ALICE BUNKER STOCKHAM

and

KAREZZA

by catherine yronwode


The illustration on this page is a Thai penis amulet
from the pages of the Lucky W Amulet Archive.

Karezza was a name coined (from the Italian for "caress") by Alice Bunker Stockham in the 19th century. It refers to non-religious spiritual sexual practices that draw upon tantric techniques of body control but do not involve any of tantra's cultural or iconographic symbolism.

Stockham, an OB-GYN from Chicago, and the 5th woman to be made a doctor in the United States, travelled to northern India to learn the "secrets" of tantra -- i.e. control of the orgasm response -- but she did not have any interest in Eastern religions and she felt that such addenda to the methods were not essential. Her view of spirituality was basically Quaker-Christian, and she fitted sacred sexuality into a Christian paradigm with no apparent difficulty.

A well-travelled and well-read person who counted among her friends Leo Tolstoy and Havelock Ellis, she also visited Sweden and from her trips to schools there she brought back the idea of teaching children domestic crafts, thus single-handedly establishing shop and home economics classes in the United States.

Stockham was a "reformer" in the true Victorian sense of the word. She lectured against the use of corsets by women, made public endorsements of the healthiness of masturbation for both men and women ("If God did not want you to experience these beautiful feelings, he would not have given you the ability to experience them or the desire to produce them"), advocated complete abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, and believed in women's rights. She promoted Karezza as a means to achieve:

1) birth control (she was against abortion but she wanted women to be able to control pregnancies);

2) social and political equality for women (she felt that "Karezza men" would never rape their wives and would actually treat them "decently");

3) marital pleasure and hence marital fidelity (she advocated Karezza as a cure for "failing marriages").

From the above description, it might seem that Alice Bunker Stockham was a severe person who got no fun from the esoteric sexual practices she studied and wrote about. Quite the contrary. Her book "Karezza" is filled with delightfully erotic descriptions of the "mutual satisfaction" to be had in "conjugal embrace." Likewise, her book "Tokology," a layperson's text on gynecology and midwifery, contains references to "increasing marital pleasure through the practice of male continence." (In case you are wondering, "tokology" is the Greek word for obstetrics.)

One more thing about Stockham: she was very concerned with the economic plight of divorced women with children and prostitutes who wanted to get off the street. She felt that these women had no marketable skills and would be unable to support themselves, so she had copies of "Tokology" privately printed and gave them to "unfortunate women" to sell door-to-door in Chicago. Each copy came with a bound-in certificate signed by Stockham and entitling the bearer to a free gynecological exam. My copy of this book still contains its certificate, and whenever i look at it, i feel a rush of admiration for the brave woman who did so much for her gender and for "mutual sexual enjoyment" -- and is so largely forgotten today.

Herewith a quote from the tenth edition of Alice Bunker Stockham's book "Tokology," published in 1884. (Remember -- this is a book on obstetrics, not tantra/Karezza; it only mentions sexual relationships in terms of contraception.)

"Many of the means used to prevent conception are injurious, and often lay the foundation for a train of physical ailments. Probably no one means is more serious in its consequences than the semen being discharged external to the vagina. The act is incomplete and unnatural...

"Some of the appliances sold for the purpose [of contraception] are a sure preventive by mechanical interference. If the material is pliable [she is probably referring to a condom] the only positive injury is from preventing the complete interchange of magnetism...

"The method adopted by the Oneida Community is also adopted with complete satisfaction by many married people. In this the sexual relation is entered upon but not carried to completion. Some call it sedular absorption. No discharge is allowed. People practicing this method claim the highest possible enjoyment, no loss of vitality and perfect control of the fecundating power. Those interested in this subject are referred to a pamphlet by Rev. Mr. Noyes [John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community]."

From these brief allusions it can be seen that Stockham subscribed to the "interchange of magnetism" theory popular among 19th century sexual-spiritual teachers. This theory, or its "interchange of electrical currents" counterpart, underlies most 19th century Western neo-tantra.

Stockham's interest in birth control (and mind you, she had to be very careful in how she phrased herself in print at this time, as disseminating information on contraceptives was illegal) could not overcome her fear that a mechanical sperm barrier would prevent "the complete interchange of magnetism."

The statement that external ejaculation was "injurious" sprang in part from the Biblical injunction against Onanism, but it also seems to have been seen as a failure of magnetic interchange.

Finally, she is seen here advocating "the Oneida method," then also known as "Male Continence," in which men refrained from ejaculation but women were encouraged to have contractive orgasms at will. Stockham's "Tokology" predates her book "Karezza" by several years and it was only in later writings that she went full-tilt into descriptions of sexual techniques that would be familiar to tantrikas -- and also began to promulgate the need for women to learn to control their orgasm responses in the same way that the men of Oneida did. Ultimately, Stockham rejected the "Male Continence" techniques of Noyes in favour of gender parity in orgasm control.

Are the antiquated writings of Alice Bunker Stockham still relevant today?

I believe so. Specifically, i believe that Stockham's outspokenly equalitarian ideas about spiritual sexuality have great value in opening channels of discussion between those who advocate traditional tantra yoga in the West today, and those who, although interested in the spiritual benefits of tantra yoga, have difficulty accepting Hindu attitudes toward women's role in society. Understanding Stockham's writings has helped me formulate my own position vis-a-vis those traditional tatra yoga that deal with sexuality.

For me, Stockham's gender-parity version of tantra yoga, despite its somehwat anti-orgasmic, and thus anti-hedonistic bent, serves as an important counter-point to the male-centered aspects of traditional tantric sexual practices. In order for you to understand why this is so meangful to me, i need to digress and give -- from my personal, Western, female, democratic viewpoint -- my own rather unflattering opinion of traditional tantra yoga, as i have studied it through books and limited contact with living Indian-born gurus. What follows is my opinion only, and i do not wish to engage in debate about it, merely to label it "personal opinion," and have it be understood as such.

, It has been my personal experience that traditional Hindu tantra teachers, regardless of whether they come out of a Saktiite or a Saivite religion, tend to emphasize the conservation and/or elevation and/or self-re-absorption of male bindu ("seed," meaning semen, prostatic fluid, et al) as an important method of tantra yoga that will lead the disciple to liberation from future rebirths. And there is no place in that schema for the female except as a hand-maiden to the male aspirant's spiritual attainments.

Most Indian teachers of tantra yoga in the West utilize the kundalini / chakra model of human energetics, which has long-standing traditional links to some schools of tantra yoga. Under this model, a teacher may emphasis "raising" the bindu to the crown chakra for the purpose of realizing "bliss" (ananda) -- but bindu is a male attribute, and thus women are not direct disciples, but rather are honored as the Sakti or "power" of the male aspirant. Under this scheme, there is no role for the spiritual liberation or even the "bliss" of women through orgasm-control, as they have no ejaculate or bindu to control, re-absorb, or "raise."

On the other hand, in the extreme ascetic saddhu schools of tantra yoga -- especially among the Nagas -- orgasm-control is strictly a mechanical matter. The disciple's penis may be in various ways mutilated or deformed so that orgasm cannot occur. Naga saddhus tend to weight and stretch the penis with heavy rocks, then tie it into knots; padlock the genitals closed with heavy steel chains and locks; have the suspensory ligament of the penis cut through so that erection is impossible; and/or stretch the penis until it can be wrapped around a stick to keep it tied up. Personally, i find this school of tantra yoga to be remarkably anti-sexual, prudish, and shame-based, penalizing healthy young men for having erections and orgasms -- but regardless of my opinion, there is no role for women in the Naga scheme of heroic genital self-mutilation, because without an impressively large external genital organ to mutilate, there is no spiritual work for women to do.

Even among married householders practicing traditional tantra yoga, there a distinction can be found in written texts between sex for reproduction and ritual sex as a means toward spiritual liberation -- and in the latter instances, avoidance of orgasm for the male is strictly taught. Furthermore, in the vama marga schools, it is sometimes advocated that men not engage in ritual sex with their wives, but only with female teachers or with random females chosen for their social unsuitability, especially their low caste. Although the idea here is to teach the male student to transcend the physical and social norms of sexuality and open the heart to the beauty of spiritual-sexual union anywhere, the practical by-product of this technique are to promote low-caste women as a form of specialized whore whose function is to assist men in their search for spiritual liberation.

What has always struck me as curious about these various sexual teachings of traditional tantra yoga is that they make no mention of the female orgasm at all. It simply does not seem to appear on the ancient Hindu map of spirituality. Female orgasm is not to be avoided -- because there is no visible bindu to raise or re-absorb and no highly visible erections to eliminate. Likewise, female orgasm is not to be encouraged -- seemingly because female orgasm does not "count" in the tantric scheme of things.

In my opinion, one reason for this utter avoidance of the SUBJECT of female orgasm in a religious path that has produced many written treatises and living traditions concerned with manipulating, controlling, or eliminating male orgasm is that in much written Hindu doctrine, women, like animals, are considered to be the result of inferior births due to bad karma from past lifetimes. Once women are viewed as inherently low-born beings, instructing the spiritual liberation of women would be problematic at best, and so it would tend to be overlooked or obviated. The role of women is that of servants to men until, through good deeds in many lifetimes (including good deeds as teachers of orgasm-control to male aspirants or as low-caste-women who allow male students to have sex with them), they will achieve the state of being reborn as men and can finally undertake the work of spiritual self-liberation.

In contrast to these several schools of traditional Hindu tantra yoga, the methods advocated by Alice Bunker Stockham stand out in bold relief:

She was the first to implicitly remove the idea of conservation or re-absorption of bindu as the basis for spiritual liberation. She taught instead that both sexes felt a kind of "lassitude" after orgasm, which impaired their spiritual functionality. Therefore, she concluded, both sexes would benefit from the increased "vigour" resultant from orgasm avoidance. As a suffragist and medical doctor, she also promulgated karezza as a method of birth control, all mechanical-barrier forms of birth control being against the laws of the USA at the time.

Writing in the 1880s, when publishing any material about human sexuality was legally risky, she took a stance as a teacher who advised against female orgasm, believing this to be a gesture of parity with the avoidance of male orgasm that she had been taught in India. The wonder was not that she advocated against orgasm -- most tantric teachers do -- but that she actually mentioned and advocated a response to the FEMALE orgasm. This is could be argued that she was the first of the neo-tantrics. And in fact, her influence as such continues today, for all modern neo-tantric teachers, under direct historical influence of suffragist tantra students such as Stockham or her student Lloyd, or arriving at similar conclusions due to their own previous life-experiences in the secular and democratic nations of America and Europe, at least CONSIDER the issue of female orgasm in a spiritual context.

Perhaps because she was both a gynecologist and a suffragist, Stockham approached a truly scientific basis for understanding the spiritual benefits she believed were attendant upon orgasm avoidance -- namely, an effect that arises in the neurological hard-wiring shared by both men and women upon repeated sexual arousal and avoidance of orgasm. Thus she was the first tantra-trained teacher in the West to drop the Indian emphasis on the merely physical issue of semen-retention, which had left (and still leaves) the majority of traditional tantra yoga teachers preaching techniques for liberation from future rebirths for men ... and nothing at all for women. Her karezza method was the first form of spiritual sexuality that explicitely gave equality to women as aspirants to and reipients of the benefits of Siva-Sakti union.

Allow me to close with a quote from Stockham that does not bear upon tantra/Karezza, but demonstrates her place as a Victorian sex-reformer and general advocate for the physical freedom of women:

"I am a temperance woman. No one can realize more than I, the devastation and ruin alcohol in its many tempting forms has brought to the human family. Still I solemnly believe that in weakness and deterioration of health and moral principle, the CORSET has more to answer for than intoxicating drinks."

Go, Alice!

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