Review: The Red Thread of Passion

by David Guy

Reviewed by John Ballew

What makes sex sacred? Is "sacred sex" just a synonym for "fabulous sex?" Or is sex intrinsically sacred, regardless of our efforts?

Perhaps it is the coming of the millennium that accounts for our culture's seemingly resurgent interest in spirituality the past several years. Similarly, the way that our society has trivialized sex --repressing it in some ways, exploiting it's commercial potential in others--has led to an increased interest in the possible connection between sexuality and the holy. Playboy Home Video, for instance, offers something called "Tantric Lovemaking." I haven't seen the video, but I'm willing to bet that few tantrikas would recognize themselves in this production. In the late 1990s, Tantra has become a synonym for hot sex.

Into this exchange comes David Guy, a writer living in North Carolina, who has produced a book that both describes his own pursuit for the sexual transcendent and investigates the perspectives of other writers, teachers and sexual healers. His style is conversational and unpretentious--a welcome change from many other writers about spiritual approaches to sexuality.

The book's title comes from a koan formulated by a Chinese monk named Sung-yuan: "Why is it that even the most clear-eyed monk cannot sever the red thread of passion between his legs?" Guy never mentions that red threads are given at Buddhist initiations as a symbol, a token, to be worn until it falls off. This red thread suggests a blessing, while the thread of the koan suggests something else: a problem or a trial, perhaps. Intended or not, this image of thread as blessing, thread as challenge reinforces the theme of sexual paradox. I admit I sometimes have a chip on my shoulder regarding non-gay writers' explorations of sexuality. Their heterocentrism is often offensive enough to cause me to question whether they have anything truly interesting to say at all. Too, the concerns of straight men often are not identical with the issues of gay men, who often find our sexuality under strain from a majority culture which outlaws our sexual acts and which bans legal recognition of our relationships. More troubling, perhaps, has been the way much of gay culture seems uninterested in introspective thinking about our sexuality: the CDC reports that HIV infection rates are up by half in recent years; a certain lack of honesty within the relationships of gay men often appears the norm. Our defensiveness in the face of majority-culture hostility seems to have injured our community's capacity for critical thinking. Although Guy mentions no personal experience with same-sex desire, he approaches his topic with sufficient humility to develop a certain credibility even among gay readers. His exploration of Walt Whitman's sexuality, for instance, is nuanced and sophisticated; he neither ignores Whitman's same-sex attractions, nor allows him to become a sentimentalized gay icon. Guy includes several other gay or bisexual writers and thinkers among his meandering explorations.

Author/pornographer Marco Vassi is examined for his perspectives on personal and impersonal sex and something he calls "metasex," which Vassi distinguishes from procreation and identifies as "for pleasure, for exchanging energy, for money, for communication and exploration, for meditation." Vassi proposed a metasexual ethic characterized by "no exploitation, no lying, and no damage." These are useful points of contemplation for gay men seeking to establish a practical and thoughtful gay sexual ethic.

Collin Brown and Selah Martha, directors of the Body Electric School, talk about their lives, their bisexual relationship and their work as erotic educators. (Disclosure note: I am an instructor for the school.) Brown and Martha's comments about experiencing epiphanies through the body are useful ones. Looking at the Body Electric School through Guy's heterosexual fascinations, however, seemed to me not to get at the power and magic that thousands of gay men have experienced through the institution in the past 15 years, nor the uniqueness of it. Given that, Guy's chapter on Body Electric founder and EroSpirit Institute director Joseph Kramer was a pleasant surprise. Kramer is a genius whose creative work has arguably had an unmatched impact on the erotic lives and the body-centered spirituality of gay men and others. Guy offers one of the best summaries I've yet read of Kramer's approach to ecstatic sexuality, the wisdom of the body and the sacred. He includes Kramer's step-by-step instructions for achieving high erotic states and transforming sexuality. Kramer's energetic approach to sexuality is explained in an accessible manner that echoes the essence of Kramer's own teaching. Sex workers Carol Queen and Juliet Anderson provide insights into the world of sex-for-money. Many White Crane readers may be especially interested in Anderson, who is an erotic masseuse, and her connection of erotic energy and meditation. Both women clearly understand themselves to be sexual healers, and they approach their work with humor, insight and compassion.

And so, finally, we return to the koan and this discomforting red thread. To his credit, Guy offers good questions rather than answers. Is there a correct use of sexuality? What is the connection between sexuality and the ego? Between sex and anxiety? The questions are as relevant to gay men as to other human beings. We have questions of our own: What are the benefits and costs of choosing either monogamous or open styles of relating? Who is responsible for keeping sex "safer?" When does recreational sex become compulsive or escapist? What difference does it make in human relationships if the partners are two men, two women or a woman and a man? Sex is certainly full of paradox at times. A friend recently reminded me that "paradox" comes from Greek words meaning two glories side by side. Is there ever a greater paradox than sexuality, source of some of our greatest joys and deepest wounds? David Guy's book is an entertaining and enlightening addition to the conversation.

John R. Ballew, M.S., is a licensed professional counselor and certified massage therapist in private practice in Atlanta. He is also an instructor for the Body Electric School. He can be reached via the web at