Tonight, I'm participating in a panel discussion at Young Urban Zen. The topic is precept #3: not misusing sexuality. In the weeks since I was invited to join the panel, I've been reading, thinking, and figuring out what to say, and I'm still not sure that I can say anything definite.
Having sex is not inherently bad, and avoiding sex is not inherently good. On one hand, to suddenly uphold this precept rigorously, trying to conform to the ideal of celibacy, requires repression of feelings. Experience shows that dumb repression doesn't work if the underlying issues are not confronted; it eventually leads to frustration and behavioral outbursts that are more harmful to the self and others than the original behavior that was repressed.
On the other hand, there are real problems with sexuality.
At one level, there is dumb, selfish, greedy sexuality that is obviously harmful. This is when people use each other for sex and let their lust blind themselves to their partner's feelings. This is the domain of bad relationships and one-night-stands and drunken hook-ups. After such experiences, denial sets in and you convince yourself that you got what you wanted, but you might actually feel bad, and you may want to hurt someone else to feel better. This is the harm of selfish sexuality.
At another level, even when you're mindful of your partner's feelings, sex creates attachments that cause problems later. Right now, things might be dandy and you may be creating the most wonderful and loving relationship, but at the end of life, after decades of fostering sexual attachment, how will you be ready to let go? It's not that letting go has any magical importance; it's that not being able to let go will lead to a profoundly stressful experience when aging and dying. It's important to take this into account when considering sexuality, because however wonderful and good sex may be now, we will have to live with the attachments it creates later. There's no escape from that.
Another problem with sexuality is that it focuses your attention exclusively on one person, and therefore it creates barriers between yourself and other people. Of course, there's even a good side to this--by learning how to open up to one person and care for them, you learn how to open up to others and care for them.
Looking to ancient teachings on this issue can be confusing. The Buddha taught a society that had never known the sexual revolution, contraceptives, Hollywood, rock and roll, pornography, or Disney movies. All of these things have contributed toward a totally different kind of sexuality, more recreational than procreational. In our world, we're not just caught up in the emotions and attachments of the sexual experience itself; we're bombarded with sexuality in every aspect of our public lives as well as private. For that reason, and the observation that repression doesn't work, I don't at this point believe it is possible to follow the Buddha's teaching of celibacy immediately. It's necessary to first discover a process for dealing with the attachments and emotional baggage that already exist, and that may require you to continue participating in sex so you can explore what it really means to you. But certainly it's a good idea to work toward a more caring and less lustful sexuality at the beginning of this process, rather than repeating the same mistakes over and over. This is compatible with the modern spiritual attitude about sex taught by gurus like Krishnamurti and Osho: it's something you can't overcome by aversion; you have to grow out of it.
Another reason it's hard to say anything definite about sex: Sexuality itself is not inherently bad or good. It is just a part of being human. That doesn't mean we should indulge in it. That doesn't mean we should repress it. It's just there. That's all it means. Because sex itself is valueless, many of our sexual problems don't actually stem from sex itself; they stem from our attachments to, and projections of, what sex is supposed to be. Consider whether you have ever had sex without a purpose, or whether you've only had sex to fulfill some other purpose. There are many purposes that we attach to sex: getting attention, feeling loved, attaining idealistic romance, seeking approval, living out a fantasy, relieving stress, wielding power, passing time, showing your love, apologizing, taking out anger, repeating what was seen on TV, doing something to brag about, feeling cool, feeling secure in your relationship, earning your partner's trust, having a baby, earning the respect of your friends, impressing someone, relieving horniness, making someone want to stay, distracting yourself from worry, returning a favor, replacing the unconditional love of your mother.... the list goes on and on. Even in celibacy, projections of what sex is supposed to be clouds the issue of what it really is.
Think about the tremendous conflict caused by projecting ulterior motives on sex. When two people have sex, they can be doing it for completely different reasons. One may be doing it for approval, while the other is trying to live out a fantasy. When they each fail to give the other what they really wanted--because they never knew what the other really wanted--one ends up feeling rejected and the other disappointed. Then they'll argue about it. There's no end to such an argument, because neither one realizes what the conflict actually is. I'm speaking from experience--this really happens, and it happens a lot.
This is a clear example of misusing sexuality. When sexuality is distorted by ulterior projections, it is very easy to misuse. Learning how to overcome these distortions falls clearly in the realm of practicing precept #3. Even though this interpretation really skirts the central issue of Buddha's teaching--attachment to sex itself--I'll probably end up talking about this because it's simple and practical. For people with a causal attitude toward sex, it's a good place to start.