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.


*NOTE Sept. 2019:  Lawless has experienced so much abuse for her public statements on this topic that she has since pulled down her blog. 

Inclusiveness Starts with Your Ideas

One of the ways Atheopaganism differs from many other Pagan paths is that we don’t have to go through endless parsings of “what gods are” or “what gods want”, nor seeking to overcome biases baked into traditions that arise from times and cultures where bigotries of various kinds were the norm (be they ancient Greece or Britain of the 1950s).

I’m seeing much soul-searching in the Pagan community about this sort of thing recently: concern about the heteronormativity and gender essentialism of mainstream flavors of Wicca, for example. When you assert the existence of a (fully able-bodied, typically white, slender, young, heterosexual, cisgender and conventionally attractive) Goddess and a (similar) God as the gendered “poles” of your sacred story, it’s hard to avoid that kind of critique.

I’ve seen some ugly things in the Pagan world around these issues. Once, a prominent Pagan leader overruled the decision of his community to select a lesbian couple as the May Royalty for their Beltane festival, giving the honor instead to a heterosexual couple. And then there was the “biological women only” ritual at Pantheacon that stirred such protest by transwomen and their allies. Such actions are deeply hurtful to those they discriminate against.

They are wrong.

Atheopagans affirm that all humans are equal, and they are all welcome in our rites. We do not hold up any particular image of a person as a sacred ideal. Anyone can be and is an embodiment of the Sacred Universe.

I have made careful effort to ensure that Atheopagan materials relating to gender or sexuality or rites of passage are described in a gender- and orientation-neutral way (here is an example) that makes them pertinent to all*, and both here on the blog and in the Facebook group, we have carefully worked to ensure that our rituals and practices are as inclusive as possible. We say: sexuality is sacred, and we mean ALL of it so long as it’s consenting. Not just the procreative bits—nor are those bits “extra special” because they lead to new life. We celebrate all of it.

The Universe is Sacred, and takes all forms, including human forms. We shouldn’t need to torque our ideas of the Sacred in order for them to “fit” every single person.

We’re all Sacred, emergent manifestations of the Universe itself as thinking, feeling beings. When we look in the mirror, we see the very Cosmos looking back at us.

Whoever we are.


*Including identifying that some of these posts may not be pertinent at all for asexual people.

Loving the World: An Atheopagan Sex Magic Primer for May Day (NSFW)

CONTENT WARNING: This post contains frank discussion of sexuality, and is meant for adults. If you’re not one, please stop reading and go elsewhere.


Loving the World: An Atheopagan Sex Magic Primer for May Day (NSFW)

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Spring is often thought of as the season of sex. Trees and plants are flowering, birds are nesting, and the weather finally warms up enough that people wear less clothing and thoughts turn to desire.

It’s now April, coming up on May Day, which is the Sabbath celebration the metaphorical meanings of which include sexuality, attainment of adulthood and celebration of sensual pleasures. This is a time-honored set of associations; for young people to go into the woods to “gather flowers” and spend the night away from prying eyes was known as “going a-Maying” more than a thousand years ago. And couples have been stealing away into wild areas at this time of year ever since for a bit of lovemaking al fresco.


It may seem to go without saying, but sex is a big deal*. It looms large in the human schema.

At root, it is the process through which multicellular life does what is built to do: make more generations of itself. And so nearly all of us are heavily wired towards wanting to mate—with whom is kind of a side question at this level—which is the engagement and stimulation of the elements of a person associated with reproduction.

That said, sex isn’t strictly procreative. For most of us, it is largely if not completely decoupled from procreation in the mind, and is instead a pleasurable and emotionally bonding end in and of itself.

The complex of acts that we categorize as “sex” can be thought of as rituals. They have all the elements: participants get into a state of hyperfocused arousal, and go through a series of physical actions and sensory experiences that lead to a transformation of consciousness. Typically, the intention of the ritual is simply to enjoy pleasure, and/or to share feelings of emotional intimacy.

All of which—presuming consent on the part of participants, of course—are good things. Ours is not a religion that chastises sexual desire and behavior as “sinful” or “dirty” or assigns a list of arbitrary rules stipulating what may be done, with whom, and when.

Only consent. That’s the one and only non-negotiable requirement. Which, inherently, means that minors and those who are in any way pressured or coerced are off limits.

So let’s say you wanted to take the ritual nature of sexual play into a more formalized direction, and actually make it into an Atheopagan ritual? That’s generally called “sex magic” by its practitioners, and it’s something that is as available to Atheopagans as to any other kinds of Pagans.

If you are so disposed, here are some steps that can add focused intention and ritual steps to sexual play:

Create sacred space by making a setting for lovemaking that is beautiful, comfortable, sexy, safely private and includes a Focus (altar) with symbols of the intent of your ritual. Music to set the mood is always good, as can be scents such as incense. If burning anything, be sure the Focus is safe from being knocked over during your ritual. You may want to include small tokens on your Focus which you and your partner(s) can carry with you after completion of the ritual. Be sure to practice sexual safety unless you are certain that all participants are disease-free and there is no danger of conception (unless that’s the point of the ritual).

To achieve Arrival, start with eye-gazing with your partner, and breathing deeply together in rhythm. Hold your intention in your mind as you exchange eye contact. If you have more than one partner, spend some time in eye contact with each of them. If you are performing the ritual alone, breathe deeply and regularly and use a mirror to make eye contact with yourself.

Invoke Qualities that you hope to be incorporated into the desired outcome of the ritual, preferably through foreplay activities. Qualities like freedom, and bliss, and mutual respect, and love are all fitting. Qualities may be invoked by reciting words, or anointing the body with scented oils, or exchanging sexual stimulation with eye contact and mutual reverence. Name the Qualities aloud as you invoke them.

When all participants are thoroughly aroused, continue to sexual play of whatever kind you and your partner(s) prefer as the Deep Play part of your ritual. Take your time. Try to keep the intention in your mind, but don’t obsess about it: it’s okay to get carried into the eroticism of the moment. Do not try to achieve mutual orgasm with partner(s) unless that is something you have been successful with in the past; it’s okay for each participant to orgasm at their own time.

Actually, it’s also okay for there to be no orgasms at all. Expectations aren’t helpful.

But if the participants are able to reach orgasm with one another, participants should hold the intention of the ritual in the mind as it is occurring. Otherwise, concentrate on the intention at the peak of physical activity.

As the intensity of sexual play subsides (whether or not orgasms have taken place), run hands over the body/ies of participant(s). Speak your Gratitudes for your partner(s) (if any), for the pleasure you have just received, and for the successful outcome of the ritual intent.

On parting, as a Benedictionexpress your love for your partner(s). Or for yourself, if working alone, gazing again in the mirror. And for Life itself: the abundant and generous World.

It is done. Believe me, you will now have the intention of the ritual vividly burned into your mind! Now act in accordance with that intent: do all the things that must be done in order for it to come into being. If you use them, carry the token from the Focus with you and take it out now and then to remind yourself of the ritual and its intention.

This may all sound really weird and alien. If you think so, maybe it’s not for you. But sex is a powerful human experience that—like music, or dancing, or art—can be structured in a way to align our minds with our dreams, desires and ritual intentions. If nothing else, the process above can be a fun experiment!

Whether or not the above is your thing, I hope you have a deliciously pleasurable May Day however—and with whomever—you choose to spend it. Happy May!


 

*For most, but not all, people, I should acknowledge. But if you are among those for whom sex is not a Thing, this is probably not a post you will have much interest in reading.