The Sexy Spirit
Sex therapist Gina Ogden had known for years that sexuality and spirituality are connected. But when she did a national survey of almost 4,000 women and men on their attitudes toward sex, she was amazed at how strong that connection actually is for so many. She has published the results of her "Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality" (ISIS) survey in her book The Heart and Soul of Sex: Making the ISIS Connection. Ogden spoke to Beliefnet about getting past the "cultural missionary position," growing sexually through the decades, and why God has a place in the bedroom.

What is the relationship between sex and spirituality?
I find so often as a counselor and an educator [that] it really is about shifting your belief system about what marriage is, and what sex is, and what spirituality is. All of these are loaded terms because we've been trained in this culture to see spirituality as very separate from sex.

Spirituality is about being good, it's about being holy, it's about attending worship services, etc. Sex, the way the culture frames it, is a dirty word, and particularly for women. It's not okay for a woman to feel lusty, to feel open, to really love sex. So the first thing I would go over with couples who were planning to be married is to be able to understand that sexuality is part of our spirituality. In fact, spirituality is also part of our sexuality. You can't remove the piece called sex from all that we are as human beings and as married beings and still have a whole picture.

How do you explain to couples that sex has spiritual aspects beyond procreation?
There are certain religious belief systems that say, "Go forth and multiply." That's part of fulfilling the commandments of the Lord. In my nationwide survey of 4,000 people on sexuality and spirituality, I found that it wasn't so much sex being one thing and spirituality (i.e. God's command) being another so much as it was a whole picture of our sexual response involving our bodies, involving our emotions, what we feel about sex, what goes on whether we're sad, mad, glad, scared, or extremely joyous.

Also, we always have to remember the messages we've gotten probably as children, and certainly as adults, that good girls don't...or do they? It's a double-message of our culture that says sex is dirty, save it for the one you love. How do we put that together?

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What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about marital sex?
Let's say a couple has had sex before marriage, has perhaps been living together for weeks, months, or even years. What happens when you finally make that commitment? What is marriage? For most people it's a public commitment to be faithful, to be monogamous with one another, to really focus on one another and stay there through thick and thin, sickness and health, and to pool their resources, whether those are money, parenting skills with children, or sexual feelings. What I've found so often happens with couples who've been happily living together, suddenly it's, "Oh my God, I have this performance thing that is put on me, things are going to change once I've made this public commitment and announcement, things will never be the same." We can't just relax into our sexual pleasures. We somehow have to do something different.

If I am the man, I have to take charge because that's what men are supposed to do. If I'm the woman, there's a lot of baggage in our culture that goes along with marriage that says that men are supposed to be on top. I call it the "cultural missionary position," where it's not okay for women to be equal anymore. Women somehow have less say. So couples can get scared that this is going to be the setup that things are going to change. In preparing for marriage, again I say that you may need to get beyond the cultural norm that says men are bigger, better, stronger than women and that women really don't want sex, women are "the weaker sex," we're not equal.

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What about couples who have saved themselves for marriage?
I would say, go gentle into that good night. Be very gentle with one another, because there is so much loaded on you about sexual function, sexual dysfunction, who does what to whom, and what is appropriate, and how many orgasms you're supposed to have. I would say, allow yourself to love each other, and allow the love to come out physically, and emotionally, and spiritually as well. Let each other know how much this means to you, and don't look for the benchmarks of sexual success like perfect intercourse, perfect orgasm, and above all, know that sex is much more than intercourse or orgasm or procreation. It's about your body, mind, heart, and soul—you're in it for a long life together, and that is part of the spirituality of it, your commitment.

How do you interpret studies that show that sexual dysfunction is high in society in different forms?
There have indeed been studies done—all of them have been done on a very limited notion of what sex is. These studies that say, for instance, that almost half of women are dysfunctional, in other words that we don't want sex, we're not interested in sex, and we don't do it well, we're not satisfied even when we do. These are based on just a few questions about successful intercourse: how many times you come to orgasm, how many times you have intercourse a week—in other words, what the researchers can count and measure. But if you think about your sexuality in terms of feelings, thoughts, and what it means to you, sex is a whole lot more than we can count or measure.

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What is the "ISIS wheel," and how does it help couples?
The ISIS wheel is an acronym for my survey, which was "Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality." When I looked at all of the responses, including the 1,500 letters that people wrote, I had to find a way that I could put them all together. They fell together in a kind of medicine wheel pattern. [A medicine wheel, which originated in Native American communities, is a round stone marked with spiritually-symbolic symbols.] One of the practical ways that couples can walk the ISIS wheel, or work the ISIS wheel, is literally through that awareness of placing themselves in its four quadrants—body, mind, heart or emotions, and spirit. But another way that they can look at it is that most of us spend most of our time somewhere on the perimeter of that wheel. "Sex is meaningful, but it's not that meaningful. It's emotional and fun, but it doesn't open our hearts totally, or it's physically pleasant, but after a few hours we can do it again." I talk about how couples can move into the wheel toward the center, where maybe all of those emotions and physical yearnings and spiritual yearnings and ideas meet in the center. Where sometimes sex is transformative, it feels magical; it is a place of divinity.

It's no surprise that at those moments we say, "Oh, God, oh, God" in bedrooms all over the country, people are crying out, "Oh, God!" They're not crying out, "Oh, Devil!" So I remind people that our sexuality is sacred. It's part of our birthright, part of our commitment. It's part of our breathing. ... We need to broaden our definitions of sex beyond those few things scientists know how to count and measure, and understand that there's a mystical element to it that we need to honor. That is what draws us to one another and helps us stay together in the long term, even though we may think, "It would be nice to have a younger lover," or, "That rock star is so cute." There is that emotional, spiritual element that draws us as partners to be together through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse—and that's the marriage commitment. That is the sacred marriage.

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How would you use your ISIS wheel in a couples therapy session?
I ask couples to imagine that they're standing in a big circle, which is divided into more or less equal quarters. One of the quarters is body, one is mind, one is heart or emotions, and one is spirit. I tell couples to speak from each of those quadrants. So when you get a picture of, say, a man who's saying, "I want to have sex 12 times a week," and the woman is saying, "Well, that doesn't feel good to me," the man will usually be standing in the quadrant of physical, and the woman may be standing in the emotional place. What she may really be saying is, "Honey, I want you to look at me when we have intercourse. I want you to talk to me about your feelings. I don't want you just to hump me and then roll over and go to sleep. We need to have some more connection here."

Then, I would ask them to become exquisitely aware that sex is more than just physical and just performance. So I would ask them to speak from the emotional place, from the mind place, from the place where maybe the guy is saying, "I was told that the only way to be virile and to be a man was to score—50 times a week wouldn't be too much for me." And the woman may be in the place of saying, "I've been told that I'm a 'loose woman' if I have that much sex." So you begin to get that discrepancy between the couple. But if they can discuss where they're coming from, and what messages they grew up with and are saluting to in the present, then they can come to a more reasoned outcome.

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What do you tell couples where one member is more spiritually oriented than the other?
If somebody is closing themselves to spirit, you can't just bonk them on the head and say, "Open up!" I would say that in preparing for a marriage, it's important that you find some measure of compatibility about your spiritual values.

At the same time, we have to honor that spirituality has many faces, and that going to church or believing in a certain manifestation of divinity is not all that counts. So like sexuality, I think we've measured our spirituality by how many times we go to church, and that isn't always the useful measure. There has been very interesting brain research that is really just coming into its own that shows that on sexual stimulation, every part of the brain lights up—the part that has to do with spiritual and religious ecstasy as well as the part that has to do with physical gratification. So whether or not we're aware that sex is spiritual, or that we're being "spiritual," we probably are. There's been other brain research—I call it "love research,"—that shows the biochemical roots of how we reach out and love. Stimulated from the brain, certain neurotransmitters ... go through our bodies, so if somebody is "not spiritual," we may need to [ask], "Are they depressed? Is there something from their childhood they're holding onto? Do they have some self-image negativity going on?" It's so complex when you begin to get into the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Let me sum it up by saying that we are hardwired to connect sexuality and spirituality.

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What happens to a relationship over time when sex is stuck in the "performance-only" mode?
What I mean by the performance-only mode is only having 12-minute intercourse on Friday night, period, without any eye contact. That may be over-stating it, but you get the picture. When you're in those patterns that don't change, it has a ripple effect all through the relationship, and the relationship becomes stuck. She always does the dishes; he always mows the lawn. She always takes care of the children; he always puts the money in the bank. When you get into that kind of rigid role-playing, what happens 10 years, 20 years, 30 years into your relationships is stagnancy. It's as if your body can't move anymore. You begin to get arthritis. You see people walking around who are bent over and stiff, and it's the same thing with couples. You see them in restaurants; they're not talking to each other. They order each other's meals, they become totally predictable, and ultimately either they end up hating each other and hating themselves, or they end up having affairs or getting divorced, or making alliances with their children against one another, their friends against one another.

The real juice of their lives is outside of their relationship. It's in their jobs, or it's in their friends, or their golf games, or they sit endlessly in front of the television and triangulate the relationship in that way. In good, long, healthy lives, people grow and change, and our sexuality needs to grow and change. In our 50s and 60s, we may not be able to perform intercourse they way we used to. He may not be getting big, hard erections. She may have entered menopause and her vaginal secretions aren't what they used to be. But there's more to sex than intercourse and performance. In my survey, the women and men who said they connected their sexuality and spirituality also said their sexual satisfaction gets greater with every decade. The 60-year-olds, the 70-year-olds, even the 80-year-olds, are more satisfied than the 30-year-olds. This flies in direct conflict with what medical people are telling us and what pharmaceutical companies are telling us, and that is that sex goes downhill after the age of 30 or so, and you'd better get medicated, you'd better get counseling—there's something wrong with you. I say there's nothing wrong with you if you're connecting on all cylinders—body, mind, heart and soul. There is no reason why you cannot grow sexually and happily into the sunset of your years.

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Is there room for the occasional "quickie" in a spiritual sex life?
Oh, yeah! If you really think on spirit, the changes happen in the wink of an eye. A quickie can be just as spiritual, just as enlightening, just as invigorating as an hours-long tantric session. What I'm saying again goes back to the ISIS wheel—body, mind, heart, and spirit. Sometimes you're both really in that physical lust place, and you just need to "do" each other, and that's the closeness right there.

You talk in the book about women who can achieve orgasm just by thinking of a particular image. Is "thinking" a less spiritually sexual activity?
For some of these women, it was just about opening up their crown chakras and allowing spirit to, in an instant, connect with their root chakras so that their whole beings opened up. They experience that as orgasm, they called it, "thinking off." So there's nothing unspiritual about sex except what culture puts onto us and tells us is dirty. And there's nothing unspiritual about sex except if we disconnect it from the rest of our being and we start using sex for power over somebody—power over a woman or, for women, seductive power over a man, usually emotional seduction. So sexuality, sexual energy is spiritual energy. If you can imagine that and take the cultural overlay out of it, there is no difference. Our sexual and spiritual energy are one—it's how we choose to use it. So as long as you're using your sexual energy for growth and for good, then your sexual energy is spiritual. Enjoy it—it's fun!
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