Forging Paths of Integrity (with Minor Update)
There has been a lot of talk online lately about the Pagan (or neopagan, if you prefer) community* and integrity, or lack thereof.
Stuff about “fakelore” traditions and lineages: pretense of ancient roots that aren’t, and people using this pretense to dangle “ancient secrets” before naive seekers to leverage sexual favors . Stuff about lousy sexual boundaries, harassment and assault**; particularly, the usage of status and power (such as the power to approve or disapprove elevation to higher “degrees of initiation”) to extort sex, money or power.
I’ve written about some of these issues before. They are real. They go to the origins of modern witchcraft’s practices and culture with some decidedly kinky Brits, and their flourishing in the self-indulgent counterculture of the 1960s.
And the Pagan community struggles with them. More, I think, than the atheist community does, because of the Pagan community’s early roots in the Sixties counterculture, but the atheists have their problems too.
As someone who came into the Pagan community through the Church of All Worlds, which has historically had a culture very much in keeping with that unboundaried Sixties-style sexual free-for-all, I have seen this close up, and I’m guilty of having played along at times, thinking at the time that this was “normal” in that context. I have seen and experienced creepy and predatory behavior (by both men and women) in that community, and have heard reports of much worse. This figured heavily in why I left CAW in the late 1990s***.
I think every community that allows people to become the objects of cults of personality is destined to experience abuses of power. That’s why Atheopaganism as we are creating it has no priesthood, no hierarchy of degrees. It’s not a guarantee that there will be no abuse, but it’s a hedge against it. Atheopaganism is a collaborative venture: we’re doing it together. We have no priest/esses, no “teachers”.
It’s also helpful, I think, that we make no claim that what we are doing is a centuries-old (or even decades-old) tradition. Ours is a new path, a modern way based in current understanding of science and age-old ritual and religious techniques . We borrow from no particular culture, but from the accumulated tool kit of humanity itself. We kicked off in 2009. So: no “ancient secrets” that can be “revealed” by a self-styled “teacher”.
Just because something is old doesn’t make it valid. And just because something is young doesn’t make it inconsequential.
I think it’s a bit silly that people claim long histories for their traditions when they are instead products of the 20th century. But there’s not a tremendous amount of harm there except insofar as they use such claims to assert “authority” or “superiority” over others, or use the prospect of learning “ancient lore” as bait to leverage sex, money or obedience.
On the other hand, I think the broader Pagan community has some serious soul-searching to do around sexual behavior and culture.
I have many dear friends in the Pagan community. There are lovely, amazing people there. But I have also seen people in that community—generally, high-status people with power and influence—abuse their standing in myriad ways. It seems that being a big fish in a small pond just creates too much temptation on the part of many…particularly if they can rationalize their behavior with supernatural explanations. And the tone that is set by the common belief that Pagans are up for a sexual free-for-all means that countless instances of inappropriate behavior ranging from annoyance to harassment to outright assault happen in the community. It makes us a magnet and a hunting ground for predators and creeps.
It is my hope that this is reducing as awareness of consent issues and the #MeToo movement gain traction, but frankly, predators aren’t going to change. We need to root them out.
We have to work at this; it won’t just happen on its own.
I hope that is happening now. Certainly there are some newer voices that are much more sane than those of prior generations, and much more aware of issues of respect, integrity, and boundaries.
But I think there are some key recommendations we can derive from the problems we have inherited from the past:
- The Pagan community needs a broadly adopted Community Statement on Sexual Abuse, Etiquette and Ethics. There was an attempt to create one a few years ago, and it fell apart when some who like things as they are now protested. It is long past time for those complaints to be rejected as apologetics for a culture that indulges abuse. No one likes “rules”, but we need some. The statement could be endorsed not only by organizations, covens, and paths, but by festivals and conferences. [UPDATE: HERE is Brendan Myers’ report on what happened to the first attempt at creating such a statement. It’s not pretty]
- We must end sexual initiation, and festivals should disinvite those leaders who won’t. Just stop it. It’s unnecessary and it leads to many abuses. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of a “tradition”. So was strangling people and sinking them in peat bogs.
- We must desexualize Pagan events. That means keeping sexual behavior (other than symbolic actions, like planting a Maypole in the ground) out of open rituals and ensuring that any sexually explicit or skyclad activities are private, adult, and by invitation only. That’s the only way to keep creepers out and only allow consenting participants in. Say it with me: privacy is not the same thing as shame.
- We must teach consent culture and boundaries at every event, have written conduct standards prominently provided to participants, and require in practice that they be followed by everyone, no matter how revered. To their credit, some events like Pantheacon are already doing this.****
- We must teach our communities about leadership. People who understand leadership know unleaderlike behavior when they see it. Real leadership doesn’t exploit, doesn’t extort. Real leadership is transparent about money and decision making, and admits when it makes mistakes. And it doesn’t demand, cajole or bargain for sex for any reason.
And why, after all, should we do these things? When confronted with these issues, why not just quit, practice as a solitary (as so many do) or seek (as I have done) to find a corner of the community with a more conscious culture?
Well, I’ll tell you why. Because as frustrating as the Pagan community can be, it can also be wonderful. It can be amazing. Much of it stands for reverence for the Earth, which the world desperately needs now. And by and large, it is made up of people seeking to be the best people they can be. It is a tragedy and a travesty that such abuses take place among people who are so worthy.
I’m sure there are other lessons I’m missing. But if we were to adopt these, things would get a lot cleaner and safer in Pagandom.
May it be so.
*Setting aside the question of terminology and what that “community” really means in detail, as it is a aggregation of many different paths, perspectives and practices.
** This is long, but well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.
*** I understand there is now an initiative to transform that subculture, and I applaud the effort.
****For an example of such policies, see the Atheopagan Event Planning Guide.
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I applaud your comments and hope there are many in the community and otherwise who are reading what you wrote. I stayed away from both aspects of the pagan community for so many reasons . Most because of the “sexual” issue; there was a time i used to do readings for people and the comment was made they saw two different persons in me. I had to stop and reconsider their comments.. Being Gay was just one side of me; it had nothing to do with who I believe I am. So in essence I suppose there was two different people. Also this issue with priest and priestess etc. plus those who say they are teachers etc. Many of us are solitary souls and for many of those same reasons. If it works for us okay and if it doesn’t why are we doing them? Whether one claims to a Pagan belief or Witch belief or both; keeping an open mind set is an absolute. I don’t care if someone is tall or short or heavy set or slim or caucasion or what have you. If you deep down inside feel and believe in what you are doing (pagan/witch etc.) then go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you because you are male or female; that your sexuality plays a part of who you are. b.S. You are who YOU are, it has nothing now or ever to do with sex. All the rules etc. regarding Pagan beliefs/Witch beliefs were so many that I left and have never returned.
I’m all for building consent culture and having a zero-tolerance toward predatory and harassing behavior. We don’t, however, need to “de-sexualize” Paganism, because the problem is not about sex. It’s about unhealthy power dynamics and unaccountable leadership. The problem is not the 1960s. No doubt some predators play on perceptions of sexual freedom-as-obligation, but predators work with whatever terrain they’re in.
We see ALL of the same abuses, in at least the same numbers, within religions and subcultures which are diametrically opposed to the values of the Sexual Revolution. We see these abuses, on a staggering scale, in the Roman Catholic Church. We see them in Orthdodox Judaism (and Orthodox Christianity). We see them among the Amish, and very socially conservative strains of Hinduism and Islam. We see it in atheist organizations. We see it among the most strident men and women in the MeToo movement. Predators prey on the same weaknesses within their victims everywhere. They can and do adapt absolutely any community value set in service of their manipulation. If we made our festival culture absolutely asexual and got everyone to wear burkas at all times, I guarantee we would continue to have all of the same problems. It’s about unaccountable power, the deference we give to celebrity/leaders and the enabling mechanisms of willful blindness and “let’s not rock the boat” organizational culture.
We don’t need to “end sexual initiation.” There is no “we” in Pagandom. If a tradition or group’s practices don’t involve children or unlawful actions, it’s nobody’ else’s damn business how they initiate themselves. There is an aspect to this neo-Puritan backlash which seeks to infantalize adults, particularly women, by insisting that nobody really has the agency to make proper decisions for themselves and therefore we need to make every part of the Pagan experience PG-13.
Screw that, if you’ll pardon a really cheap pun.
If sex has nothing to do with the problem, skyclad work has less than nothing to do with it. There is nothing shameful, or seedy, or dangerous about skyclad working, not even at public festivals. Telling people we need to cover up or “keep it private” is victim blaming, pure and simple. It assumes that we cannot have safety so long as we “tempt” predators, Those of us who choose to go about in a partial or total state of undress are not the problem. They are. We’re not going anywhere. The safest events and venues I have attended over the decades, bar none, have been nudist resorts. There is a very strong community ethic of consent, people look out for each other, and violators are tossed fast, and permanently. If you can’t create a culture of safety with nude people in the mix, there is no way you will create one without them.
I agree with the end goal of safety, but not many of the particulars of how to achieve that. In the end, the “community” is defined purely by freedom of association. If one or several or a majority of public festivals wish reform into a woodsy version of Presbyterian summer camp, so be it. Those of us unwilling to relinquish the wildness and earthy pleasures of Pagan tradition will do what this movement has always done since day one: find our own spot in the forest and live as we will.
Short version: you disagree with everything I wrote. As usual.
And I disagree with every argument you make here.
Why are you here?
An equally fair question is why do you bother to have a comment section if you’re only interested in hearing uncritical acceptance of what you have to say? A major downside of the online world is that is enables, and conditions people to live only inside of echo chambers and bubbles which reinforce their own biases. That’s an easy comfort zone to fall into, but we learn nothing and effect no change in the world that way.
I come here, or any other space when an issue arises which interests me and which I feel passionate about. I learn things. I may or may not persuade others. I do, believe it or not, find my own mind and perspective changed by differing views. I’ve been around long enough to understand why you could come to the conclusions you do on this issue. I see things a bit differently. Of course I believe I’m “right” or at least have a cogent argument. But as effed up as our country has become, I still truly believe in the marketplace of ideas. Put arguments out there and let people accept, reject, refine or ruminate on it as they like.
It can hardly be said I disagree with everything you wrote. In fact, of the five bullet points you list, I agree unreservedly with three of them. I happen to think the abuse statement of some years back (I believe drafted by Brendan Myers), was excellent. A small coven I co-lead adopted it more or less whole cloth. I think the core ideas have been adopted in some form or another by an ever growing number of groups. I don’t believe we will every achieve universal agreement on a single set of particulars because….well surely you’ve met Pagans. The notion of herding cats does not do it justice. More like herding neutrinos. I am likewise fully on-board with the last two points.
Where I disagree is where I see attempts to conflate kink or libertinism with predation. They are not in any way the same. One is expression of one’s own sovereignty. The other is violation of another’s. One does not lead to nor excuse the other. I would suggest before trying to banish or marginalize the kink elements of our community, you might look into how those subcultures have approached matters of ethics and safety. Their (our) systems are not perfect, but they are in many instances very well developed and reinforced as cultural values and yes, even rules. We’ve done some solid work on consent culture out of necessity if nothing else. It is literally a matter of life and death for us in many cases.
I suggest you read the piece again. No one has suggested “banishing or marginalizing” anyone. Nor has anyone suggested turning Pagan gatherings into “Presbyterianism”. And I didn’t say ANYTHING about kink.
Perhaps the problem is that you are prone to hyperbole.
I’m fine with differences, and maybe this is just your style, but I didn’t get that you agreed with much of anything in the piece from your first comment. Your pattern here has been to show up, scorn everything, and then disappear again. So I wonder why you continue to read here. That’s all.
To the substance, I really think you are not listening to the experience of women who have spoken out on this issue. They speak of being ogled, leered at, and harassed at events where there is nudity, and of being harassed and pressured for sex in a highly sexually charged environment.
There is no reason why nudity and sexual behavior should not be kept in a safe container. Among other things, it ensures that any minors at the gathering will not be exposed to them, which makes a big difference when it comes to mandated-reporter licensing, child custody cases and other situations which can get really ugly, really fast. No other religion claims the right to sexual behavior in non-private circumstances. It is not “oppressive” to expect that nudity and sexual behavior be kept behind some kind of visual barrier from those not participating.
There is no downside to having these activities sequestered for invited adults. That’s not “Puritanism”: it is simple respect for boundaries and the law.
On sexual initiation, we are not going to agree. I believe it is unnecessary, and it should be dispensed with. Other than “we’ve always done it this way”, there is no argument in its favor, and its very existence creates opportunity for abuse and coercion.
I agree with you that the kink community has experience in working with consent, and I have some experience in that world. But Pagans as a rule aren’t nearly as responsible as are experienced kink people when it comes to consent, and we have not done what most kink communities do, which is 1) Hold scenes in tightly controlled containers; and 2) Boot with extreme prejudice creeps and predators who show up and try to get in on the action.
Insofar as I can tell, you equate being “wild and free” with being irresponsible and inconsiderate. I think we can do better than that.
I have no doubt whatsoever that women have experienced harassment at events in the context of nudity. It’s just don’t accept that nudity is the source of the problem or something that Pagans inherently “can’t handle.” I base that belief on long experiences in settings where it does work. It works when you foster and police an atmosphere of respect. The predators and harassers don’t get to dictate what people wear in order that they “can’t control themselves.” The creepers need to get the gate, regardless. Guys (and women) you can’t feel safe around naked you aren’t safe around in full Victorian garb. Some of the worst rape cultures in the world – on public transit in India or fundamentalist Middle East, show that it’s people, not clothing that dictate safety or the lack of it.
Nudity and sexual behavior do not need to be kept in the same “safe container” because they are two completely different phenomena. There is nothing pervy about nudity. There’s nothing even necessarily sexual about it. I can say from long experience that when it’s done often enough, it mostly de-couples from arousal. As for Pagan events, a fair portion of the nudity I see, say, at PSG, is grandmothers and their little grandkids taking a swim in the pond. That’s not kinky at all. It’s beautiful because it’s people owning their space and being in the world without shame.
Sexual behavior is another matter. That should be in a space among consenting adults only, whether indoors or in some event space which can be safely sequestered. I agree we have not done the things that kink communities do well. My argument is precisely that we should incorporate many of those things, not reverting to the “bad old days” of drunken “implied consent” at festivals.
As to whether sexual initiation is “necessary”, I am content to leave that decision also among consenting adults. It will have to be left there unless you propose criminalizing adult sexual interactions. Is it necessary in a global sense in order to be a “good Pagan”? Certainly not. But it’s not for me (or you) to tell other adults whether they should participate in sexual initiation, or sex magick, or blood magick, or initiation by physical ordeal etc.
To another point, the reason I sort of drop in and vanish is because I don’t feel the need to comment on every matter. Particularly when you write about the particulars of building an atheopagan movement, it’s not really my thing, so I don’t presume to step into those sorts of discussions.
I agree with you that there is nothing inherently sexual about nudity, and that when exposed to it for awhile, it more or less decouples from sexuality.
But not for predators and creepers. And establishing higher standards of safety is one way to reduce the harassment that we both agree is a problem.
Maybe nudity isn’t something that Pagans “can’t handle”, but it is a fact that we DON’T. We don’t bounce creepers. We don’t call out abusers, especially high-status abusers. You can say that we should, but if we don’t maybe it makes sense to put some structural barriers in place that will make it harder for abusers to do what they want to do.
Does that curb the fun for others who enjoy nudity and public sexuality? Well, yes, it does. And I say that’s unfortunate, but not such a cost that it offsets the alternative. People are being assaulted.
I hope we do get serious about bouncing the creepers in any and all festival formats. I see signs for hope. People are talking openly and seriously for the first time. A number of groups in recent times are ejecting leaders who stand accused of harassment. Some have been quite prominent founding figures of the sort long held as “untouchable”.
When the Florida festival tried to invite Gavin Frost as a presenter by subterfuge a couple years back, matters hit the fan and people united against it and won. Frost was not even accused of harassment but of refusing to renounce old ideas about initiation of minors.
The work is far from done but we have taken some important first steps.
I have a question to the person who accepts the issue of “nudity”. First there are not that many people on either side of the aisle (Pagan/Witch) who feel “skyclad” is an important part of the ritual(s). So, why is it even being discussed? It was only a single issue being part of a whole. Humans being what they are will automatically look at someone who is naked; simple fact. What goes on in their minds after the fact is something totally different. Aside from this it still does not play as a part of either the Pagan or the Witch aspect. You feel at ease with no clothes on, go for it. Yet to expect others to abide by your desire is unacceptable. Yes there are groups who are comfortable as such. Still it is for those who are that way; so why rant about the issue?
Also I know of no place where children find this kind of issue acceptable. It detracts from the the ritual(s) and why they are being performed. All these rules etc. is among those why so many of us refuse to be a part of. I care not whether you go skyclad or wear a robe or a thong or any other such piece. The mind set is dependent upon the reason for the ritual(s) and those who participate.
I have read so many books concerning this issue of “nudity” and how it can take away from a ritual. Clothes “do not” decide where a person’s mind is or isn’t and as to the sexual part of it. It is in the mind of the person from the get go. (predators). Have a good day.
Skyclad work is an important aspect of practice for some witches and pagans going back to the foundation of modern traditions. No one should feel pressure to do so OR not to do so.
I harp on it because I strongly believe it is not the problem. If people fail to understand the true nature and root causes of a problem, it is impossible to find an effective solution. Humanity made zero progress against bubonic plague so long as people blamed alignment of planets or miasma or Jews.
The Catholic Church is making next to no progress on their abuse problem for the same reason. Various factions blame gays, the media, the Sexual Revolution, doctrine that is too liberal or conservative. They cast blame everywhere but where it truly lies: the predators and the unhealthy leadership culture which enables them.
I want to see the abuse problem solved. To do that we need to focus on culprits, not scapegoats.
I think we need to play both offense and defense: we need to go after abusers, but also create safer environments. And whether or not skyclad ritualing at public events (and nudity writ large) has been “traditional” or become commonplace, that is not as safe an environment as people covering up.
I note that you have not defended in your most recent post the “public sex temples” that Sarah Anne Lawless describes and decries. Certainly we can agree that public sexual behavior at festivals is unnecessary and creates an uncomfortable environment for many.
It is all very well to complain about and go after arsonists, but just the same, it is not a good idea to sprinkle gasoline all over the place, either. Going after creeps and predators is not mutually exclusive with changing culture to be safer and less uncomfortable for people who don’t want to be around nudity and public sexuality.
Can you direct me to that Lawless article? I’ve read some of her stuff and found it pretty on-point.
I’m not familiar with the public sex temples. At least not at Pagan events. I have been to festivals where the whole event and space were basically for swingers or other “alt lifestyle” folks. I agree that should not be thrown in the face of ordinary folk in mixed venues. If people want to retire to their tents or cabins in pairs or groups fine.
Sure: I linked to it in my post, but here it is:
Hey, we agree! I completely agree with your second paragraph here.
Wishing all of your people a wonderful Thanksgiving. We will never agree on everything, it is what makes us the wonderful interesting people we are.
I’m not sure that removing the option to be skyclad is the answer, but I’m aware that not everyone is capable of decoupling it from sexuality. I prefer to keep it for rituals with trusted people.
I totally agree that we need to boot predators out and have codes of conduct for events.
Removing the “skyclad” issue. I am not sure it was really ever an issue per se. I agree with if it is done it has been explained to everyone who would be attending. Somehow this particular issue has gotten so far away from the total of the whole. There are many aspects of the Pagan community that some like and others don’t. The same goes with the issue of “Predators”; It can be misconstrued to mean sex etc. Yet for the general public (correct me if I am mistaken here) it is this “using someone” whether for power play or getting others to believe something that won’t work for them. Perhaps it is why so many of us prefer to work alone. Where there is an issue is that (unbelievably) so many really feel that what they do is an important part of who they are. Learning to see who is the “PLAYER” and who is “Real” takes a tremendous amount of patience and understanding. Nothing ever really will be acceptable by all Pagans.
Please don’t get me wrong. I work skyclad in rituals and generally do feel safe to wander around skyclad at clothes-optional events. In 25 years of attending such events, I’ve only heard about one incident of ogling (2 men overheard making derogatory comments about a woman’s breasts, sometime in the mid 1990s).
However… hearing about that incident did make me wonder if there was more of that sort of thing happening; and it made me feel uncomfortable to think that my body might be being scrutinized in that objectifying way.
I’ve also experienced two individuals who hug in a sexual way (like a dog shagging your leg, or an octopus on steroids).
Also, having heard multiple stories of abusive behaviour (groping, unwanted sexualized hugging, and worse) at events and in private circles … we really really need to improve our community understanding of consent.
Agreed, but we need to have some basic standards that are broadly accepted in the community and which, if they aren’t followed, will result in the expulsion of violators. Harassment, coercion and abuse cannot be tolerated any longer–we have to be better than that.
Why is it that humans are stuck on this issue of “Sex” in any form? If what we do or don’t do is a personal issue. Then how does sex play into it? The mind set from the get go, should be concentrated on the matter at hand. (Yes, I realize many don’t and never will). So, setting “standards ” down is really almost a must. Anyone and I do mean anyone can see into something that isn’t there. If we as a Pagan Community don’t set some sort of “standard”. Then how can we expect anything from another group which we may or may not like?