“When my beloved first stands before me naked, all open to my sight, there is a feeling throughout the whole of me; awe. Why?
If sex is no more than an instinct, why don’t I simply feel horny or hungry?
Such simple hunger would be quite sufficient to insure the propagation of the species.
Why awe? Why should sex be complicated by reverence?”
The Spiritual Rewards of a Disciplined Life
Why should sex be complicated by reverence? Good question. Why should sexual feelings touch us so deeply, almost at times in a similar way to religious feelings?
The author of the passage quoted above, M. Scott Peck, published it in 1978 in The Road Less Traveled. His encounter with religious awe in the form of a woman’s naked body remains one of the book’s more quotable sections.
Written at a time when America’s 1960’s love affair with personal freedom seemed to be souring, The Road Less Traveled suggested a return to more durable, old-fashioned values. Peck taught that psychological growth required discipline, and that most psychological pain resulted from not having the discipline and courage to face one’s problems.
Although The Road Less Traveled began with an emphasis on discipline, it went on to claim that the rewards of a disciplined life might include spiritual and sexual inspiration as well – a sense of wonder at God’s many gifts.
The passage above about “awe” struck many readers as particularly inspired. Peck’s sense of wonder at the miracle of sexuality resonated with many people’s intuition of a spiritual dimension to sex.
Peck and Open Marriage
What was perhaps not immediately obvious to first-time readers of The Road Less Traveled is that the “beloved” referred to might not have been Peck’s wife. One had to read closely to know that Peck was actually advocating non-monogamy.
Earlier in the book, tucked away in a footnote, Peck had written the following:
“My work with couples has led me to the stark conclusion that open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners.”
“Open marriage” didn’t originally just mean sexual freedom. It originally meant honoring the people in a couple as differentiated individuals — which was one of the really good ideas to come out of the 70’s. It’s still a good idea.
But over time, the term “open marriage” came to refer chiefly to sexual non-monogamy — which in the 1970’s, as Ross Douthat notes in his recent New York Times column “More Perfect Unions,” “temporarily took upper-middle-class America by storm.”
As Douthat writes, “In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.”
I was a teenager at the time, and recall the era vividly. The excitement in the air. The almost weekly announcements of divorces in the neighborhood.
Peck himself paid a heavy price for his venture into non-monogamy. There was speculation that it may have contributed to his wife divorcing him, and to his being alienated from his daughters. Peck reportedly found his quest for sexual inspiration and his ideal of self-discipline difficult to reconcile.
Are We Going Back There Again?
The open marriage movement of the 1970’s quietly wound down when it encountered AIDS and Reaganism. But there are signs of its revival in the Internet era.
Advocates of ethical non-monogamy such as Dan Savage suggest that going outside the marriage for sex might actually invigorate a long-time couple’s sexual and emotional life together.
Critics such as Ross Douthat and Shmuley Boteach consider this new ethical non-monogamy a repetition of an old mistake. Boteach in The Huffington Post says it’s an old utopian notion of sexual freedom that has long since been discredited.
I disagree when Douthat and Boteach say we’re in danger of going utopian again, as in the 70’s. That was a more hopeful time. When birth control and sexual freedom seemed to offer a way to the Garden of Eden.
We live now in a more practical world. We’re not as interested in self-actualization, or in achieving peak experiences, sexual or otherwise. Now we’re just concerned about how to keep relationships from going sour, as we worry about our health benefits and the price of gas.
We well might envy Peck his erotic adventures, and his quest for religious enlightenment through sex. Today we’re sadder but wiser. We’ve rediscovered what the ancients knew: you can’t mess around with eros with impunity.
This kind of honest, negotiated non-monogamy that Savage advocates — Is it wise? Moral? Is it even possible? As I wrote last week in “Monogamy Lite,” The answers may depend on the individual couple. And on the couple’s social community and religious beliefs.
Funny, though, how sex always leads to arguments about morality and ethics. Why is that?
Maybe Peck was right about sex being close to religion. In its capacity to inspire and unite us, as well as to divide us.
© Stephen Snyder, MD 2011
New York City