This article revisits the question, first introduced by feminist scholars in the mid-1990s, about whether sexual practices within Buddhist tantra (heterosexually conceived) are empowering or exploitative to women. The purpose here is to complicate this question, given the different geographic settings and cultural contexts in which consort relationships have been embedded—from eastern Tibet to North America—and to nuance our understanding of the potential and pitfalls of sexuality in tantric contexts. To do so, I query the dynamics of secrecy and sexuality in tantric practice, examining twentieth century examples of female practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism who have participated in such relationships and thereby highlighting the localized ways that the “secret consort” (gsang yum
) has been invoked as a social role. This issue is especially relevant today in light of the global #MeToo movement and recent disclosures of sexual improprieties and alleged abuse involving Tibetan teachers at the head of Buddhist communities in Europe and North America. For this reason, to conclude, I discuss shifting perspectives on sexuality as Buddhist tantra has spread beyond Asia and draw attention to current voices calling for greater transparency and community accountability.
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