Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

Woman with the Pen: Five Moments On My Way Back to Patheos

I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.

But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…

So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.

 

One…

A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along withself portrait in five lines a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.

But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.

 

Two…

And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).

So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.

 

Three…

Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.

 

 

Four…

Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)

 

Five…

A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.

 

So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:

Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.

I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.

The question is courage.

office 2015

 

Gender and sexuality in Wicca

This is the video of my talk at Witchfest in Croydon, November 2014. The talk discusses expanding and deepening our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle (our whole self, or do we bring only our essence, and what does our essence include?) and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history.

"All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca", by Yvonne Aburrow

All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca, by Yvonne Aburrow, published by Avalonia Books, 2014

In my talk, and in my book, I advocate a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and biological sex, and using these understandings to inform our understanding of magical concepts like polarity and fertility.

In the middle of my talk, we did a practical demonstration of another form of polarity, asking all the people who were born under Air and Fire signs to create energy together, and all the people who were born under Earth and Water signs to make energy together. We then merged the two energies together. Polarity happened. And the room became warmer and everybody became more animated. The energy changed.  (We didn’t video that part of the event because of issues of consent.)

There are many different forms of polarity, and whilst it is great that a man and a woman can make polarity, many other pairings can also make polarity – and even if you are focussing on male/female polarity in your rituals, you may be sure that other types of polarity are also occurring at the same time. The bottom line is: if one person can generate polarity with another person, regardless of gender, sexuality, or biological sex, let them do so. If a same-sex couple, or a man and a woman who are not a couple, or a person born under an Air sign and a person born under an Earth sign, or any other combination where oppositeness can be generated, want to make magic together, then let them do so. And no-one is saying you can’t have male-female polarity and heterosexual symbolism. We are just saying, why does it have to be that 100% of the time?

At a previous discussion of this, back in the summer, a couple of people said they felt that you don’t bring your personal stuff into circle (of course you don’t bring petty concerns about the shopping and the car etc into circle, but you do bring your core identity, which includes sexual orientation). But I bring my whole self, including my politics, gender identity, and sexual orientation, before the deities. I don’t leave behind my concerns about the struggle for justice for Black communities, or First Nations, or women, or LGBTQI people, when I am in circle – I do magic to support those struggles.

Others have commented that we should not adapt religious traditions to suit ourselves, but should allow the tradition to transform us. Yes, up to a point, but when the tradition excludes a whole group of people because of who they are, then it is time to dig deeper.  If we look at the concepts of polarity, fertility, and gender as they are expressed in traditional magical texts (which are the source material for Wiccan ritual, as demonstrated in the excellent book Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine), we can see that they are separate and distinct concepts, which are not reducible to a simple and restrictive gender binary. If we look at ancient pagan traditions (which Wicca also claims to draw upon) then we can see that they were also inclusive of people with diverse gender and sexual identities.

For me, Wicca is neither solely a path of self-development, not is it only a path of service to the deities. I was taught that we work in partnership with the deities. The deities are more powerful in their realm, but they need our physical embodied presence and co-operation to get stuff done in the physical world. I discuss this in some depth in chapter 14 of my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, and I also touched on it in chapter 16. I wrote a whole chapter on it in Priestesses, Pythonesses, and Sibyls, edited by Sorita d’Este.

Traditions evolve, and Wicca is evolving. They evolve because they are living and moving discourses, not fossils set in stone. Wicca is received differently by the different cultures in which it is practised, because of history and culture and context. Tradition is not a fixed and unchanging thing. Of course we should be mindful of accuracy in transmitting what has been handed down to us, because history and oral transmission of lore are important – but that does not mean we cannot change and adapt things, provided we transmit the original versions of the rituals that we received.

I discuss all of this in more depth in the video and in the book, so I would be grateful if you would watch the video before commenting.

A happy New Year to all the readers of Sermons from the Mound, and may 2015 bring you happiness, health, and peace.

Gardnerians, Sacred Lands, Climate Marches, and Other News of Note

Friends, rather than an essay, today’s post rounds up a number of different news items related to Pagans and Pagan studies. Books, marches, and websites, oh my!


The People’s March Against Climate Change is occurring in cities around the world this weekend. The march planned in New York City is particularly massive — so much so that marchers are being divided into sections. These sections will create a narrative for the march’s complex message around climate change awareness and action.

pcm-route-lineup-v6

It breaks my heart that due to family commitments and physical limitations, I will not be marching with my friends in NYC this weekend. Climate change is a reality that will affect us all, and it is already having an impact on vulnerable people. If you cannot attend a march near you this weekend, consider donating to the NYC or another march or to an organization such as the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC (there are only 10 hours left on their Indiegogo campaign! Act now!).


sacredlandsADF Publishing recently released a book based on the 2012 Cherry Hill Seminary conference on Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes. The collection brings together academics and practitioners on topics including the Glastonbury Goddess conference, Southern Witchery, the lesbian land movement, and an industrial band from Britain — quite a fascinating lineup! The collection is bookended with an introduction by Ronald Hutton and commentary by Chas Clifton, then tied together with the editorial talents of Wendy Griffin — all major names within Pagan studies. What a wonderful achievement for CHS!


Pentacle_background_white. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.This month also marks the launch of a new website on Gardnerian Wicca, British-Wicca.com. It is always a pleasure to find a Pagan website that is intelligent and well-written without being intimidatingly scholarly; British-Wicca.com fits the bill perfectly with essays on ethics, initiation, differences in Wiccan practice between the UK and US, and more. Our own Yvonne Aburrow has contributed a number of essays, along with Irish Wiccan Sophia Boann and a number of others. The site is sure to be useful to those seeking a credible, ethical Internet source for the best-known thread of initiatory Wicca.


Finally, I am salivating over two recent scholarly releases relating to sexuality and gender in contemporary Paganism.

First, check out the latest issue of The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies (vol. 15, no. 1-2). Here’s a sneak peek of the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Gender in Contemporary Paganism and Esotericism
Manon Hedenborg-White, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

Gender in Russian Rodnoverie
Kaarina Aitamurto

‘God Giving Birth’ – Connecting British Wicca with Radical Feminism and Goddess Spirituality during the 1970s-1980s: The Case Study of Monica Sjöö
Shai Feraro

Gender and Paganism in Census and Survey Data
James R. Lewis, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

A Lokian Family: Queer and Pagan Agency in Montreal
Martin Lepage

To Him the Winged Secret Flame, To Her the Stooping Starlight: The Social Construction of Gender in Contemporary Ordo Templi Orientis
Manon Hedenborg-White

Dancing in a Universe of Lights and Shadows
Nikki Bado

An Intersubjective Critique of A Critique of Pagan Scholarship
Michael York

Navigating Praxis: Pagan Studies vs. Esoteric Studies
Amy Hale

Response to the Panel, “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies? Critiquing Methodologies”: Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, Maryland, November 24, 2013
Shawn Arthur

Pagan Prayer and Worship: A Qualitative Study of Perceptions
Janet Goodall, Emyr Williams, Catherine Goodall

Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries
Sarah Lynn Veale

Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors among Pagans
Deirdre Sommerlad-Rogers

The Transvaluation of “Soul” and “Spirit”: Platonism and Paulism in H.P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled
Christopher A Plaisance

Beyond Hogwarts: Higher Education and Contemporary Pagans
James R. Lewis, Sverre Andreas Fekjan

Second, here’s the summary of Douglas Ezzy’s new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

Faunalia is a controversial Pagan festival with a reputation for being wild and emotionally intense. It lasts five days, eighty people attend, and the two main rituals run most of the night. In the tantalisingly erotic Baphomet rite, participants encounter a hermaphroditic deity, enter a state of trance and dance naked around a bonfire. In the Underworld rite participants role play their own death, confronting grief and suffering. These rituals are understood as “shadow work” – a Jungian term that refers to practices that creatively engage repressed or hidden aspects of the self. 

Sex, Death and Witchcraft is a powerful application of relational theory to the study of religion and contemporary culture. It analyses Faunalia’s rituals in terms of recent innovations in the sociology of religion and religious studies that focus on relational etiquette, lived religion, embodiment and performance. The sensuous and emotionally intense ritual performances at Faunalia transform both moral orientations and self-understandings. Participants develop an ethical practice that is individualistic, but also relational, and aesthetically mediated. Extensive extracts from interviews describe the rituals in participants’ own words. The book combines rich and evocative description of the rituals with careful analysis of the social processes that shape people’s experiences at this controversial Pagan festival.


So much to read, so little time. And if you’re reading what I’m reading, I’ll be interested to hear what you think — let me know in the comments.

Happy Equinox!

Anti-kink and transphobia have no place in Paganism

Z Budapest’s latest hate-filled screed makes me really angry.

[Update: actual link to actual comment]

It was feminists like Budapest who made it hard for people, especially feminists, to come out as kinky in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. With their statements that you are a failure as a feminist if you engage in kink, especially dominance and submission play, they made a lot of kinky feminists feel alone, marginalised, and ashamed. It is hard enough to come to terms with being kinky in the prevailing culture without having your own communities attacking you. People in kink-excluding communities, who have to remain in the closet, live in fear of being exposed as kinky, and feel marginalised, alone, and attacked. Their membership of the community feels conditional upon not coming out as kinky. Endless research studies have shown how damaging it is for LGBT people to remain closeted – surely the same applies to kinksters?

Similarly, the biologically essentialist view of being a woman held by many second-wave feminists made it very hard for those who are gender-variant. Their rhetoric about all penetrative sex being rape obfuscated the issues around rape, made things difficult for lesbians who enjoy penetration, and for heterosexual and bisexual women who enjoy sex with men. Even other lesbians in relationships were attacked for “aping men”.

This is in spite of the fact that kinksters have been part of the queer liberation movement from the outset. In spite of the fact that the BDSM community is very strong on consent (obviously there are some who don’t walk the talk, but that is the case in all communities). The watchwords of kinksters are ‘Safe, Sane, and Consensual’.

The power play in kink involving dominance and submission (D/s) subverts and undermines the power dynamics of conventional power structures. Many people find the role-play aspects of BDSM liberating. All the women I know who are involved in D/s (whether dommes or subs) are powerful women in their own right. And D/s has very little to do with gender, in any case.

The use of pain as a tool for spiritual and psychological transformation is an ancient shamanistic practice, and its effects – psychological, spiritual, and biochemical – are well-understood. There is a reasonable amount of research on this.

In addition, various therapists have written on the psychological aspects of kink, and why it is not harmful for those who enjoy it.

I would argue that kink, polyamory, and monogamy are sexual orientations in the same way as homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and pansexuality. That means that for a kinky person to try not to be kinky is just as painful and impossible as for a gay person to try to be straight.

It may not be your cup of tea, but at least make an effort to understand it before you write it off. In the BDSM community, there is a saying, “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”. If only other communities were as accepting and welcoming of diversity as that.

Generally speaking, the Pagan community is accepting and welcoming of diversity, including sexual orientation, polyamory, kink, and gender variance. Let’s keep it that way.

I call upon conference organisers not to book Z Budapest as a speaker while she continues with this hate-filled rhetoric against trans people and the BDSM community.

Further reading on BDSM

“That Which You Hate and Try to Destroy is Sacred”

In a time when hate towards women seems at a fever pitch, do we not need to answer with: that which you hate and try to destroy is sacred. That which you try to control is beyond your control. That which you try to define and shame is beyond your definition or judgement.


–Jason Pitzl-Waters, from “Goddess in Times of Horror,”
The Wild Hunt

What could be less sexy than
a woman writing down plain truth
about her body and her marriage?

Putting this poem before you is more revolutionary than it should be.

This body is stretchmarked
from my shoulders to my knees,
as though a thousand pearl-eyed fish
had shivered kisses as I surfaced
through time’s suck and whinge. …

People who hate women—the culture(s) that hate women—insist that we smooth ourselves into a sort of plastic perfection, or hide our imperfect selves in shame and embarrassment, enduring ridicule, taunt, insult, oppression.

 

Rucks and pockets and sprouted hair,
brought on by pregnancies and arguments
and weird hormonal shifts…

But the Goddesses are not merely  Arthur Rackham or Dante Gabriel Rossetti pasty-face dames trailing their robes in the water, nor are they only the scantily clad, t and a flaunting fantasies of (too many) comic books–and I’m certainly a far cry from those ladies fair. I insist upon myself: female, full, rounded and loud, complicated, desirous, furious, silly or thoughtful, confused or effusive or sexy as hell by turns. I insist on finding language to embody that woman. Me.

 

…now my skin
looks like the skin of a lake
when a chilly breeze ripples across…

Embodiment. Radical love for oneself as a way of loving world, loving creation. Pagan religions insist on immanence: finding god(s) in the world–in science, in nature, among people, and by embracing our own bodies. Deity as manifest, infusing our daily lives. Woman hating, body hating (and many, many women also hate the female body) goes directly against the idea of immanence. This is an old argument, an old duality, played out today through social media, movies, omnipresent advertising images and in the languages we inherit.

Some people claim that writing about oneself in a poem is narcissistic and/or tacky. Never mind that for now. If women don’t write ourselves, who will write us? How will we be portrayed? We know the answers to those questions. We know the language others will find.

I want every woman to insist on herself—and to be free and able to do so— whoever she is, intensely and immediately and forever and get to the work she must do in the world, without fear. To be in her body without having to wade a river and breathe an atmosphere of sludge and hate and violence. And we should look twice, and three times, even, at how female deities are portrayed in our own traditions.

We love and embrace sensual, sensory experiences as part of worship. What images do we find on our altars, in our gatherings, posted on our pages?

…Or skin of ocean.
(I have come to believe
life and love are questions of dilation.)

It shouldn’t be so crazy to want women to be able to laugh loud and move free. To be loved and admired and celebrated for who we are, as we are. But it still is, damn it, so here I am.

Against the shiny minor goddesses
I set moles, gray hair,
and crows feet…

Lots of people have written lots of good words about this—here, and here, and here and many places more–and how we cannot continue to live in and with such hate. How our daughters and our mothers and our sisters and our wives and we ourselves ourselves– deserve better. I’m thankful for all the good words. I’m thankful for all the anger and the love and the people working for change.

…signs of good humor,
of pain endured and pain’s release.

Meanwhile I try to stand tall, walk straight, laugh outright when I feel joy, shout from my belly when I feel anger, and weep on the ground when I feel sorrow. To live life fully and unafraid, to live embodied, jiggly and giggly and wiping up the jam spilled in the kitchen, and to help others do the same. Because I insist on you, and your wildness, too.

This is more revolutionary than it should be.

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)

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.

Lupercalia

It seems that Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated around the world, despite many cultures having their own festivals of love. In some countries, public displays of affection (whether same or opposite sex) are frowned upon, which is rather sad.

As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your significant other, remember that in many places, it is still not safe for same-sex couples to hold hands in public. And remember that V-Day is also devoted to stopping violence against women. It’s also the day when Eve Ensler’s stage show, The Vagina Monologues, is often staged.

However, it is quite possible that Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love should actually be on 3 May. Chaucer wrote a poem celebrating  the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, mentioning Valentine’s Day. The engagement took place on 2 May, the eve of the festival of St Valentine of Genoa. The Pagan festival of May Day (now generally referred to among Pagans as Beltane), which celebrates love and springtime, is on 1 May, and May day revellers were known to take to the woods to make love, gather may blossom, and wash their faces in the dew. (We know about these customs because Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes railed against them in The Anatomie of Abuses.) Chilly February hardly seems a good time to be celebrating romantic and/or erotic love – expansive and blooming May seems like a much better time.

Whatever the origins and timing of Valentine’s Day, 14 February was originally the eve of a very different festival – the festival of Lupercalia on 15th February. This was a fertility festival honouring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. It also honoured Lupercus, god of shepherds. The festivities were presided over by the priesthood of the Luperci, who were dedicated to Faunus. They sacrificed two goats and a dog. There was then a sacrificial feast, and the Luperci cut thongs called februa from the skins of the animals, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city. They struck all those who came near with the thongs. Young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from the thongs. This was reputed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pains of childbirth.

There seem to be several themes running through Lupercalia:

  • a celebration of wildness in the form of the wolf;
  • male bonding (whether in the form of friendship or same-sex love);
  • purification and cleansing;
  • a celebration of Spring, fertility, new life, and childbirth (though fertility doesn’t have to mean producing children – it can also mean creating new ideas and projects);
  • the celebration of the founding of Rome (which could be extended to the founding of all cities);
  • the relationship of city and countryside;
  • and a celebration of consensual kink.

In an article from 2004, Robin Herne has some suggestions for how to adapt Lupercalia for contemporary Pagan celebrations.

The Pagan Library suggests that the festival was originally dedicated to Rumina, the founding she-wolf of Rome. It also points out that “The name of the month comes from the februa, anything used in purifying including wool (used for cleaning), brooms, pine boughs (which make the air sweet and pure), etc.”  So if the other aspects of Lupercalia do not appeal to you, you could always celebrate Lupercalia by giving your house a thorough spring-cleaning.

The wolf was, until the late twentieth century, mostly a symbol of the ultimate predator. It was associated with desolate wilderness and the fear of being eaten by wild animals. More recently, as civilisation encroaches on the wilderness, and with the rise of deep ecology and animistic understandings of the rights of non-human beings, wolves have been celebrated as a symbol of wildness and freedom. They are highly social animals, and there are accounts of them taking in and caring for lost human children. The excellent book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves, emphasises the importance of wildness and instinct for both women and men. The importance of connecting with Nature and the wild was also emphasised by Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

The wildness aspect of Lupercalia reminds us that each of us is an unfathomable mystery, that we have the right to sovereignty over our own bodies, and above all, the right to consent, or to refuse consent. If only everyone was taught about what “enthusiastic consent” means. If only millions of Valentine’s cards were not inscribed with the phrase “be mine”. People are not possessions. Misogyny and violence against women is intimately connected with the notion that women are possessions, that men have a right to sex, and that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable. Misogyny and the subjugation of women are also connected with the patriarchal idea of controlling, subduing, and taming Nature, often personified as a woman. The Pagan reverence for Nature is aligned with promoting the equality of women.

As humanity’s relationship with our environment is flawed, we need to recover the sense that the city and the countryside are both ecosystems, and need to operate in harmony with each other. The recent floods have shown that cities are not isolated from their surrounding river systems, and that we need to exist in harmony with Nature, not trying to conquer and subdue it. So perhaps we need to rediscover Lupercalia as an exploration of the relationship between city and countryside. Cities can be beautiful places, and need not be a blot on the landscape or a drain on natural resources.

The kink and fertility aspects of Lupercalia can teach us about embodiment and being aware of physical sensations and what they mean. Many people don’t listen to their bodies and dismiss physical symptoms and sensations. The very physical aspects of Lupercalia remind us to be in our bodies.

UPDATE: corrected the post because Lupercalia was on 15 February, not 14 February. Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus, expert on all things Roman.

The struggle is not over yet

I am delighted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people can now marry someone of the same sex in England and Wales, and that some religious groups will be able to marry same-sex couples in their places of worship.

Unitarians, Quakers, and Liberal Jews campaigned particularly hard on this, and Derek McAuley, Unitarian Chief Officer, Paul Parker (Recording Clerk, Quaker Yearly Meeting), and Rabbi Danny Rich, should be applauded for their lobbying efforts.

It is a shame that Pagans in England and Wales are unable to marry either opposite-sex or same-sex couples in a legal ceremony, but it looks as if the House of Lords have left open the possibility of humanist weddings, and weddings for other religions too.

Some queer activists have argued that same-sex marriage is just buying into a heteronormative and monogamous paradigm. Maybe it is – I personally do not want to get married – but if my fellow LGBT people want to declare their love before the community, and get the legal package of rights that goes with it, then I support that to the hilt.

There are also still issues with the provision for transgender people, in that marriages previously dissolved on the grounds of a change of gender will not automatically be reinstated.

Polyamorous relationships are still not covered – but at least awareness has been raised about them, although there was a certain amount of throwing poly people under the bus by ‘mainstream’ gay activists.

There will also be considerable legal shenanigans around converting civil partnerships into marriages.

And whilst I am delighted by this victory, and by every advance for equality around the world, we should not forget that thousands of LGBT people around the world still face persecution, and LGBT people are still being deported from the UK despite facing persecution in their country of origin.

According to the Kaleidoscope Trust,

76 countries criminalise homosexual activity. Five continue to impose the death penalty. Governments and parliaments around the world are trying to pass laws that ban gay marriage, send LGBT people to jail or outlaw even speaking out in favour of the human rights of LGBT people.

So – cautious optimism and loud jubilation – but tomorrow, we keep fighting for LGBT rights around the world, and for human rights generally. Until it is safe everywhere to be Black, disabled, LGBT, a woman, or a member of a religious minority, then our work is not yet done.