What does it mean for sex to be fulfilling? Is it based on orgasm? Is it about performance? Emotional closeness? Comfort? Escape? Sex can be all of these things and none of them, but for some people, sex occurs on a different existential plane. It’s not about the body, a partner or getting off — instead, it’s a “religious” experience, and a rapturous communication with the divine.
“To me, there is no part of sex that’s not religious,” John Metta, a writer in Oregon, tells me. “The entirety of sex is a communion. It’s an actual manifestation of God itself.” Metta is quick to point out that for him, it’s not the Christian “God” that makes him feel this way — it’s something he interprets as a “force of life.” This is true for many people who associate sex with spirituality, i.e., they use definitions that stretch far beyond those of organized religion. But in either case, the result is the same — either sex brings on feelings of spirituality, or spirituality brings on feelings of desire.
There’s a fair amount of research to support this. Between 1997 and 1998, sexologist Gina Ogden conducted a survey of 3,810 people — 82 percent of whom were women — on the topic of integrating sexuality and spirituality. It was an attempt to broaden the clinical understanding of women’s desire. As she later wrote in the book Sexual Health, sex is often viewed reductively as nothing more than a physical process conducted through genital stimulation. Such a performance-oriented viewpoint isn’t only limiting, but incorrect. As Ogden and many others have observed, female desire isn’t solely geared toward orgasm and genital friction — it’s also informed by a range of past experiences and contemporary beliefs, many of which can be spiritual in nature.
To investigate this further, Ogden asked participants to gauge their agreement with statements like, “For me, sex is much more than intercourse; it involves all of me — body, mind, heart and soul,” and “It’s through my senses that I often experience God.” The survey also asked whether participants ever included symbols and rituals associated with religious practices in their sexual lives (candles and music, for example); under what conditions they reported connecting sex and spirituality (like being pregnant or in love); and asked them to report their experiences of “sexual or spiritual ecstasy.”
Eighty-eight percent of respondents reported having felt sexual ecstasy, which they described in reverent terms that bordered on the divine, a la “love and altruism towards the world,” “a sense of oneness and unity,” “awesome beauty,” a “sense of timelessness” and “ego-loss.” Meanwhile, 67 percent reported experiencing spiritual ecstasy, which elicited nearly identical feelings. Notably, nearly half of participants said they’d experienced an intertwining of both — for them, physical sex was a “direct path to God,” and spirituality was a “path to physical pleasure.”
Exactly how this manifested varied. Many participants revealed encounters with entities they described as “energetic” or “divine” during sex. “Some identified these beings as angels, trees, sun, moon or star-born beings,” Ogden wrote. “Others identified them as Christ, Shiva, God, Goddess, the hand of God, the eye of God or the voice of God. Others wrote that they recognized beings from what they intuited were prior lifetimes — a lover from ancient Greece or a Wild West saloon.”
There were also a variety of methods through which these encounters occurred — some happened via masturbation or intercourse, while others happened via prayer or meditation. Regardless, they were sexual in nature, and yielded feelings like “a sense of understanding and purpose.” Many participants even described these events utilizing the same language of religious ecstasy, calling them “sacred” or “holy.” Per Ogden, this is no mistake — from Celtic May Day to Chinese Taoism, forms of sexuality have been built into religious ceremonies for centuries, and they continue to inform the rituals and practices of religion today.
Significantly, Ogden’s observations were consistent with findings in neuroscience. In 1999, sexologists Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk performed brain scans on 10 women “during vaginal and cervical self-stimulation and orgasm.” According to Ogden, they found that multiple areas of the brain lit up while women were in the throes of pleasure, particularly the amygdala, which controls emotional response, and the temporal lobe, which controls religious ecstasy. To Ogden, this implied that humans may be “hardwired” to experience sexual and spritual ecstasy in the same way.
A variety of other studies back this up. In one, from 2016, researchers performed brain scans on Mormons as they read portions of the Bible or watched church-produced videos. During the moments when participants reported “feeling the Spirit,” portions of their brain’s reward centers were active. These neutral pathways were the same ones responsible for the positive feelings associated with sex. Meanwhile, according to another 2016 study in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a dose of oxytocin was found to increase spiritual and religious sentiments in men. Given that the chemical is released during sex and orgasm, it’s plausible that sex could induce spiritual feelings, too.
That said, a sexual-spiritual experience doesn’t have to include sex as it’s traditionally known, either. “It’s about coming together,” explains Metta. “When we hug, when we run our fingers through one another’s hair, when we push the energy of God through the air with sound using words, that brings the pieces together.” More simply put, it’s not necessarily sex that can bring on feelings of sprituality, it’s any form of intimacy that feels good.
For Alejandro, a 24-year-old in Michigan, it was a heavenly combination of nature, isolation and horniness that brought them closer to God. After bucking their Catholic upbringing and developing an unhealthy relationship with sex, they started practicing celibacy and mindful masturbation while cultivating a better relationship with the natural world. “I pray when I’m in the woods,” they tell me. “I feel very spiritual in nature, and it’s good for my spirit to be in touch with it.”
One night, during a recent trip to the forests around Yellowstone, they were sitting in their car, taking in the nature around them when the urge hit. Confident they were alone, they started to masturbate. “It was really nice, and it immediately felt different to hear the woods outside my car just breathing and being alive at night,” they explain. “It felt like this overwhelming presence all around me. I actually stopped because it was such a new sensation to feel like there was something there with me, almost like the woods themselves were cuddling me. It felt like the forest itself was holding me and keeping me safe. It was truly one of the most notable climaxes I’ve had.”
Partnered sex can feel just as holy. Ogden’s survey included a number of written responses from participants, many of whom described their sexual-religious experiences in rapturous terms. “From the first time we had sex, it wasn’t sex,” a homemaker in Florida told Ogden of her relationship with her husband of 15 years. “It first was like a normal thermometer and when I had a climax the mercury broke. I ended up floating up in outer space and I could see my utter essence, my soul, transcend as reaching out onward, onward until there was utter darkness then a bursting of light.” She also reported consistently seeing “auras,” or colors radiating off herself and her partner, during sex.
“It’s as if the auras from our souls join in spiritual union,” she continued. “The complete colors, the oneness is so complete, that now I don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins. There is also a oneness with nature and with an outside great spirit. It’s all-encompassing. It’s physical, sexual, spiritual — everything.”
Such an attitude toward sex can be therapeutic, as it broadens people’s perspectives of what sex can be. “I’ve found that understanding these connections can help some clients release the physical and emotional tension that keeps them from opening to their deepest sexual desires,” Ogden wrote. “They can understand that separating sex and spirit has been built into the culture over the centuries, and represents a kind of social control that’s beyond their power to change. This has allowed some clients to stop blaming themselves for sexual pathology and focus on the aspects of sexual pleasure to which they are most drawn.”
Precisely how people experience the connection between spirituality and sexuality can vary, though. For those like Metta, it requires intentionality. To him, sex is inherently spiritual, and ought to be treated as such. But for others, like Alejandro, it’s something to be stumbled upon, a spontaneous occurrence to be enjoyed in unexpected moments. As Ogden’s survey shows, this is all part of the complicated web of elements that make up our relationship with desire.
It makes sense: If we already understand sex to be more than purely physical — that is, mental and emotional, too — then something as fundamental to many people’s worldview as spirituality may certainly inform sex, too.