A Review of Sacred Pleasure by Riane Eisler

By Spring Cascade and Zhahai Stewart

Originally published in Loving More #13 in 1998

Those of us who are interested in and practicing loving more are not willing to let society dictate the way we live. We've taken a look at monogamy, and decided not to be limited by conventional morality. The rules that would keep us from living fully and rejoicing in our sexuality don't make sense to us, so we move beyond them.

Personally, however, I've had a feeling that expending too much time and energy on sex and relationships is somehow selfish, because I really should be spending time on things that are more useful socially. Societal training would have me believe that too much pleasure is hedonism, and hedonism is irresponsible.

So it's a breath of fresh air to come across a book like Sacred Pleasure. Riane Eisler doesn't specifically address polyamory, but it fits. She presents a view of sex as a positive force that is integral to our spirituality and desire for human connection. She analyses attitudes towards sexuality, choice and hierarchy from prehistory to the present in a way that can help us see clearly how sexual oppression is linked to gender, race and other oppression. She believes that, contrary to what we have been taught, sexuality is not a hindrance but rather a help in the quest for higher consciousness and more culturally and socially evolved forms of organization.

This is wonderful. Here's someone who holds views that are similar to mine, who stresses equality, partnership, working together, finding a way to take care of everyone. And she not only proclaims the importance of sex in spirituality, but also shows how the devaluing of pleasure is linked to fear and control.

Eisler presents two models for organizing human relations and sexuality, and writes about the dynamic tension between them. The dominator paradigm is based on hierarchy, fear, control and pain. The male is ranked over the female, and organizations tend to reinforce the power of a superior over his inferiors, using pain and the threat of pain to elicit obedience. The highest power is the power to dominate and destroy.

The partnership model is based on equality, on sharing, on the joy of giving and receiving pleasure freely. There is mutual respect and freedom of choice. The highest power is the power to give, nurture and illuminate life. Eisler believes that moving towards the partnership model is critical if we are to succeed in handling the ecological, political and economic crises that face us.

She understands that societies have varying mixtures of the dominator and partnership models, but believes that in prehistoric times there was less hierarchy, and that erotic rites were a celebration of life, love and pleasure. She writes about the sacred sexual images of Paleolithic Art, images celebrating the return of life each spring, the Sacred Marriage, giving birth. Our understanding of these images was obscured by scholars who didn't consider women important, and didn't understand the paintings because they didn't contain the images of men and hunting that the scholars expected to find. The author talks about the socially complex and technologically advanced Minoan civilization, which was more peaceful and egalitarian than contemporary civilizations, with artwork that provides testimony to a free and joyful attitude toward sex and a free and high status for women.

Eisler comments that the sacred images of earlier partnership-oriented societies are images of eroticism and tenderness. They are very different from the sacred images of dominator-oriented societies, which focus mostly on the infliction of pain: pictures and sculptures of battles, bloody feuds, or crucifixion and martyrdom.

Early in the book she describes the sexual behavior of bonobos, which are a species of primate similar to chimpanzees and just as close to us. The bonobos tend to be peaceful and gregarious, and do a good deal of food sharing. They develop bonds based on sexual sharing, and may engage in sexual activity when they arrive at a food supply. Eisler speculates that this is intended to defuse tensions. She sees this as "an evolutionary movement toward sex as a means of reinforcing social relations based on the give and take of shared sensual pleasure rather than coercion and fear." This is the concept of building human connections and avoiding excessive competition or violence through a pleasure bond.

She traces the history of dominance oriented cultures from the pastoral nomads who displaced and destroyed early cultures, through a discussion of Athens as a slave society with seemingly routine brutality, to the pathological masochism encouraged by the medieval Catholic Church, to current violence portrayed by movies and popular culture. She explains how fear and the linking of sex and violence helps the dominator culture remain in control. It inhibits the pleasure bond between people and reinforces the idea that hierarchy is natural and inevitable.

I am very interested in her concept that social and personal transformation revolves around how we image our bodies, who has the power to define these images, and how we touch and are touched. Rewarding the power to inflict pain on the body supports the dominator model, whereas rewarding the power to give it pleasure supports the partnership model. This helps me see my efforts to make my own sexual choices and support others in their own choices as part of a larger struggle for a partnership oriented society. It also fits with my speculation that the religious hierarchy has fostered sex negative attitudes because people who rejoice in an open, accepting sexuality are much harder to control.

Eisler argues for developing a coherent system of ethical standards appropriate for a partnership rather than dominator world. This requires looking at our intimate (including sexual) relations in terms of what is fair, caring and ethical, rather than in terms of what is moral or immoral. As she points out, religious "morality" has been used to impose external controls on people and justify the denial of family planning and the subjugation of women. A partnership ethic, on the other hand, involves the equal valuing of the needs and desires of all humans.

Those of us who have embraced polyamory are already breaking the standards of our society. For polyamory to work as a healthy, life-affirming alternative, we need to develop our own personal standards. We need to make clear and thoughtful choices if we want to create relationships that support us to be creative and conscious humans. By being open about our relationships, we are already affirming the positive nature of our actions. I think it will help us become stronger and encourage society to become more accepting if we examine the ideas presented in Sacred Pleasure, and develop our own thoughts about ethical behavior.

Riane Eisler writes about oppression in our society. She does not mention enforced monogamy as an oppression, but if we look at the oppressions of a dominator culture, we see that monogamy, enforced by law, is about reducing our choices and labeling us as sinful if we don't follow the conventional morality. It is as oppressive as negative attitudes about same gender sexuality, or limitations imposed on people because of their gender, race, or the class they were born into. This is not to say that polyamory is any better or worse than monogamy; what matters is to be free to make the decisions that suit us.

Eisler's attitudes about sexuality are clear. She writes that a partnership ethic "would teach boys and girls that while sex itself is not obscene, what is obscene is exploitive, degrading, and hurtful sex, and that sexual violence is not a mark of manliness but of meanness. It would help girls and boys see their own bodies with more reverence and respect, and thus also require it from others." Choice is important. When and with whom we choose to make love, and the gender of our partner, are personal decisions rather than moral issues. It's easy to extend this to the number of our lovers.

Eisler tells us that the way we imagine our personal and social paths has a profound effect on our lives and the lives of others. When we learn to experience the erotic as sacred, we start to recognize the faces of the Holy in our friends and lovers, and become more at ease in our bodies. She believes that feeling our bodies and intimate relations as sacred is "one of the most important building blocks for a new partnership spirituality: one in which sacred pleasure rather than redemptive suffering is idealized."

My one disappointment is that I was hoping for more ideas on how to bring about a partnership society. However, the book gave me a lot to think about. In particular, I see it as an encouragement to live the way we want, and to develop the types of relationships that sustain us.

The partnership ethic is a wonderful inspiration as we look at alternatives and try to discover the types of families and relationships that are most fulfilling for us. Our sex-positive attitudes and explorations of unconventional ways of relating are part of a broader movement to regain control of our own lives and create a society that benefits everyone.

-Spring Cascade and Zhahai Stewart

©1998 Elaine Cook and Zhahai Stewart

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