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)

The Pagan World is Different (Adult)

This post is really meant most for those who have come to check out Atheopaganism from the atheist/skeptic community.

Thus far, the material on this blog has all been “family-friendly” from the standpoint of mainstream Western society. Even my post on the 10th Principle was more cautionary than encouraging, though at its core is encouragement that people take pleasure in the sensory experiences they encounter in life.

This reflects a goal on my part: I want Atheopaganism to be an inviting path for those coming from the skeptic/atheist community as much as it can be for those coming from the Pagan community. While much of the Pagan community is cheerfully open about sexuality, my experience of the atheist/skeptic community is that many of its members are quite cerebral, living (like me) primarily “in their heads”. They may find such topics awkward and embarrassing, and so I’ve avoided them.

But a friend of mine recently reminded me of just how often we used to do our rituals skyclad back in the early 90s, and I was musing about ways the Pagan community really is quite different from the surrounding culture, so…well, here goes. We’re adults here, so let’s talk like adults for a minute.

Adults do adult stuff. They have sex and some of them use (legal or illegal) consciousness-changing drugs.

The fact is that there are qualities about the Pagan community that may be hard for people from the mainstream culture—including many of the skeptic/atheist community—to be comfortable with when they first encounter it. None of that stuff is necessarily a part of Atheopaganism…but depending on who is practicing the religion, it may be if they so choose.

All of the below is meant in the spirit of clarity and fair disclosure. None of it is “secret”, in the sense that I am revealing material that pretty much anyone experienced in the community would tell you.

So let’s stop there, and start asking questions.

Q: If I’m practicing Atheopaganism, am I therefore a part of the Pagan community?

A: Only if you want to be.

Many (some say most) practitioners of the various flavors of modern Paganism are solitary practitioners. They may attend an event now and then—or not—but their practice is a solo affair. They generally do not do ritual or share their spiritual practices with others, except perhaps a tight circle of close family and friends.

So you can be an Atheopagan by yourself or just with your loved ones, and you don’t have to deal with how others practice their various flavors of Paganism at all. Hell, you don’t even have to use the term. You need not consider yourself to be part of a broader movement or subculture if you do not wish to do so.

But let’s say you decide, for instance, to go to Pantheacon, the annual conference in California that is considered the largest indoor gathering of Pagans in North America. There are plenty of reasons to go: wonderful people, inspiring and informative rituals and workshops, and, by and large, a great feeling of community and common cause. Let’s say you decided to dip into the larger Pagan community and see what it was like.

Q: Okay, let’s say I went to PCon. What would I see there?

A: To start with, bear in mind that you are seeing people dressed up in their “Con clothing”. Most of them will not dress as they do at Pcon out in the workaday world. That said, you will notice a higher proportion of unusual-looking people than in the mainstream society. This may involve clothing, hair coloring, unusual facial hair, tattoos and piercings, or it may be people who present in a manner that doesn’t put them squarely into one gender category or another. You will note a higher proportion of LGBTQ people in the Pagan community than in the general population, because Pagans are generally welcoming of such differences, and many LGBTQ folks are Pagan. Tolerance of diversity—indeed, celebration of diversity—is a core value of the Pagan community writ large.

Along those lines, you may also see that some are wearing or carrying implements that suggest involvement in BDSM or other sexual fetish play. That’s generally because those individuals are into that, and the Pagan community broadly speaking considers sexuality to be sacred and celebrates all forms of pleasure between consenting adults, so they feel they can demonstrate rather than hide this proclivity, as they might when traveling in circles of the mainstream culture.

Some even incorporate such play into their ritual lives. That doesn’t mean you have to have anything to do with such activity if you don’t want to…nor does it mean that such activity is going to be sprung on you if you go to a public ritual. By and large, Pagans who are public about their sexual tastes still understand the principle of privacy.

Q: What the heck is a “skyclad”?

A: Some Pagans prefer—or are directed by their traditions—to perform rituals unclothed. This is called “being skyclad”. It is a powerful technique in that it immediately brings participants into a state of connection and openness. It is amazing how much our sense of being “enclosed within ourselves” is a function of our clothing. Circling skyclad is a way to fast-track the shared vulnerability, connection and sense of import that lead to the Ritual State.

But again: if that’s not for you, that’s fine. I suspect that most Pagans do not work skyclad (except possibly when doing solitary work). There’s nothing that says that you must. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with it, it may be something you want to try.

Q: Seems like some of these folks are really lovey-dovey with each other. Something is going on there. And what’s this “polyamory” thing?

A: The Pagan community—like Atheopaganism—has in general a core value that love and pleasure are good things, rather than sources of guilt or shame. Many Pagans are involved in relationships which are sexually open: meaning, the members thereof may take lovers outside of the relationship, with the blessing of their “primary” partner.

In many cases, these liaisons are not casual flings, but rather are emotionally bonded love relationships. The condition of being involved emotionally and sexually in ongoing relationship with more than one partner is called “polyamory”. In the Pagan community, it is not terribly unusual to meet people who are in ongoing committed relationships involving three, four or even more individuals.

While this may sound like some kind of fantasy, in reality it is a great deal of work, and when it goes wrong it can be messy. Clear communications among all participants, processing issues of jealousy, and efforts to ensure all partners are safe from STDs can occupy significant bandwidth in a polyamorous person’s life.

And it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it: the comments on sexual culture in the Pagan community you see here apply only to adults. Sexual interaction of adults with minors is both illegal and immoral, and it is not tolerated in the Pagan community any more than in the mainstream society at large. Safety and consent are very active topics of effort and conversation in the Pagan community; it is not a free-for-all, a “swinger” environment, or anything of the sort.

Q: What about other “adult stuff”? Do Pagans take drugs for their rituals?

A: Again, you really can’t generalize about a group as diverse and far-flung as the Pagan community, but it’s safe to say that most don’t–at least, they usually don’t. However, the Pagan community tends to have a libertarian (small “l”) approach to so-called “victimless crimes”, and to believe that what an adult chooses to do with her body is entirely her own affair until she reaches the point where she is endangering others (say, by driving a car under the influence).

Many Pagans view certain drugs (typically, marijuana plus those generally categorized as “hallucinogens”, including legally available plants) as religious sacraments which—generally in small amounts—can enhance their ability to enter a powerful Ritual State and to remain there for long periods. They believe that their ritual experiences are heightened through use of these “plant or chemical allies”, and report powerful and transformational experiences while so altered. They may refer to these substances as “entheogens”, meaning literally “god-inducers”.

Myself, I sometimes like to have a single glass of wine (or the equivalent) prior to beginning a ritual. It takes the edge off any self-consciousness or “stage fright” I may be feeling, and makes it easier for me to shift into the Ritual State. More than that, however, is counterproductive. In effect, I take a carefully calibrated dosage of alcohol to achieve a particular brain state that I find facilitating, and then stop there.

I have heard other Pagans describe their usage of various “entheogenic” substances for ritual similarly: careful administration of just the right amount to augment, rather than detract from, the ritual experience. Some Pagans are quite reverent and meticulously careful in their interactions with such substances, believing them to facilitate communing with god/desses or, indeed, to contain a sentient spirit themselves.

On the other hand, many Pagan rituals and most public rituals request that celebrants be completely sober if they wish to participate, which should, of course, be honored.

Please note that I am encouraging nothing: merely describing what I have seen.

Overall, drug abuse is no more or less of a problem in the Pagan community than any other. If you are in recovery, there are groups comprised of and serving Pagans in recovery from addiction. You certainly should not feel that there will be any pressure to use mind-altering substances, as I have never seen an example of that in the Pagan community.

So: there you have it.

Questions? Things I missed? Comments?