Abuse, the Pagan Community, and Our Commitments

Sarah Anne Lawless, who published these two revelatory articles on her experiences of being sexually harassed and abused within the Pagan community (mostly in Canada and the Pacific Northwest), has now published a third piece. In it, she reports the truly horrifying blowback she received for daring to name this problem.

Lawless has suffered financially, psychologically, and even legally simply because she had the unmitigated gall not to remain silent about abuses up to and including rape.

I wrote on this subject awhile back. It’s one of my most-read articles from this site, and engendered passionate arguments both pro and con my thesis: that Paganism must root out the baked-in misogyny and sexual abusiveness that has characterized it from the days of Gardner, and was turbocharged in the later Sixties counterculture.

I believe Lawless. I believe her accounts. And I am appalled at the way she has been treated by sexual abusers and their defenders.

I want nothing to do with such behavior. And thus this post, the purpose of which is to articulate some commitments about how Atheopaganism will seek to reduce the opportunity for such abuses at our events and gatherings.

As Atheopagans, we have an inherent advantage over some other Pagan circles in this regard, in that we don’t believe in literal magic. Would-be abusers aren’t going to be able to promise prospective victims “secret or arcane knowledge” or power to lure them into being abused.

But beyond that, we don’t—and won’t, ever—offer any kind of “initiation to a higher degree” or elevation in status of any kind, so no Atheopagan can ever claim that some sort of sexual quid pro quo is required in order to receive such elevation. Ever.

Never.

I believe very strongly that power differentials are a primary driver of the sexual abuse problem in our community. Abuses of such differentials are created when opportunities to become “initiates” or “clergy” or what have you are dangled before seekers and promised at the cost of sexual favors.

So we simply won’t have them.

Next, all our events have and will continue to have written conduct standards explicitly articulating the expectation of affirmative consent culture and clear consequences for any who violate these standards.  An example of such policies can be found here, in the Atheopagan event planning guide.

Although we acknowledge that some people may choose to engage in consensual sexual behavior in a private ritual context, and support them in that choice, we will never set forth any nonconsensual sexual or physically affectionate expectation—not even of a hug—in a ritual at an Atheopagan community event.

Finally, we will listen if accusations of abuse are made. We will take victims seriously, and we will respond promptly, sensitively and decisively.

This is my commitment to our community and to the public writ large.

There have been a number of people in the Pagan community who have taken on leadership roles in trying to create widely-shared community awareness and conduct standards around these issues. Particularly, I feel Shauna Aura Knight has been an articulate and compelling voice, Laura Tempest Zakroff and Misha Magdalene likewise. And I am pleased to note that events such as Pantheacon have implemented strong consent policies and conduct standards in recent years (as contrasted, for example, with another Pagan convention, Convocation, which has refused to do so and to which I will therefore not link).

To my mind, we need a community statement of sexual ethics which can serve as a sort of “seal of approval” for organizations and groups which sign onto it. People will then know where the safe environments are and where they aren’t, and can choose where they attend events accordingly. I know that one attempt was made a few years ago to develop such a statement, and it ran aground when resisted by advocates of sexual initiation.

Which, let me just make myself clear here, is NEVER appropriate. Sex as a condition for passing into some higher-status state is the clearest example of harassment there is. Even in traditions where you’re supposed to do your sexual initiation with your partner, or by yourself, there is that little matter of “supposed to”.

That’s coercion.

It’s wrong.

Always.

It is time for the community to try again with regard to a statement on sexual ethics, and this time, we should simply ignore the complaints of those who want to keep up practices that really are no longer defensible, if they ever were. If those who defend sexual initiation refuse to sign the statement, that will be a red flag for those considering joining their traditions or circles. Over time, people will know what the safe places are…and what the skeevy ones are.

This stuff is serious. It is hurting people and it can ruin lives. It needs to stop, and the creepers and abusers and rapists who have coasted for so many years in Pagan circles need to be rooted out and expunged.

Honestly, I don’t care if changing our culture as I propose puts a dent in the sexual “fun” at Pagan events. One rape isn’t worth that. Creating a hunting ground for predators and setting the stage for abuse and harassment isn’t worth that. And if conduct standards drive away hangers-on for whom “being a Pagan” just means sexual pursuit and partying, that’s no loss either, to my mind.

I want to be able to talk about my religion proudly, and while I feel I can do that about Atheopaganism, between the credulity and the abuse ickiness I am much more leery about such a characterization of Paganism generally.

We have house cleaning to do, and we need to do it.

 

 

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Approaching Pantheacon

So, next week I will go to Pantheacon 2019. I am a volunteer on staff, which is how I am able to afford to go.

I always have mixed feelings about going. Part of me is excited to see friends, meet new ones, and share Atheopaganism with others. Part of me is anxious: will people show up for my events? Will I be challenged or heckled?

The usual brain chatter, honestly. We all have it.

This year, though, I come at Pantheacon at a somewhat different angle. In previous years, I have thought of PCon as “encountering The Pagan Community”. But now I realize that there is no such singular thing. Just as Paganism is a constellation of religious paths, the Pagan community is a cluster of different and sometimes-overlapping communities, some of which share nothing more than self-identification as Pagan. The “culture” we share is very limited in scope. Pantheacon provides us an opportunity to “cross-pollinate” a bit in sharing our perspectives and practices with new folks, but mostly, we hang with our friends.

I find this perspective helpful because it makes it clear that “the Pagan community” is not the primary audience or target for my writing and work. It is the Atheopagan community–and those who might consider joining it–who I actually keep in mind as I develop these things.

In a community of somewhat overlapping circles of practice and belief, there will be many different motivations for participation. Some in the Pagan community are devoted to their paths as true personal and spiritual growth explorations; others are attracted to the culture of Paganism and may not even have altars or participate in rituals. Some are drawn to the prospect of “magical” power; others, to the idea of reverent devotion: perhaps to gods, perhaps to the Earth and Cosmos. Some find being a Pagan a source for creativity and craft; some, honestly, just like to party with us.

All of that is okay.

The particular folks I’m most interested in talking with and to are those who embrace and pursue the spirituality of the living natural world: who revel and steep themselves in the truths of this magnificent Earth. Who are content with it, neither needing nor seeking augmentations imagined nor ephemeral.

Those for whom the miracle of Sun on soil is, after all, enough to swell with joy and wonder, and for whom a path of fierce kindness, of humble effort, of a raised voice for justice and a gentle stride on the Earth are a calling and an aspiration.

It’s not for everyone. I wish it were, because we need as many as possible today in service to the Sacred Earth and to a more just and kind world. But people are as they are, and Atheopaganism, like any Pagan path, is an “opt-in” arrangement: a choice.

So, I’m going to Pantheacon this week.

And though some of those attending will not be my audience, will not be open to what I have to offer, a much higher percentage of them than of the general population will be. It’s for them, and for my friends that I go, and to contribute to the larger ongoing conversation of that constellated and shaggy crowd, and on the odd chance that a person or two will find what we are doing, we Atheopagans, to be intriguing or exciting or to feel like coming home.

Time to go and pack.

 

 

 

Mainstreaming, Pt. 2

Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Paganism is having a moment in the sun, and mainstream culture is noticing us. If nothing else, take as evidence the eternally fluffy and pop-culturey Huffington Post’s article about encountering Pagans. Seems pretty clear that between sugary media offerings like The Spooky Adventures of Sabrina and the explosion of “witchy aesthetic” material on Tumblr, plus the steep decline of Christianity and rise of “none” or “other” as a religious identity, Paganism has tipped—for the moment, at least—over the edge from obscurity into the public eye.

As I wrote before, I think this is a good thing. But there are certainly some considerations for Pagans that apply in the context of public attention that we haven’t had to contend with before.

The first is that we really should dispense with the in-group habit of describing Pagans and witches as “special”. It’s inevitable that some members of a religious minority will congratulate themselves this way, but the truth is that we are all just people, seeking to live lives of integrity and fulfillment. If anything, the “special” thing about us is that we’ve taken into our hands the choice about what our spiritual paths shall be, rather than opting for an off-the-shelf package like the various Christian denominations. There is courage in that, but it’s a courage that appears to be spreading. We should welcome those who investigate our paths without getting carried away with self-importance.

A challenge for many of us as we encounter newcomers is that we hold for ourselves a radical identity. We see ourselves—often rightly—as exponents of a marked divergence from mainstream culture and values. This can translate into belittling and even contempt for that mainstream as “straight”. The effect is that people who are coming from that culture to check us out can experience attitude rather than welcoming.

(…and for those who don’t so self-identify: exactly what are you waiting for? Trumpenmacht soldiers goose-stepping up your driveway?)

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind about those “straighter” people who are moving in our direction. The first is that culture is getting steadily less “straight”. While governments lag behind or even fight to resist it, younger generations are becoming far more inclusive and sensitive to issues of injustice. So we have no right to assume that just because someone is only just now coming to learn about us, that they are any less tolerant and radical than we are.

The second, though, is that we got to where we are through a growth process. None of us was born an Earth-loving, capitalism-shattering, pleasure-positive rainbow person. We learned that. We learned that Othering is a lie. We learned that body-shaming and “sin” are nonsense. We learned that economic systems that eat the world to make crap and sell it to us are offering empty calories and destroying what is really of value.

It is on us to be welcoming of those who may not be as far along in that process as we are, and to help them to evolve, too. Certainly no one is going to be helped to be a kinder, more independent person by encountering smugness or anger on the part of those who could instead help them to see what they may not yet possess the ability to see. So let’s ease up on the straights when they knock on our door, shall we?

When it comes to gods, I think a lot of the seekers who are checking out Paganism have been burned by the expectations of Abrahamic religions and probably aren’t all that interested in signing up for other gods. Others may very well be. I would hope that at the least, we would tell our newcomers and curious that Pagans can being theists or nontheists, and let them make their own choices.

Finally, there is the issue of “magic”.

As Atheopagans, we have a naturalistic understanding of ritual magic as a psychological-programming practice that affects only those who participate in the ritual, not spooky-action-at-a-distance like in fantasy fiction. But many who come to us from the mainstream have been propagandized by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Sabrina and such stuff, so that they believe that by joining our movement, they will have literal magical powers.

It would be a great thing if we discouraged such beliefs as a community, and focused attention on the majesty and wonders of the natural world, on personal development and empowerment, and on efforts to make human society kinder and more sustainable. But on this one, other Pagan paths are going to do what they’re going to do, and nothing I say about it will make a difference. All I can do is speak to my Atheopagan community and say: You’re on the right track. Keep it up, and be welcoming.

The Atheopagan online community continues to grow, and so we are always in a “welcoming newcomers” mode. I think that is a good orientation for the Pagan community writ large…even traditions that have hierarchies and require initiations to join their ranks can at the least be kind and welcoming and helpful with newbies, pointing them to where they can go even if that tradition isn’t a fit.

I’m sure that for many of us, all these cautions are unnecessary. I say them because I’ve seen the attitudes I describe in the community before, and I hope they will fade as popular culture pays us more attention.

Imagine: what if our numbers doubled, rendering us about 1% of the US population? That’s half the size of the Jewish population. That’s big enough to matter in a whole bunch of ways.

Wouldn’t that be great?