Abuse, the Pagan Community, and Our Commitments
Sarah Anne Lawless, who published these two revelatory articles on her experiences of being sexually harassed and abused within the Pagan community (mostly in Canada and the Pacific Northwest), has now published a third piece. In it, she reports the truly horrifying blowback she received for daring to name this problem.
Lawless has suffered financially, psychologically, and even legally simply because she had the unmitigated gall not to remain silent about abuses up to and including rape.*
I wrote on this subject awhile back. It’s one of my most-read articles from this site, and engendered passionate arguments both pro and con my thesis: that Paganism must root out the baked-in misogyny and sexual abusiveness that has characterized it from the days of Gardner, and was turbocharged in the later Sixties counterculture.
I believe Lawless. I believe her accounts. And I am appalled at the way she has been treated by sexual abusers and their defenders.
I want nothing to do with such behavior. And thus this post, the purpose of which is to articulate some commitments about how Atheopaganism will seek to reduce the opportunity for such abuses at our events and gatherings.
As Atheopagans, we have an inherent advantage over some other Pagan circles in this regard, in that we don’t believe in literal magic. Would-be abusers aren’t going to be able to promise prospective victims “secret or arcane knowledge” or power to lure them into being abused.
But beyond that, we don’t—and won’t, ever—offer any kind of “initiation to a higher degree” or elevation in status of any kind, so no Atheopagan can ever claim that some sort of sexual quid pro quo is required in order to receive such elevation. Ever.
I believe very strongly that power differentials are a primary driver of the sexual abuse problem in our community. Abuses of such differentials are created when opportunities to become “initiates” or “priest/esses” or what have you are dangled before seekers and promised at the cost of sexual favors.
So we simply won’t have them. We have Atheopagan clerics, but that is a service role, not an elevated status above anyone else. And anyone who embraces the 13 Principles can become legally ordained as one, free, at the Atheopagan Society’s website.
Next, all our events have and will continue to have written conduct standards explicitly articulating the expectation of affirmative consent culture and clear consequences for any who violate these standards. An example of such policies can be found here, in the Atheopagan event planning guide. (EDIT 2022: the Atheopagan Community Guidelines for conduct, consent and so forth have been finalized by the Atheopagan Society Council and the broader community, and can be found here)
Although we acknowledge that some people may choose to engage in consensual sexual behavior in a private ritual context, and support them in that choice, we will never set forth any nonconsensual sexual or physically affectionate expectation—not even of a hug—in a ritual at an Atheopagan community event.
Finally, we will listen if accusations of abuse are made. We will take victims seriously, and we will respond promptly, sensitively and decisively.
This is my commitment to our community and to the public writ large.
There have been a number of people in the Pagan community who have taken on leadership roles in trying to create widely-shared community awareness and conduct standards around these issues. Particularly, I feel Shauna Aura Knight has been an articulate and compelling voice, Laura Tempest Zakroff and Misha Magdalene likewise. And I am pleased to note that events such as Pantheacon have implemented strong consent policies and conduct standards in recent years (as contrasted, for example, with another Pagan convention, Convocation, which has refused to do so and to which I will therefore not link).
To my mind, we need a community statement of sexual ethics which can serve as a sort of “seal of approval” for organizations and groups which sign onto it. People will then know where the safe environments are and where they aren’t, and can choose where they attend events accordingly. I know that one attempt was made a few years ago to develop such a statement, and it ran aground when resisted by advocates of sexual initiation.
Which, let me just make myself clear here, is NEVER appropriate. Sex as a condition for passing into some higher-status state is the clearest example of harassment there is. Even in traditions where you’re supposed to do your sexual initiation with your partner, or by yourself, there is that little matter of “supposed to”.
It is time for the community to try again with regard to a statement on sexual ethics, and this time, we should simply ignore the complaints of those who want to keep up practices that really are no longer defensible, if they ever were. If those who defend sexual initiation refuse to sign the statement, that will be a red flag for those considering joining their traditions or circles. Over time, people will know what the safe places are…and what the skeevy ones are.
This stuff is serious. It is hurting people and it can ruin lives. It needs to stop, and the creepers and abusers and rapists who have coasted for so many years in Pagan circles need to be rooted out and expunged.
Honestly, I don’t care if changing our culture as I propose puts a dent in the sexual “fun” at Pagan events. One rape isn’t worth that. Creating a hunting ground for predators and setting the stage for abuse and harassment isn’t worth that. And if conduct standards drive away hangers-on for whom “being a Pagan” just means sexual pursuit and partying, that’s no loss either, to my mind.
I want to be able to talk about my religion proudly, and while I feel I can do that about Atheopaganism, between the credulity and the abuse ickiness I am much more leery about such a characterization of Paganism generally.
We have house cleaning to do, and we need to do it.
*NOTE Sept. 2019: Lawless has experienced so much abuse for her public statements on this topic that she has since pulled down her blog.
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I agree that sexual abuse is exactly that “abuse”. Where it has gotten so far out of hand is; the #METOO movement has opened the doors to too many accusations that are ridiculous. Plus that so many come forward long long after the fact. So, as much as I see it as; yes abuse is terrible and out of hand. I also see the “many” who use it as a form of revenge in the wrong way. Learning when something is against one’s nature or is being used to get something out of it (sex wise) is one thing. Yet, to speak up and say that this person or that person said such and such; or touched me. Just to get back at them is far off the beaten track. I have seen it in a setting of people who thought they were in a class room. Where they thought they could openly discuss issues concerning Paganism and Witchcraft. So, it doesn’t stop at this setting or the other. I am at the point of ignoring issues when I see them concerning this issue of sexual abuse.
There is no credible evidence that accusations of sexual abuse are used for “revenge” to any significant degree. In fact, assessments of this question have concluded that something between 1.3 and 7 percent of such accusations are false.
“Ignoring” this issue is condoning rape and assault. You need to re-think this, Gerald.
I don’t think the confrontation of abuse and concerns about false or malicious accusations need to be mutually exclusive or in opposition. In fact I think the whole enterprise of justice MeToo is driving at is at risk if that becomes the case. The problem, on the one hand, of course is that women (and abuse victims in general), have been silenced and not believed. The problem with the “false accusations” counter movement is that it has strong roots in misogyny and the MAGA assumption that white men are always the real victims in any scenario.
The reality of false accusations should not be allowed to overshadow or detract from the greater problem. At the same time, it is not a wholly illegitimate concern. Are false accusations “insignificant”. Numerically, statistically, sure. But how many units are in an “insignificant”? 1.3 to 7 percent is entirely insignificant, unless you’re one of the falsely accused.
When we say we “believe” victims allegations, to me that means we need to take them seriously and with a presumption of sincerity and good faith. But I don’t think that obligation eliminates any and all obligation for fact finding and reasonable standards of evidence. The level and weight of that evidence must I think, be commensurate with the potential sanctions and other consequences for the accused. If the consequence amounts to some guy getting booted from a festival over an accusation of harassment which cannot be proved to the nth degree, I’m not going to lose any sleep over that. If you put me on a jury, I’m not sending someone to prison without evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Between those extremes it gets trickier. Even short of criminal sanction, a sexual abuse rap these days can easily cost you not only your job, but any possibility of ever earning a living wage again. This is a big deal, as it should be, but it must be handled with some care as a result.
I don’t think the overwhelming majority of women with allegations of abuse are lying or “taking revenge” on someone. But the reality is that women are people, and a few are psychopaths. Those few are going to take wild advantage of the new orthodoxy which holds that a victim’s account must never be questioned in any way. I have firsthand knowledge of one case in which a woman had a guy kicked out of a group on an allegation she raised because she was pissed off that he rejected her drunken advances! There was no dispute about that among any witnesses, but it would have been political and social media suicide to not bounce him.
I also find myself increasingly leery about accusations made in a political context. I have no doubt at all that most of the men accused are guilty, and often have long patterns of abuse and a clear sense of entitlement. That said, there is literally no depth of scumbaggery I would put past political operatives on both sides of the aisle. Whatever pretext of fair play or limits in politics is gone. We are in a “no rules” era reminiscent of the Borgias and Pazzis and Mediccis. If victims can be silenced with money and coercion, others can certainly be induced to torpedo a political enemy with false accusations.
I’m not at all saying this is emblematic of the greater abuse problem, but its a reality and one which must be dealt with, especially as the consequences of abuse and harassment become steeper (as they should). There is a point in every revolution or justice movement at which righteous outrage bleeds into nihilism and a belief that literally any excess is acceptable in the name of a greater good. It never ends well.
All very thoughtful, Ken, and I agree with it. It is a conundrum how to proceed with investigations when the accusations alone are enough to convict people–men, particularly–in the public eye. Still, we must address the ubiquity of this problem.
The me too movement is about calling out abusing behaviour in situations of power differentials. Exactly the sort of thing that Mark has described here.
A community statement of ethics for events already exists. The Pagan and Heather Symposium in the UK has adapted the Geek Feminism Wiki Code of Conduct for Pagan events and organizers to sign up to.
I have also provided coven guidelines on the Gardnerian Wicca website.
I also started a pledge for people to sign, pledging not to attend events that don’t have a code of conduct.
Several prominent Pagans declined to sign the pledge because they were worried it would apply to small informal gatherings and parties (obviously not – I meant large public events).
So even when clear statements are available, either people don’t know they exist or they misinterpret them.
Apparently, these initiatives haven’t made it to this side of the pond yet. Thanks for your comment.
I am now on this side of the pond. And people in Canada and the US have signed the pledge.
https://www.change.org/p/the-pagan-community-code-of-conduct-for-all-pagan-events (change dot org has now closed the petition but you can see signatures from this side of the pond).
I just reopened the petition
Well, you must admit it has cause several comments; both good and otherwise. I will stand by my comment the the #METOO movement has cause more problems than it has given positive ones. Yet, that is my position and like all people I am entitled to it. Also having been in a few of the classroom issues where such existed. It has given me good reason to stay away from such. Watching on the internet those who make claims of abuse; seem to have done so for recognition of some sort. Money, Publicity, revenge.
Did you READ Lawless’ latest post? About the SHITSTORM of further abuse she received because she dared to speak out?
You are just wrong here, Gerald. Sorry, but you are.
There are some excellent ideas here, but…well, you know. I’m the unofficial fly in the ointment of atheopaganism, so you know there would be some asterisks to my agreement…
The statement compiled by Brendan Myers a few years back is excellent. I adopted it more or less in full when I co-founded a coven nearly some time back. I would, however caution against ever leading people to believe that adoption of such a document would serve as a reliable gauge of safety for potential initiates. I live in the Chicago area. I also covered the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal at some length when I was a journalist. The Catholic archdiocese here adopted one of the church’s very first policies on abuse in the country, if not the world, in 1988 if memory serves. WAY before the whole thing blew up with Boston etc.
It was a wonderfully progressive set of ideals. They were going to be proactive, transparent, put kids safety first etc. etc. Problem was, of course that they never once followed the spirit of it and rarely even the letter in any way. Priests in every parish were carrying on with young lads like Caligula’s throne room, bishops were covering it up and shuttling the offenders to new victims. Parishioners and law enforcement were told nothing. At many turns, the policy was tightened, promises were made, blue ribbon commissions of top flight legal and ethics experts were convenened.
Nothing changed. The church never once did the right thing when they thought no one was looking. Why? Simply because the culture of the organization was not on board with the progressive ideals. It was 180 degrees opposed to it. In this context, a policy “seal of approval” if anything, creates a false sense of safety and enables abusers. In fact I would bet the rent money that covens lead by abusers and groomers would be some of the very first and most vocal to adopt zero tolerance abuse documents.
So if a pagan looking to join a group saw the notice or logo of the anti-abuse statement, I would counsel them to consider it a good sign, but a very, very tentative one. The statement was a fine effort and I think too readily dismissed as a failure because it failed to win anything like universal adoption. I think more groups bought into it or the main thrust of it than we realize.
I remain torn on the sexual initiation thing. I’m totally with you on the idea of zero hierarchy, so in a way that moots the whole issue of abuse of power via initiation. Clearly no one should ever be put in the position of being told that they have to yield to someone’s advances or participate in something as a condition of being a member or a “good pagan.” The involvement of minors, it should go without saying, is off the map, let alone off the table.
But viewing it from the other side, if for whatever reason I decided I wanted to undergo an initiation into some sex based mystery or to perform the Great Rite in True for my initiation, chosen freely by me, shouldn’t I have the agency to make that choice (and therefore for a group to honor that choice)? I’m a big boy. I’m nobody’s victim and I don’t need “the community” or anyone else to be my chaperone. I think for an initiation of that nature, which is fraught with abuse potential, must come from the initiate, not the initiator, and the nature or existence of such workings in a group must never be sprung on anyone. But within those parameters, I don’t see where its anyone elses business but the people involved. That’s a sincere opinion and a question at the same time, so I hope it’s not dismissed with “you’re just an advocate of rape culture” or something of the like.
In any event, I very much doubt public shaming or peer pressure will dissuade such groups from existing or continuing their traditions. Most of them would care little about public seals of approval because they aren’t open to the general public or keen on publicity. I’d rather see these things brought within the consent culture discussion rather than driven so far underground that they are beyond the reach of ethical visibility and communal standards.
Also very thoughtful. No one here has EVER suggested that consenting adults can’t do as they please, so your example of the “Great Rite in True” doesn’t really apply to the subject matter…except insofar as any in attendance would need ALSO to consent, because frankly, some people don’t want to be subjected to that experience. Given that, I agree: it’s nobody else’s business.
I’m not trying to police the behavior of consenting adults–at ALL. I want to curb and discourage those for whom consent is an “inconvenience” to be circumvented.
All I’m saying in that regard is that in OUR ritual gatherings, we will never expect any participation in any affectionate or sexual interaction without affirmative consent of participants.
Public shaming may not change any behavior, but it will at least let people know what they’re in for if they pursue membership in a group which has refused to adopt an affirmative consent policy. That’s really all we can do.
Thanks for your helpful and thoughtful comments, Ken.
As a bit on an aside, Lawless is, in my opinion, a first rate herbalist and offers some very well made and unique products, particularly those made from the nightshade family. I became a customer before I read about the abuse issue or made the connection. For anyone with any interest in such things, it could be a very nice tangible way to offer support.
How does one clean house when the house is molding from the inside out? Hi there, I am a victim of the abuse of Sean Donahue who was uplifted for a very long time here on God’s and Radicals. I also wrote for God’s and Radicals (my last piece was actually deleted without my knowledge or consent.) When I came out, I was backlashed and dragged by EVERYONE famous herbalists that I had bought all of their reading materials, and old teachers and teachers I had wanted to study with alike. My career as a herbalist was ENDED, my family deserted me and I was left as an autistic disabled femme to try and make do on my own without any support from anyone. Almost 6 months later, still here unsupported and struggling. Sarah Anne has had to remove her blog because the backlash IS REAL and we have done nothing but speak up about our experiences to try and save others an abusive experience. Before the OTHER accounts came out, I had Alley Valkyrie (the FOUNDER) attack me and tell me “you are a victim, not a God, sit down.” I have screenshots of that comment on Facebook. God’s and Radicals is PERFORMATIVE JUSTICE, and giving them any momentum is just making the molded down house harder to tear down. Gerald here in the comments has proved how HORRIBLE people (usually white men) are in the face of an abused femme. (Thanks for that horrifying display Gerald, you are a hateful person.) This doesn’t just last through the call out. We suffer consequences FOR OUR ENTIRE LIVES while the rest of the world plays moral catch-up. The path to justice is not writing about it. It is DOING IT and actually supporting survivors. For example, you SHOULD HAVE DIRECTLY LINKED TO SARAH’S STORE AS A WAY TO TANGIBLY SUPPORT HER. Writing an article sounds great and fills a certain niche but it gets OLD when none of the people saying anything are actually contributing anything tangible to keeping you existing on the planet. It also lends the illysion that God’s and Radicals shares the same philisophy and should theoretically be good people for it right? But the truth is, most people share things only so they LOOK like they are good people, they don’t actually become good people. They USE those good people to make themselves appear just and fair, when in reality those very same people PERSONALLY have attacked victims of predators in the pagan community. Sarah had to take down her blog, I lost my entire internet presence BECAUSE THE BACKLASH IS REAL and fighting about it in the comments of a site that pretends to be radical ISNT ACTUALLY HELPING ANYONE.
Hi: I am very sorry that you were abused. Your anger is natural and righteous. I really am very, very sorry about your family. That must be devastating.
This isn’t, however, Gods and Radicals. That’s a different site which now, I believe, is under a new name, “A Beautiful Resistance”.
I didn’t link to Sarah’s store because I have very mixed feelings about herbalism. Some of it is quite valid, and some of it is nonsense. I don’t have the time nor the medical background to sort out the one from the other, and my purpose in writing the blog post you have commented on was to address issues about the community writ large, not to “support” or “not support” particular people. Sarah apparently appreciated what I wrote, as she quoted it in her blog, which I took as a great honor.
This is an incredibly important discussion within pagan, witchcraft & occult communities. I have suffered and witnessed spiritual & sexual abuse within communities, and more established members of the community using events to prey on young female seekers … and I am not surprised at all to see men attacking the Me Too movement. Sexual harassment and the protection of harassers and abusers is endemic throughout society, pagans being no different. At any rate thank you for this contribution to making communities and events safer.
You’re very welcome. I’ve gotten the usual pushback from (mostly) men, of course.