There has been a lot of talk online lately about the Pagan (or neopagan, if you prefer) community* and integrity, or lack thereof.
Stuff about “fakelore” traditions and lineages: pretense of ancient roots that aren’t, and people using this pretense to dangle “ancient secrets” before naive seekers to leverage sexual favors . Stuff about lousy sexual boundaries, harassment and assault**; particularly, the usage of status and power (such as the power to approve or disapprove elevation to higher “degrees of initiation”) to extort sex, money or power.
I’ve written about some of these issues before. They are real. They go to the origins of modern witchcraft’s practices and culture with some decidedly kinky Brits, and their flourishing in the self-indulgent counterculture of the 1960s.
And the Pagan community struggles with them. More, I think, than the atheist community does, because of the Pagan community’s early roots in the Sixties counterculture, but the atheists have their problems too.
As someone who came into the Pagan community through the Church of All Worlds, which has historically had a culture very much in keeping with that unboundaried Sixties-style sexual free-for-all, I have seen this close up, and I’m guilty of having played along at times, thinking at the time that this was “normal” in that context. I have seen and experienced creepy and predatory behavior (by both men and women) in that community, and have heard reports of much worse. This figured heavily in why I left CAW in the late 1990s***.
I think every community that allows people to become the objects of cults of personality is destined to experience abuses of power. That’s why Atheopaganism as we are creating it has no priesthood, no hierarchy of degrees. It’s not a guarantee that there will be no abuse, but it’s a hedge against it. Atheopaganism is a collaborative venture: we’re doing it together. We have no priest/esses, no “teachers”.
It’s also helpful, I think, that we make no claim that what we are doing is a centuries-old (or even decades-old) tradition. Ours is a new path, a modern way based in current understanding of science and age-old ritual and religious techniques . We borrow from no particular culture, but from the accumulated tool kit of humanity itself. We kicked off in 2009. So: no “ancient secrets” that can be “revealed” by a self-styled “teacher”.
Just because something is old doesn’t make it valid. And just because something is young doesn’t make it inconsequential.
I think it’s a bit silly that people claim long histories for their traditions when they are instead products of the 20th century. But there’s not a tremendous amount of harm there except insofar as they use such claims to assert “authority” or “superiority” over others, or use the prospect of learning “ancient lore” as bait to leverage sex, money or obedience.
On the other hand, I think the broader Pagan community has some serious soul-searching to do around sexual behavior and culture.
I have many dear friends in the Pagan community. There are lovely, amazing people there. But I have also seen people in that community—generally, high-status people with power and influence—abuse their standing in myriad ways. It seems that being a big fish in a small pond just creates too much temptation on the part of many…particularly if they can rationalize their behavior with supernatural explanations. And the tone that is set by the common belief that Pagans are up for a sexual free-for-all means that countless instances of inappropriate behavior ranging from annoyance to harassment to outright assault happen in the community. It makes us a magnet and a hunting ground for predators and creeps.
It is my hope that this is reducing as awareness of consent issues and the #MeToo movement gain traction, but frankly, predators aren’t going to change. We need to root them out.
We have to work at this; it won’t just happen on its own.
But I think there are some key recommendations we can derive from the problems we have inherited from the past:
- The Pagan community needs a broadly adopted Community Statement on Sexual Abuse, Etiquette and Ethics. There was an attempt to create one a few years ago, and it fell apart when some who like things as they are now protested. It is long past time for those complaints to be rejected as apologetics for a culture that indulges abuse. No one likes “rules”, but we need some. The statement could be endorsed not only by organizations, covens, and paths, but by festivals and conferences. [UPDATE: HERE is Brendan Myers’ report on what happened to the first attempt at creating such a statement. It’s not pretty]
- We must end sexual initiation, and festivals should disinvite those leaders who won’t. Just stop it. It’s unnecessary and it leads to many abuses. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of a “tradition”. So was strangling people and sinking them in peat bogs.
- We must desexualize Pagan events. That means keeping sexual behavior (other than symbolic actions, like planting a Maypole in the ground) out of open rituals and ensuring that any sexually explicit or skyclad activities are private, adult, and by invitation only. That’s the only way to keep creepers out and only allow consenting participants in. Say it with me: privacy is not the same thing as shame.
- We must teach consent culture and boundaries at every event, have written conduct standards prominently provided to participants, and require in practice that they be followed by everyone, no matter how revered. To their credit, some events like Pantheacon are already doing this.****
- We must teach our communities about leadership. People who understand leadership know unleaderlike behavior when they see it. Real leadership doesn’t exploit, doesn’t extort. Real leadership is transparent about money and decision making, and admits when it makes mistakes. And it doesn’t demand, cajole or bargain for sex for any reason.
And why, after all, should we do these things? When confronted with these issues, why not just quit, practice as a solitary (as so many do) or seek (as I have done) to find a corner of the community with a more conscious culture?
Well, I’ll tell you why. Because as frustrating as the Pagan community can be, it can also be wonderful. It can be amazing. Much of it stands for reverence for the Earth, which the world desperately needs now. And by and large, it is made up of people seeking to be the best people they can be. It is a tragedy and a travesty that such abuses take place among people who are so worthy.
I’m sure there are other lessons I’m missing. But if we were to adopt these, things would get a lot cleaner and safer in Pagandom.
May it be so.
*Setting aside the question of terminology and what that “community” really means in detail, as it is a aggregation of many different paths, perspectives and practices.
** This is long, but well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.
*** I understand there is now an initiative to transform that subculture, and I applaud the effort.