Binary Thinking and Dealing with Abuse

“My friends can’t possibly be abusers – they are good people, they couldn’t possibly be sexual predators.”

“That person is an abuser – that means they are completely and utterly bad.”

I have seen both these statements over the last few days, weeks, and months, the first one from those who are defending abusive people, and the second from people who are condemning them.

It’s not just the outrage over the Frosts that gives rise to this binary thinking – it is all instances of abuse and rape.

Look at the judge in the case of Brock Turner – according to that judge, Turner was a “good person” so should not be punished for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Look at the letter that Turner’s mother wrote to try to get him off the hook.

According to the judge in the Steubenville rape case, the perpetrators were “good people” so should not have been imprisoned – but meanwhile, the whistleblower who brought the matter to the attention of the authorities could be given sixteen years imprisonment for the hacking that led to the crime being exposed. (Crimes against property are always more harshly punished than crimes against the person, especially if the person is Black, trans, female, or disabled.)

Look at the people who defended Kenny Klein – he was apparently a “good person” who therefore couldn’t have committed any crime. And those who condemned him rejected absolutely everything he did.

Or look what happened when Jimmy Saville was revealed to have been a serial abuser – any good that he did was immediately wiped out.

People tend to take the view that people are either 100% good, or 100% bad. This is obviously unrealistic, and leads to a very dangerous situation – that people strenuously deny that anyone they know could possibly be a rapist or an abuser, because they are “good people”. And once someone is revealed to have perpetrated abuse or rape, they are immediately cast out into the outer darkness, with no hope of rehabilitation, and people assume that they are 100% bad, and want to obliterate their memory.

Both these facts make it extremely hard to bring abusers to justice or to hold them to account, because the stakes are so high. That is why those who are defending the Frosts feel the need to assert that they did nothing wrong, or to claim that they repudiated their original position. That is why many people who are horrified by what the Frosts wrote about deflowering virgins with a wooden dildo preparatory to making them have sex with coven elders (which is abusive whether or not the virgin is over 18) want to vilify everything about them.

Life is complex

But life is more complex than that. People are a mixture of good and bad impulses and behaviours. That does not mean we should excuse their bad actions; it does mean that it is unhelpful and unrealistic to dismiss everything they did (though their bad actions may call the motives for their good actions into question – did they just do them to cover up their bad behaviour?)

The biggest problem with this binary view of 100% good people & 100% bad people is that people tend to take the view that preventing abuse and rape is simply a matter of getting rid of the “few bad apples in the barrel”. They think that if only we had a perfect means of identifying abusers and preventing them from getting in to the Pagan community, we would be able to fix this problem. If only we could eject abusers from the community once and for all when they were discovered to be abusers, they think. And surely the witchy intuition of coven leaders is good enough to prevent abusers from getting into covens, they claim. Ah, but what if the abuser is a coven leader? Pagan women are strong enough to protect ourselves from abusers, they reckon. (As if the onus should be on us to protect ourselves.) They also think that once we have got rid of these abusers (who obviously have an evil look about them so are very easy to spot), the Pagan community will be safe for everyone.

That is why abuse gets swept under the carpet, because people don’t want to face up to the fact that the “good person” they hang out with is abusing others, and they know that there will be no hope of them ever being rehabilitated once it has been widely accepted that they are abusers.

Sadly, we won’t get rid of abusive behaviour by getting rid of the few bad apples in the barrel. We live in a rape culture (a culture that creates the social conditions where rape is easy to get away with). We live in a society where violation of consent is routinely validated, approved of, and promoted. Where the existence of valid consent is constantly erased and undermined. The view of mainstream culture is that women should not have sexual desire. A woman who does have sexual desire is viewed as deviant and a “slut”. Because she is viewed as an object and not a subject, once she has become sexually available, she is therefore available to all men, and can be raped with impunity. A “pure” woman, on the other hand, has to be cajoled and persuaded into sex. Because she is seen as not wanting sex, she can only consent if she is offered an inducement – the security of marriage, a nice dinner, a few drinks, a compliment. (Obviously this is a caricature of mainstream society’s views, but you can see echoes of this as being the underlying attitude in many conversations and interactions.)

Paganism is a subculture that seeks to regard women as subjects and to validate women’s sexual desires. However, the attitudes of the mainstream can and do find their way into Pagan discourse, because not everyone is perfectly acculturated to the Pagan world-view, and because we are still subject to the influences of mainstream society. This means that it isn’t the bad apples that taint the barrel – it’s the barrel that allows the bad apples to rot.

So, if it is not a matter of finding and ejecting abusers – what is the solution? As with any complex problem, there is no simple and easy quick fix. It is something we are all going to have to work at.

Culture shift

In their chapter in Pagan Consent Culture, Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown present a four-part model, which is summarised below, though I would strongly recommend reading their chapter, as it explains in considerable depth how they arrived at this conclusion.

1) Reducing motivation to abuse — this needs to be done on a societal / communal level (what are the wider societal factors that promote abuse, i.e. rape culture?)

2) Reinforcing internal inhibitions (shame, knowing right from wrong, empathy for others, understanding what valid consent is) — “How can we all develop a state of mind that makes us more likely to take others’ consent very seriously.”

3) Strengthening situational barriers (procedures or systems that protect potential victims) — “This is the area most ripe for action, because it is where communities, groups, covens, organizing committees and so on can have influence.”

4) Reinforcing the individual victim’s own defences (to coercion, physical means etc) — “This is the last level of defence and if the rest of the pagan community does nothing at levels 1-3, this puts the potential victim in the position of being entirely responsible for defending themselves. Hopefully the more active the community has been at earlier levels, the less likely action at this level is to be needed.”

Creating consent culture

This is how I think we need to go about creating consent culture.

(1) promote consent culture within Paganism and wider society, e.g. run workshops about consent, promote conversation about what consent is, what consent culture is, etc.  Embed consent culture within the Pagan world-view by relating it to Pagan theologies and mythologies. (These were some of our aims in continuing and spreading the conversation about consent culture by editing the book, Pagan Consent Culture.)

(2) promote the Pagan & Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct, because what this does is to create a situation where both potential victims and potential perpetrators know that the event staff & organisers take consent and violations of consent seriously, and will act on reports. Obviously the Code of Conduct is not going to fix the issues on its own – it is only one prong of a multi-faceted approach, which includes holding workshops, writing articles, etc.  This approach worked really well in the SFF and IT communities – we didn’t invent it.

(3) educate everyone about consent and what it means, as this will strengthen individuals’ resistance to violations, and discourage potential perpetrators from committing violations.

(4) reduce our tendency to binary thinking, in order to prevent abuse being swept under the carpet. This would also allow those who have committed abuse to be rehabilitated – provided they made a full disclosure and agreed to be accompanied by someone who would keep an eye on them at all times. The possibility of carefully managed rehabilitation would increase the likelihood of abusers being held to account and prevented from continuing with the abuse. If those who protect abusers knew that they would not be regarded as 100% evil once the abuse has been revealed, they would be less likely to try to shield them from justice.

Further reading

Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow (eds), Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. Asphodel Press, 2016.

Recommended Pagan articles

Creating consent culture

The issues

Recommended general articles

 

 

 

 

“Good” people do bad things: statement on the Frosts

There is absolutely no excuse, ever, for advocating the molestation of children.

Therefore, there is no excuse for the publication of chapter 4 of the book by Gavin and Yvonne Frost which claimed to be about Wicca, which (until it was modified in 2007) advocated for the sexual molestation of minors. If they had repudiated the chapter and apologised for its inclusion and tried to do something to make reparation for its consequences, perhaps there might be a reason to rehabilitate them, cautiously.

Even in the 1970s, when some people were apparently rather confused about the boundaries of what consent was, the majority view was that sex between children and adults was always wrong. I am informed by people who were in the Pagan scene at the time that the issue was discussed in the pages of Green Egg and other zines, and plenty of people stated that it was unethical.

But the Frosts never did apologise or repudiate it or seek to make reparation for it. (They did say that it didn’t apply to people under 18, but what they advocated is abusive even if it involves people over 18, and it was 40 years before they even did that, despite numerous people in the Pagan community strongly rejecting what they wrote.) So there is no reason to pretend it didn’t happen, or try to claim that they did good things other than that. They may very well have done – people can do both good and bad things – but unless and until they apologised for the publication of such an unethical ritual, it should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Many people have been put off of Wicca by reading that book, as they assumed it spoke for all of Wicca.

The Frosts were never part of either Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, and their organisation is not recognised by any legitimate Gardnerian or Alexandrian, nor by most other witches and Wiccans.

Legitimate Wiccans do not and never have engaged in sexual activities with minors, and consider such actions extremely unethical.

The Frosts also advocated sexual initiations at every initiation. Legitimate Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans do not include sexual intercourse as part of the first or second degree initiations, and it is optional at third degree and may be replaced with a symbolic ritual act.

Inclusive Wicca is a tendency within Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and we strongly condemn abuse and molestation in all its forms, and seek to firmly establish a consent culture in our covens.

In my personal opinion, sexual intercourse should not form part of the third degree unless it has been discussed a long time beforehand, and enthusiastic and informed consent (which can be withdrawn at any time) has been established.

We also need to realise that “good people” and “nice people” do bad things. Being “nice” doesn’t make someone immune from being an abuser, or a racist, or a transphobe, or a homophobe, or an exploiter of slave labour in the third world. Far too often, people deny that someone can have engaged in abusive behaviour, because they are “nice”. But you only have to look at public figures who have been revealed to be serial abusers to realise that they too were previously considered “nice”.

I am very disappointed that several self-styled “elders” of the Pagan community have continued to defend the Frosts and try to excuse or diminish what they did. I am sure it is true that they also did good things – very few people are all bad – but that does not mean we can or should sweep this under the carpet.

This is why we need the Pagan and Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct for all events. This is why we need to discuss consent culture and strive to create it in our Pagan communities. This is why “big name Pagans” need to speak out and condemn those who advocate for or commit abuse, and refuse to invite them to events, or attend events where they will be speaking. We also need to stop seeing things as a binary (the idea that people are iether all good or all bad is extremely dangerous and makes getting away with abuse easier), and help to create a culture where people can retract a statement that they made which they might regret. We all make mistakes – but if someone calls you out on a mistake, the correct response is to acknowledge it and try to make reparation, not to double down on it and continue to advocate for abusive practices.

Some people may ask why I am mentioning this now. I honestly thought until now that people realised that proper Wicca does not involve these practices. It seems that some people thought that the Frosts spoke for all of Wicca when they advocated compulsory sexual initiations or the practice of deflowering virgins with a dildo. They absolutely do not, and if you come across a coven advocating such practices, run a mile.

Further reading

PAGAN CONSENT CULTURE Anthology Is Available!

Pagan Consent Culture - cover by Shauna Aura Knight

cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow are pleased to announce the release of Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy, a new collection from Asphodel Press.

How might a Druid understand consent? How about a Wiccan, a Thelemite, a Heathen, or a Polytheist? In this collection, Pagans of many traditions show how to ground good consent practices in Pagan stories, liturgies, and values.

Although many Pagans see the body and sexuality as sacred, Pagan communities still struggle with the reality of assault and abuse. To build consent culture, good consent practices must be embraced by communities, not just by individuals—and consent is about much more than sexuality. Consent culture begins with the idea of autonomy, with recognizing our right to control our bodies and selves in all areas of life; and it is sustained by empathy, the ability to understand and share the emotional states of others.

In Part One of Pagan Consent Culture, writers develop specifically Pagan philosophies of consent, tackling complex issues such as power differentials, sexual initiation, rape culture in traditional myths, and relationships with the gods. Part Two presents personal narratives of abuse and healing, as well as policies to help prevent sexual abuse and assault and to effectively respond to it when it occurs. Finally, Part Three provides resources for teaching and practicing consent culture, including curricula and exercises for children and adults.

Pagan Consent Culture is available from Asphodel Press (via Lulu.com) in paperback and electronic formats.

Check out the Pagan Consent Culture website for further resources, as well as a free study guide!

www.paganconsentculture.com

 

Table of Contents

Part I: Developing Pagan Philosophies of Consent

  • Culture of Consent, Culture of Sovereignty: A Recipe from a Druid’s Perspective, by John Beckett
  • Thelema and Consent, by Brandy Williams
  • Consent within Heathenry, by Sophia Sheree Martinez
  • Matriarchy and Consent Culture in a Feminist Pagan Community, by Yeshe Rabbit
  • Wicca and Consent, by Yvonne Aburrow
  • The Anderson Faery Tradition and Sexual Initiation: An Interview with Traci, by Helix
  • Consent. Contact. An Animist Approach to Consent, by Theo Wildcroft
  • Seeking a Morality of Difference: A Polytheological Approach to Consent, by Julian Betkowski
  • The Charge of the Goddess: Teachings about Desire and Its End, and Their Limitations, by Grove Harris
  • Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context, by Raven Kaldera
  • Saving Iphigenia: Escaping Ancient Rape Culture through Creating Modern Myths, by Thenea Pantera
  • Is “Tam Lin” a Rape Story? Yes, Maybe, and No, by A. Acland
  • Godspousery and Consent, by Sebastian Lokason

Part II: Responding to Abuse and Assault

  • The Third Degree: Exploitation and Initiation, by Jason Thomas Pitzl
  • From Fear into Power: Transforming Survivorship Sarah Twichell Rosehill
  • In the Midst of Avalon: Casualties of the Sexual Revolution, by Katessa S. Harkey
  • Responding to Abuse in the Pagan Community, by Cat Chapin-Bishop
  • Sexual Assault and Abuse Prevention: Safeguarding Policies for Pagan Communities, by Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • The Rite and Right of Refusal: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in Communities and at Festivals, by Diana Rajchel
  • Sex-Positive, Not Sex-Pressuring: Consent, Boundaries, and Ethics in Pagan Communities, by Shauna Aura Knight
  • Living in Community with Trauma Survivors, by Lydia M. N. Crabtree
  • Consent in Intergenerational Community, by Lasara Firefox Allen

Part III: Building Communities of Autonomy and Empathy

  • Mindful Touch as a Religious Practice, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Consent Culture: Radical Love and Radical Accessibility, by Stasa Morgan-Appel
  • Wild Naked Pagans and How to Host Them, by Tom Swiss
  • Respect, Relationship and Responsibility: UU Resources for Pagan Consent Education, by Zebrine Gray
  • Self-Possession as a Pillar of Parenting, by Nadirah Adeye
  • Paganism, Children, and Consent Culture: An Interview with Sierra Black, by Sarah Whedon
  • Teaching Consent Culture: Tips and Games for Kids, Teens, and Adults, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Asperger’s Syndrome and Consent Culture: An Interview with Vinnie West, Joshua Tenpenny, and Maya Kurentz, by Raven Kaldera
  • Consent in Gardnerian Wiccan Practice, by Jo Anderson, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • Teaching Sex Magick, by Sable Aradia
  • Healing the Hungry Heart, by B. B. Blank

Appendices

  • Additional Resources
  • Sample Handout: Tradition-Specific Consent Culture Class
  • The Earth Religion Anti-Abuse Resolution (1988)
  • A Pagan Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse (2009)

 

Creating a consent culture

What is rape culture?

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

While an empirical comparison of undetected and incarcerated rapists is beyond the scope of the research reported here, studies of these two groups have revealed a number of similarities. Among the common characteristics shared by many incarcerated and undetected rapists, are high levels of anger at women (e.g., Groth, 1979; Malamuth, 1986; Lisak & Roth, 1990), the need to dominate women (e.g., Groth, 1979; Malamuth, 1986; Lisak & Roth, 1990), hypermasculinity (e.g., Groth, 1979; Mosher & Anderson, 1986; Lisak, Hopper & Song, 1996), lack of empathy (e.g., Lisak & Ivan, 1995; Scully, 1988) and psychopathy and antisocial traits (e.g., Ouimette, 1997; Kosson, Kelly, & White, 1997; Prentky & Knight, 1991).

Lisak & Miller, 2002

What is consent culture?

Consent culture is the view that everyone has the right to enjoyable sex, which they have enthusiastically consented to, in full possession of the facts (STD status of sexual partner, relationship status of partner, likelihood of commitment). And that everyone has the right to say no to sex.

Consent culture is sex-positive, sets boundaries, and promotes clear and shame-free communication about sex. In a consent culture, everyone (or the vast majority) values enthusiastic consent. So the onus is not on people who don’t want sex, or hugs, or any kind of contact, right now to say no to creeps and predators: the onus is on people not to be creepy and predatory.

Consent can be non-verbal, but when we are on the beginner slopes of consent culture, it’s great to actually get verbal consent.

By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A nice cup of tea.
By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How does promoting consent culture help?

We are never going to 100% eliminate creeps and predators.

However, at the moment, the wider culture (rape culture) empowers creeps and predators, by erasing boundaries, by slut-shaming and silencing people who call out predatory behaviours, and by claiming that “there’s nothing you can do, it’s in the nature of men to be predatory”. We do men (and everyone) a disservice if we give in to that bullshit.

Empowering potential victims is the last bastion of defence. The first bastion of defence is creating a consent culture.

In Canada, it was found that the anti-rape posters that placed the blame on perpetrators’ faulty notions of consent (instead of emphasising that women should not place themselves in positions of vulnerability, like most rape posters do) actually reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

It has also been found that a lot of rapes are committed by the same predators, who do not get reported because of the shame experienced by the victims. If these perpetrators were reported and dealt with, and everyone was a lot clearer about what consent means, then rape would become less of a widespread problem.

Different states in the USA, which have different cultures, also have widely differing rates of rape.  This suggests very strongly that rates of rape can be impacted by changes in culture, away from rape culture, and towards consent culture.

A consent culture is a sex-positive culture: one where people feel empowered to say no, and empowered to say yes, enthusiastically, without being slut-shamed, told they are a prude, or that they are frigid. One where we can explore sexuality and sacred touch together, in safety.

So you think Paganism doesn’t have a problem?

Let me tell you about some of the experiences that I have had with supposedly sex-positive Pagans.

  • Visiting another group which had trainees. The ritual was robed, but then they decided to take their clothes off during the feast, and started doing sexual things. They were polyamorous, I was in a monogamous relationship. They called me a prude for not being poly, and tried to get me to join in. As someone who thought I was poly but wanted to be faithful to my partner, this was very uncomfortable. I felt pressurised to join in, so as not to seem a prude.
  • Working with a HP. Shared a bed afterwards because it was the only bed in the flat and it was very cold. He wanted sex, I didn’t. I ended up having sex with him to shut him up.
  • People who hug in a creepy sexualised manner (more than one).
  • All the people who try to tell you that third degree initiation, or any other initiation, has to involve the Great Rite with actual sexual intercourse.
  • The creepy guy who is married, chats up women, and fails to tell them he is married. Repeatedly.
  • The slut-shaming and dismissal and cries of “don’t rock the boat” or “if you are strong then you can defend yourself” that happen every time this issue is raised.
So please do not try to claim that Pagans are squeaky clean. Just not true. We are part of the overculture, immersed in it, and the overculture is a rape culture.

I will no longer be silenced by slut-shaming, victim-blaming, fear of rocking the boat, and patriarchal misogyny.

Want to learn more / take action?

Pagan Consent Culture - cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Pagan Consent Culture – cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Paganism for Beginners: Controversies

Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.

I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.

So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.

These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.

The A to Z of Pagan controversies

I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.

Atheist Pagans

Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.

The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.

Christo-Pagans

Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).

Consent

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.

Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.

Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.

Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.

Kinky Pagans

Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.

There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.

This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.

Leaving Paganism

Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.

It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.

Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.

LGBT inclusion

Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.

Monism versus polytheism

Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?

The Pagan umbrella / big tent

Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.

People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.

Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.

Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).

The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice.  Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.

Pagan veiling

Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.

This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?

Racism in the Pagan movement

To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.

Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.

Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.

One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.

An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.

Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.

Transphobia

The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. [1]

Wiccanate privilege

There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how  public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.

Where do these controversies start?

I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.

If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.


 

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

[1] Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.

Consent Culture 101: Basic Practices and Teaching Games

This month, many of us in Pagan communities have been wrestling with the issue of sexual abuse. Much as we’d like to think that we have healthier attitudes toward sexuality than the wider culture in which we live, the reality is that sexual abuse is endemic in our society, and our communities are no exception.

I urge you to read Cat Chapin-Bishop’s recommendations as to how communities can constructively respond to abuse. Cat specialized in the treatment of sexual abuse survivors for twenty years, and hers is the most comprehensive, cogent, and compassionate framing of the issue that I’ve seen. I hope leaders will return to her article again and again as they revise or draft policies around sexual abuse response for their groups and events.

My own contribution to these discussions is about creating a Pagan culture that not only helps to prevent inappropriate and abusive touch, but encourages loving, consensual touch. I want Pagan events to embody consent culture. In my last post on this topic, I outlined ethical principles that ground my understanding of consent culture. Here, though, I want to deal with simple ways to put these principles into practice.

What is consent culture?

Urban Dictionary has a great off-the-cuff definition:

A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.

A consent culture is also one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

How do we create consent culture?

I’m going to start with some simple, concrete recommendations. These are meant to be starting places to explore how you might build consent culture in your group or community, however, not stopping places. Building consent culture involves confronting issues of power and vulnerability. It requires that both the initiators and receivers of touch improve their communication and listening skills. It calls us to deepen our empathy and bring mindfulness to all our interactions. A blog post can only scratch the surface of these issues – but it gives us a place to begin (and I hope you’ll follow some of the links at the bottom in order to go deeper).

The basic practice of consent culture is to ask and get consent before you touch. Among people we don’t know well, asking verbally is a good idea, i.e. “May I hug you?” In many cases, however, a nonverbal ask works just as well: you can open your arms for a hug and wait for the other person to mirror the gesture before hugging them. Note that asking is only half of the procedure; waiting for the enthusiastic “YES!” is the other half! A non-enthusiastic “yes” is usually a “no” in disguise.

To build consent culture in communities, train your leaders to model consensual behavior for others. Consider a leadership training where participants practice asking and getting consent; politely but firmly saying no to touch; and gracefully taking no for an answer. Leaders might also practice recognizing body language that signals less-than-enthusiastic consent, as with guests who accept touch they don’t want out of a sense of peer pressure. Create strategies for giving guests who don’t know the expectations of the group socially appropriate outs: for instance, asking, “Do you hug, or do you prefer the handshake?” or explicitly telling a newcomer, “People here like to give hugs, but if you’d rather not do that, just offer your hand instead.” (People who have chronic pain or similar conditions may need more complex negotiations to engage in affectionate touch; see this article by Staśa Morgan-Appel for strategies.)

Traffic lights. Clip art by algotruneman. Public domain.Consent culture should make it easy (or at least easier!) to say yes or no. Many people struggle to be explicit about their desire for touch or their discomfort with it. At events, basic consent to touch can be made easy with wearable, colored “hug codes.” Provide green, yellow, and red stickers that can be applied to nametags, along with a flyer or other materials explaining their meaning: Green means “Hug me,” yellow means “Ask me if I want a hug,” and red means “No hugs please.” The accompanying materials should note, however, that permission to hug doesn’t mean automatic consent to other kinds of touch, and that permission can be withdrawn verbally at any time. The “Hug Code” information sheet can also be used to educate attendees about appropriate behavior around touch in general at the event and advertise workshops or orientation sessions that cover consent culture, safer sex, etc.

Consent culture starts with kids. Kids who grow up believing that they and others have the right to control their own bodies are better-equipped to initiate respectful touch, to clearly say yes or no when touch is offered, and to interfere when they see someone else being violated.

Here’s a simple game that you can play with elementary-aged and older children. Not only does it teach consent and empathy, but it’s a lot of fun and great for making friends! Adults should be present to model the game, make sure the rules are being followed, and insure safety, as children playing this game can easily become rambunctious.

    1. Break into pairs.
    2. In each pair, one child asks his or her partner if s/he can touch them in a specific way. “Can I give you a hug?” “Can I tickle your ribs?” “Can I grab you and spin you around?”
    3. If the partner wants to be touched that way, s/he says, “YES, YES, YES!” and participates in the touch.
    4. If the partner does not want to be touched that way, s/he says, “No thanks!” or “Not today!”
    5. If the partner refuses the touch, the child initiating the touch must do his/her best to perform the action on him/herself. This can result in some hilarious attempts at self-tickling, self-noogie-ing, etc.
    6. The children switch roles. Now the second child offers a touch, and the first child can accept or decline.
    7. Remind the participants that they can switch their answer from yes or no, or from no to yes, even after the touch has begun. Children may enjoy having the adults model this lesson in a silly way (“Hug! Stop! Hug! Stop!”) while still driving home the importance of permission to touch.
    8. Children who fail to wait for a “yes” must wait out a round before rejoining the game. (It’s useful to have an extra adult to step in as a partner when a child goes out for a round.)
    9. Children should switch partners every round or two. The game facilitators can also experiment with phrasing the offers of touch differently (“Can I have a hug?” “Will you tickle me?” “Will you grab me and spin me around?”) or including affectionate gestures that don’t include touching (“Can I blow you a kiss?”). For an additional variation, give each child a sticker or other small reward every time they complete a round while following the rules.
Robert Phillips expresses his love for his big Brother Brad. Image by Podengo via Wikimedia Commons, CC license 3.0

Image by Podengo via Wikimedia Commons

This game provides wonderful opportunities for discussion. How does it feel to say “No thanks,” or to be told “No thanks”? How does it feel to say “YES”? What kinds of touch were really fun? Did anyone say yes to a touch that turned out not to be fun? What did they do, and what did their partner do? Did anyone say “no” and then change their mind? What was that like? What was it like for their partner?

Adults will find that, especially if played with older children or adolescents, the game provides many opportunities for children to experience both positive and difficult emotions. It may be worthwhile to stop to talk in the middle of the game: Does your partner’s “no” feel like being rejected? How does it feel to say “no” back? How does it feel to say “yes” if your partner keeps saying “no”? How does it feel to say “no” if your partner keeps saying yes? Did anyone say “yes” because they were afraid of hurting a partner’s feelings? Participants can use these discussions as opportunities to talk about how to respect a “no” by not taking it personally and how to find kinds of touch that both participants will find fun.

Unless the participants are already part of a group where physical, group-bonding games are played regularly, the game facilitators should inform the children’s parents before playing this game. Note that some younger children may struggle with the rules of the game. Children who have difficulty keeping their hands to themselves, however, may be the ones who benefit the most from learning how to explicitly ask for touch; their tendency to harass or tease others may be the only way they know how to get the contact they want.


Want to learn more about creating Pagan consent culture? Here’s some additional reading:

Consent Culture

Some Experiences with a Culture of Consent and Radical Inclusion

Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape

The Power of Touch

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective (introduction) (full book)

Erotic Ethics and Pagan Consent Culture

In the wake of Kenny Klein’s recent arrest for possession of child pornography, many Pagan groups are discussing what policies and ethics statements might help to safeguard our communities. My co-writer Yvonne Aburrow has some excellent concrete suggestions here, and various people are again looking at the collective statement of sexual ethics spearheaded by Brendan Myers to consider whether it might be formally adopted in their groups. I hope these resources will be of use to our readers.

As these discussions continue, I’d like to offer some recommendations on how new sexual ethics statements and policies might be framed. In times of crisis, we often focus on what we DON’T want. But if we are to create a healthy consent culture, our vision of our erotic ethics must be framed in positive terms. What does a Pagan consent culture look like?

1. Rather than focusing purely on sexual touch, let’s focus on touch in general. If we create a culture of consent around touch, and learn to treat touch as an opportunity for a sacramental moment between two people, we will have clear standards for what constitutes appropriate touch in all cases. Not only will it be easier to identify boundary-violating warning signs from potential predators, but well-meaning people will find it easier to offer and accept touch only when it’s wanted, not out of a sense of social obligation.

2. We must acknowledge that our culture is rife with power imbalances, and that all relationships occur within these power imbalances, because no two people are perfect peers. With this in mind, we need language to talk about power in those relationships so as to maximize the autonomy of both parties. Further, we need to be able to speak openly about the fact that with a large power differential, there is a greater chance for exploitation or abuse–and yet retain the conviction that adults do have the ability to consent to touch. No adult’s experience of pleasurable, consensual touch should be dismissed as “patriarchal brainwashing,” as some sexual ethicists of the past have done in order to attack the validity of unequal relationships (such as heterosexual partnerships).

3. We must acknowledge that adolescent sexuality is a a blessing and make sure that our efforts to protect adolescents from abuse do not result in their desires being denied or punished.

As a Pagan, I believe deeply in the potential sacredness of touch and of sexuality. Accordingly, my sexual ethics are different from those espoused in mainstream religious institutions. I seek to create a culture in which enthusiastic, ongoing consent is an expected part of any relationship involving touch, and I believe deeply that adults have the right to consent to any form of loving touch that they desire, regardless of whether or not that touch is considered “deviant” by our society.

In our fear and grief over recent events, let us not mirror mainstream culture with destructive assumptions about the danger of desire, the asexuality of adolescents, or the responsibility of potential victims to protect themselves. We need to change our culture. We need to change the conditions that create people who abuse others, and that allow others to overlook the signs of abuse. Further, we need to avoid utterly demonizing those who commit sexual violations and acknowledge that problematic behaviors are rife in our communities — some persisting as a result of ignorance and lack of understanding, some as a result of genuinely dangerous mental illness. We need to be able to confront those who violate others with compassion, with the understanding that compassion can involve calling the police and sending predators to prison, for the good of all.

So I repeat: let’s take the long view here. Let’s not focus the coming discussions purely on seeking out predators. Instead, let’s concentrate on creating a healthy culture of enthusiastic consent. Not only will that approach better help to reveal those who seek to hurt others, but all our relationships will benefit.

 

Resources:

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspectiveby Christine Hoff Kraemer (Particularly the discussion of consent at the end of the introduction) [Full book available here, or contact me at ckraemer at patheos dot com]

Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, eds. Friedman and Valenti

Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals by Cristina Traina