The sexualization of spirituality has a long tradition in most non-Western religious traditions and is especially prominent in Hindu tantric yoga, which strongly influenced Tibetan Buddhism. Sex was utilized as a means to unite with the goddess, in one of her several guises. It also emerged in Chinese Taoist traditions, where it was integrated into speculations of longevity and immortality.
In the West, sexual activity was to a large extent denigrated and identified with original sin. Thus the idea of positively integrating sexuality and religion was considered somewhat scandalous. With the emergence of alternative forms of spirituality, however, new attention was given to sexuality.
Within Spiritualism a new attention to sexuality began quite early as the basis of the concept that would become known as "soul mates." Early speculation would be passed on to Pascal Beverly Randolph, an eclectic physician who specialized in marital problems. Randolph developed a teaching of occult sexuality centered upon a hypothesized energy transfer between couples during intercourse. His ideas led directly to a full-blown "sex magick" as embodied in the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), a German magic order founded in the 1890s.
Through the nineteenth century the basic problem in ceremonial magic was the building of energy for the accomplishment both of mundane goals and the great work of union with the ultimate. A variety of different methods, from chanting to using mind-altering drugs, was used. The Ordo Templi Orientis proposed that sex was the best means of raising such energy. The order developed a degree system that taught basic magic practice and then introduced sexual techniques at the eighth (autoerotic) and ninth (heterosexual intercourse) degree levels. Through the early decades of the twentieth century, sex magic was the great secret of the OTO.
Independently of the OTO, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), a former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who had formed his own small group, pursued his development of magic through attempts to repeat some of the operations described in older texts. In 1909 he was in Egypt attempting to understand works of magic originally described by Elizabethan magicians John Dee and Edward Kelly. Assisting Crowley was Victor Neuburg. In the midst of these studies Crowley was inspired to conduct his first act of sex magic, with Neuburg as his partner. Crowley's work led to the publication The Book of Lies, which contains, in allegorical phrasing, some of the insights on sex and magic he had acquired.
Following the publication of The Book of Lies, Theodor Reuss, the outer head of the order of the OTO, contacted Crowley and complained that he had published the secret of the OTO. The result of their encounter was Crowley's induction into the OTO and his quick rise to a position of power as head of the British section. He then succeeded Reuss as outer head of the order. Crowley rewrote the ritual material for the order and added an eleventh, homoerotic, degree. Crowley also experimented with sex magic at an intense level over the next decade and kept detailed journals of his endeavors.
Through the decades after World War I several other sex magic groups were born, most founded by former members of the OTO. They included the Fraternal Saturni (Germany) and the Choronzon Club, also known as the Great Brotherhood of God (United States).
The OTO itself was never a large organization and few knew about and practiced its sex magic techniques. Crowley was succeeded by Carl Germer, whose administrative leadership was almost nonexistent. Through the 1950s the secret materials were dispensed to a variety of people internationally. Germer died in the early 1960s without designating a successor, and the order fell into chaos. In the meantime a set of Crowley's papers were deposited at the Warburg Institute in London and became known to various British magicians (especially Kenneth Grant ).
Then in 1969 Louis Culling, a former member of the OTO who had left to join an American offshoot, published the Complete Magick Curriculum of the Secret Order of the G.B.G., and shortly thereafter a commentary on it, A Manual of Sex Magick. Beginning with the publication in 1972 of an edited edition of Crowley's Magical Diaries, which contained the account of some of his sexual experiments, within a decade all of Crowley's writings on sex magic and all of the secret materials of the OTO were published. These books provided the basis for the spread of sex magic throughout the Western world. At the same time, through the Bihar School of Yoga in Bengal, the sexual teachings of Indian tantra were for the first time spread to the West in such detail that tantric practice could be institutionalized.
From the 1980s to the present a host of different sex magic groups drawing upon the Crowley/OTO tradition have arisen. At the same time a number of tantric groups (and a few Taoist groups) have also appeared. While each tradition seems to be aware of the other and has some superficial similarity in its use of sexual intercourse for religious and magical ends, they have remained separate. The Western and Eastern teachings on sexuality are quite different. While the same basic practices are present in both Eastern and Western forms of occult sexuality, the ideas under which they were organized do not easily mix.
Crowley, Aleister. De Arte Magica. San Francisco: Level Press, .
——. The Magical Record of the Beast 666. Edited by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant. Montreal: Next Step Publications, 1972.
Culling, Louis, ed. A Manual of Sex Magick. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1971.
King, Francis, ed. The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973.
——. Sexuality, Magic, and Perversion. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972.