The problem of spiritual teachers seducing or sexually exploiting their students tarnishes every spiritual tradition, in seemingly every culture. This widespread misconduct has created scandal after scandal for these teachers, and much suffering for their students and spiritual communities.
There is much we can all do to prevent such misconduct. For starters, we can learn to recognize, question and sometimes counter exploitative spiritual teachers’ most common seduction lines:
- “I’m acting from a higher plane.” Maybe, but you’re getting exploited and manipulated on this plane. Encourage the teacher to have sex with someone on that other plane instead.
- “It’s a spiritual initiation.” Spiritual initiations are fine, but they don’t need to involve sex with the teacher. Ask for the initiation without the sex; if the teacher insists that the two are inseparable, turn down both.
- “I’m enlightened. I’m not subject to the laws of karma like most people.” Ask the teacher to demonstrate this by running naked across six lanes of heavy traffic. (How does a teacher’s enlightenment—whether real or imagined—enable you to avoid cause and effect? It’s like saying, “I’m a brilliant mathematician, so you’re not subject to the laws of physics.”)
- “It’s what God wants.” This takes two common variations: (1) “It’s okay for us to have sex—we were husband and wife in a previous life.” (Does this mean if I was your guard dog in a former life, I can come to your home and bite strangers?); (2) “I’ve prayed to God long and hard about this, and He’s given us His blessing to sleep together.” (What if the teacher prays even longer and harder, and God gives him His blessing to have sex with your kids, too?).
- “It will loosen you up, help you become more open.” So will 20 minutes of hatha yoga or 90 minutes of massage. So will a self-induced orgasm.
- “I’m filling you with deep spiritual energy” or “I’m opening you to Divine love.” You’re already filled with deep spiritual energy and Divine love; they’re why you got interested in spirituality in the first place. You don’t need to get them from someone else.
- “I’m helping you break some of your deepest attachments.” Attachments are typically broken by painful, disillusioning experiences, and the teacher is about to provide some.
- “I’m completing (or blasting away) a big piece of your karma.” And adding a big new piece to the karma pile.
- “I’m acting out of nonduality.” How does acting from nonduality justify exploitation or manipulation? Would it be okay if the teacher broke into your home, trashed it, and punched out your kids, so long as he did it out of nonduality?
- “I’m worshipping the One in you.” Worshipping the One in you (or anyone) is great, but it certainly doesn’t require sex. Say yes to the worship and no to the sex.
- “It’s a spiritual teaching.” Ask the teacher these questions: Why is sex with you the only possible means of receiving this teaching? Why are all other forms of instruction insufficient? And why must you be my sexual partner? Can’t I learn or experience the same thing with my own partner, with some advance guidance from you? You might also ask, How many old or unattractive people have you given this special teaching to?
- “This is how it’s been done in my country/sect/culture/tradition for many generations.” Possibly true. But this justification has been used for centuries to support clitorectomies, widow burning, racism, anti-Semitism, the binding and crippling of young girls’ feet, the murder of newborn girls, and mass murder.
- “I’m beyond lust” or “I have no desires.” (1) This is probably a lie. (2) How does being “beyond lust” or “having no desires” justify sexual exploitation? Would it be okay for your teacher to spit on you if he assured you he was beyond salivation? (3) What does being “beyond lust” even mean? (4) Especially when the speaker is clearly aroused.
- “It’s just energy going from one part of the universe to another.” By this definition, so are pushing a pie into the teacher’s face, spraying him with seltzer, or putting a poisonous spider down his shirt. Ask him if he’s okay with your doing these things.
- “I’m testing your faith. Do you trust me or not?” Correct answer: “Not anymore.”
- “I need to find out if I can trust you.” Implication 1: The best (or only) way to find out if someone is trustworthy is to ask them to have sex with you. Implication 2: If the person does have sex with you, they’re trustworthy; if they don’t, they aren’t. This would make prostitutes the most trustworthy people on the planet—and celibates and whistle-blowers the least.
- “If you ever expect to learn from me, you must never question me or my actions.” Don’t be like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed, Lady Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, or the Dalai Lama—all of whom questioned spiritual authority. Be more like Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, who never questioned the actions of the man she so deeply admired.
- “To you it looks like abuse or exploitation, but it’s not. You don’t see what’s really happening here, but I do.” Translation: “Don’t trust your own heart, mind, or gut. Instead, trust me.”
- “There’s no doer; there’s just doing. There is no ‘you’ or ‘I,’ so how can there be abuse or exploitation?” This is the cheesiest dodge of all. True, from a mystical perspective, there’s no doer or doing, no good or bad, no right or wrong, no life or death, no pain or pleasure, no consent or exploitation, no specifics of any kind; everything is One. But we also live in the relative realm, where we need to pay our taxes and lock our doors; where people sometimes try to manipulate us; and where we need to protect and defend ourselves from such folks.
- “It’s crazy wisdom (or left-handed tantra or skillful means).” The phrase crazy wisdom usually refers to spiritual guidance or insight that is expressed in counterintuitive or supra-rational form. Wielded appropriately by wise teachers, crazy wisdom can be an enormously helpful teaching tool. But there is no valid reason why crazy wisdom needs to involve sex between you and your teacher. Doubt the wisdom but not the craziness—and get away quickly.
Adapted from Sex and the Spiritual Teacher by Scott Edelstein (Wisdom Publications), who has studied “happily and productively” with several spiritual teachers. He is the author of numerous articles on spirituality and 15 other books on a wide range of subjects.