Several religions include the idea that sex has a spiritual dimension or even that it is an essential element in the spiritual life. Catholicism sees marriage as a sacrament which is incomplete without sex, and indeed can be annulled if sex does not take place. Most Protestant churches consider sexual gratification to be `a gift from God'. Certain movements within Buddhist and Hindu Tantra teach that sexual licence is proof of complete detachment from social norms or that the orgasm can be a means of attaining nirvana. What is passed off as `tantra' by some New Age proponents is actually little more that sex mixed with a bit of gimcrack philosophy. Given the strength of the sexual drive and the intense pleasure of sex, it is hardly surprising that such ideas developed, became and remain popular.
Some ascetics during the Buddha's time indulged in sex with `those female ascetics who wear their hair in a topknot'. To those who advocated restraint or celibacy, they would say: `What negative results in the future do these good monks and priests see in sensual pleasures so that they speak about understanding and renouncing them? The velvety-soft arms of a female ascetic are pleasant indeed.' The Buddha contradicted such views in the strongest terms (A.II,53; M.I,35). Other ascetics indulged in what would now be called `sensual massage' which stopped just short of intercourse (A.IV,53). When a monk named Ariññha got it into his head that `those things the Lord calls obstructions (i.e. sensual pleasures) are not really obstructions to someone who indulges in them' (M.I,130), the Buddha was quick to both rebuke and to correct him. `Foolish man! Have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma like that? Foolish man! In many talks have I not stated that sensual pleasures are obstructions that obstruct the one who indulges in them? I have always taught that sensual pleasures give meagre gratification, much trouble and frustration and embody great danger'(M.I,132).
From the Buddhist perspective, sex has an important part to play in marital relations and it may be a factor in emotional well-being, but it contributes nothing to spiritual growth. The Buddha taught that a person can attain the first stage of enlightenment (sotàpati) while being married and having normal sexual relations. Attaining the second stage (sakadàgàmi) requires sexual restraint and probably for many people, celibacy. To progress beyond this point to full enlightenment in the present life, requires complete detachment from all sensual desire. Or perhaps it might be more correct to say that one will attain full enlightenment when all sensual desire has faded away.