I owe a lot to tantra.
Not only have I spent a lot of time around tantra communities, it has greatly benefited my ability to have a deeper, more fulfilling sexual/sensual life.
In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this essay if I didn’t think sexual awakening is incredibly important. We live in a sex-negative culture that disconnects us from our bodies, and disconnects our hearts from our sex. Tantra teachers are doing a lot to help us collectively heal from that.
It’s because I love this thing called tantra, that it pains me so much when teachers use it to persuade, gaslight and manipulate students for their own personal gain — and I see it all the time. That’s why it’s so important that folks just starting out (especially women) understand the risks associated with learning tantra, lest they go in blind and unaware of the dynamics at play.
Think of this essay as a beginners guide to spotting creepy tantra teachers. If you can weed out the bad ones, you can really benefit from this tradition that has helped, and will continue to help so many people.
Also, before we get started, it’s important that we understand that “tantra” is not tantra, in the sense that what we mostly think of as tantra today is “neotantra”, which is more focused on sex. Neotantra is the only thing I have experience with, so when I talk about “tantra” in this essay, know that I’m referring to neotantra.
Okay, so to get at the heart of how tantra can go wrong, we have to understand something I’m going to call Spiritual Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that has someone question their reality, especially if it furthers the manipulator’s agenda.
For example, a classic gaslighting phrase is “you’re too sensitive” when referring to someone stating their needs or boundaries. If done effectively, this will have the subject question whether or not their feelings are legitimate, ultimately making them easier to manipulate and persuade.
Spiritual gaslighting is when the explanations for why that person shouldn’t be feeling the way they do are related to spirituality. For example, someone could try and convince me to have sex with them by explaining that my rejection of their sexual advance is just a blocked “chakra”, or me not being sexually “free” enough. Then, of course, they could add that if I were more evolved or less broken, I would be more willing to engage with them sexually.
Gross, I know. But it’s get grosser.
Spiritual gaslighting is also used to deflect blame. Defensibly true statements will be used, but in a disingenuous way. The general tone is typically something like “it’s not me, it’s you”.
For example, if someone accuses me of being manipulative, I could respond by offering how their judgement of me is actually just a projection. They only judge me as manipulative because they judge the manipulative part of themselves, so this is really about them, not me. If those last two sentences are enough to make your head spin, then you get the point. The purpose of gaslighting is always to kill the conversation.
There is truth in the idea that what we judge in others is what we judge about ourselves, but if that’s the only basis for sensemaking, then it’s just a distraction.
Gaslighting uses the idea that someone’s reality is skewed because they are broken — but that’s why this is so complicated. Thanks to our bullshit culture we are broken. That statement is both true, and disingenuous.
That’s the reason gaslighting is so insidious — when we look at what people are saying out of context the statements can have merit, but when placed back in the context of manipulation we see that they’re purpose is not honest feedback, rather an agenda to get something.
That’s important, so I’ll restate it.
When you are being gaslighted, it’s not that what people are saying is untrue, it’s that the primary reason they are saying it is to further their agenda, not to benefit your self-realization. What they’re saying is a psychological smoke screen to get you to focus on your brokenness instead of your needs and your boundaries.
This is why the most devious gaslighters are people who understand psychology — they know exactly what buttons to push because they can see your blind spots and exploit them for their own gain.
The Fall of Man
Now that we understand what spiritual gaslighting is and why it’s so dangerous, let’s take a brutally honest look at the reason it’s so common for male tantra teachers to take advantage of their students.
I’m a man, and that makes me (as Dan Savage so eloquently says) a testosterone-soaked dick monster. When Dan Savage uses this term, he’s referring to the fact that the reality of being in a man’s body is that you want to stick your dick in all the soft things, all the time. It’s just what testosterone does, and that’s been confirmed in conversations I’ve had with trans men, who spent most of their lives as a woman, then started taking testosterone and all of a sudden wanted to fuck everything in sight.
Now let’s consider the archetype of the tantra teacher who gets busted for sexual abuse and misuse of power. We’ll call him Swami Vivekanandontgiveafuckaboutyou.
Swami V. is a guy who probably struggled with women growing up, but he’s also very intelligent, especially in the area of psychology. His gnawing sense of inadequacy led him to the tantra world, because it offered him the chance to be with the same hot, young women who wouldn’t give him the time of day before he donned a sarong and started leading tantra retreats in Bali.
Under normal circumstances, Swami V. would have just gone on to be your weird neighbor. You know… the one who makes lewd comments when your wife dresses up for a night on the town. Creepy, but ultimately harmless.
Instead, he climbed the ladder in the tantra world and became a well known teacher. Then, after years of teaching in the tantra circuit and enough women complaining, he found himself at the center of sex scandals involving countless students coming forward to accuse him of manipulation, sexual abuse and rape.
Of course he did.
What do you think happens when you put a testosterone-soaked dick monster, desperate to get laid, in charge of a handful of gorgeous women who are eager to learn about sex? Will he show up as his best self and demonstrate rock-solid integrity and good sense making?
It’s like chickens walking into a fox den and starting a conversation about the taste of chicken cordon bleu.
Swami V. will pull out all his best tricks to get in the pants of every young, hot woman he never got to hook up with in high school. And if that weren’t enough — he gets paid to do it.
This is why there are so many problems in the tantra community with men acting like idiots around women. Given the current state of tantric affairs, it’s inevitable.
Tantra Not Trauma
The good news is that once you learn to identify which tantra teachers are trustworthy and which ones aren’t, you’ll be on your way to avoiding sticky situations.
The bad news is that sexual healing is a long and complicated journey, and it seems as though every day a new “shaman” or “sexual healer” is born, ready to save all the traumatized women with his wand of light, or her “magic hands”. There are no standards for people who want to become sexual healers, so when you’re just getting started you don’t know the difference between someone who is actually safe to work with, and someone who is good at making it appear as though they are safe.
I’ve been around this community for over ten years, and it took me a long time to see through the veil of a lot of people I thought were upstanding teachers, only to find out their life behind the scenes was a shit show of addiction, manipulation and a complete lack of embodying what they teach.
There is also more innocent mistake at play here when it comes to teachers being trauma informed. Unless you’ve been through trauma yourself (and worked to heal from it) you’re probably ignorant to the kind of care that needs to be taken around folks who have experienced that. Trauma is a different world, and the mistake some tantra teachers make is waving the same wand over all their students, thinking that because it works for some it will work for all.
So what should someone do (especially a young woman) if they want to learn about tantra? Here’s a simple solution.
Start by Working with Women
I’ve gotten a lot of flack for this suggestion, but I believe someone just starting out with tantra, or any sacred sexuality practice, should start by working with same-sex teachers.
Are there shitty women teachers too? Absolutely, and there are other ways to be manipulated than sex — gaslighting and abuse happens around money and power too. This is definitely not a fool-proof plan, but as I’ve described above, tantra is a place where a lot of men have fallen through the cracks and are still teaching after years of bad behavior. That being said, I can say with confidence that right now (in 2020) your chances of landing in an actually safe container (versus a container you’ve been convinced is safe) is better with women.
There are other benefits to having a same sex mentor, aside from avoiding potentially dangerous situations. For women, coming together to support each other is absolutely essential in a world where our culture encourages women to compete with each other over men.
For straight men, there are real benefits to working with other men. We mostly reserve our sexuality for women, thanks to the massive affect of homophobia, so being in community with other men who are doing the same work is actually incredibly healing. Being in groups of men also shifts the focus off of women, which allows us to actually listen and tune into our inner experience and learn the nuances of our bodies better.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of creepy male-on-male situations that happen in the tantra world, so for some men, I’d actually recommend working with women as well.
Some people might hear my suggestion to avoid male teachers and feel like that’s too extreme. My point isn’t to prescribe black and white solutions, it’s to help people understand the actual risks at play with something like tantra, because I’ve seen the same patters happen over and over and over again.
For many valid reasons, tantra still operates in the shadows. Western culture hasn’t yet embraced many of the ideas that would have tantra become a widely welcomed path, so a lot of it has to happen in a “hush hush”, secret space. This adds to the difficulty of knowing who to trust, because the mainstream would have you think that any group where people are getting naked or talking about genitals is lewd and illicit.
I’ve come across tantra teachers who have been operating for 20, 30, sometimes 40 years, and after spending a weekend with them I’m shocked they aren’t in jail. I’m not kidding. These communities often operate in secret, and the result is people can get away with a lot more bad behavior. Many of these teachers simply move on once they’ve been kicked out of a community, because there are always new, naive organizers that are happy to buy their bullshit.
We must be more skeptical when it comes to people teaching sexuality. Any teacher that’s worth a damn understands this and will invite and welcome skepticism. They understand that trust is something that must be earned, not blindly given.
Conversely, anyone who meets skepticism with defensiveness is actually doing you a favor because they’re showing you who they are, and you can run the other way.
Let teachers prove their worth to you, not the other way around.
Get as many references as you can, and remember that most men don’t understand how creepy other men are. That’s because they haven’t experienced that person trying to get in their pants. Ask empowered women about their experience.
Let down your walls and open yourself at your pace, not the pace someone else thinks is “evolved” or “enlightened”. Fuck all that nonsense. The only way to actually be sexually free is to cultivate a deep sense of trust in yourself, and that often means trusting yourself beyond the advice of any teacher or guru.
No Journey Is Perfect
I was going to end this essay by reiterating the message of “be skeptical” but I’d like to take a moment to flip the script.
Yes, there are shitty tantra teachers out there. Yes, avoidable harm is being done by people who should quit teaching and get a therapist instead of host another retreat in Bali.
Yet, this path is worth taking.
Sexuality is messy. Even if we had standards for tantra teachers, there is absolutely no way to guarantee that you’ll be protected from harm, especially when it comes to something as tricky as sexual healing. The amount of therapists that sleep with their clients is shockingly high1, and they are professionals with years of training. Clearly some sort of training standards for tantra teachers (or anyone for that matter) wouldn’t be enough.
Sex is the marshmallow experiment for adults. It looks easy to resist from our perspective, but when you’re sitting in that room all by yourself and you have to stare at that tasty marshmallow for fifteen whole fucking minutes, knowing how good it would taste if you could just wrap your lips around that gooey, sugary miracle of human ingenuity…
Well, you might end up fucking the marshmallow.
Tantra teachers are human, and they’re in an environment that can turn even the most decent person into a 5-year old, but that’s life. Sometimes experiences of having our boundaries crossed can empower us to finally speak up for what we need. Sometimes teachers provide a great example of what not to do, and that’s valuable too.
I’ve been a part of some famously fucked up tantra communities and retreats. My friends and I have seen some shit that would be hard to believe if it were a fictional movie, and yet — for the most part people got through it. They brushed themselves off, felt their feelings and ultimately emerged stronger than before.
I don’t regret one minute of my time in the tantra world, and although I do my best to get real with the teachers who need to hear it, I’m under no illusion that they will change because I warn them. They also need to experience consequences, and sometimes the consequences of their bad behavior is the medicine they need to grow up. I know that’s been true for me.
Marshmallows are delicious.
Sex is complicated.
People are dumb.
For those looking to get into tantra, I also recommend reading Caroline Carrington’s piece, 10 Tips to Find a NeoTantra Teacher You Can Trust
- Sex between therapists and clients has emerged as a significant phenomenon, one that the profession has not adequately acknowledged or addressed. Extensive research has led to recognition of the extensive harm that therapist-client sex can produce. Nevertheless, research suggests that perpetrators account for about 4.4% of therapists (7% of male therapists; 1.5% of female therapists) when data from national studies are pooled. https://www.kspope.com/sexiss/sexencyc.php