This is kindly lent to us from Don Shewey, based on a talk he gave in 2002. Thank you, Don!
Sexual healing has a long and distinguished tradition, up to and including being the name of Marvin Gaye’s last great record. But the term “sacred intimate” has a very specific and recent origin. It was coined by Joseph Kramer, who was the founder of the Body Electric School of Massage in Oakland, Calif. In 1987 Joe Kramer created a pioneering weekend workshop called “Celebrating the Body Erotic,” teaching the basic principles of tantra, conscious breathing, and Taoist (non-ejaculatory) erotic massage to groups of gay men across the country, largely in response to the fear and sex-phobia that the AIDS epidemic generated. A charismatic teacher and erotic visionary, Kramer decided in 1990 to develop a week-long intensive retreat for graduates of the weekend workshop. When the first one was held at Wildwood, a gay retreat center near the Russian River in northern California, he half-jokingly called it the Sacred Prostitute Summer Camp.
He was inspired by what he’d heard and read about the tradition of the sacred prostitute or temple whore, which dates back to pre-Christian times. These were people — men and women, although historical references mostly refer to women — who were available for sexual encounters in ritual space as selfless service or spiritual practice. Joe Kramer would say, “These are the people you go to when you want to have sex with God.” Nancy Qualls-Corbett wrote a very good book called The Sacred Prostitute, published in 1988, that details the historical and anthropological documentation on this tradition and how it worked in several cultures.
Joe Kramer found, though, that most people had negative reactions to the word “prostitute” and didn’t want to be associated with it in any way. So he met with a corporate image consultant in the Bay Area, and they came up with the designation “sacred intimate,” which first appeared in public in 1991, when Joe Kramer offered the first Sacred Intimate training, an eight-day workshop specifically devoted to helping interested gay men develop their skills as sexual healers. At that time a big part of sacred intimate work, in the training and in real life, had to do with being midwives to the dying — tending to the body, mind, spirit, and erotic energy of friends who were preparing to leave their bodies.
Since that time, the concept of sacred intimate work has slowly but steadily entered the culture as Body Electric graduates began to offer their services professionally as sacred intimates. I did a Google-search the other day and came up with about 100 listings for men and women who call themselves professional sacred intimates, some but not all of them Body Electric graduates.
What does a sacred intimate do? I like to say that sacred intimates combine the roles of priest, prostitute, and psychotherapist. In other words, they approach sexuality with the understanding that it’s related to soul work and to spirituality. They use mindfulness and integrity to help people identify, embrace, and practice desire as holy, sexual embodiment as an expression of the soul. They hold the body as sacred and view erotic energy as a crucial component of human life and spiritual health. Their primary intention is that of healing — and by healing I mean not just addressing the wounds to the spirit and the flesh caused by sexual abuse, addiction, or disease but also acknowledging that the fun and the pleasure, the vitality and the divine mystery of sex have nourishing properties in and of themselves. That’s a message that easily gets lost in a culture that is as ambivalent or sex-negative as ours.
A lot of people who are sex workers and sexual surrogates are sacred intimates, but not all of them. Sex workers can be mercenary — they’re in it for the money. And often their clients like it that way, because they just want to get off as soon as possible. I don’t judge that as wrong or bad — it just lacks the healing dimension of sacred intimate work. I think about the line in Luis Bunuel’s film Belle du Jour where Catherine Deneuve asks her husband to explain the concept of brothels to her. He says, “You find a beautiful woman, you spend half an hour with her, and you’re depressed for the rest of the day.” A sacred intimate is something else — someone you’re transformed by, or with whom you have an experience of unconditional love that changes you.
Sacred intimacy has a relationship to sex therapy as it developed in the second half of the 20th century with the work of Masters & Johnson and Helen Singer Kaplan, who performed a great service by bringing accurate information about sex to the American public and developed effective treatments for sexual disorders. Surrogates are trained to interact with patients who have sexual dysfunctions, under the supervision of a clinical psychologist, and they often use the same skills and techniques that sacred intimates do, working with breath and presence and sensate focus. One major difference is that most sexual surrogates are women who work with heterosexual men, whereas Body Electric-trained sacred intimates are primarily men who work with men. Also, surrogates work specifically with sexual disorders within a medical model. Sacred intimates may or may not treat dysfunctions, and they generally work from a wellness perspective, not fixing problems but encouraging and expanding sexual joy.
Although it would seem like psychotherapy is the field most appropriate for sexual healing, in practice many psychotherapists are terrified of dealing with sexuality, either because they have their own unresolved sexual conflicts or they are afraid of legal liabilities. How often do psychotherapists acknowledge that they themselves have sex lives? How often do they share information about erotic resources or facilitate detailed explorations of masturbation or sexual fantasies? Today psychotherapists are intensely focused on boundaries and shy away from sexuality lest they be perceived as provocative, seductive, or harassing. However, it’s possible that deflecting or avoiding sexual issues reinforces shame and cultural repression.
Every person in the healing professions brings a different set of tools based on his or her training, experience, and personality. Same goes for sacred intimates. No two of us work exactly the same way. For me, when I first heard Joe Kramer talk about sacred prostitutes, he made it sound like the noblest calling in the world. Hearing him spin out his fantasy of the vocation called “sacred intimate,” I recognized in his words a description of myself that I’d never heard before. It pulled together my childhood as a Catholic altar boy — some kind of temple slave operating behind the scenes of the Mass, carrying props for the ritual priest — with my experience of taking care of close friends as they got sick and died, as well as my long history of committed domestic partnerships with lovers, not to mention my enthusiastic career as an exhibitionistic connoisseur of communal reveling in sex clubs. Joe Kramer’s talk about sacred intimates connected the dots, and I got a picture of my destiny.
I got trained as a massage therapist and began doing Body Electric-style erotic massage professionally. When I started out, I was thrilled to take off my clothes to go to work. I loved observing men’s sexuality, encouraging it, celebrating it, admiring it, indulging it, extending it. I wanted to make up for the culture’s lack of encouragement of gay men’s sexuality and self-esteem. I began to understand that my desire to have sex with someone is often profoundly transpersonal. Not impersonal. Impersonal would mean it didn’t matter who the person was — I’m just using them like a Kleenex to shoot my wad into. But transpersonal means actually having the experience of…sounds so corny to say, but MAKING LOVE TO GOD through having sex with a person. In other words, when I have sex with someone who’s not my intimate partner, if I have any consciousness about it, I’m choosing to have sex with the spark of divinity that he is. In that sense, sex is a form of prayer, no less precious for being abundant.
I know that this concept became part of my experience through Body Electric work. I wanted to add to the amount of pleasure experienced in the universe. I wanted to make love, with my hands — literally, like making a loaf of bread. I wanted to pitch in to the communal ocean of love and in doing so receive what I needed, exactly like the Christian concept of communion. The exchange was not personal and quid-pro-quo but symbolic and transpersonal. The feelings were no less real for being generated by a symbolic action. I wanted to be a sexual Good Samaritan — make love unto others as you would have them make love unto you.
And that’s what I act out with my clients on a daily basis, a symbolic act of communion. Body Electric made me a sex priest, and since I began I don’t feel entirely complete unless I’ve said my daily Mass, performed my daily ceremony of anointing a man’s body on the altar of my massage table and receiving the blessing of flesh and blood made holy — made whole — by the ritual of touch and prayer. Give us this day our daily bread.
After a few years of doing bodywork, I wanted to get more skillful about handling the emotional issues that massage clients showed up with, and I eventually undertook a four-year clinical fellowship and got trained as a gestalt psychotherapist. With its intrinsic focus on body-awareness, tracking the breath, and concentrating on what’s happening right here right now, gestalt work was perfectly compatible with my massage and sacred intimate training. So I’ve developed parallel practices as an erotic masseur and a psychotherapist. I don’t call all the work that I do sacred intimate work, though I do approach all my clients with a sacred intimate perspective. There is a big overlap between therapy and erotic bodywork, and that’s what I consider sacred intimate work.
I’ve come to understand that much of the healing that takes place in sacred intimate work happens on very, very simple levels. Simple, nurturing touch is so important. Touch that includes genital touch plus breath plus presence feels like acceptance. Giving permission is a big part of sacred intimate work. It’s about giving permission to receive pleasure, to feel your whole body, to speak desires, to bring consciousness to sex and touch, to live your spirituality without blocking your sexuality and vice versa, to be seen naked, to see another man naked. All these are opportunities to heal shame, isolation, erotic malnutrition, and touch deprivation.
Sacred intimates can help people keep their erotic bodies alive in a long and loving but sexless marriage. I’m thinking of a man named Derek who came to see me who’s been in a relationship with another man for 22 years. (All names and identifying details in this article are changed to protect client confidentiality.) Derek and his partner have never had a sexual relationship because his partner is not into it. Now at the age of 55, Derek is starting to feel the deficit of not living out his sexuality. He took a Body Electric workshop and found it exhilarating, but he ejaculated almost immediately, without even feeling it, as soon as someone touched his cock. His only sexual experience had been masturbating as quickly as possible to get it over with. I did a couple of sessions with him, working on his breathing, moving energy around his body, and he was able to hang out much longer in a high erotic state without squirting or squelching his erotic energy. He left transported with joy.
In my practice I see a lot of men whose stories are a variation on Derek’s. They’re getting to be middle-aged and they’re looking for adult sex education, or erotic mentorship. This is an area sacred intimates are well-suited to address. Many guys, especially those who identify as married or heterosexual, have strong desires to experiment sexually with men. Because these fantasies have been strongly repressed, they consumed a huge amount of energy. In a sacred intimate session, a middle-aged married guy can try out his fantasy of sucking cock or getting fucked and often will discover that the fantasy plays better than the reality. And they can learn this not by having bad or painful sexual encounters with strangers but by exploring consciously with a sacred intimate, experimenting playfully with simulated butt-fucking or verbal fantasy or having the actual experience of being naked with another man and checking out the true extent of his desires. Would he rather suck a hard cock, or would he rather fantasize about sucking a hard cock? Sometimes the reality is physically unpleasant, and sometimes it simply triggers too many fears to be pleasurable – the two biggest being fear of disease and fear that if he likes sex with men, that means he’s gay and he’ll have to leave everything he cherishes in his life behind and get his nipples pierced.
I’m thinking of Alfred, a twice-married man with grown children. He desperately wants physical contact with men, but he tends to go about it in a way that is guaranteed to be frustrating. He refuses to name desires, saying instead that he wants to surrender to another man. But what that means is surrendering consent — a recipe for violation. So then he can disown his desire and blame the other person: I didn’t want it, he forced me. He told me that when he was in his 30s he was coerced into sex once with his uncle, a Catholic priest, and once with a friend of his uncle’s. I was curious about this, since a man in his 30s is well past the age of consent. It turns out that he grew up in a traditional Italian family and his older brother tormented him from an early age — whenever he showed signs of being soft or sensitive, his brother would say, “Don’t you be a faggot!”
This told me a couple of things. From an early age, Alfred’s permission to say yes to his gay desires was taken away from him, and that took away his no as well, leaving him vulnerable to coercion. It also got him to internalize his brother’s homophobia, which manifests by disdaining gay men who aren’t “straight-acting” and advising his gay son not to go around telling people he’s gay. Some of the work we’ve done together has been about supporting him in naming desires in an inhabited, emotionally authentic way — “I’d like you to be naked” as opposed to “Nudity is appropriate.” I’ve also worked with him to increase his ability to tolerate naming desires, postponing the need to attach identity to sexual feelings or behavior, and giving him permission to play in an erotic zone and really experience it directly. When that happened, his need/desire for intensely sexual contact diminished, and he discovered that a big part of his yearning is simply for another man to be nice to him (which is what he didn’t get from his father or his brother).
Exploring anal pleasure is another task for sacred intimates. Many heterosexually identified men are curious about anal pleasure and long for a safe playground to explore. Plenty of gay men, too, have apprehensions about buttplay, based on fear of disease or bad experiences with insensitive lovers. As one client said to me in an email, “My first gay experiences were with my friend Steven who had a huge dick and he needed attention. He used to fuck me and rip me apart – no real lube, just a little saliva. It has taken me years to get over the pain association.” My extensive training and experience as an erotic masseur has equipped me with the information and ability to bring men through their fears at their own pace to arrive at the place where pleasure is available.
So much of sacred intimate work has to do with adult sex education, sharing information and teaching. All of the clients I’m describing are people who did not and probably would not seek out clinical sex therapy, nor were they simply looking to get off. They mostly found me through the avenue of bodywork, and we developed a personal relationship that created a safe container for both of us to experiment with the sacred intimate work we do.
For me, sacred intimate work is a constant dance between the sex-worker side of me, concentrating on healing through pleasure, and the psychotherapist, processing emotional issues. And all this takes place within the context of my own grounded spiritual practice, a consecrated ritual space, and my own sense of purpose, to wake people up to the joy of life in a body. I want to live in a world that honors and supports sexual freedom, erotic abundance, and healing through pleasure. And certainly one of my essential supports is creating and experiencing community with people who are willing to join this conversation.
(This article is adapted from a talk delivered at the First National LGBTI Health Summit in Boulder, Colorado, in August 2002.)