Sex Church film
I spent much of the last year researching "Sacred Sexuality," looking for an sensual spiritual place or time or community. I didn't really find anything. I found bits of things - a dark room, some books, nice folks, expensive teachers.
Now I'm in grad school, taking a film class. I had to come up with three short film ideas. I thought about the power of film to create momentary realities. I thought I might make a film about a sex church. Here's what came of that - here's the film, followed by a self-critique.
Filmmaker: Justin Hall - Date: 17 November 2004
Title: Sex Church - Project No: 3
INTENT: (How you want to affect us)
I want to share my search for intimacy. "Sex Church" is a recounting of some efforts I made to find a sacred context for human touch.
I've been researching sacred touch, sacred sexuality for about a year; when I last became single, I wanted to find a healthy way to get the nourishment and stimulation that comes from intimacy without the procedural attachments. The attachments can be a rich part of intimacy, of course, but I was curious to see if there might be explicitly celestial entanglements that could bind intimate physical relationships.
That search took me to some curious places; I kept a journal at www.links.net/sex. When I was thinking of short film ideas for this class, I thought about the power of film to make visions tangible. In his book The Red Thread: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex, David Guy provides a number of mini-biographies of writers and artists who worked to develop alternate visions for human sexuality. They used their craft to reach towards utopian living. That's something I've done with regards to technology; I work to promote personal expression on the internet with many of the articles I've written as a freelancer. Why not take the same approach to sacred sexuality? If there's a sex church I want to join, and I can't find it, why not write it up, film it, see it realized on-screen?
Well, as it turns out, there's a good reason "why not": that being, I still don't know what that "sex church" would look like. Even after months of study, with teachers, tantrikas, meditation, rituals, books and movies. This is a self-crit about a film, not a personal spiritual exegesis, but in short, I've sampled many of the world's spiritual traditions but I've never found any conclusive truth other than "be good to people." That's a hard thing around which to build strong visual images. I couldn't figure out how to script a ritual around "be nice" where people would end up touching each other in a way I found compelling.
I interviewed folks from Northern California who had participated in different sorts of modern spiritual rituals, some sexual/sensual. They reported a mix of spiritual influences - Hindu/Tantra, Pagan/Celtic, general New Age. Drawing on that mélange of mysticism, I figured I would just find my appropriate spiritual leader actress and work out a proper ceremony with her. Los Angeles would have plenty of props for whatever we wanted to put together. I would give some measure of control of the ritual to someone with some preferences. Gather enough parishioners together, give them roles to play, objects to wield, and a few hours on a shag carpet, and I should be able to get some compelling ritual footage out of it.
Besides, I was planning to have a soundtrack of a voice over by a participant, so I didn't need to record all the sound of the shoot. Talking to Professor Gray had encouraged me to frame the film as a sort of fake documentary - create a vision by portraying the participants in this world I was imagining. The soundtrack would be interviews with participants as footage of the sensual services was mingled with b-roll from their daily lives.
Most of my ideas about the film were shots I wanted to get - moving the camera over intertwingled, prone bodies; all permutations of people kissing, hands and fingers interlaced. And break-out interviews with individuals, asking them why and how they participated. Basically, I wanted actors who would improvise this setting according to some loose rules. I felt confident of my ability to arrange appropriate moments once I had the people.
But I didn't have any core idea of how this service would work, and that made it hard to recruit participants. My casting call for a film called "Sex Church" did not get a lot of takers. Professor Suissa gave me some suggestion to emphasize intimacy more than sensuality, and I did get a terrific response to a film called "Ritual Romance". Hundreds of head shots! People saying, yes, I'd like to be your cult leader. Yes, cast me as the vulnerable, searching male lead. I struggled to imagine one of these strong-jawed men who were each straining to project confidence in their headshots sharing my words about my search for sacred sexuality. I tried to imagine asking one of these aspiring actresses to improvise a romantic ritual for twelve. And then casting the extras! Please be prepared to lay around wordless for hours using feathers to explore divine touch. Yeesh.
Casting was daunting. Frankly, I lost my nerve. I was trying to do something too unusual in too short a time. I thought I might look for porn actors who were comfortable with nudity, if not with intimacy. Instead, a volunteer leader offered herself up off of Craig's List; and it seemed to be the perfect solution.
Widow Centauri: a supremely-confident-sounding dominatrix-turned-comedian, and sex educator, she stepped right into the role of the group leader. She said yes to every question I asked her, she was eager to help plan, she had friends who would show up, she had few boundaries about nudity or sexuality. I felt so immediately relaxed, I went about writing my script for all the voiceovers, how the characters might respond to a ritual I expected her to concoct. I was able to write out all the thought-processes the characters might have had that would lead them into this sacred sex session, I just couldn't imagine the session itself.
The night before, I had a feeling I wasn't going to find the lead actor I needed in whatever motley crew emerged from Widow's rolodex. I filmed myself talking about my hopes and aspirations for the shoot. I had become almost completely fixated on Peter Greenaway's stunning film The Pillow Book, about a calligrapher-lover who finds text on skin to be the height of sensuality. His movie layers images and text, picture in picture, varying opacities and image foreshadowing to create a deeply sensual series of moving pictures. While I had no idea what a sex church service might look like, I knew exactly what the film about that sex church service would look like - it would look like The Pillow Book.
The next day, our enthusiasm didn't quite pan out. About three of her six committed participants cancelled within 12 hours of the shoot. I had no back up performers scheduled. We were left with a total of three actors; Widow, her fortunately agreeable and helpful friend Sallie, and a talkative older gentleman Michael whose belly had served as the model for the cave troll in the first Harry Potter movie. He was pleased to show us his pocket full of generic Viagra he'd brought for the ritual.
Fighting desperation and eye-widening misery, I cast myself as the "lead" and had two cameras running as we four worked to create something that could be filmed for footage to create the images I envisioned building in the editing room.
Widow's vision for a ritual was more about the Bondage and Domination, Sadism and Masochism that she was familiar with professionally as a dominatrix, and less about graven images, chanting, waving burning bundles of sage and reading poems, the spiritual soup I was half-expecting. Instead of anything New Age, I was covered head to toe in lube, and zipped into a latex bodybag by two relative strangers. Immobile, unable to speak, breathing through a tube, I had a powerful sensual experience that was the opposite of the sex church I had been vaguely imagining for all these months. I spent ninety minutes in the dark, alone, unable to feel directly or smell the people that were touching me. I was in isolation, being manipulated and treated to an altered state. Maybe I was being punished for my sins. More likely, I was being shown that I could have an intense sacred-ish sexual experience on demand with no planning, but if I wanted something more specific, well I had better be able to put that in my Craig's List posting.
So, now I've created Ed Wood's The Pillow Book. Uneven, improvised, inappropriate, insane. And yet, to my taste, still somehow sensual and at times even sacred. I'm honored that the people who showed up were willing to play along with this scheme. I was touched by Widow's optimism, and frankly blown away by the bodybag experience. And I had a queasy blast making this thing.
SYNOPSIS: (What we see)
A filmmaker's voiceover describes his hopes for shooting a film the next day as the actual events that transpired are edited in a series of layers to undercut and reinforce his message: he doesn't know what he's doing but mostly he likes it.
- Unusual visual effects - certainly better than watching just the talking head of the voice over! The window panes, seeing only the eyes or the mouth, plays some with intimacy, making intimacy and connection attractive but elusive.
- Unscripted raw performances.
- The inclusion of the filmmaker - it makes the piece honest, almost meta-media at moments. A movie about making a movie: how film school!
- I hope it's not too long - I worked hard to trim off about three minutes from this thing after I had a rough cut. I was already begging indulgence with the inclusion of myself in the action, and with the subject matter; I didn't feel comfortable taking too much time from my peers with an overlong film.
- Unusual visual effects - it's not clear that they always serve the story. Why am I watching this guy's mouth move?
- What is the story? The filmmaker's search for sacred sexuality? Yowza. Character, and plot, and motivation are fleeting here, and so connection between the viewer and the action on-screen is hard fought. Perhaps all we're left with is shock.
- Unscripted raw performances. Were these people acting? What just happened on screen? Was there any script? Obviously not. Meandering!
- The inclusion of the filmmaker - was that a cop out? Because it was a weird idea and no one else would play along? Because he couldn't find a better concept to hang his hat on, he just ranted about his perverse predilections and then included unusual footage from a low budget sex party? Ahem.
WHAT I WANT TO LEARN TO DO BETTER IS:
- Most of the time, I don't have a problem with confidence. I tend to do things I believe in, or at least fully participate expecting that there will be some worthwhile results. But here I lost my nerve a bit. I didn't fully commit to this idea in a way that I could recruit the people I needed to help me. It was a difficult challenge - taking on physical intimacy between strangers; asking that from actors. Perhaps as difficult as the concept of a sex church itself.
- I want to learn to write scripts or treatments that explore my more philosophical ideas in more personable detail. Less abstract, more character. I think this film resembles an entry I would write for my web site - exploring some personally important phenomena with layers of meaning and media. If I look at the piece as a sort of a web page, I can be happy with it. It's a personal document. But if I look at this film as an attempt to frame a vision for sacred sexuality, it doesn't quite live up to my ideal. Perhaps my ideal is silly, and that's the lesson I should take away. I think there's some portion of the sacred sexuality puzzle that can be worked out in film; perhaps I need to learn to be more honest with myself about the pieces I do understand, and the pieces I don't understand. Watching a meta-media film like Adaptation, I realize that many brilliant film writers are explicit about their struggles. Talking about my process comes naturally to me - crafting a story about someone other than me is a greater challenge. I would like to learn to use actors to tell a story that's not so directly my story; in order to do that I may have to use Meta-Media techniques to understand what I can describe and what I can't. So maybe it's a film about a guy searching for sacred sexuality - he doesn't have to be me. And maybe he doesn't find what he thinks he wants, but he finds some nice, odd people and some pretty pictures along the way.
I tend to wear my interests front and center, like a loud T-shirt. What are you studying? people asked me this month, and I would reply with a short speech about sacred sexuality.
My friend Lulu was with me for much of this, as I was visiting her in Austin. She tilted her head after one of my speeches, and remarked: sacred sexuality is about life-giving forces. You're studying the spirituality of life-making! And that's a very big question.
It hit me hard - the play I may have envisioned, the casual sharing, the experiments in intimacy I might have craved were tiny compared to the enormity of being a father. Her words resonated strong - there were some longings for fatherhood mixed up in all of my curiosities. All of a sudden what was a casual inquiry after touching with intent was suffused with the mystery of all human creation. It was a staggering moment, a call to maturity. Understanding the context for sexuality - play and the perfect opposite of play, unswerving commitment. Profound mystery and fear.
Later Lulu loaned me a book: Tantrika she hadn't yet read. Promising a tale of "Traveling the Road of Divine Love" the book seemed a perfect follow-up to my last sacred sexuality reading, another tale by a curious wanderer, The Red Thread.
The author, Asra Q. Nomani, has a unique position - Muslim, born in India, raised in the United States. Working for the Wall Street Journal. She begins the book as she's taking up the assignment that established tantra as a phenomenon, and a business - a feature story for the Wall Street Journal. I read as she flitted through the same sorts of meetings and workshops I'm reading about. I admired her bravery, while I doubted or shrugged as she turned away from a
That characterizes the book - the search is so frenetic, so constant, that she'll take us through two towns with fifteen details in one page. Her travels through ashrams and temples in India and Pakistan are loaded with poignant moments and important lessons - she spends a paragraph on what would be a book for most people.
Having only a hint, a neat phrase to describe the insights of a four day meditation with the Dalai Lama, we are forced to follow her on her entire journey. About two thirds through the book, as she was traipsing through another East Asian nation in search of self and meaning in the context of meditation and sexuality, I was frustrated. Why was I reading all these tiny sentiments about personal experiences? There wasn't much tangible reflection for me to hold on to, few sustained insights for me to turn over or savor in my mind.
But as I kept reading, the end of the book opened up into geopolitics after 9/11. And I was won over by the sheer personality of someone willing to share, willing to throw herself into the breach to find herself in the contexts of conservative culture and shifting circumstances. She begins seeking sensuality and partnership, and comes away with a dense load of personal meditations on the eternal mysteries.
Her personal urge to quest, and share, I find compelling. I thought, this woman has written a book that involves her family and friends and relative strangers. Much like sharing your life online. She does have a web page; it reads as a formal author's pulpit rather than a continuation of the kind of sharing she does in the book. There's an urgency in her tone, and as I finished the book I wondered what more has become of her (An interview with Beliefnet doesn't have any additional details). This work holds all her difficult struggle within a neat and traceable arc.
So much of Nomani's work comes back to family. She begins mostly alone, working to find partnership, marriage, happiness. She ends with a child and a home with her family. She considers sacred sexualty all throughout, and she comes to much the same conclusion that Lulu intimated - the mysteries of sex magic are the mysteries of creation. Making life - a most stirring, unsettling and compelling human act. By the time she's reached her conclusion, with a small body at her breast, her time spent with gurus and sadhus, intimacy workshops and dating dalliances has given her a strong love of self and some measure of calm. That's mighty appreciable.
Why I'm Studying Sacred Sexuality
My interest in Sacred Sexuality starts with uninformed intuition - a sense that there is something deeply spiritual to erotic acts. When humans join in intimate touch or sexual congress, there is a sweeping feeling there, something larger than either of the participants, and larger than the sum of their energies. It is a primal force. It is, perhaps, simply hunger, amplified hunger.
When I'm losing my control in pursuit of sensual pleasure I understand why many folks work to suppress and sublimate the sexual forces in pursuit of the divine. But I had a moment of clarity that illuminated the potential for purposeful passionate interaction: I met a young woman on the internet. We didn't know each other well. We sat together in a café, and then at my house, not speaking fluidly. I was wondering what our communication might be; my mind was wandering. Then we leaned in for a kiss. And then we kissed for an entire weekend. We spent hours rolling and gasping and licking and kissing. And when we could stand it, we stared into each other's eyes, building hard tension before we gasped and looked away. I had been powerfully attracted to people before, and I'd shared deep intimate physical moments, but here it was clear to me: there are people with whom you can create an ecstatic blissful experience. It wasn't meant as a sign that she and I were destined for long-term partnership; our non-physical communications were too stilted for that. But there was something in that moment of staring and touch that was so fantastically reorienting - I felt air and blood rush into parts of my chest that are otherwise dark during my days. It was serendipitous, and inspiring. It felt like sexual healing, especially in memory. One of my defining spiritual experiences.
I wouldn't say this feeling is for everyone. I've had fantastic encounters of all sorts that have barely skirted this feeling, some fantastic encounters that have even studiously avoided it. But I've reached a point in my life where I realize my personal passion priority is to study this feeling, to see what might be done to claim and cultivate that ecstatic truth I found in another body.
After a recent breakup, I found myself craving touch. I went from spending over 150 hours a week near another body, to spending all of my time alone in my skin. I experimented with massage parlors. Browsing advertisements on the internet, I found that I was attracted to the "hippy" "new agey" advertisements - Northern Californian women decked out in saris, talking about goddess energy. I went to see one of these women, she massaged my naked body vigorously with a friend. I couldn't tell what they were wearing - I didn't have my glasses on, and my deep breathing and the sensation of touch lidded my eyes. I felt gooey; I couldn't help curling up. One exclaimed afterwards, "wow! You really soaked up all of our touch." And it was true - I felt like I'd been feeding, consuming something, I'd been filled by these two women. I thanked them, and I asked if there was a church they attended where people practiced this kind of work.
The question caught them off guard, but it made perfect sense to me - gathering with other humans on a regular basis for the purposes of healing and affirming life. Singing dancing, celebrating, communing, reaching for greater powers or inspiring energies. That's what church is. That's what I felt with these women. And I felt like maybe I could provide something to my partners as well. I didn't want to be a client in the context of erotic massage services; I wanted to charge up sensual energy with people outside of commerce.
So in some ways, a search for Sacred Sexuality is a search for more sex. But I'm not so interested in "fucking" or intercourse - I want to be naked and touch people. I want to stare deep into someone's eyes, sharing breathing, exploring that space where energy and desire and divinity meet. All those forces are intangible, and talking about them sometimes makes me sound like a Northern California puff pastry. But I believe in those feelings I have that compel me to seek out play partners. I've had healthy and unhealthy experiences as I look for people to have sex with. Sacred Sexuality seems like a good term to frame a context for more healthy exploration.
What would that look like? Well I can start by saying what it wouldn't look like. It wouldn't look like a singles bar. The paradigm for sexual experimentation there seems to be predicated somewhat on forgetting - being inebriated, unknown. Risk taking, disaffection. Sacred Sexuality, as I imagine it, would involve participants agreed to a fundamental expression of intent: that the sexual congress was grounded in growth, learning, healing; in mutual uplift. Removing the goal of "getting off" or unauthorized expressions of power.
That's an ideal vision. Power and getting off are an intimate part of sexuality. Sexuality is frankly a mess. It incorporates all of our histories and fears and ambitions. It's a ripe area for abuse, addiction and excitation. That's why I would love to explore sex with more gentle deliberation.
It means finding practice partners with patience. I'm starting by reading. Reading David Guy's book. Essays by Francesca Gentille, a Bay Area-based personal life coach who posts frequently to Sacred Sexuality Yahoo groups, and Bernadette Vallely, a British environmental activist who writes about Sacred Sexuality on her web site. Their words and their aesthetics are largely precious - honoring the sacred self, and so forth. They use phrases and vocabulary that my friends would scoff at. As one polyamorous vegetarian midwife friend of mine Lulu put it, "why do all these people sound like fuckin' hippies?"
The real problem, she went on to explain, is that hippies are people who talk grandly without action. I'm inclined to believe these folks, and their talk about being and wholeness, energy and passion. It's not hard to act that out - can you act with compassion? Can you control and express yourself in useful and creative ways? Most of this Sacred Sexuality stuff I've found proselytized online feeds back into relationships and behavior. There's only so much sex modern citizens can manage - the study of Sacred Sexuality seems fortunately larger than penis vagina. A good place to route your energy! Taking horniness and developing it. Sensual arts discipline, like martial arts discipline.
I like having something else to do with my mind when I'm feeling sexy or curious - instead of booting up Fleshbot or TheHun, I have sex theory and sex ritual and sex visions to study. As I read these folks, I'm finding out about teachers, many of whom are local to the Bay Area (funny, that). And where there are teachers, there should be other students. We shall see.
Performance Rituals of Sex Shamans in 21st Century San Francisco
I'm still coming down off of my night - dancing my ass off to the Lovemakers - most of their music sounds like 80s James Bond themes; whatever your feeling, in person they make a foot move and a hip swing. More new wave than funky, they do manage some sex energy - mostly turning on the sparks tossed off by the two front people. Slinky outfits, barechested guitaring, dignified writhing and rocking. Lisa a more patrician Siousxie, Scott looked like one of the Durans, firmly pouting. Jason the keyboardist seemed happy to have beamed in for the event; he served as our voyeur stand-in, watching the staged lust up front.
Before them had been Gravy Train (rapbitches.com) and I had been sure that I couldn't have any better musical experience that night at Cafe du Nord. Here were four ambiguously but eagerly sexxxed out people prancing and stripping and rapping loud over Peaches' fastest beats. Heck it's Peaches ethics and the fastest Peaches or maybe Yeah Yeah Yeahs but spitting raunch rhymes dirtier and live and writhing fun fantastic full ball busty proud bareassed shaking shaking shaking it. And it was inspiring to watch and full of San Francisco pride anyone can suck and fuck around on stage and share that kind of spastic sweaty love. Doing the splits! Shaking a beautiful bare ass. Celebrating fat tits. I was nursing a man-sized crush on the lead singer; as each of them pranced I could have fallen to worship anyone.
But in the end it was the slightly more abstemious sexuality fronted by the LoveMakers that had me pumping the hardest. I mean I had my arms over my head and my hips were machine gunning I was steam training sweat mouth open tongue out eyes lidded ecstatic! Ah who gives a fuck it was one of the best nights I've had out in weeks and I smelled like nothing but human sweat and leaking ambition. I've got to start wearing more eye makeup.
And I owe most all of it to photographer Lisa Nola - she took that picture of the Lovemakers, and she encouraged me to come.
I compiled a video from short films shot on my digital camera: GravyTrain footage becomes Performance Rituals of Sex Shamans in 21st Century San Francisco (a 1.34mb .wmv video download) - (one minute, twenty seconds, edited with Movie Maker using footage from my Optio).
Reading from the foreword to Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: "Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy":
"The writer who approaches shamanism as a psychologist will be led to regard it as primarily the manifestation of a psyche in crisis or even in retrogression; he will not fail to compare it with certain aberrant psychic behavior patterns or to class it among mental diseases of the hysteroid or epileptoid type." (page xi)Certainly that holds true with GravyTrain, especially the epileptoid part.
The people on stage that day were practicing ecstatic techniques that induced a group meditation. But their ritual work might have been too grounded in audience engagement and affirmation of their physical forms to qualify for Eliade's definition of a Shaman as someone who "specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld" (page 5). If GravyTrain had performed for another hour or two, I suspect there might have been some descending going on, ie them leading the audience into rhythmic sexual chaos. (Reading from a book leftover from a shamanism class in college: Eliade, Shamanism, Princeton, 1974).
The Read Thread
I recently finished a book that likely counts as an introduction to the topic, more than a deep resource on any specific aspect of Sacred Sexuality:
The Red Thread of Passion: "Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex", by David Guy; a survey of individuals who have developed their own philosophy regarding sex and spirituality. As someone beginning my formal study of these issues, I found his broad tastes, unfettered curiousity and tales of personal search valuable. He shares of himself, and he's found individuals who have shared of themselves as well. This is often personal work (how could sexuality and spirituality not be?) and he has found engaging people and portrayed them in a balanced fashion.
The people include Carol Queen (of the Center for Sex and Culture), Walt Whitman, DH Lawrence, Alan Watts, Marco Vassi, Juliet Carr, Joseph Kramer, Collin Brown and Selah Martha. Buddhists, Tantrists, San Franciscans, Jesuits, the reckless and the chaste. It's a good range of people who have lived their words and their beliefs.
Someone who has spent more time studying these issues might find Guy's approach simplistic, his profiles reductive. But I believe that is his task: to approach Sacred Sexuality with wide eyes. I think he does that in an honorable and appreciable fashion. I especially enjoy his using Ikkyu poems - I've often felt that zen poet is one of my best guides through much of this.
Temple of Ishtar
One search term leads to another -
I've been researching Sacred Sexuality, and I've come across The Ishtar Temple. I'd heard about temple prostitutes and sacred sexuality in pre-Christian times; according to this site these were Temples of Ishtar, Ishtar the fertility Goddess. The site is content rich, so there's more to learn still. Nice to find sites bent on education more than sales and promotion. And they have nice links too, and bibliographies. Smart folks studying sacred sexuality! How fortunate I am that they seem to be based in Northern California. Perhaps that's not by accident?
the things you find
The things you find searching for sacred sexuality on the internet:
This Dagny woman has a wide range of sites and offering, including some rather odd flash-based sex hypnosis. Man the internet is weird. And sacred sexuality? Well, the search continues.