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The Heart and Soul of Sex: Making the ISIS Connection

The Heart and Soul of Sex: Making the ISIS Connection
Gina Ogden, PhD
2006. Trumpeter, Boston

We live in a culture that simultaneously obsesses about and refuses to recognize sex (along with death, money, and power) in a meaningful way. We are constantly exposed to conflicted messages about sex, and whatever understanding we have of this powerful force is usually twisted beyond recognition. Gina Ogden says, "The national conversation about sex trivializes women's most meaningful experiences" (iv). In The Heart and Soul of Sex, Ogden moves us far beyond the assumptions of the dominant culture into a powerfully affirming way to view ourselves as sexual and spiritual beings.

A sex therapist since 1974, Ogden began in the mid-90s to develop a unique survey called ISIS (Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality), which investigates sexuality, love, relationship, commitment, religion, spirituality, intimacy, safety, empathy, and communication. Ogden notes the synchronicity of the acronym — ISIS being the name of a long-revered Goddess who searches for and gathers missing parts and from them creates wholeness.

The ISIS themes notably contrast with the mid-60s sex research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Still considered the standard by which all subsequent sex research is measured, their work mapped out the phases of orgasm — a sexual response cycle that "defines our experience of sex strictly in terms of physiology and performance." (4) These previous sex surveys gathered and quantified data on the physiology of sex, "But they don't move us toward understanding the deeper purpose of sex in our lives or the power sex has to change our minds, our relationships, and our bodies." (x)

As an independent researcher, Ogden was able to craft her survey to study the issues she'd seen in private practice. Unfettered by academic or funding institutions, Ogden pursued her goal of letting women tell "…this particular story because our voices are so vastly underrepresented in sex research." (14)

Answered by nearly 4,000 people whose demographics spanned several decades, genders, lifestyles, classes, and cultures, the ISIS survey identified "themes that are universal to women's sexual well-being" (17) and go far beyond the performance standard (how much, how often, how long, how many, did you score?) that permeates most North American conversations about sex. The responses merged into several key findings:

  • Sexual response is multidimensional (more than just a physical experience).
  • Erotic satisfaction is primarily experienced in the context of relationship.
  • Connecting sexuality and spirituality promotes personal and cultural healing.

The ISIS bottom line: "Our most intimate relationships form a template for all our relationships — with ourselves, our partners, our community, our environment, and with the world of spirit and divinity."

Perhaps these findings seem self-evident to those of us in the Goddess movement. We pagans love to talk about our path being sex-positive, and yet many of us know what Ogden says: "Too often sex is used as a form of social control rather than a way of connecting deeply with one another." (10) Despite our talk about loving our bodies and our planet, I wonder if even we on the spiritual path realize fully what Ogden calls the ISIS bottom line: "Our most intimate relationships form a template for all our relationships — with ourselves, our partners, our community, our environment, and with the world of spirit and divinity." (22)

I am deeply concerned that fuzzy boundaries around sex are a major source of pain and confusion in pagan communities.

Indeed, I am deeply concerned that fuzzy boundaries around sex are a major source of pain and confusion in pagan communities. Furthermore, these same communities often justify the lack of boundaries: "We are better than/not uptight like the Christians. I am my own authority. I create my own reality."

Ogden delves much more deeply in her spiritual explorations, recognizing "that the rich connections between women, sex, and spirit trace back to the most ancient of cultures" and co-creation with the Great Mother. (10) In seeking a new model to teach about the responses to the ISIS survey, Ogden created a wheel with four major paths — physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental — that lead to the center of healing, transformation, and magic. Ogden devotes a chapter to each of these paths and to the center, and I found every part of the model she describes to be deeply affirming and exciting.

Ogden says that most of her clients come to her wondering if they are normal. "At the beginning of the twenty-first century sexual normality is still largely measured against the old Masters-and-Johnson performance model — physical arousal, intercourse, and orgasm. If this isn't what 'does it' for you, you're left pretty much having to guess at what normal is." (111) Ogden has found it helpful to compare and contrast the performance model of sex with the ISIS model as a way of helping women make their own self-assessments.

She goes on to say, "The performance model is based on intercourse and physical orgasm. The problem comes when your partner's not a man or if intercourse isn't your thing. Or when a goal of orgasm becomes an on-demand performance that inhibits other kinds of sexual expression." How affirming to read that ISIS research "shows that if you're in a strictly performance-based relationship, you're likely to experience a high degree of sexual constraint, fragmentation, and numbness." (111)

All I can say is, I wish I had known this information 40 years ago. Or that I had been able to realize and embrace it as recently as two years ago, because it certainly would have saved me much anguish. Of particular interest to me is Ogden's attention to emotional and spiritual safety — how paramount is the atmosphere of trust and intimacy that allows us to share deeply and thus experience full sexual expression. I have many young friends, and in talking with them about sex, I am saddened to learn how the cultural norms still objectify women and label them dysfunctional.

In contrast, Odgen says that ISIS, along with the latest in brain research, shows that "We're hardwired for … sexual complexity," (112) and "Laboratory science is beginning to show that the routes to ecstasy, mystery, and magic run through the intricate miles of circuitry that transverse our brains." (121)

The Heart and Soul of Sex is a tremendous resource that women can use to counteract a lifetime of misinformation. Stories from Ogden's clients and survey respondents describe ecstatic union with divinity. These stories blend with beautiful rituals, breath exercises, meditations, and matrixes that help women walk the different paths of the ISIS wheel. The book also includes the entire ISIS survey and its responses by percentages. Ogden encourages readers to visit her website www.GinaOgden.com to learn more details. Written warmly and empathically, The Heart and Soul of Sex is also funny and engaging. Ogden provides pages of juicy resources to help us broaden and deepen our view of sex.

After reading this uplifting book, I agree with one of the women who completed the ISIS survey: "To hell with happiness-I want ecstasy."

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