Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 539-544
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Reconstructing Tantric Sex
George Washington University
I smile to myself as I think of a modern-day self-avowed Tantric enthusiast, maybe somewhere in California, cruising Amazon.com looking for more readings on the latest enlightening import from India: a phenomenon known as Tantra, a spiritual practice that also teaches you how to have really great sex. Workshops and seminars abound on the Internet: "Tantra Sexuality Coach—Tantra Love Skills, Private Sessions, Extended Sexual-Spiritual Orgasm;" "Become A Tantric Master—hypnotic system, demystified Tantra methods to become a superior lover;" "Tantra Workshops, Tantric Seminars, Tantra Retreats—teach you the basics of sacred sex and extended lovemaking techniques." But they are expensive—hundreds or even thousands of dollars for weekend or week-long workshops. Our budding Tantrika, deciding on the self-taught route, goes to Amazon.com and types in "Tantra" as keyword. 249 responses immediately appear: among them, Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving, Soul Sex, Tantra for Gay Men, Ecstatic Sex: A Guide to the Pleasures of Tantra, The Essential Tantra: A Modern Guide to Sacred Sexuality; Tantra: The Yoga of Sex; Tantra for Two, and last but not least—Tantra Between the Sheets: The Easy and Fun Guide to Mind-Blowing Sex. Hmmm...so much to choose from! How about something more serious, scholarly, South Asian? There are numerous works as well by various [End Page 539] Swamis—even the Dalai Lama—and translations of Tantras. O.k., maybe that's a little too serious, too South Asian—there's probably not enough about the sex part in there. How about this one? Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Context. Perfect! Still has the sex in it, but also some substantive stuff; the Yogini sounds titillating, and the South Asian context erudite...
Two clicks and two days later, David Gordon White's new book arrives on the doorstep. Our unsuspecting Tantric enthusiast opens it, and eyes eagerly skimming the text, sees these words: "California, France and Italy, in particular, are crawling with [North Americans and Europeans dressed up as Tantric specialists], many of whom advertise New Age 'retreats' or 'workshops' in 'Tantric Sex' and many other types of hybrid practice on the Internet. (xi-xii)" Uh-oh, the apostrophes around the "Tantric Sex" should have been a warning. White goes on, and our enthusiast's brows begin to furrow. "New Age 'Tantric Sex' is a Western fabrication, whose greatest promise, if one is to take its Internet advertising at face value, is longer sexual staying power for men and more sustained and frequent orgasms for women. None of this has ever been the subject matter of any authentic teaching. All is Western make-believe except for one detail: the pricey weekends and workshops the 'Tantric sex' merchants are selling cannot be had for play money. (xiv)" White closes his preface with his intent for the pages to follow: "Although I will but rarely address or describe this New Age phenomenon, I intend, by reconstructing the medieval South Asian and Kaula and Tantric traditions that involved sexual practices, to deconstruct the 'product' that these modern-day entrepreneurs of ecstasy are selling to a benighted Western public. (xv)"
Bravo, David Gordon White. Solid scholarly work has been done on the demographics and economics of the modern-day Western Tantra phenomenon (White references that of Hugh Urban), and fine scholarship abounds in the discipline of Tantric Studies. But White is the first that I have encountered who makes such a sustained, intellectually impeccable, exhaustive analysis of the origins of "Tantric Sex" in order precisely to destabilize the perch from which the Western "Tantric" gurus spout their "banalities and platitudes. (xiv)" Lest I have seemed unduly smug in enjoying the discomfiture of our hypothetical Tantric enthusiast, White makes clear at the outset why there is something wrong to what these self-appointed gurus are doing: "There is and has never been a hegemonic religious institution...