Without offering insights into my own personal life, I will use this entry to explore the Third Training or Precept of Theravada Buddhism. The Third Training is the one dealing with Sexual Matters. Generally it is translated as “I undertake the training to refrain from sexual misconduct”. This is frequently understood as being an oath of monogamy. However when you look at it properly, it isn’t, in fact monogamy is one of the last things that this Training deals with.
It’s o.k. I’ll give you all a moment to pick yourselves up off the floor and to close your mouths. The Third Training talks about sexual responsibility and sexual responsibility and monogamy are not the same thing . There is a lot of talk about not having sexual relations with people who are either too young or impaired to consent to them in an adult manner. When it comes to not having sex with people under the care of their parents, I understand this to mean that it isn’t o.k. to have intercourse with, for example, someone with Downs Syndrome or a psychiatric illness or a minor, which in the Buddha's time meant a girl or woman who had not yet begun to have menses. There is the acceptance that these people lack the capacity to properly think things through and are thus incapable of making sexual decisions.
For the rest of us the Third Training can give us a great deal of freedom in sexual matters. Homosexuality in any form is not mentioned in the Theravada Sutta's. So you can look for, and not find, prohibitions against homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality. The Buddha had the good sense to stay out of peoples bedrooms.
The main issue of contention is one of knowledge and consent. Sexual misconduct to me is lying, having affairs or denying sexual activity in a marriage. I remember my ex-wife coming home from work one day and she was quite outraged. A work colleague had remarked that monogamous and good weren't necessarily the same thing in marriage. For my ex, they were synonymous. For me they never have been. I can see where a monogamous husband or wife could treat their spouse absolutely horridly and never once look at another person sexually. I can also see where a husband or wife could be extremely promiscuous and make their spouse glow with happiness every day.
When my first marriage was dying, sexual activity began to falter. I complained bitterly that my ex-wife was engaging in sexual misconduct by not meeting my sexual needs. She began to deny me sex. Marriage is by legal definition a sexual thing. When you file for divorce one of the very first things they ask you is how long has it been since you had sex with the person you want to divorce. It is a legal fact that in order to get a divorce that you have had to have ceased sexual activity with your spouse for a minimum of a year. So in giving me either no or eye wateringly unsatisfying sex, my ex was engaging in sexual misconduct. Even Ajahn Brahm agreed with this.
The other side of the coin is knowing and consenting to a sexually free marriage. Selina is bisexual. No news in that. I have no problem with her expressing this aspect of herself. So in engaging in sexual activity with women there is no sexual misconduct happening for Selina. I want my wife to be happy and to force her to deny this aspect of herself, would be for me to engage in sexual misconduct in that I knew she was attracted sexually to women when we married and knew that she wanted to explore that attraction. I married her knowing that sooner rather than later she would want to get her clothes off with another woman. I would rather she explored her sexuality from the safety of the marriage than feel that she had to explore it in secret and thus lie to cover the times and places where she was engaging in that exploration.
Once a consent and boundaries for that consent are established, there is no sexual misconduct whilst those boundaries are respected. People do establish consents where they allow the spouse outside sexual activity during, for example, pregnancy. Selina offered this whilst she was pregnant with our son. She knew my libido and understood that there was a very real possibility that towards the end of the pregnancy that she would be unable to satisfy my needs.
Some, such as Swingers are only too happy to consent to their spouses engaging in multiple sexual partners whilst at a Swinging Party. The boundary of that consent is that condoms are used and the consent ends with the party. Some Swingers never set foot near a party and are happy to swap partners in more intimate environments. The consent is "so long as I share in the sexual activity, I am happy to engage in this". Thus couples place in their profiles "We only play together". I know of spouses who are happy to simply watch their spouses engage in sexual activity with multiple partners. Men who are impotent or wives at menopause who have lost all interest in sex, but want their spouses to be sexually fulfilled are known to do this. There is the story of a Lay man at Wat Pa Nanachat whose wife had profound schizophrenia and thus could not fulfil the sexual aspect of marriage, who went every week to the local brothel. Everyone knew about it...including the monks and everyone was happy with the arrangement.
Polyamory is where there are multiple sexual and emotional partners who may or may not share the same address. I have come across a dizzying array of Polyamorous arrangements and they fail with about the same frequency as monogamous relationships...and for much the same reasons.
Thus we can see that the Third Training has a deeper quality to it than is commonly practised. The Third Training does not mean that we are obliged to only have sex in the missionary position, preferably with the lights out, the doona over our heads and a sense of shame because we are enjoying ourselves. Sex is deeply part of who I am. It's most likely why I never ordained. Sex is part of a healthy life and living without sex isn't leading a terribly healthy life.
I loudly and frequently enjoy sex and once the impossibly narrow interpretation of the Third Training is abandoned, there is much to enjoy. I mentioned in the previous blog entry that I am engaging in a great deal of experimentation at the moment...you can rest assured that I am exploring my sexuality as part of this. Does Selina know? Yes, she does and we discuss sex frequently and in our fantasy life explore scenarios and then discuss them and reflect upon how that fantasy made us feel. Because whilst this openness, honesty and discussion is happening, sexual misconduct is not.