Recently, I’ve been participating in some videos about sexual predation in the pagan community. One of the questions that was asked in preparation for the first video was, “What are some of the unique vulnerabilities presented by these circumstances?”
It turns out, I have a lot to say about this. Far more than could fit in a video without monologuing right over my co-participants, each of whom had valuable things to say. In the interests of continuing the conversation and engaging as many of us as possible in thinking about making our spaces safer, here are some of the “unique vulnerabilities” that I see in the pagan community.
The All-Knowing Vibe
We are a magickal, intuitive bunch. We pride ourselves on reading the energy of a room or a person. And while our instincts are powerful allies, they do not make us all-knowing. Sexual predators are often described as being nice, charming, and charismatic. They draw people in. Getting a “good vibe” off someone should never be the only qualifier for trust.
Unexamined baggage is what happens when someone hops from some other group into paganism and shifts priorities or thought patterns as an entire set without examining the individual pieces. For example, The Pastor is Always Right may become The High Priestess is Always Right without examining the underlying ideas that those in power are always right or that we should subvert our own sense of right and wrong to theirs. Sexual ethics are not the only place I see this happening but it is one of the more noticeable. It goes something like this: “Before, because of mainstream cultural values/religious upbringing/other reasons, Sex was Bad. But now I am pagan! And Sex is Good! Sex is Good = All Sex/Sexual Behavior is Good!”
Um. No. I’m sex positive. I’ve been in feminist, queer, and pagan communities since I was fourteen. Here are a few things, drawn from my personal experience, that masquerade as sex positive but are anything but. Elders, as a class of people, being excused for any sexually inappropriate remarks or sexually inappropriate behavior because Elders’ sexuality is repressed/ignored in the mundane world and should be honored in the pagan world. A stranger who I am not engaging with in any way approaching me to comment on how good I looked last night in skyclad ritual, as though my presence in sacred space were for his sexual gratification. High Priests and High Priestesses casually teasing lower-ranked people in their coven about how they’d love to take them to bed. Coven meetings where business is mixed with tales of sexual exploits in such a way that I don’t feel I can leave without missing something important. An attitude that asking for sexual remarks to be tuned down is the mark of a wet blanket. People being offended because someone chooses to hug some people (those they feel close to and safe with) and not others. These are only a handful of the incidences that occur in pagan spaces under the broad banner of “But all acts of love and pleasure are Her Mysteries!”, completely ignoring that nothing non-consensual should ever be considered an act of love and pleasure.
As rife with pagan groups as the Bay Area is, we tend to forget that there are whole swathes of the country where there’s only one group in a 100-mile radius if not more. If the one group that is local has a culture of accepting indiscriminate sexual remarks, it may seem necessary to put up with it. If everyone is touchy-feely, there is pressure to accept touch, whether it is wanted or not. When other resources, especially other people outside your group, are hard to come by, it is easier for someone in a position of power to convince new converts that everyone undergoes, for example, a sexual initiation. Lack of other places to train in magical and psychic skills can lead to people being vulnerable to schticks like, “Our High Priest wants you to help raise energy for this important working but we need to be skyclad for success,” or “Our High Priestess thinks you could have a real talent for sex magick and wants to train you.”
Many branches of paganism subscribe to secrecy. The reasons for this generally fall into two camps. The first, fear of persecution, leads quite easily to potential abuses. Someone who can be blackmailed by the threat of having their paganism revealed to their work, family, friends, or community is vulnerable to being forced into sexual situations they don’t want. In some places, bringing the police in opens up victims to harassment by the police. In many more, pagans are wary of the police and urge members to handle matters internally. In small groups, this can cause problems when accusations of sexual misconduct become popularity contests. The second reason for secrecy has to do with the sacredness of our Mysteries, which are thought to be preserved by being known only to those initiated to them. Mystery traditions usually involve swearing an oath not to reveal the group’s Mysteries to others. Unfortunately, secrecy is valuable cover for sexual predators, who can use it to claim that, for example, everyone undergoes sex as part of initiations, it’s just part of the Mysteries so no one talks about it.
Related to both secrecy and isolation is a sense of being outside the norm. Many of us knew as children or teens that we were different somehow. Many of us faced bullying. Being pagan affirms our differences and makes us outsiders together. This feeling of being outsiders together fosters a certain mystique of “Oh, THEY wouldn’t understand our ways,” simultaneously reinforcing isolation from the outside world and requiring secrecy as a marker on our new in-group status. It creates an atmosphere where the expectation is that, since we have all been through the same thing, we are all the same/all trustworthy. Behaviors or comments that would normally set off warnings for us are downplayed or dismissed because other pagans are supposed to be safe. Unethical groups or leaders may use the psychological separation from others as a pathway to introduce unwanted sexual attention into training or rites.
Paganism has a host of strengths but it also has some particular vulnerabilities. I’m sure there are more than I’ve listed here. I certainly don’t have all the answers. It does seem that there might be some solutions that can address these points, though. A few suggestions that I’d encourage others to mull over:
1. Have a discussion in your coven, if it hasn’t already happened, about appropriate sexual behavior and the consequences of inappropriate behavior.
2. Never put yourself in a situation because you or someone else is pagan that you would not otherwise allow.
3. Keep the channels of trust and communication open. Have multiple people in your coven that you can talk openly and honestly with about any concerns you have. Always have someone outside your group that you can talk to about what’s happening. A good rule of thumb that I learned as a child is that if a secret is hurting you or someone else, it needs to be told.
What vulnerabilities do you see pagan communities having? How have you/your coven or circle dealt with unethical sexual behavior? Please share in the comments.