Book Review: The Heart and Soul of Sex: Making the ISIS Connection
Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.
In 1997 Gina Ogden, a sex therapist and sexologist, created a survey of women's attitudes and feelings about their sexuality entitled "Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality". The survey was distributed widely; several magazines (New Age and New Woman) printed it; in 2000 she appeared on Oprah to discuss her work.
In all, some 4000 respondents replied with completed survey forms -- 3000+ women and 700 men. An astonishing 1,465 followed up their survey with personal letters, telling more of their story. Clearly this survey touched something important in the lives of the respondents!
It's important to place this survey of attitudes on sexuality in the context of other scientific surveys on sexuality which have been done over the past 60 years. In 1948 Kinsey published his first survey of sexual behaviors (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male; Sexual Behavior in the Human Female followed in 1953); Masters and Johnson began publishing their work in 1966 (Human Sexual Response). The University of Chicago published a large-scale survey of sexual behavior in America in 1994 (The Social Organization of Sexuality, Edward Laumann, et.al.) In all, some 750 sex surveys have been done, as well as numerous other studies.
What is significant about Ogden's book is that her focus transcends the scientific study of sexual behavior or response -- i.e., frequency of intercourse, number and type of orgasms, number of partners -- which formed the basis of these earlier studies. Instead, she wants to know what sexuality means to the thousands of people who completed her survey. Her survey tilts the question of meaning by positing that there might be a connection between sexuality and spirituality and asking her respondents what they think.
An overwhelming majority agreed with her hunch: in answering the question "In what ways is sex more than physical?" 86% of the respondents said that sex also involves love, romance, and mystical union. 75% said sex intensifies their inner vitality; 67% said sex needs to be spiritual to be satisfying; 59% said their spiritual beliefs open them to risk deeper intimacy. 47% said they've experienced God during sexual ecstasy; and 45% said they've experienced sexual energy during spiritual ecstasy.
The most fundamental finding of the survey is that "sex is more than just a physical experience. ISIS women say sex touches their minds and hearts as well as their bodies. Some say that sexual experience also touches their souls." (page 18)
This refreshing news from the scientific front confirms what many have always known -- that sex can be one of the most profound human experiences, and that it is much more than mechanics, plumbing, pheromones and orgasms. The survey respondents indicate that for them, sexual response is multidimensional; erotic satisfaction is primarily experienced in the context of relationship; and connecting sexuality and spirituality promotes personal and cultural healing.
This book also emphasizes a very significant point mostly overlooked in the scientific study of sexuality: "sexual experience involves much more than intercourse, more than genital stimulation, more than arousal or orgasm or even physical attraction." (page 18, emphasis mine) It is easier to quantify frequency of sexual intercourse and numbers of orgasms; it is far more challenging to capture the nuanced complexity of human sexual experience.
This is a wonderful book, full of wisdom and wit and the full-bodied belief that all women are entitled to the sexuality they desire. Page after page show ways in which mature human sexuality far outpaces the efforts of Cosmo and cable TV to package it. Ogden's thesis that sexuality and spirituality are parts of human wholeness is life-affirming and refreshing. It changes the focus of discussion from sexual dysfunction to erotic satisfaction, from "am I normal?" to "what would I like today?"
I've written before that we live in a society that is simultaneously obsessed with sex -- and sexually repressed. The understanding of sex most expressed in the media (and believed by most of us) is that sex is a kind of performance, to be done in a particular way (as demonstrated by Jenna Jameson in her latest porno) -- and always involves intercourse and orgasms. If there isn't intercourse, it wasn't sex. (cf. Bill Clinton's immortal words: "I did not have sex with that woman.")
The performance view of sexuality, that there are normative behaviors which should take place, puts enormous burdens on men and women to constrict their natural sexual behavior within a culturally-constructed Procrustean bed of quasi-scientific notions, media hype and porno/romance novel fictions.
While we are inundated with sexual imagery through advertising and the media, our cultural/political/social climate does not encourage open and honest communication about sexuality, erotic experience and human desire. It is no surprise that the offices of sex therapists and counselors around the country are filled with persons struggling with what they perceive as "low desire", who have difficulty achieving orgasms or erections, or premature ejaculation. A frequently-heard euphemism, from women as well as men is "I have difficulty performing." When it's all about performance, and the criteria for performance are media-driven and/or fictional, and it's not okay to talk with each other about our sexual selves, the stage is set for a national pandemic of performance anxiety about our sexuality.
Gina Ogden's book is a cool drink of water on a very hot day, a chat with a very wise friend and guide about the wondrous complexity and possibility of sexuality. While this book is written primarily to and for women (Gina, we want to hear what those 684 men had to say!) men can profit greatly from reading it as well. Men's sexuality and spirituality are woefully split and we yearn for wholeness and integration too.
After a powerful introduction in which she makes clear that sexuality for women is far broader than a simple tabulation of partners, intercourse experiences and orgasms, Ogden offers a compelling guide to readers who wish to explore and broaden their sexual experience. Sprinkled throughout the text are quotes from many of the letters she received from the ISIS survey respondents.
The second part of the book draws on a multitude of avenues to enriching sexual experience: understanding the chakra system; tantric approaches to breath and energy exchange; the use of ceremony to deepen intimate experience; and making peace with the wounds of the past.
This is a book I will certainly be recommending to my clients. Gina Ogden has provided us with a great gift in her articulate and soulful exploration of the wondrous landscape of human sexual experience.