Abuse happens in a culture that enables it

An accusation of abuse has surfaced against Isaac Bonewits, made by Moira Greyland, who was abused by her mother, Marion Zimmer Bradley. I never met Isaac, though I had added him as a friend on Facebook. Deborah Lipp and Phaedra Bonewits have issued a joint statement defending him. The context in which  the accusation was made is also problematic, in that the book was published by an alt-right person with an axe to grind.

Whether or not this particular accusation is true, and it would be difficult to determine this long after the events described, and when the person accused is dead, it is all too easy to fall into the pattern of isolating the accused person as a “bad apple”, and failing to look at the whole barrel.

There will always be abusive people, most likely.  According to RAINN’s statistics on rape and sexual assault, most rapists are serial abusers/rapists. Apparently a small number of abusers commit multiple rapes and assaults:

Scholars have found that many sexual assaults are carried out by a small number of men who strike repeatedly — often without realizing that they are rapists.

The way this research is conducted is astonishing: Men were simply surveyed and asked whether they had ever had sex with someone who didn’t want to. Remarkably, men repeatedly said, yes, they had.

What this suggests is that rape and sexual assault are endemic. The New York Times article quoted above points out that many rapists don’t even see what they are doing as rape.

The underlying assumption of rape culture is that women don’t want sex (and if they do, they are “sluts” and “asking for it”) so we cannot give meaningful consent and must be cajoled and/or coerced into having sex.

So it’s not going to be enough to exclude actual or potential rapists from the community and hope the problem goes away. Abusers and rapists don’t all look sinister and evil. Many people refuse to believe victims because the perpetrators are “nice people”.

The attitudes and practices underlying and enabling rape culture are what allows abuse to happen. The way that victims are routinely disbelieved, shunned, assumed to be lying. The way that people react when someone suggests education around consent, or having a code of conduct. (“It’s political correctness gone mad!” or “Has something bad happened?” are frequent responses.)

I shared Thorn Mooney’s article on consent to hugging in a Pagan Facebook group, and got reactions like “this means no-one can ever hug anyone”, along with accusations of over-reacting. But if we can get people to practice consent culture in  the area of hugging, it will become easier when it comes to asking for sexual intimacy. If people cannot even manage to practice consent culture for hugs, then it casts doubt on whether they are practising it in sexual situations. And it’s not rocket science – you can just go “Hug?” and the other person can say no. Because I had shared the article, people kept saying to me “oh you don’t like hugs” and I would respond with “I do like hugs, but I like consented-to hugs much more”. What was interesting was that the quality of a consented-to hug was much greater and more relaxed.

The problem, as Mark Green pointed out in response to this latest accusation, is that there is a culture of sex-pressuring which goes back to the Sixties:

The takeaway for our particular community, however, is clear to me.

First of all, we need to root this shit out. It is simply unacceptable to have sexually predatorial behavior in our community. And that means clear policies at events and gatherings about affirmative consent, and firm consequences for anyone—ANYONE, no matter how revered or well known—who violates them.

But secondly, we need to formally bury the sexual values of our community’s roots.

Let me explain.

Modern Paganism’s roots go back farther than the 1960s, but it was during that tumultuous time that the movement grew dramatically, formalized in various ways such as the creation of organizations and new traditions, and acquired many of the recognizable names we now associate with Pagan leadership. The values of the so-called Sexual Revolution brought on by the confluence of the introduction of the contraceptive Pill and the counterculture’s rejection of mainstream puritanical mores deeply informed the Pagan upsurge of the late Sixties and Seventies.

And Pagan community was about as extreme in its sexual libertarianism at that time as any element of society we might choose to examine. Sex was good! It was healthy, it was freedom, it was…well, in reality it was a male-dominated free-for-all with nonexistent boundaries and little sense of responsibility. Under the banner of breaking with mainstream society as “sex positive”, Pagan circles were rife with unwelcome advances and outright assault (many of which may not have been recognized as such at the time).

This is where the Pagan community came from, in terms of sexual values, and that mentality persisted, pretty much, until the awareness of the ubiquity of inappropriate advances and the necessity of affirmative consent finally crept in starting in the 2000s.

That is where we got our start. Despite the rose-colored remembrances of those who lived through it, it was not a magical time of free and easy sex without consequences. It was a fool’s paradise, and sometimes a nightmare for women.

Mark is right, and until we acknowledge this and reconsider the assumptions it’s based on, we will keep seeing this sort of thing happening.

What can we do about it?

The Pagan community as a whole needs to make sure that we listen to abuse survivors, and do not penalise them for speaking out; and that we put in place proper codes of conduct and procedures for dealing with abusive behaviour at events and other gatherings.

It’s always upsetting when someone you admire, or one of your friends, is accused of abuse, but we should listen and not seek to brush things under the carpet. Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?

At the moment the general reaction seems to be to disbelieve abuse survivors.

We can’t just “convict” people of things with no evidence, so an open-minded skepticism is appropriate in many areas. But we do need to be listening.

I have been in a situation where someone reported abusive behaviour to me, and after listening for an hour, I concluded that their story just didn’t add up. I still reported that I had had the conversation (together with my doubts) to someone who was empowered to investigate – just in case. Fortunately it occurred in the context of an organisation that had a process for dealing with such things.

I have also been in situations where abuse was reported to me and after questioning, I did believe the victim. (I and others also checked in with the accused.)

We should always ask questions, get more detail, cross-check stories, etc. But the current response of not listening and not believing people is no good.

A good start would be to implement something similar to the Code of Conduct compiled by the Pagan and Heathen Symposium (based on the Geek Feminism Wiki code of conduct and the THATCamp Anti-Harassment policy).

All too often, an abuser is ejected from one group or community, and moves on to another one where they are not known, and starts all over again.

Event organisers are beginning to implement and enforce codes of conduct, realising that they will be liable if abuse comes to light.

We are either at, or very nearly at, the tipping-point where it is worth boycotting events that do not implement a code of conduct. This was done by John Scalzi and others as part of the campaign to make SF/F conventions safer:

When my friends and fans go to conventions, I would like them not to have to worry, if they are skeeved on by some creep at the convention, that the convention will take the problem seriously. I would also like them to be able to know how to report the problem, should such a situation occur. 

I hereby pledge not to attend or to give talks or workshops at events without a publicly available code of conduct with a means of enforcing it.

I have also created a pledge on change.org which you can sign and share.

Code of Conduct for all Pagan events & organisations

We the undersigned pledge: 

  • not to attend, or give talks or workshops at, events for adults unless they have a publicly available code of conduct with a means of enforcing it;
  • not to attend or give talks or workshops at events where children may be present unless they have a safeguarding policy and a means of enforcing it;
  • to resign from membership in, or not to join, Pagan organisations that don’t have a safeguarding policy or a code of conduct.

And we call upon all Pagan organisations, groups, and event organisers:

  • to develop a code of conduct and a safeguarding policy;
  • to publish these on their websites;
  • and to enforce them at all events.

We also need to hold workshops on consent, so people can practice consent culture in a safe space. And have conversations about consent with our covens, groves, hearths, and in our online and face-to-face communities.

Further reading

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Pagan Consent Culture website

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