Culture change and cat-herding

There’s always a difficult process when one group of people feels passionately that something needs to change, and another group of people feel that the status quo is just fine, usually (but not always) because they are not affected by the thing that the first group feels is in need of change.

What tactics should we adopt to try to bring about the change? An open letter? A declaration? A community statement? A petition? Or a pledge to boycott?

People might agree on a goal, but disagree about tactics. After all, no-one is entirely certain how a particular tactic will be received. There will always be those who complain, as described by Damon Leff,

…why are you trying to take over the Pagan community?”

Since then, the same accusation has varied between… “who gave you the authority to speak on behalf of me?”, “who gave you the right to speak on behalf of Pagans?”, “who gave you the right to decide for us?”, to “if you are going to speak for this community, you must consult us first!”.

But in case people hadn’t noticed, trying to take over the Pagan community would be a poisoned chalice.

David, The Death of Socrates

Socrates about to drink the poisoned chalice.
[Painting by David,The Death of Socrates. Public Domain image]

Pagans are well-known for being about as easy to organise as cats.

I for one have much better things to do with my life than to try and organise Pagans, or Wiccans, or anyone else.

All I do is to put out ideas: on how to make your Wiccan practice more inclusive, if you choose to do so, and, recently, I made a statement that I will not attend events that don’t have a code of conduct, and I invited others to join me in making that statement.

Alongside that statement, I provided links to model policies and other resources, so that there’s no need for people to reinvent the wheel. Of course people can write their policies from scratch, or completely ignore the whole idea, or have a policy that just says “don’t be a dick”, and leave it up to others to decide what “being a dick” means.

But some of us feel that it’s time to say “enough”. You can go to events with no code of conduct if you want, but I will not. That is not imposing our will on others; it’s saying what we will do in response to the situation.

Some people felt that now was not the right time for a boycott. Fair enough: your choice. However, the Pagan community has been going round and round in circles on this issue for a number of years, wringing our collective hands every time there’s a fresh abuse scandal, but in many cases, not actually doing anything to address the issue. That’s why I felt it was time to take the bull by the horns and say that I won’t go to events without a code of conduct. But one person making that statement will not be very effective. Hundreds of people making it represents a significant shift.

Still confused?

More disturbing is the people who want to misrepresent the argument for a shift towards consent culture as prudishness, “political correctness gone mad” and “no-one will ever be able to make overtures again” or “no-one will be able to hug any more”.

Of course you can hug people – just don’t jump on them and hug them without asking. Of course you can have sexy times – but isn’t sex that has been enthusiastically consented to infinitely more satisfying? (Unless of course you don’t think of your sexual partners as individuals with agency and desire…)

If you forget and hug someone without asking, they are not going to report you to the nearest “social justice warrior”. They are more likely to tell you why they found it difficult, if they even feel empowered to do that. I got a bit over-excited and hugged someone without asking, and they very gently informed me that it caused them physical pain. I apologised and promised not to do it again. All done, lesson learned.

If no-one has ever complained to you about your non-consensual hugging habits, consider why that might be. Is it because you would verbally attack them for complaining?

Other communities, like the polyamory community, BDSM community, SF/F fandom, IT conferences, have all been through similar processes of abuse scandals at large events, and discussions about consent, and have now implemented codes of conduct at events. Some of them succeeded in getting widespread adoption of codes of conduct by large numbers of people signing a pledge not to attend events without one. These are also small marginalised communities who are widely misunderstood by the general public. If they can make this change, so can we.

Consent in context

One of the best guides to what consent actually means was written by a woman who hosts sex-parties. There are two great take-aways from this article:

“Consent is always conditional on participants’ ability to revoke their consent.”


“You must be in control of, and able to revoke, your consent at all times for that consent to remain valid.”

Further reading


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