holy, life-giving, and freeing.