When we talk about “sexual (or relational) orientations,” we define them by who (or what) is the focus of desire. This is a shared, common concept in the U.S., other Western/industrial societies, and elsewhere. So when I state that “spectrosexuality is a sexual orientation,” this is what I mean. I mean that the desired one is a spirit being and a human person is the one who is experiencing the desire.
Erotically desired spirit beings include deities from numerous religions and pantheons, ghosts, demons, faeries and elves, spirit familiars, mermaids and selkies, nature spirits, and more. The desired spirits may be desired in a binary “same gender” context and/or a binary “opposite gender” context, or the spirits may be desired in a panerotic context, below (Stayton, 2020).
Human beings may also experience erotic spirit contact spontaneously, without having previous desire or inclination. Sometimes these sudden experiences can feel non-consensual and frightening. Sometimes they can feel transcendent and important. Some people may want more erotic spirit contact and may even view their dawning desire as an important component of their erotic and spiritual life, perhaps even to the point of identifying (at least in part) as a “spectro-sexual.” Some people may seek out such contact even without having previous experience, because they yearn for erotic connection with non-corporeal beings.
To discuss erotic human/spirit contact (“spiritu-intimacy” is a word for such incidents and experiences) and spectro-sexual identification in a supportive and sensible way, we don’t actually need to determine the “reality” of the desired ones. After all, we don’t question the reality of a person’s desire for a fetish object, or a specific type of experience, we just accept that desire as the starting point for our conversation and consideration. We can focus on the lived experience of the person who reports such an incident or experiences, and/or who has the active desire to seek such beings and experiences.
[This edited version contains some corrections in my use of the terms “sleep paralysis,” “night terrors,” and “incubus/succubus” experiences, thanks to definitions in Hufford, pp. 121-124.]
In Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and The Crisis of Belief (2002), Walter Stephens examined 15th and 16th century witchcraft treatises to discover why Christian theologians were so obsessed (really, really obsessed!) with demonic sex. I have just started reading the book at the same time as I’ve begun David J. Hufford’s book, below. They make for an interesting combination.
David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night (1982) was an early documentation of the phenomena known as “the Old Hag” in Newfoundland, which is similar to what was perceived as attacks by incubus and succubus demons elsewhere (starting centuries ago), and later (more scientifically), as sleep paralysis. However, Hufford does seem to distinguish special characteristics of the Old Hag experience.
While I am eager to understand more of Stephens’ research (as I proceed through the book) and his hypothesis that “proof of the physical evidence of demons–for instance, through evidence of their intercourse with mortal witches–would provide strong evidence for the reality of the supernatural, the truth of the Bible, and the existence of God” (quote from book cover, inner front flap), I feel certain that there was another strong motivation for this obession. David Hufford’s book provides the key.
I believe that some Christian theologians and clerics (and perhaps many of them) were obsessed because they were hell-bent on processing their own freaked-out shame over the incubus and succubus attacks that they themselves experienced. They may have been aroused as well as frightened (and thus, in their belief system, guilty of great sin), and terrified too that while sending witches of all genders to their death for “sex with demons,” they could also stand accused if their own (entirely involuntary) episodes came to light. It wouldn’t have been the first or the last time a hypocrite with something to hide meted out severe punishments to others accused of the exact same thing. (Think of the male politicians who advocate for strict laws against homosexuality and later get caught with male sexworkers.)
My hypothesis is reasonable. My current literature search shows that members of religious orders (however pious) were not immune from incidents of sleep paralysis. During those times–and even now–the terrifying combination of paralysis, chest pressure, a sense of malevolent presence, and sometimes experiences of nonconsensual sexual activity, etc. can be interpreted as an attack by a demonic incubus (male) or succubus (female). In 2020, a modern YouTuber, Summer Fox, posted a video about her experience titled “I Had Sex with a Sleep Paralysis Demon” and names “Incubus” as her demon attacker. Her interpretation of the events which disturbed her have much in common with 13th to 16th century views. The screenshot below is from an English translation of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 13th century The Dialogue on Miracles. As you can see below, two “lay-brothers” in a monastery are described as sitting up together as they have both experienced “night terrors” (which may have also referred to incubus/succubus attacks).
Evidence of attacks on religious communities can also be found in Poetics of the Medieval Dream. Christopher Collins writes:
“As the dominant literate class in medieval Europe, the clergy were most responsible for informing the laity as to the appearance and behavior of night terrors, (Stewart, 2002; Cheyne & Girard, 2004; MacLehose, 2013). Being committed to their vows of chastity, celibate monks and nuns knew all too well that Satan would send such demons to seduce them in their most vulnerable states” (p. 6, no date but post-2016).
Collins also makes the point that monks and nuns in religious orders were kept in a state of deliberate sleep deprivation (p. 7). This is interesting as modern researchers have discovered several factors associated with sleep paralysis, including sleep disruptions and deprivation, anxiety, stress, PTSD, panic disorder, and “anomalous beliefs” (abstract) (Denis, French & Gregory, 2017). If we consider what it was like to live in a 15th century convent or monastery, in an era of witch persecutions–with all the horror, trauma, and worries for personal safety that would entail–we can see these conditions could bring on all of the above factors, perhaps increasing the number of instances of night terrors and sleep paralysis for both clerical and lay people.
This sleep disorder (so often named as “sex with demons” or a demonic attack) was not limited to Europe. In my literature search I am finding references to from ancient Greece, China, and Persia. And that’s just a couple of weeks into my research! I expect to find much more as I go on.
In many parts of the world, sleep paralysis and night terrors are no longer seen as strictly paranormal experiences, or as evidence of paranormal contact, though some people may still interpret these experiences in that way. It is important to remember that sleep paralysis is involuntary–a person cannot “summon” a sleep paralysis “demon” though they can be susceptible to the experience due to the factors named by Denis, French and Gregory (2017). But it is certain that during the witch persecutions, thousands of people suffered and died as accused witches due to this unfortunate quirk of human physiology, which may have frightened a person under torture into admitting that they’d had such a thing happen to them. And this admittance would have both comforted and terrified attending inquisitors. After all the existence of demons must imply the existence of a god who would deliver believers from such horrors. This would seem to affirm Walter Stephen’s hypothesis of the demon lover as an agent of the Christian “crisis of belief.”
However, I am not a theologian or historian (or a sleep researcher) and it is easier for me to try to understand this topic from a sexological point of view. I note that while the “contact” with demons would seem (to a medieval mind) to be confirmed through the experiences of sleep paralysis, inquisitors pressed accused witches for demonic sex accounts that happened during waking (e.g. during a Sabbat ritual, for example). Inquisitors wanted confirmation of waking consent to sex with demons or the devil, and they wanted the surety of what would seem to be a corporeal, carnal account. (Stephens discussed religious debates about demon embodiment in chapter three of his book.) These accounts of embodied paranormal sex would distinguish clerics or inquisitors with a sleep paralysis history as innocent victims of demonic attacks, and differentiate their experiences from the willful sins of accused, persumably demon-copulating witches. And in this way, the clerics and inquisitors might be safe…
It’s a hideous thought that the sadistic torture and murder of thousands of accused witches may be due (in part) to the nightmares (and possible sexual obsessions) of religious men and women, and their inept coping mechanisms, enabled by a brutal, unforgiving theology.
Night terrors and sleep paralysis are only one type of reported erotic contact with paranormal or supranormal beings (though not all sleep paralysis incidents contain erotic elements). There are many other ways in which human beings engage in erotic, romantic, and emotionally charged devotional relationships with spirit beings. In my preliminary survey of pagans who reported some form of spirit sex or emotional intimacy (2019), only one of pagan respondents reported what seemed to be a sleep paralysis incident. The rest of the respondents reported contacts and practices that took place in waking or trance states, and were mostly (not always) desired or sought, or at least accepted after initial contacts.
There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, so expect a sequel blog.
Caesarius of Heisterbach. The Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. von E Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland. Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1929.
“Outlier” sexualities, behaviors, and relationships are popular fodder for media commodification and/or sensationalism. Let’s examine the specific format used by broadcast media when featuring people who experience or represent a particular gender, sexual, or relationship diversity (GSRD).
Television shows will frequently feature a guest who espouses a particular orientation, sexual practice, or type of relationship (GSRD) that is (1) presented as “shocking” in order to capture viewer interest. (2) Then the topic is briefly “normalized” through conversation with the show host(s) as the guest tells their story (usually–but not always–striving to present an appearance of “normality”). (3) Then an expert of some sort is thrown into the mix and asked for a few brief, superficial comments upon the “condition” or experience of the guest. (4) This tends to again position the guest and their sexual or relationship story as abnormal, as there is an implication that science or medicine is somehow monitoring the situation and preserving safety and “norms” through research and treatment of the outlier group. (As a sexologist who has studied objectum sexuality, I’ve sometimes been that person on TV). (5) Then allied print and internet media will publish their version of the storyline after the program airs, again emphasizing the odd or shocking details that can be gleaned from the broadcast. This then returns the GSRD guest and topic back to a status of deviance. (A sociologist interested in deviance theory would be better at explaining the nuances of this than I am.)
Meanwhile the show guest hopes that their appearance on the program will create more “awareness” and somehow benefit others who share their experiences and/or practices and orientations. But while “awareness” may have been generated, it is usually not accompanied by much understanding. This is true even with a fairly sympathetic TV host and/or expert.
The above is a typical treatment of emerging sexual and relational minorities. On the plus side, people do find each other and begin to form communities and offer peer support. On the negative side, the sexual and relational communities have become a commodity for media (again with little increase social, political, or clinical understanding).
Meanwhile the expert who has commented usually walks away with another addition to their resume and perhaps increased search engine optimization, but there is often little accountability to the community they have just defined.
Somehow this cycle needs to be subverted. I believe the televised expert has a duty to further understanding of the community, particularly with regard to research and improvment in clinical and mental health services for people in that group.
At the same time, people in the communities themselves can leverage each television appearance or other types of media coverage by organizing to promote greater understanding. Methods could include launching a number of community-written blogs, YouTube or Vimeo videos, podcasts, websites, social media posts, etc. that link to the original show or article and then DELIVER and EXPAND upon (more nuanced and complete) messages that the community wants to deliver.
I would even suggest (1) press releases to news organizations with quotes from community spokespeople; (2) letters delivered to medical and psychological assocations, advocating for better clinical understanding and practice; and (3) recruitment of advisory board members from medical, clinical, scientific, and ally organizations (forming a recommended speaker’s bureau and other opportunities for using “expert” opinions for more decisive advantage).
I’ll also note that there are some types of gender, sexual and relationship diversities where the “realness” of people’s experiences are questioned and disregarded, often in the form of both macro- and micro-aggressions. Examples include trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs) questioning the “realness” of transgender and non-binary identities and bodies; comments made to asexual people about how they just need to “try” sex to be cured of their orientation (“you just haven’t had the right partner/experience); unethical “conversion therapies” to “cure” a lesbian, gay, or queer person; determining that an orientation is the result of trauma, despite data that shows otherwise; insisting that something is a fetish or paraphilia instead of an orientation; and so on.
Spectrosexuality, God-spousing, and Spiritu-intimacy
In the context of this website, it is certain that individuals and communities of people who experience spectrosexuality, god-spousing, and spiritu-intimacy will also become more visible through the media process described above. Articles on “sex with ghosts,” “spectrophilia,” and other forms of erotic human/preternatural encounters are already popular on the internet. What can we learn from them? A few examples are linked below:
This post will feature an ongoing collection of music videos and songs that suggest, feature, or depict romantic, erotic, and/or sexual encounters of humans with spirit beings such as ghosts, gods, deities, demons, fairies, vampires, elves, and other supernatural/preternatural beings.
Check back soon for more additions.
Lil Nas X, Montero (Call Me By Your Name). 2021. Category: Devils/Demons.
Joan Baez, Silkie. 1960s. The first supernatural love song I ever heard. Category: Selkies.
Nina Hagen, cover of Hold Me. 1989. The love interest is a “rock god” angel. Category: Angels.
Nina Hagen, Cosma Shiva. The song celebrates her newborn. It ends with the line “God is Your Father!” Category: Unspecified Gods.
Cruxshadows, 2018 Of Angels. 2018. Category: Angels.
Annie Lennox, Love Song for a Vampire. Category: Vampires.
The Pretty Reckless, Take Me Down. 2016. Category: Devils/Demons.
The Moulettes, That Devil of Mine. Category: Devils/Demons.
Erutan, The Willow Maid. 2013. Category: Nature Spirits
David Bowie, Look Back in Anger. Category: Angels.
Legends, beliefs, and traditions regarding spiritu-intimacy come from many lands and cultures.
This morning I want to share from Mary Kawena Pukui & E.S. Craighill Handy’s excellent book, The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u, Hawai’i (Mutual Publishing, Honolulu. 1998.) Mary Kawena Pukui was one of Hawai’i’s most prominent and accomplished scholars. Many in her family were from the Ka’u district on Hawai’i Island. On pages 120-122, the authors have a section called “Spirits as Mates.”
Quote: “Occasionally, Hawaiians believed, an ‘aumakua [ancestral spirit] or a kupua [other spirit] came during the night and had marital relationship with a human being. This is referred to as kane or wahine o ka po (night time husband or wife).
Such relationship sometimes proved to be dangerous to the health and life of the person. Perhaps a man would become desperately in love with his wahine o ka po and would seek to sleep all the time so as to dream of her. He lost his appetite for food and as a result, sickened and died. Perhaps it was his wahine o ka po who would be so enamoured that she would coax his spirit to remain away from his body.” End Quote.
The section goes on to give Ka’u anecdotes about spirit-human relationships. The chapter also mentions children born of such relationships. The authors say a child “sired by an ‘aumakua” was said to be hard to raise–often mischevious and sometimes destructive “when a command given by its supernatural father was broken.”
With the creation of this website, I come to the realization that my professional career as a sexologist is likely to be bookended by inquiry into two rather unusual sexual orientations: Objectum Sexuality (OS) and Spectrosexuality (aka Spiritu-Intimacy).
How it started: As a newly minted sexologist (DHS, 2008) I stumbled onto a little known sexual orientation that had been previously consigned to a category of paraphilia. A desire for statues was known as Pygmalionism and any other erotic use of objects was also likely to be classed as a fetish, sometimes based on the type of object. However I found that Objectum Sexuals have full blown, complex emotional, romantic, sexual, and/or spiritual relationships with an array of object lovers. Some Objectum Sexuals are monogamous, some are not. Some detect gender or feel that an object’s gender is important, others do not. And what looks to us like “solo sex” is partner sex to them. If a beloved object is junked or destroyed, they grieve. If they have to negotiate access to a beloved public object and fail, they may experience frustration, anger, and unrequited love. There’s so much more that can be said.
You can download my 2010 article, Love Among the Objectum Sexuals, below. It was based on a non-scientific survey of English-speaking members of OS Internationale. In the article I propose that object personification synesthesia may play a role in the OS person’s detection and emotional response to object personalities. I also refer to OS as an orientation, not a paraphilia. The article has been widely read and I’ve had some media attention as a result.
Nearly ten years later, three English researchers published in Nature Scientific Reports. They refer to OS as an orientation and better yet, confirm that there is a connection to synesthesia (as well as autism). They refer to my survey and article on page one. You can download their article below.
I do so love the vindication the English study brings. I’ve felt for many years that my association with OS has made me an outsider in my field.
How It’s Going: Like OS, Spectrosexuality/Spiritu-intimacy is unusual, Human-spirit sexual encounters and energy intimacies have been labeled as “spectrophilia.” And while there are certainly people who get their kicks and their kinks this way, many people have found themselves in deeper, devotional relationships with spirit beings. Others have been baffled, embarrassed, or worse. Some encounters are a one time thing, never to repeat. Other people report being courted and pursued by spirits, and these relationships can last many years. Some encounters and relationships may be explicitly sexual and erotic, but deep emotional and/or devotional connections sans sex also exist.
I claim this as a full-blown, queer orientation for those who want go in that direction. And I recognize that others will simply enfold these episodes or relationships into other orientations and partner choices that already exist for them. There is no one right way to approach this. Better to acknowledge the full range of variety and behaviors and beings involved.
As I did with OS, I conducted a non-scientific survey from a group of neopagans who already reported some kind of preternatural/supernatural intimacy. This was not a random sample, and was mostly useful from a preliminary, qualitative data perspective. It taught me a little about the lay of the land, though it did not reveal the entire landscape.
Unlike my work with the OS community, this time I am researching from within this realm of spiritu-intimacy. I’ve written personally about my own experiences in my Lady of the Lake blog. So I am definitely “out” now and have the usual concerns about the impact on my professional life, personal life, and so on.
As a sexologist and sexuality counselor, I care about the kind of care people will get and the kinds of respect and justice that will be accorded to them. Many people are ashamed, afraid, and uncertain when they’ve had intimacy with spirits, deities, demons, ‘the fae,” and others. Everyone who has experienced this could use more reassurance and information.
A Basic Clinical Approach
Just for starters, I propose two things. The first is an enfolding of these clients and their spectrosexual/spiritu-intimacy experiences into your framework of counseling competencies and ethics, and approach them as you would other spiritual and religious beliefs. Acknowledge what the clients feel, think, and experience without trying to stamp their accounts with your own sense of “reality.” You can download one such competency document below. (It is meant to augment the American Counseling Association counseling competencies, also below).
The second thing is to train in and adopt therapy/counseling models which will enable you to work well with such clients. I have already mentioned Dr. Gina Ogden’s “Four-Wheel Dimension of Sexual Experience” (aka “4-D Wheel” — formerly known as the “ISIS Wheel”), below. This is because 4-D Wheel work is flexible enough to accommodate spiritual experiences of all kinds. Dr. Daniel Foor’s Animist Psychology training could also inform your clinical approach.
As always, do not rely on your clients to educate you.
And so there you have it, for now. Much, much more to come.
Cultural and religious references to erotic and otherwise emotionally intense human/spirit encounters and relationships are so pervasive that we in the West almost can’t see them. Even one of the most widespread religions in the world has spirit sex (and a divine child) at its core and yet people seldom stop to consider WHY this topic is so compelling and prevalent in legend, lore, myths, fairy tales, folk magic, spiritual practices, and religious traditions.
And when you add the numerous media productions that depict human love affairs with vampires and werewolves (among other things), human beings begin to look absolutely obsessed with preternatural and supernatural hook-ups.
It’s not just sleep paralysis, baby! Most of these experiences happen when people are wide awake, though trance states may precipitate spirit contacts. Sometimes such experiences are sought for and invoked, as in Western sex magic practices or in Buddhist tantric practices which involve visualizing sexual energy exchanges with a deity or a “skydancing” dakini, as a vehicle for transcendence. Some neopagan communities and solitary witches may acknowledge and accept such encounters, but “mainstream” society does not, except as fictional entertainment, cosplay, or as a way to ridicule a naive media-ensnared “victim” of ghostly overtures.
In earlier times, the “ecstasies” of Teresa de Avila made her a Christian saint. These days a similarly ecstatic Loki godspouse is likely to be dissed as Marvel Loki fangirl or a “lonely middle-aged woman” (three words which are also used dismissively). And yet, these holy ecstasies occur–either spontaneously or through cultivation–and what’s a person to do then? How are they supposed to think and feel about this? Do they embrace the experience(s) or run screaming in search of an exorcism?
Another question: how may we clinicians support them, even if their “beliefs” are not our own. Counseling and therapy ethics require that we deliver culturally competant care, no matter what our client’s beliefs may be. I wouldn’t attempt to pathologize the adherant of a faith based on spirit sex and a divine child any more than I would a Heathen, a Buddhist, a Satanist, or an atheist.
This website will gather information, acknowledge the work of all who have expanded our knowledge of this complicated topic, and make the case for (1) “spirit sex positive”, nonjudgmental mental health practices and (2) consideration of the queerness of spiritu-intimacy and spectrosexuality, as yet another sexual/asexual minority worthy of respect, pride, and justice.