In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the fourth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.
“I will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.”
This is a difficult precept for me to write about. I imagine it is difficult for a lot of people. Our society consistency sends mixed messages about our sexuality and we internalize these mixed messages from a very early age. For those who have been subject to sexual abuse, the topic is fraught with an additional layer of complex emotion.
What I learned early on from my family of origin was that sexuality was not safe. Women who were sexual or sexy were vulnerable. I learned to hide my sexuality as much as possible. To this day I’m still uncomfortable being the object of someone’s desire (even that of my long time partner).
So while my upbringing makes this precept difficult to talk about, it also underscores the importance of upholding it. I’ve really had to dig deep to figure out what constitutes misusing sexual energy and what constitutes being honest and respectful in mind and body.
There’s no doubt that sexual energy is an integral part of life. In Zen writings it’s referred to as a ‘red thread’ running through all of us. Sex enables the continuation of our species and it can be an important aspect to living a full and integrated life. The key, I think, to this precept and to using sexual energy well is to respect both intimacy and bodily integrity.
Intimacy in this context means closeness. Closeness to your partner, to yourself, to the present moment. To your direct experience of the present moment. Sexuality should not be engaged at the expense of this intimacy. If I engage my sexuality in order to remove myself from the experience of the present moment, my partner or myself, then I am violating this precept.
I think honesty is implicit to maintaining intimacy. You can’t have intimacy if you’re not being honest. Untruths are a barrier. This means that engaging in sexual energy for ulterior motives is a violation of this precept. If I use my sexual energy in order to elicit favors or actions from someone, I am engaging in a deception about my motives and desires and therefore not upholding intimacy.
Taking this idea a bit further means that one should also be fully aware of their own state of mind and body when engaging sexual energy. When we aren’t clear of our own intentions, we can’t possibly be honest about them (to ourselves or to others).
The second aspect of this precept is the idea of upholding bodily integrity. Bodily integrity means that an individual has the right to determine what happens to his/her body. In terms of this precept, it means that sexuality should not be imposed upon someone in a way other than of the person’s choosing. This includes obvious cases like rape and sexual assault. It also includes less obvious actions like engaging in sexually charged speech and the use of sexually suggestive images in inappropriate settings.
It’s in talking about bodily integrity that I start to view this precept as relating to our treatment of animals. The abuse of animal sexuality is intrinsic to the meat and dairy industry. So for me, participating in these industries by consuming meat and dairy is a violation of the third precept as well as the first.
Outright denial of a person’s sexuality can also be a misuse of sexual energy. When we reject sexuality we can do as much damage to intimacy and bodily integrity as does giving way to lust. This doesn’t mean that we need to fulfill every sexual request that is put forth to us. But it does mean that we should honor the person who made the request and the vulnerability required to do so.