A Sticky, Sweaty, Complicated Mess (That Nearly Everyone Wants)

We were up long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer, to welcome in the May-o
For sumer is icumen in, and winter’s gone away-o!

May Day has just passed, which many Pagans know as Beltane, the festival of young adulthood, love, and sexuality. Time for rising early to greet the dawn—if you haven’t been up all night—wearing floral wreaths, dancing ribbons about tall phallic Maypoles, sipping May wine … and making out, at least, if not making love.

There is, of course, a great deal of variation within any large community, but part of what distinguishes the Pagan community generally from the mainstream culture is that it describes itself as “sex-positive”. This means that, unlike the guilt and shame and giggly self-consciousness associated with sexual desire and behavior by Abrahamic faiths, Paganism embraces the body as sacred and sex as a holy and pleasurable adult activity, not necessarily limited to monogamous relationships, but rather allowed by whatever the participants in those relationships decide is acceptable under their agreed rules.

In the context of Mainstream America, this is a radical position. Many Pagans are proud of that, and, indeed, the Pagan community has a higher proportion of sexual minorities and radicals than the mainstream population, because it is so welcoming of all forms of love and sex among consenting adults.

My personal take is that people should do what makes them happy, so long as they do it with integrity. I wrote about this particular topic more on the Atheopagan blog in Atheopagan Principle 10: Responsible Sensuality.

The prospect of the whole open-relationship/polyamory thing probably sounds great to a lot of people. And it is, on paper. But the reality can be vastly more complicated and difficult. By its very nature, sex is a big, sticky, sweaty and complicated issue … one which nearly everyone happens to want to participate in.

Sex is intensely personal, a physically and emotionally vulnerable activity which can result in devastating hurt if someone does or says Something Wrong. What that Something may be varies from individual to individual and from relationship to relationship, but we all have them. Even in a traditional monogamous relationship, negotiations and conflicts surrounding sex can be challenging and ongoing. Issues around relative degrees of desire, differences in desired style and tone and activities, body image, feeling attracted to others, finding privacy with children in the house, and so forth, can present a couple with struggles that can go on for years.

So as I contemplate May Day, while it’s pleasant to cast my mind back to sexy May Mornings laying in the dewy grass with a sweetie and watching the sun rise, I find myself thinking a lot more about how sexual relationships can be a kind of minefield.

For one thing, culture isn’t something you just opt out of. Modern Pagans are as steeped in the legacy of the culture within which they grew up as anyone else*. So shame, impulses towards “cheating” (violating agreements) and secrecy, sexist double standards, and other unhealthy qualities surrounding the issue of sexuality can creep into Pagan relationships, just as they do others’. And the legacy of the “do it if it feels good” Sixties Generation that oversaw the modern Pagan revival in the 70s and 80s means that there are still people out there in the community who are not very conscious about this stuff, have lousy boundaries, and sometimes make inappropriate overtures.

I see a great deal of effort being made to address these problems, especially on the part of the newer generation of Pagan leadership, and I make my own efforts to scrub myself as clean of these problems as possible. The hedonistic get-what-you-want-and-let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may ethos is increasingly being called out as irresponsible and unethical, and that is all to the good. I believe we are getting healthier, bumpy though the road may be.

The core of the issue is consent, and the development of a culture of affirmative consent. And in honor of that very principle, at our May Day gathering last year after dancing the May Pole, we played the Consensual Pomander Orange Game, for which I present the rules here for your enjoyment.

The Consensual Pomander Orange

A sexy, flirty game about communication and boundaries

Many are familiar with other versions of this game, but this version is specifically intended to incorporate both Atheopagan Principle 10 (celebrating pleasure that harms no one as inherently good) and Principle 9 (that freedom is tempered by responsibility).

The Pomander Orange is an orange which has been studded all over with cloves. This is an age-old tradition; these were used by nobles in some countries to help mask the many unpleasant odors of life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For some of these elites, oranges themselves were rare and exotic imports from faraway places, and not simply fruit to be eaten.

The Pomander Orange game can take place as a formal activity, but it can also be fun to have the Orange going around while other activities are taking place, such as at a party.

Our rules for the Orange are as follows:

  1. No one has to participate in the game if s/he doesn’t want to. Some signal or marker will be provided to designate people who aren’t playing. Depending on the group and circumstances, other rules (such as an above-the-waist rule) may be applied.
  2. The holder of the Orange may approach any person who is participating at the game. S/he takes a clove from the Orange, gives it to the approachee and proposes a type of interaction in the form of a request for permission. Kissing is the most common interaction requested, but it can be much more intimate than that, based on the current relationship between the two people and what the asker has the courage to ask for.
  3. The approachee may agree or disagree with the request, or may make a counterproposal. Both participants must agree on what they are going to do before they do it. “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
  4. The two participants carry out the agreed-upon interaction.
  5. After the interaction, the person who was approached now holds the Pomander Orange, and the process repeats, with that person selecting another person to approach.
  6. The game ends when the Orange has no more cloves.

It can look like this:

Sarah, having received the Orange, approaches Sam, giving her a clove from the Orange and asking, “may I kiss you?” Sam replies, “Yes, but no tongues, please.”  (Alternatively, he could just say “yes” or “no” to the proposal, or he could say that he would not like to be kissed, but would exchange a hug with her.) They kiss, Sam takes the Orange, and he begins to look around for another participant to approach.

Note that this game is not only about flirting, sexy interaction and boundaries, but also about clarity of communication: having the courage to ask unequivocally for what you want.

I feel a little sad about my sense of May Day these days. Twenty-odd years ago, in my naivete and ignorance, it felt innocent and playful and really sexy. (Ah, to be young again!) I see now that I was lucky; it was a bit of a fools’ paradise. I know now that to get to that place without risking hurting someone takes a conscientious, careful and informed approach, of which good communication and affirmative consent are the central pillars. I’d rather map the minefield first before starting to walk, however desirable may be whoever lies within it.

I hope you all had a joyous and juicy May Day: one filled with pleasure and completely without grounds for shame. I’ll be doing my best to create the same.

Last year those who wanted to join in played the strip version of Cards Against Humanity, too. Hmm. I wonder what I can come up with next year …

*Those who are actually raised in a Pagan context may have fundamentally different experiences; I am only describing what I experience myself and see around me in the community.

Originally published at Humanistic Paganism. Illustration is “Spring’s Innocence” (Norman Lindsay, 1937)

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