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.