Perspectives on Sex and Spiritual Teachers

Written by 


[Editor's Note]: This piece has been updated with the inclusion of a few extra links that have come out since the original publication of this piece as an attempt to include as many perspectives as possible. Just to be clear, I continue to stand by my own position as described below. 


The major story in the integral world over the last week has been the controversy surrounding Marc Gafni. Some would say scandal.  This is not the first such controversy in Marc's teaching life.  

Here are some links as background:

Bill Harryman's initial post which broke the story. 

Pelle Billing on teachers and conduct.  

Diane Hamilton, who formerly defended Marc and in this post essentially breaks with him.  

Marc's response. Update: Further public statements in support of Marc Gafni, including endorsement from Ken Wilber. 

Joe Perez with a more meta piece on the ethics of blogging. Update: Joe has written two more pieces on this subject, here and here.   

And, to my mind still the best piece written in the integral world on this subject matter, In Defense of Chastity by Emily Roy (nee Baratta), published here at Beams earlier this year.   

I encourage folks to read and consider various perspectives.  


Personal Take:

This is a difficult one for me to talk about as I'm close with a number of folks on various sides of this issue.

So separating out my personal relationships for the moment, I'll speak more from my professional capacity. As an ordained member of a religious organization this is my world of experience.  I have some experience with this kind of thing.    

When I was trained in seminary, I was taught that clergy were never to have sexual relations with members of their congregation (or students of spiritual teachers in this case).  In my case I was already engaged in a monogamous relationship by the time I entered seminary so this was a non-issue for me, but I think the standard is valid.  

If a couple is already married or in a committed relationship and then the teacher starts a new community or moves to a new congregation and the partner is involved in that community, that's a different matter.  I'm talking about dating or entering into sexual relationships.  The complexities of such an issue are only magnified (by like a trillion) in cases of multiple partnering and multiple partnering within the same circles of people, including community members.  

I guess I'd put it negatively:  I've never seen a situation in which the clergy/religious teacher had intimate sexual relation with a member of the congregation and it turned out wonderfully (overall).  Even in the situations where such individuals end up in long lasting beautiful relationships (and in my experience those are rare), they come at great cost to the community.  My experience isn't exhaustive to be sure.  Perhaps such a case does exist somewhere.  Nevertheless, I've been in the world of religious communities essentially my entire life and have never heard of such a case.  

A better model it seems to me is if a spiritual teacher or clergy want to date or be in a sexual relationship with someone in the congregation or a student, then one of the two to move to a different location (usually the student).  

My view seems to be a minority position within the integral spiritual world.  For example, an alternative view to my own, this piece by Junpo Roshi.*  Certainly Marc disagrees with the view I hold.  

On the other hand, integral teacher Robert Masters wrote this on his Facebook fan page the other day:

So-called "informed consent" is centered by the myth of consenting adults. In sexual circumstances many of us may not be clearly considering what's really going on and what's at stake, instead making choices from a desire (likely rooted in childhood) to get approval, love, or security, or to be distracted from our suffering. At such times we're acting not as consenting adults but as adult-erated children whose "consent" is mostly an expression of unresolved woundedness or unmet nonsexual needs.

I connect much more strongly with Robert's work on this topic (and many others besides) than say a Junpo or Marc.  

In relation to this case with Marc, I think it's a sad event.  I think his teaching on The Unique Self is an extremely important teaching whose contours in many ways are just being drawn and formed.  I think the teaching has the potential to be one of the supreme offerings of an integral spirituality for the 21st century.  I worry that the teaching will come under disrepute because of Marc's actions.  

I'm also sad for those hurt.  

I don't feel Marc is a villain.  I don't think he should be made into a scapegoat.  While I can understand (even appreciate) why such responses occur, I still find them immature.  In Christianity we would say, "all have fallen short of the glory of God."  This includes me, Marc, those who are hurt, anyone.  I don't find any place to stand in self-righteousness, even against those who are standing in what seems to me self-righteousness.  

That said, I think Marc has committed serious ethical violations.  I don't feel he's acknowledged his own culpability and until such a day occurs, I don't think he should be in a position to have private students.  I think he should still write, give lectures, etc. But I don't think he should work in any other regard as a spiritual teacher.  

I think the admonition against sleeping together is meant to protect both teacher and student.  It's so important that due consideration be given to protection of both teachers and students.  Otherwise we end up in frameworks in which teachers have all the power and therefore students (no matter what happens) are definitionally off the hook.  They have no power and therefore no accountability.  Power might in some cases by asymmetric but that doesn't mean it's completely one-sided.  

My sense is that the calling and inquiry is how best to live out the polarity of forgiveness and justice.  We want both healthy boundaries (The Relative) and no boundaries (The Absolute).  Both are true.    


* Full Disclosure: I sent a note to Junpo after reading his defense of promiscuity piece telling him I disagreed strongly with his position and found his argument flawed in many respects.  He very kindly responded and we had an interesting back and forth on the subject.  I sensed that neither of us changed views really, but it was a good dialogue nonetheless.  




Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Trish Shannon Wednesday, 21 September 2011 02:27 posted by Trish Shannon

    I have been struggling to reflect on this situation. I took my M.A. in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of seminaries. Within this context, clerical and professional ethics were frequently discussed and debated. My life experience and training parallel yours. Even where the rarest of outcomes does occur, that teachers and students "find" happiness, the cost within their original communities is always high with deep and abiding grief and loss of trust.

    Given these consequences, I would agree with you that sexual relations between teachers and students should be generally avoided.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 21 September 2011 19:01 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks. What was your area of study in Ethics? I used to be in the Jesuits, so I know Jesuit School of Theology. I have a lot of friends who went to GTU.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Thursday, 22 September 2011 00:32 posted by Philip Corkill

    I don't really get this! I followed your links and found a fascinating world of blogs and comments about Marc Gafni's love and sex life and sexual relations between students and teachers - literally hundreds of comments. Wow, it's a whole virtual universe out there and very lively! A superb article by Emily! And I like your personal take here too.

    But I didn't really find out what has happened. What's actually happened? Has someone complained about Marc? Did someone get hurt? Is someone asking for protection?

    Yet, so many people have so much to say about this (including me). I wonder how much of this is really to do with Marc Gafni?

    Certainly, as a general topic "Perspectives on sex and spiritual teachers" is full of juice and it seems we have a lot to learn here! Well, I do. Since I don't know much about Gafni, I'll leave him out of the rest of my comment. Though I'll be curios to see if this thread fills up like the other virtual spaces you link us to above.

    If they're anything to go by, this might soon be the most active space on this site.

    I have also been in spiritual communities where such issues have gotten really messy. I agree that things rarely, or perhaps never, go well for all involved.

    Also there seems to be an element of tragic inevitability to what happens. It's not supposed to happen. Its a taboo of some sort and then it does happens. Exactly the way that nobody thought it should happen. When rationally there were so many better options.

    It might seem very immature but just by the frequency of these incidents, it clearly takes more than good intentions and opinions to mature past this simple tendency of lust to be attracted to doing the wrong thing.

    I think a key question is how do we facilitate that process of maturation? Did you learn anything about "how to" mature beyond the attraction to having sexual relations with the members of your congregation in your training Chris? I'd love to hear about that.

    I'd like to see people who have that maturity, who are living proof of it and feel confident in their understanding of how they got there, devise a path, a training for people who are heading for sticky situations by the position that their line of work will put them in. I like the sound of Robert Masters. Thanks for bringing him in here Chris.

    This is one of those pieces where Bonnittas offering on Subjugation, Sublimation and Transmutation (Vancouver riots discussion) keeps nagging at the back of my mind.

    There must be more potent paths than repeatedly teaching what never should happen and then being shocked by it happening. Over and over and over again.

    Chris and Trish, I'm not very well informed about Christianity. Are there any records of how Jesus himself dealt with these things? In my ignorance I've always pictured him as an incredibly courageous, intelligent, physically and mentally strong, outlandishly charismatic young God/Man and in some sense a spiritual master/teacher. He must have been faced with a lot of temptation regarding these issues. How did he live with this? And what else do Christian ethics have to offer on this topic that might actually work? Are there even any other spiritual teachers in Christianity?

    Over to you:-)

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 22 September 2011 03:46 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the comment.

    I don't want to get into a lot of he said/she said gossip-py kinda stuff. But sufficed it to say (in response to your question), as I understand it, Marc told Tami that he wasn't having relations with students and he was. He admits that he was--and claims they were consensual. I think consent is much trickier in those circumstances. But either way he appears to have not been straight with Tami. As far as I know (and I could be wrong), Marc hasn't refuted Tami's claim that he said he wasn't sleeping with students. One of whom (I believe) happened to be on Tami's staff.

    In relation to your question about whether I learned anything beyond not having such relations with students/congregation members. One thing is to be honest that such attraction is there. Obviously that might spark an actual physical encounter. But on the other hand, at least it names it. It also opens up the possibility that two human beings can have sexual attraction to one another (or one of the two) and not act on those feelings. They are biologically conditioned responses. They are totally healthy as such, but we aren't slaves to them either. If the two work on a committee, they may find it's best to not both by on that committee. Or to see each other in a private setting--i.e. pastoral conversations.

    Clergy always have to have a check person. Someone you can call when you are emotionally invested and ask them for their point of view and then basically (assuming they are a trustworthy person), you follow their prescriptions. Doctors don't see family members as patients. It's not different.

    In terms of Jesus. Cynthia Bourgeault in her most recent book on Mary Magdalene makes the claim that Jesus and Mary were intimate spiritual partners. She doesn't mean they were necessarily sexually intimate. She was at my church this past year and made a very interesting point that in Western society to say two people are intimate intrinsically means for people they are having sex. We are have reduced intimacy (and eros) to sexual physical expression. We basically can't think intimacy outside of sex--or biological family.

    Whether Jesus and Mary M. had such a relationship I'm not entirely sure. It is worth noting that (according to the Gospels) Jesus was considered suspect in his day because he had women students who were unmarried (or at least not with their husbands). This was a no-no in his day. But overall the sense is that he was not as a spiritual teacher corrupted by wealth, sex, or power. The same I think could be said of The Buddha.

    Whatever one thinks about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Cynthia's work on what she calls The 5th Way is very powerful. She points out that the Christian tendency for spiritual aspirants has been to reject sexuality as an inferior, baser human emotion. Most Christian mystics have been celibates. Her writings (picking up some themes of earlier writers) have emphasized the ways in which sexual fidelity and committed relationship may be an even deeper way than the celibate path. Similar stuff from Robert Masters.

    Does that respond to your comment?

  • Comment Link Neri Bar-On Thursday, 22 September 2011 05:33 posted by Neri Bar-On

    Dear friends,

    1. Gafni is no Jesus (he maybe consider himself as such with his claimed spiritual concept inovation but the teaching of "love" by Gafni clearly not have what Jesus broght to us)

    2. The issue of Gafni is not the Sex, it is in the WE space - this is the 3rd time that respected teachers who worked with him go away from him and say he should not teach.

    3. Gafni's shadow is not within Sex it about control and ego-centered that make him untrusted as a teacher. We can seperate between the contex of his teaching and the persona as Wilber suggest but his position as a teacher need to be questioned, he can write books, and justify his "love" concept but it is advice to keep distance from the persona, especially if you are seeker of the beuty,truth and Good.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 22 September 2011 16:38 posted by Chris Dierkes

    thanks for the comment Neri. The power dynamic (in all of us) is a good one to bring out. Sex (2nd chakra) and power (3rd chakra) are really closed related.

  • Comment Link Jeff Bellsey Thursday, 22 September 2011 19:35 posted by Jeff Bellsey

    @Chris: wonderful article, as always.

    @Neri: I agree with you here. IMO, the issue around Gafni is not so much sexual integrity (i.e., what happens between lovers), but integrity *around* sexuality, in the broader WE-space.

    Issues of sexual ethics -- polyamory, student-teacher relations, etc. -- are fertile ground for unearthing shadow and eventually finding ease and sanity around sexuality and its developmental line.

    However, in the current situation, these issues can be a bit of a red herring. They can distract us from (IMO) the more relevant ethical questions of a spiritual teacher's responsibility within their community. Once you take to the podium, once you take on students, are you obligated to anyone other than yourself? If so, what are those obligations? Who will hold you to them? What kind of dynamic evolving integrity is possible and/or needed?

    (Of course, ethics in bed is one component of ethics in the broader WE-space. So I don't mean to minimize sexual ethics, which I hold a lot of energy for.)

    Burning in my mind these days is the meta-sangha for spiritual teachers, originally proposed (iirc) by the Integrales Forum in April 2010. Other than Thomas Hubl's recent comments, there has been amazingly little chatter about this. Perhaps now is the time? And just as importantly, perhaps now is the time for that to emerge amongst our second-round community leaders, before anything else hits the fan.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Thursday, 22 September 2011 23:32 posted by Philip Corkill

    Yes Chris, that's very helpful.

    So it sounds to me like Marc Gafni set himself up to some extent. His current views are aligned with what he did and there are some interesting points there (although it looks suspiciously like they may have evolved to suit the occasion). But what he did is not aligned with what he said he would do and what he committed to. It all has a weird, not so straight and unnecessarily complicated ring to it.

    Gafni aside, I can relate well to the standards you learned. It's my experience too, that being honest and thereby making space in the light of your awareness for the feelings that are there and then learning not to have to act on those impulses is a very valuable way through.

    I think there is more to learn about what else can be done or experienced directly with the energy that is called forth by an encounter. Also there can be a bundle of unmet needs and other stuff projected into the equation. That can be a fruitful line of inquiry.

    These situations are challenging but not too difficult when it is mainly a sexual thing but it gets more difficult when there is a romantic aspect, a love experience, and even more so when the encounter releases some kind of prayer or there are experiences of communion. There can also be a sort of guru principle at work that calls forth a response of devotion. Confused with each other all those can lead to havoc.

    I like to simplify it down to three qualities of attraction that can happen separately or coincide between two people: Sex, love and communion. Discernment of their differences, without condemnation or rejection as inferior, is helpful.

    The honesty approach about what's really there and an awareness of the way each functions can go a long way. Positive expressions of each can also cause confusion when hidden.

    The point about intimacy also really speaks to me. I was in a master/disciple relationship for a long time. There was no sexuality between us but it was clearly the most intimate relationship in my life at that time.

    Do you think clergy and spiritual teachers have comparable functions and responsibilities?

    And fascinating stuff about Jesus, Mary, the mystics and spiritual partnership. Thanks for that.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Thursday, 22 September 2011 23:59 posted by Philip Corkill

    and Neri, I agree with you, I wasn't trying to suggest that Gafni and Jesus are of similar calibre. Just wondering if he lived an inspiring example concerning sex as he is said to have in so many other aspects of life.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 23 September 2011 17:38 posted by Chris Dierkes


    That's a really helpful framing. Sex isn't the only arena where this is true, but in my experience it's certainly one in which how we tend to show up in that frame has implications for how we show up everywhere. Things like power, transparency, forgiveness, humility, expression of desires & needs, conditioning, all these come out through sexual relationships.

    I too would really like to see more done around the meta-sangha. Right now I see too many teachers invested in their images, power, insights, micro-communities, and money making processes to really get involved in that. But maybe that's too pessimistic.

  • Comment Link Paul Williams Sunday, 25 September 2011 18:35 posted by Paul Williams

    The problem for the integral movement is that teachers and gurus are always looked upon as ambassadors and examples of the the result of following their instruction. the universal problem of teaching in general is that it involves intimate level interaction with students and involves subjects deeply important and close to the heart. When we get to really know people we often grow to love them. And when we grow to love them we (men especially) also want to fuck them. Evolution tends to reward those who reproduce. If we all waited for the perfect balance of maturity and relational power dynamics hailed by Robert A. Masters before bumping uglies, humanity would have become extinct centuries ago. Until we find a way to transcend our evolutionary biology, we need to find a way to live with men who use their alpha male status to attract females and females willing to offer sex in exchange for increased contact with alpha males.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Sunday, 25 September 2011 21:07 posted by Philip Corkill

    @Chris and Jeff,

    Aren't Gafni's attempts at a Centre for World Spirituality an attempt to create something like a meta-sangha?

    If so, has he fu**ed the effort up (scuse the shabby pun) with these controversies?

    If not, what are you looking for in a meta-sangha?

    We're at the Idea Mechanics here. Seems to me like a good place to start some basic construction and modelling (Maybe not right here on this thread).

    And, yeah, I hope you're being a bit too pessimistic Chris. I see at least some teachers trying to get their money making processes aligned with their values. Another area that will otherwise be wrought with controversy.

  • Comment Link Joe Tuesday, 27 September 2011 01:38 posted by Joe

    Hi Chris,

    I'm passing along a link that any reader interested in this story ought to read.

    Don't want to comment specifically on your post at this time, but thank you for writing on this minefield of a topic. Can't help but think you are holding back on any explicitly Integrally informed analysis of post-conventional sexuality, though, maybe owing to your Canadian politeness. ;-)

    All the best,

    ~ Joe

    P.S.: Your blog's login password/retrieve password functionality appears to be broken.

  • Comment Link Trish Tuesday, 27 September 2011 04:58 posted by Trish

    Hi everyone. My free time comes in spurts, and so it can be a week to ten days between my opportunities to read, reflect, and post.

    @Chris. I did my M.A. work on the potential use of Habermas' discourse approach on decision-making in medical ethics. I did my Ph. D. work with Judith Berling, Clare Fischer, and Ian Reader--pilgrimage and the social construction of the self.

    @philip. There's nothing in the gospels that provides any specifics sense of Jesus' take on these kinds of issues. Certainly, many of his relationships with men and women were considered inappropriate by the Pharisees and Scribes. When questioned about his relationships with sinners, he offers the "good shepherd" parable. There is one potentially helpful story: his stance with regard to the sinful woman is clear: we should not judge others. Moving out of the Gospels, Christianity has 2000 years of explicit (I think) teachings around sexual ethics, and 2000 years of error, abuse, and sin (for lack of a better word)--and many would argue has yet to come to wisdom or maturity about sex.

    I am grateful to the GTU for grounding my understanding of pastoral/clergy ethics in a more diverse religious context. These ethics are generally "conventional:" celibacy and monogamy are the norms, but in the last 20 years, the dynamics of power, control, and trust have been deeply explored by many traditions. Among those teachings that invoke a different sexual ethic, there is STILL a strong sensitivity to teacher-student relations. And most ethicists concur: because these relations exist within the context of a community and frequently involve disparate power and secrecy, inappropriate (of many types) relations have the power to do great harm; thus, they are proscribed.

    Many, many groups have developed training in professional ethics. I feel (and I say this with care as I am new to this community), that there is a general disregard for such training as it tends to have been created within and for "conventional" norms. But given everything I have seen so far, I would argue that those discussions have a great deal to offer. Why?

    One of the consistent arguments is that the conventional norms create the problems that are transcended in post-conventionally. However, what I have actually SEEN is rationalization. I found Marc Gafni's apology (in the classical sense of an apology) to be a perfect example of this (relations between teachers and students should be avoided, but teachers can decide when to break this rule, and if students consent, then, and if, then, and if, then). I found most of the piece specious. It is totally inadequate as a base for a post-conventional clerical/pedagogical ethic. Those conventional approaches might give us a far better place to start.

    @Jeff: all of the above matters with regard to your question: the answer is yes. Once you take your "seat" as teacher (clergy, spiritual teacher, teacher-teacher--yes they are analogous), things change: your self, your existing relationships, your students, the community, etc. How do we hold power, and how are our powerful human drives--physical, emotional, and intellectual--manifest within that holding? There are reasons that we are recognized as teachers. And, that doesn't mean we are not students in many aspects of life! Our expertise in one thing does not mean expertise in many things.

    And, Paul, you are absolutely right about how the attraction, and the power, works.

    I don't know about a "super" sangha. I have been sitting with that idea for awhile. I guess it depends on the membership of that group and the process by which they will work together, to be accountability structures for each other?Do only the "tier" of teachers decide who participates and is a student voice present? These questions reflection my personal commitment to creating communal structures (rather than autonomous ones) for developing ethics.


  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Wednesday, 28 September 2011 00:18 posted by Philip Corkill

    Hi Trish, thank you for taking the time.

    I'm so enjoying being in the company of folks who are so mature and articulate. I'd like to grow in that direction:-)

    I think it's good that this thread isn't filling up with Joe's call of assuming we know more than we do. That it's more about the issues than about Marc Gafni personally. Even though I didn't say much, I feel I might have missed the mark on that point by engaging in speculation at all. I'm really an outsider as far as Marc is concerned and the integral community too, so far.

    But nobody is an outsider when it comes to perspectives on sex and spiritual teachers.

    Three pointers I've picked up here from Christianity that I like are:

    1. Chris's in Christianity we would say, "all have fallen short of the glory of God."

    2. Jesus's stance that Trish describes as "we should not judge others" and

    3. The fact/example that Jesus maintained relations with "sinners".

    That may not be integral but I find it provides a simple, helpful and challenging place to stand that would do the integral blogosphere - an alarmingly vitriolic place that I've really had my first encounter with here - a world of good. There's my judgement;-)

    If said blogosphere is an example or reflection of the state of integral ethics, I would say bring on those conventional approaches and the ethics training you mention Trish.

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions