For centuries, religious clerics have railed against women for tempting men with their seductive and skimpy clothing, and sought to sequester them and restrict their dress choices. Such rash and narrow social impositions often create a deceptive illusion of purity without addressing the sexual turbulence which continues unabated within the individual consciousness. A more sagacious solution has to be based on the recognition of the complexity of human consciousness. This article examines some insights provided by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa) on this matter.
Since social norms vary by culture and age, the question of appropriate social dress codes comes loaded with sociopolitical overtones. A broader exploration of this topic can quickly become contentious because there are numerous antagonistic constituencies which demand to be respected and simultaneously satisfied. Consequently, we shall lucubrate solely on the psychological foundation of this problem and ignore broader issues.
In the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where men and women worked and lived side by side, all disciples were enjoined to forgo sexual intercourse so as to conserve and redirect sexual energies towards spiritual illumination. However, human nature being what it is, the disciples still underwent sexual tumults during the yogic transformation process. The noteworthy insights they received from their Gurus during this turmoil are presented here.
According to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, there are two aspects to be contended with: the action of the universal life-forces, and the habit of response within the individual consciousness. We briefly summarize these aspects first.
As human beings, we are not solely the physical body but actually have five sheaths which are being imperceptibly influenced by the occult mental and vital worlds. We are, so to speak, perpetually and unknowingly swimming in a sea of universal forces. On the universal mental plane, there are ideas which circulate perpetually and sometimes take hold of individual minds; once accepted, these ideas become part and parcel of the individual personality, which then proceeds to formulate and express them depending on the unique turn of mentality. (For more on that, see All thoughts come from outside.) Similarly, there are waves of universal life-forces (sex, anger, etc) which circulate through the vital planes and influence our conduct once they inundate and grip our consciousness. Every human being has an environmental consciousness, and a person who has advanced to some degree in Yoga begins to “catch” these vibrations before they invade his or her consciousness. (for details, see Constitution of Man)
The sexual force then is a universal force of Nature implanted in the species for the purpose of procreation. Under this model, the blame for sexual arousal cannot be assigned solely to women; rather, the fault lies in that gap in the individual consciousness through which vital forces invade us without discrimination. This gap – this weakness – in our consciousness is the primary cause of our sexual tumults; the arousal engendered by some external agent is an auxiliary phenomenon.
Some letters on this topic
These are some illuminating and candid exchanges between Sri Aurobindo and his disciples on the identification of the root cause of the sexual turmoil that the disciples were experiencing.
Disciple: The sex thoughts do not seem to come really from within us. Most of them have even no connection with us. They are merely a play of the physical nature without any individuality in them. They pass simply from men to women or the other way round-often without our knowledge.
Sri Aurobindo: Yes, that is what happens – but sometimes people, if they receive and indulge them, become themselves instruments for passing them on to others .
Disciple: Along with the sex thoughts, there are the egoistic thoughts about the power to attract others through one’s physical charms.
Sri Aurobindo: It is the usual vanity of the lower vital – it is very common. Any man can have an attraction for any woman, and vice versa, when the sex forces are active, but that attraction is not his, it is the pull of the sex force .
Disciple: It is not always the attraction on our part that brings or creates the sexual pull. At times it is the mere presence of some particular type of women that does it. What we feel is our vital energy being drawn out.
Sri Aurobindo: Attraction is always the result, not the cause .
Disciple: Sometimes it is noticed that the mere presence of a woman is enough to raise the sexual sensations in us. How does it happen like that?
Sri Aurobindo: It is quite usual—just as the smell of very nice food may awake the desire of the food. 
Disciple: I was walking on the road when some local women of low class passed by near me. Immediately I felt a vehement sexual sensation in the form of pain. By the time they had gone far the sensation too had left me. Was it due to the women? If so, how could my body come in their influence without my ever taking any interest in them?
Sri Aurobindo: Why not? It is not their influence, but the influence of the forces, which are around them .
Disciple: I think women are not to be blamed even if they pull consciously. If men want to conquer sex they have to detach themselves from the pull of women and make their vital strong enough to remain detached. Is it not so?
Sri Aurobindo: It is right except that the starting-point or rather starting line is the sex-weakness in the man and the woman’s pull is only an immediate cause of its activity, not the fundamental cause. Moreover the sexual pull from the woman is not always conscious. Sometimes there is no pull from her; the man is attracted by the mere fact of her beauty or charm or even her femininity only while she herself has no sex desire at all. In such cases the man often fatuously imagines that the woman wants him, though it is quite untrue. 
Disciple: Nowadays I have begun to reject the sex-movement. And yet I can see clearly that some part of the vital takes interest in women — either in an explicit or in an implicit way. How else could this movement be explained, for, though I was not off my guard I still could not keep myself detached from the attraction of R? Or was it possible that her vital too enjoyed the attraction?
Sri Aurobindo: Even without any response on her part it is possible. It is evident that part of your vital does not care at all for your mind’s refusal — it goes on replying to the sexual suggestions .
Disciple: Talking with sadhikas (women disciples) I still feel uneasiness. Does this not show that the sex basis is still there?
Sri Aurobindo: Yes, it ought practically to be forgotten that they are sadhikas .
Disciple: To see no difference between man and woman except physiological and grammatical is one of the steps towards the purification of the sex centre.
Sri Aurobindo: A very important step .
If women smile and cause sexual arousal, is it their fault? No, according to Sri Aurobindo:
A smile or any movement, appearance or action of the woman can be the starting-point for these vibrations. I don’t suppose it is anything inherent in the smile itself, but all these things have been the habitual means by which sex has been excited in men (hāvabhāva or gesticulation) and the woman uses them, often unconsciously and by mere habit when coming into contact with man — whether she has or has not any intention of pleasing or moving the man, it still comes up as an instinctive movement. X is of the type of woman who has this instinctive movement to please the male. But even when the woman smiles quite casually and without even the habitual instinctive movement, still there may be the vibration on the man’s side owing to the habit of response in him to feminine attraction. These things are almost mechanical in their starting. As I wrote before, it is the automatic answer of the physical or vital mind (imagination etc.) that prolongs it and makes it effective. Otherwise the vibrations would die away after a time .
Rising above sex-consciousness
So there is this gap in our consciousness which causes sexual arousal, and this gap needs to to be deliberately sealed. We need to rise above sex-consciousness into the compactness of an immaculate consciousness. This can be a protracted process whose duration varies depending on the psychic development of the individual soul. The power and tranquility which has been acquired during meditation must be re-deployed every day to bolster one’s capricious willpower. One has to gradually detach oneself from sexual attractions. First the mind must withdraw consent by abstaining from sexually-tinged conversations and lurid imaginations. Then the vital personality (the region from heart to the navel) has to steel itself from the desire for sexual excitation by perfecting the Divine surrender. Then the physical body itself has to give up its restive nature through continuous infusions of the Higher power. Once the waking state has thus been cleansed, the battlefield inevitably shifts to the night where remnants of past sexual longings continue to produce annoying dreams long after they were eradicated from the waking state. Cleansing the subconscious of sexual desire usually takes much longer because it is not under the control of our waking mind. The subconscious is veritably the bedrock of our collective human urges and does not yield easily to the transformative action of the Higher power, but for those who have come thus far, it is a battle worth fighting!
For more on that, see an earlier article : Sublimation of the sexual urge through Yoga.
Satire can sometimes deliver truths far more forcefully than real-life anecdotes. These are three hilarious articles from the satirical Onion magazine on this topic.
- Local Harlot Exposes Face, Neck, February 20, 1996 ISSUE 29•06
- Woman In Burqa Condemns Woman In Chador December 5, 2001 | ISSUE 43•19 ISSUE 37•44
- Spirituality : between morality and immorality
- The transmutation of sexual energy
- Why one should not hate the sinner?
- Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
- The foundation of spiritual relationships
- How to choose the right life partner
- Four stages in human love
- Why are artists irregular in their conduct?
- How to increase will-power
- Ethical, logical and aesthetic mind
- Why bad things happen to good people
- Ill-effects of television on Yoga
- Nagin Doshi. Guidance from Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Society 1974, vol. 1, pp 200-203.
- Ibid., vol. 3, pp 121-122.
- Ibid., vol. 2, pp 55-63.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, SABCL vol. 24.