Call for Papers: Pagan Consent Culture – Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy

Yvonne Aburrow and I are pleased to announce that we will be co-editing an anthology entitled Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. 

The collection will define Pagan consent culture; articulate widely-held Pagan theologies of the body; examine theological resources in various Pagan traditions for building consent culture; explore strategies for making seeking consent to touch a normal community practice; give recommendations for safeguarding policies at events for children and adults; provide procedures for communities to use when responding to accusations of sexual abuse; consider the role of unequal power dynamics in relationships in Pagan communities; and examine the ethics of sexual initiation, erotic healing, and other Pagan religious practices involving the ritual use of touch.

For more information or to submit a proposal, click here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/pagan-consent-culture-an-anthology/

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

 

Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone

The recent arrest of Kenny Klein, Pagan author and musician, on 25 counts of possessing child pornography, although this has not yet resulted in a conviction, has prompted everyone to ask, how can we keep our Pagan communities safe from people like this?

There was a horrific abuse case in the UK in 2012, but those involved were not part of the wider Pagan community, or of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan community; nor it seems, of any recognisable Wiccan or witchcraft community.

Nevertheless, the widespread nature of abuse in society means that sooner or later, it is simply statistically likely that some member of the Pagan community will perpetrate some kind of abuse.

In response to cases which came to light in 2010, Jason Pitzl-Waters called for an ethics statement on abuse. In response, Brendan Myers and a group of others created a community statement and invited people to sign up to it. This is alright as far as it goes, but it is not enough, because it does nothing to challenge the silencing of victims of abuse.

However, this is not just about ensuring zero tolerance of child abuse in our communities; it is also about creating a safe space for everyone.  That means zero tolerance of creepers – people who think it is acceptable to sexually harass others. It also means that we cannot sweep rape, domestic violence, and abuse in our communities under the carpet. If someone is brave enough to say they have been raped and abused, we should believe them. We should also encourage them to go to the police. And for those of you who are thinking that the police don’t take rape allegations seriously, rape convictions are at an all-time high, with the conviction rate in the UK currently at 63%.

I have heard too many stories of people being told off for “rocking the boat” when they have complained of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. I have been in situations where Pagan men have not understood that no means no. Being in the same bed as someone does not constitute consent to sexual activity. Consent is continuous and explicit, not merely acquiescing to the sexual act because it is easier than arguing.

We are supposed to be a community that values women, that believes women are the embodiment of the Divine just as much as men, if not more so.

We are a community that celebrates all acts of love and pleasure. Well, let me tell you right now, anything less than enthusiastic consent is not an act of love and pleasure. Love and pleasure are sacred. Rape and abuse are the most horrible violations of the sacred integrity of the human body.

What is enthusiastic consent? It is where sexual partners actively describe what they do and don’t desire. It means not just avoiding a No, but actually getting a clear Yes. And not just a yes to sex, but also a yes to all the other activities that surround it. Maybe your partner doesn’t like being touched in a particular way, or in a particular place – so don’t touch them there, and/or don’t touch them like that.

It became clear after the Steubenville rape case that many people thought that an unconscious drunk girl was “asking for it”.  The victim was blamed for “ruining the careers” of the young men who raped her. No, they ruined their careers by raping her. More importantly, they also ruined her life.

Many anti-rape posters are victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The only ones that actually reduce the rates of rape are the ones that make it clear what consent means, and what rape means. The “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada, which does make it clear that non-consensual sex is rape, has reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

We live in a rape culture, where a woman who gets raped is blamed for complaining about it, rather than the rapist being blamed.

People assume that rapists are 100% evil and bad, therefore the “nice” people they know can’t possibly be rapists. But a very high percentage of rape and sexual assault is committed by partners or acquaintances of the victims.

Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual act or activity. Rape includes the non-consensual penetration of the vagina or the anus with any object.  That is the legal definition in the UK and in the USA.

We live in a rape culture, where every time someone brings up the subject of rape, someone says, yes but men get raped too. They do, but the numbers are much fewer than the number of women being raped, and it is often done as a form of power-over to ‘feminize’ the man who was raped.

We live in a rape culture, where men’s rights activists are rape apologists, who claim that women were asking for it, or are just frigid, or were to blame for being raped. They claim that feminism is emasculating men, or they blame their mothers for not making them proper men. Or something. So they go down to the woods to hang with the dudes and connect with the “male energies”. And some of these people use Paganism as a cover for these activities.

We live in a rape culture, where rape apologists claim that men “need” sex, or that it is in their nature to be rapists; that’s why women are the ones who have to take all the preventive measures against rape, like not dressing “provocatively”, not walking home late at night, not getting drunk and incapable. This is horrible slut-shaming nonsense, but it is also grossly unfair to the majority of men who are not rapists.

We live in a rape culture, where people derail conversations about rape culture by claiming that women lie about being raped. This represents a tiny minority – and if we did not live in a patriarchal culture of slut-shaming, where women who have sex at all are regarded as sluts, no-one would need to lie about it.

“In the period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, 6 for making false allegation of domestic violence and 3 for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence. ” (from page 2 of the UK Crown Prosecution Service report on false rape allegations, March 2013)

Pagans think that we are immune to the problems of the wider society, including rape culture, because Pagans are ethical, or because high priestesses are very wise and intuitive and supposedly always filter out dodgy people, including rapists and abusers. I am aware of enough cases of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence among the Pagan community to know that that just is not true. And besides, some of these people are downright manipulative, and can be quite convincingly ‘nice’.

So what can we, the Pagan community, do about it?

I have said it before, and I will say it again: we need a safeguarding policy and committees for Pagan communities, of people trained in safeguarding. I do not care how difficult it would be to set up. We need it, period. Yes, I know covens and other groups are autonomous; I know the Pagan community is more of a network than a gathered community; I know it would cost money, and maybe only have partial coverage – but we need to do it. Which would you rather join – a coven/grove/hearth that is signed up to the safeguarding committee, or a coven that isn’t?

We really need to have consensus: no more creepers, no more rapists. If a woman says she doesn’t like someone’s behaviour – don’t just ignore her, or tell her it’s not that serious, or tell her not to rock the boat, or take the piss out of the perpetrator – bar the perpetrator from the group for a period of time, or permanently, depending on the seriousness of the act.

Do not tolerate creepers (today’s creeper is tomorrow’s rapist). If a woman says she has been assaulted, believe her, and encourage her to report it to the police. If a woman objects to sexist behaviour and/or creepy behaviour (e.g. unwanted touching) don’t silence her. If you hear someone making misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist comments, challenge them and make it clear that their views are not welcome in the Pagan community. Tell the perpetrator of sexual harassment that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We need to do this to make the community safe for everyone.

Silencing the victims of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse happens over and over again. The parable of the rats on the boat gives a powerful illustration of silencing and victim-blaming.

In the past couple of days I have been feeling very angry. I have been angry about sexual harassment, sexual assault, creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, men exploiting the way in which women are socialised into being polite and non-confrontational for the purposes of the aforementioned creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, and also the fucking cover up and culture of silence around the above. Especially the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. As in “don’t say anything to that creepy guy in X society who always hangs around the youngest women possible; that would be rocking the boat”. As in “don’t make a big deal about that one guy who sent you those creepy, sexually harassy emails: don’t rock the boat”. As in “yeah, there’s this guy who’s a creep and we all know about him but we don’t DO anything about him because we don’t want to rock the boat” (oh my god, the amount of times I’ve heard this). This is a stupid fucking metaphor which is used to silence women and values calmness and stability (and the feelings of creepers and sexual harassers)  above the feelings and comfort and happiness of those women.

When someone complains about sexual harassment or abuse or rape, don’t assume that they are just being vindictive against the accused person. Don’t dismiss or make light of their concerns. Encourage them to report it to the police, and to get specialist support.

However, if a victim does not feel able to go to the police, because they do not have physical evidence, or the abuse happened a long time ago, or because the police in their area are not supportive of rape victims, that is their choice, and should be respected. Don’t make them feel ashamed for not going to the police. They may already be feeling shame for a variety of reasons.

Of course we need to be careful about rumours from third parties. There have been some vicious rumours that have gone round the Pagan community, and far too few people checked on both sides of the story – but they are suddenly very keen to say “oh well we don’t know both sides of the story” when it comes to allegations of abuse.

Don’t make excuses for creepers and claim that they are “just socially awkward” – that is no excuse. There are behaviours that are creepy and unacceptable: commenting on the bodily characteristics of others (just because your tradition practices nudity, does not give you the right to comment on the size of other member’s breasts or penises or extra weight); unwanted touching, especially on areas of the body that are considered erotic, is harassment. Everybody knows what makes people uncomfortable, but we are all too polite to challenge these behaviours.

All covens, groves, hearths, moots and groups need to educate their members about consent and enthusiastic consent, and make it clear that violations of same will not be tolerated. Have a regular talk at your local moot, make sure people understand the issues, and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. If a new person joins your coven, grove or hearth, make sure that they understand about consent.

I can think of a Pagan pub moot that collapsed due to the presence of someone whom everyone considered to be a creeper, and no-one wanted to be in the room with him on their own, and yet no-one asked him to leave, so in the end, the group collapsed, because no-one turned up in case they were alone with the creeper. I can think of a student society where a creeper was asked to leave, and the society flourished.

Quite often, when someone suggests ostracising or banning a creeper or an abuser or a rapist, they are told, “Your feelings, your problem”, or “we don’t really know what happened”, or “That’s just the way that person behaves; they’re a bit weird”, or “It’s wrong to ostracise people”. This phenomenon has been described in “Five Geek Social Fallacies“.

Above all, don’t keep going around the missing stair, and mostly warning others about the missing stair, but occasionally forgetting and then not being surprised when someone is injured by the missing stair.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

We need to make the Pagan movement safe for everyone. Except abusers.