Touch in contemporary Tantra: transgression, healing, and ecstasy in women's constructions of selfhood
This thesis argues that women in contemporary Tantra engage with tactile practices in an ongoing effort to create an autonomous, empowered, and healthy sense of self. Focusing specifically on the sense of touch and how it is used in contemporary Tantra, I explore how and why touch techniques are used by participants – namely in inducing transformation, healing, and ecstatic experiences. By conducting interviews and fieldwork with Tantra teachers across Great Britain over the course of two years, this PhD shows how certain discourses around transgression, gender roles, and sexuality have become prominent within this context, and how touch is used to negotiate these themes. To date, Tantra in the West has rarely been studied ethnographically and as such, this thesis provides a much-needed contribution to knowledge on contemporary Tantric practices. Similarly, the sense of touch has received little academic attention; this thesis aims to expand understandings of how individuals engage with tactility within a social context that prioritises the visual. In the first part of the thesis – Chapters 2 and 3 – I focus primarily on the emergence of Tantra in the West and how perceptions of this have been consistently associated with orientalism and the holistic milieu. In Chapter 3, I also explore how certain notions of Tantra, so widespread in the West, are experienced on the ground both by the researcher (myself) and the informants. In this chapter I develop the idea of embodied ethnography more fully. I demonstrate the importance of touch as a research method, which has yet to be fully elaborated in the wider field of anthropology and Tantra studies. Using this approach, and particularly focusing on the tactile, this thesis explores the experiences of women engaging with these practices, while simultaneously developing new ethnographic approaches to include the body and senses of the researcher as instruments of knowledge. These two chapters set the scene in terms of the conceptual and methodological work, while in the next few chapters I explore the thematic resonance of Tantra and how its practices are fleshed out in everyday encounters of women in their social contexts. In Chapter 4, I focus on touch techniques used in Tantra groups and workshops to show how women use these practices as somatic modes of attention (Csordas, 1993). This enables women to reinterpret bodily experiences and social norms, thus legitimising certain feelings or behaviours and contributing to their projects of selfhood. In Chapter 5, I move on to focus on understandings of trauma and healing in contemporary Tantra. I explore the ideal of 'wellbeing', how trauma is understood, and how healing is a gradual and continual process, facilitated by the concept of sexual energy, that allows individuals to reconstruct a sense of self. Finally, in Chapter 6, I look at ecstasy in contemporary Tantra - how it is experienced, spoken about, and understood - as an experience that works to affirm these women's new sense of selfhood and alters their everyday experiences.