I’m sitting in my office today and there’s a funeral happening in the church next door. (This happens regularly.) The church and my office building share a parking lot so the attendees’ cars have filled it up (the deceased person was clearly popular), the people are dressed up and wearing dark colors, there’s a couple of limousines, and of course there’s a hearse parked out front. Always stark imagery.
In case you didn’t know, my office is located in a building that used to be a Catholic school. After the school shut down, it sat empty for years. Then it was renovated I think about 30(?) years ago and converted into professional offices. It’s a majority of therapists in the building now. The church still owns the building (and I like to joke that I make my rent check out to “God” - because hey, don’t we all?) and it even still has a cross on the top it.
Having my sex therapy practice in an environment such as this has been a fascinating experience. One client many years ago who was raised Catholic said she could still smell the special incense used by the priests when she walked into the building the first time. My brother-in-law, who went to Catholic school, briefly came into the building one day to help with a quick furniture project and got the heebie jeebies. For those who have experienced the Catholic church first-hand, it most definitely has an initial effect and then they seem to move on. Other clients don’t notice a thing. Turns out it’s been a useful assessment tool, as sexuality is so often influenced by religion.
Setting aside the deeply troubling controversies of the Catholic church and its profound struggles with sex and sexuality, because of the funeral that’s happening next door today I’m thinking about sex and death. Those in my profession like to say, “Sex and death go together” and it’s true. Creation/destruction. Pleasure/pain. A beginning/an ending. Connection/abandon. Hope/despair. You get the picture. They are two sides of the same coin. It’s not a dichotomy but a complementary relationship. One exists because the other exists.
For example, have you ever been to a funeral or memorial service where there was laughter? I have several times. They weren’t just sad or somber events; they had humor too. Sometimes that humor was intentional and sometimes it was spontaneous. The times I’ve experienced this I’ve genuinely wondered if the laughter occurred because of what I thought was our collective discomfort with death and loss. But over the years I’ve come to think no that’s not the case. Rather, it seems like human nature needs the tension between these two forces of pain and pleasure, anguish and joy. Without it, life seems boring, one dimensional. It also makes life messier (and I say that in a non-pejorative way). Having adopted this opinion, it has certainly changed how I work, I believe for the better. It’s allowed my clients and me to have a fuller, more nuanced and layered experience of their lives both in and out of the bedroom. Helping my clients find all the layers actually brings me joy and a sense of awe for being human.
Sex isn’t just about a biological process in the body. Sex also includes greater ideas and mythologies we’ve internalized along the way. And like death, there is much in sex that is still a mystery. In my profession we call this the spiritual side to sex. Sex can be a transcendent experience, one where you feel an otherworldly communion with your partner(s) where time and space can temporarily fall away. We don’t really know how or why this happens; we just hear people say it happened to them — and maybe it’s happened to you. I sure hope so. It’s one of the better-feeling mysteries in life.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor located in Sonoma county, California.