Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was sexual freedom fighter and mystic, Ida Craddock. The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com.
Sex Is Liberation: Paschal Beverley Randolph’s Divine Sexual Freedom
“…sex power is God power.”
– Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825 – 1875)
If you want to understand why sexual freedom is so threatening to people and institutions in power, masturbation is a good place to start.
I’ll stick with the masturbation I’ve got decades of experience with: jerking off. When a man masturbates, he closes his eyes and imagines sexual images. Or he looks at representations of sex in porn, and alternates between seeing the porn and imagining himself as part of it, somehow. While he’s interacting with what he’s imagining or watching, he also performs a single repetitive gesture: he moves his hand up and down his penis. The act of touching your own penis can be pleasurable in and of itself, but combine the physical and the imaginary for just a few moments and something more intense and mysterious happens. The images feel real, they feel present. They are real. The body starts to do all sorts of things. The brain releases endorphins. A flush of pleasure rushes up and down the body. After a just a few minutes, half the substance that creates life comes out.
The same is true for sex, but the imagination and action seeks out different contours: One body touches another body. Here you feel your partner’s ankle touching yours, you feel yourself enveloping your partner, you close your eyes and feel a breath on your ear. Your attention and awareness moves from spot to spot. And the thoughts focus on affection, attention, the image of yourself and your partner as if you were floating above and watching.
Sex isn’t ever merely physical and it’s certainly not a primal, instinctual mess; it’s a thinking-feeling-movement-activity. It’s a waking dream, or a state of hyper-awake-ness.
This is why so many sex radicals are also occultists; sex is about consciousness, and however you might think of the occult, it’s undeniable that sex — from the first flush of arousal to the reeling afterimage of entanglement — is an altered state. Crusaders for the legalization of drugs often call the government’s war on drugs a “war on consciousness.” If we want to alter our own consciousness, they say, then we should have the right to. Let’s take a tip from this insightful rhetoric and go a little further when it comes to sex:
The war on sex is the oldest and most oppressive war on consciousness.
Sex and sexuality are intimately, totally, linked to our freedom of thought and expression.
That’s why so many repressive regimes are sex negative, jail sex workers and sexual minorities (especially homosexuals), and monitor sexual behavior. It’s also why, if we want to change the world in a radical way, it’s important to look to sex for some answers.
There’s radical about the notion that sex is a singular activity, special and dangerous. That’s an ideal used by anti-sex activists and puritans who say that sex will corrupt the innocent, erode society, dement the clear and thoughtful.
Paschal Beverly Randolph’s (1825-1875), powerful contribution was to redeem this notion and elevate it. Sex is, indeed, powerful. But that’s precisely why it’s good for us to have it, experience it, and radiate our being out of it. Sex accompanies us through life. It’s not going away. It awaits our understanding.
Randolph was charismatic, and from the one photo I’ve seen of him, he’s handsome; not a bad fellow to want to experience the power of sex with. His parents were a wealthy Virginian and a slave from Madagascar. He was friends with Abraham Lincoln and is rumored to be the only man of mixed race in Lincoln’s funeral procession (the records are inconclusive). He taught slaves how to read and was a famed anti-slavery activist in his time. He was also a prolific author, and helped people work through their perceived sexual dysfunctions.
When he was in his twenties, the world was awash with spiritualism and religious reform. Not long before Ida Craddock was defending the belly dancers and women’s right to bodily autonomy, Randolph claimed to channel echoes of mystics from the past: Zoroaster, Pascal, and more. His spiritual radicalism fueled his ideals. As he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, he was guided by knowledge he said had been handed to him by Egyptian miracle workers and Indian Brahmins. Social change would take tremendous power — real magick — and figuring prominently, in his over a dozen books on the subject, was sex.
Whereas for Craddock, sex was a path to liberation, Randolph’s major contribution was this:
Sex is liberation.
The power of sex, he wrote, is the deepest and truest power, above politics and brute physical force. It’s a bolt of occult strength, a branch of God. Randolph theorized human beings to have a sort of electric-energetic power, putting two human beings together properly would create a complete circuit, which could unleash all sorts of positive effects. The moment of orgasm, an altered state of consciousness for both partners, was a moment of rising into the Divine, and then returning with extraordinary results. Sex could be tapped into to rejuvenate your skin, become a kinder person, sway your spouse, resist disease, become smarter, make money appear, and more. It could counteract and destroy oppressive circumstances, be they from marital, political, or actual enslavement.
Having sex was a prayer that could be answered with power, and it was a power that everyone had access to.
Well, not everyone, exactly. And he didn’t mean just any sex. It had to be sex between a man and an equal or “superior woman”, coupled with a ritualistic prayer at the moment of orgasm. It had to be a “double crisis” that shook up the reality around both (heterosexual) participants.
Randolph was limited in his scope, but there was a shockwave within those limits.
This investigation into and respect for sexual power utterly changed him and his many devotees. Because sex was to be used to understand and improve the self, Randolph was an early defender of birth control, women’s rights, and one of the first people to champion the virtues of intense sexual lust.
“Sex power is god power,” Randolph wrote. Or, to put it in the words of sociologist Murray Davis, “Sex…is a reality-generating activity.”
Whatever you may think of God or the occult, Randolph’s message is still important and radical. He told us that everyone had a right to pleasure and happiness and that our bodies’ ability to create pleasure out of themselves was proof of this. Furthermore, we don’t need the State or corporations to provide us with pleasure or to sell the world of happiness to us. That is inherent in our bodies and our interactions with each other. And to see this necessitates more bodily freedom for ourselves and others.
When we move beyond the garden variety notion that sex is powerful, to the much more radical understanding that sex is power available to everyone, we see the world differently. Instead of slaves and masters, Randolph showed us a regenerated reality, where we are all living, breathing power centers, waiting to discover ourselves.
Deveney, John P. Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Urban, Hugh. Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.