For me, sacred sexuality is an important part of my faith. A liberated and respectful attitude towards sex, and reverence of it, is a big part of what attracted me to the Craft.
There’s a personal story behind it; I was anorexic and bulemic as a teenager. Body issues and shame for my body and my sexuality were very successfully imparted to me by a combination of some old-fashioned ideas from my parents, some very religious friends growing up, emotional abuse, and the fact that I was an ugly duckling. When I discovered sex, which I held out for until I was sixteen and had been with the boyfriend I loved for two years, it was magical, and it literally saved my life. I decided that if something so lovely and transcendent could exist in this world, it couldn’t be all that bad, and I healed my soul and became a 1% statistic in that without formal treatment, which I asked for but which was essentially unavailable to me at the time, I left my eating disorder in remission, and to this date have not had a relapse.
I quickly warmed to the sacred sexuality aspect of Wicca. As a feminist, I found it personally empowering. I could not see why something so beautiful and powerful should be so demonized. I have some political theories about it (which I will probably write about in a future long-winded article). I believe, and passionately, in the importance of sacred sexuality in the Craft. For me, it is one of the core Mysteries. It drives many aspects of Craft study and theology. In my opinion, one of the most important Works that we as Wiccan/ate Pagans and Goddess worshippers are doing is redefining an ethical sexuality that does not involve double standards, fear, or shame.
That’s the key, however. “Ethical Sexuality.” We, as a culture, have been Christianized for so long that we no longer have any idea what an ethical sexuality looks like without shame or fear. We are trying to reinvent the wheel. This is made especially difficult in the Pagan community by a couple of factors. One is that our policies of secrecy and “the curse of Pagan niceness” can lead to us to becoming a haven for abusers; a problem that has recently been driven home to us in a big way, and one that the Council of the Phoenix and others are trying to address. Another factor is that we have a greater-than-average population of abuse survivors (present company included). Many of us, rightfully, are afraid of triggering events and our attempts to avoid them sometimes lead us into conflict with potentially challenging situations. Thus, balancing the pole of protection with the pole of liberation is difficult at best.
This series of articles will examine a few of the issues that confront us in the practice of sacred sexuality and the teaching of sex magick. They are presented simply to point them out and spark discussion, working towards possible solutions.
Is nudity a sexual thing? Our culture certainly seems to think so. Should we therefore limit exposure to nudity to adults or those of the age of consent? The tradition of being skyclad often clashes with people’s comfort levels.
The Pagan festivals that I have been to in my neck of the woods tend to have a “clothing optional” policy in most places, the exception usually being the place you eat. However, people rarely take advantage of it, except in skyclad-specific ritual and in swimming areas. Though I will allow that many women relish the chance to go topless, whether they come from areas in which this is legal or not (for example, unless specifically forbidden by a bylaw, toplessness is Constitutionally-protected in Canada; since men are permitted to be topless, our courts have ruled that women must be allowed to be as well.) However, we rarely are due to cultural constraints, and you would shake your head at the war I had with my mother over whether or not my employee could breast-feed her baby in my store, which she viewed as offensive and I strongly supported. These festivals I attended also had co-ed bathrooms. Recently, opposition has arisen to this due to the fact that a) many of us are uncomfortable with nudity, b) many Pagan traditions do not have a tradition of skyclad practice, and c) many feel that this increases the opportunity for abuse.
While the fears about abuse are statistically unfounded, comfort levels and respect of others’ beliefs remain a concern. I think that over the next decade or so, many Pagan gatherings will be required to decide if they are Pan-Pagan or “Wiccan/ate” in their focus, and adjust their rules accordingly. I imagine that tradition will determine these rules in part; but I also imagine we’ll see some deep-rooted schisms. The first-ever Witch War I was involved with was split over this issue.
There’s usually a skyclad ritual offered at these festivals. For some it’s the first time they’ve ever been skyclad; and their level of participation varies. The single-gender rituals tend to be better attended than the co-ed ones. But it seems to me from a purely subjective viewpoint that many newcomers found it very liberating.
In any case, if we are going to continue to have clothing-optional areas, I recommend that we should observe some nudist etiquette. Carry a towel with you and sit on that when you sit on things (it’s just hygienic!) Cover your genitals in the eating areas. And don’t stare at people’s private bits when you’re talking to them. It makes them more uncomfortable than they already are, and they’re generally going out on a limb and taking a risk as it is. It gets easier the more naked people you see.
We also need to respect each other. Some people are not comfortable with nakedness. Perhaps they should be given a place where they don’t have to confront nudity constantly; perhaps the eating hall and the family camping area for example. But it’s also not fair to force everyone else, for whom nudity may be an important article of faith, to cover up in all places. That’s part of the reason we go to these events; to freely celebrate our path in a place of mutual acceptance.
Cultural Conditioning (Reinforcing Rape Culture)
We speak a great deal of “rape culture” and we’ve heard a lot about it in the news recently. This phrase often makes Pagan men cringe, because to many of them, it represents irrational hatred directed towards them for a privilege they don’t realize they possess, especially since most North American Pagan men are at least supportive of feminism or feminists themselves (though certainly there are exceptions).
Rape culture is perpetuated by the cultural assumption that the reward for the male who does well and succeeds, does the right thing, etc., is the most desirable female.
If you claim you don’t have this cultural assumption, let me ask you this: were you surprised when you read the Harry Potter series, or watched the movies, and Hermione chose Ron instead of Harry?
I was. I was surprised. But it made me happy when I thought about it. Apparently J.K. Rowling received all kinds of hate mail because of this! But consider it. Why did we assume that Harry should get the leading lady of the story? Because he was the hero, right? In the real world, women are not robots that respond automatically to a set of cues to indicate who the most desirable male should be that we can attach ourselves to. We have our own feelings and make our own decisions. Let’s give ourselves and each other the right to make autonomous decisions, without judgment, hatred, or “slut-shaming,” no matter which, what gender, how many, or how few, partners we choose.
Rape culture is also perpetuated by the subtle, pervasive belief unlying most aspects of Western culture that female is inferior to male. There’s strong evidence to suggest that gay men suffer from so much ridicule, and that lesbian women don’t (but are often subjected to “corrective rape” and abuse) is that we carry subconscious training that teaches us that gay men are “lowering themselves” to the position of “inferior female,” and lesbian women are “raising themselves above their place.” If you don’t think that applies to you, ask yourself this: does the sight of two men kissing make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you more or less uncomfortable than the sight of two women kissing? Why? (Go ahead, follow my links and test yourself! If you do have those feelings, don’t despair; prejudice can be overcome by consciously changing your beliefs. If you don’t, congratulations!) In some circles, we even say that for a woman to have a relationship with a man automatically puts her in a position of inferiority! That betrays the subconscious presence of this poisonous cultural belief. I strongly believe that these attitudes have no place in the world of Paganism, where we strive for mutual acceptance and transcendence of gender-based assumptions.
Which brings me to the next area:
This is a very big subject. Feminist politics have been a strong component of the North American Pagan scene for many years now and are generally an aspect of Goddess worship. Certainly feminism is part of what attracted me to the Craft in the first place. And we women want a safe and sacred space. We outnumber men in Paganism three to one. Most Pagan men that I know have had encounters in the Pagan community in which their gender has counted against them in a prejudicial way. Some of us would say that this a good lesson in humility for men, who therefore get to experience what every woman in the world has experienced at varying frequencies most of her life, but I don’t think they need to be shamed. No one needs to be shamed. That’s cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Men have a place in Paganism too.
There’s also an a priori assumption that all apparently heterosexual men at a Pagan gathering are there for sex, and they have to prove that they’re not. That’s no more fair than assuming that women are emotional and irrational. Prejudice is still prejudice.
I believe in the need for single-gender sanctuaries. I teach Dianic Mysteries from time to time and these are not places for men. I also believe in the need for Men’s Mysteries. But we, as Pagans and as people, are disagreed on our definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman, as the conflict a few years ago at PantheaCon, spearheaded by Z. Budapest and T. Thorn Coyle, proves. We still haven’t made our decisions on this yet.
And what about those of us who do not fit the standard binary gender model? There are many of us who are transgendered or gender-queer. Where do we go, if not in the men’s and women’s rituals? For many of us, even the co-ed circles, with binary gender models, are too restricting. If you are a woman in spirit but not born in a woman’s body, what is your place at a menstruation ritual? How about a phallic ritual if you are FTM transgendered?
Now let’s consider these factors in the direct context of sex magick. If you are in a tradition with a male to female to male line of descent, where do you fall if you are gender-queer? Who do you study with? In Drawing Down for the Great Rite, do you Draw Down the Sun or the Moon, and from whom do you receive your initiation? If you are the initiator, would you perform such an initiation? Do you believe in cross-gendered Drawing Down? And what if you’re gay and identify more with the Goddess, as did a wonderful young man in my coven?
My own tradition is a strange hodgepodge of British Traditional descent and Feri/Reclaiming influence. One of the elders of our tradition is a transgendered woman, but she was a Lord in our tradition for many years and is one of our founders. The previous council of our Third Degree initiates determined that she should be given the title “Mistress” and treated as an elder, but not given the title “Lady.” Is this fair? I didn’t think so. When I became part of the council I argued against it. And yet, she has not Drawn Down the Moon in Great Rite. How are we to handle this? I’ve got to tell you, it’s still a contentious issue, and our Thirds have a wide range of opinions. I think it’s a credit to all of us that despite this, these discussions have been a respectful mutual sharing of thought and not a heated debate. We will all have to make our own decisions about this, and similar, concerns.
This is probably the biggest area of concern in the community right now. Many children are now second and third generation Pagans, raised in Pagan families. How do we handle our attitudes about sex and youth? When is the difference in ages between partners abuse? What age is the age of consent? When is nakedness appropriate around children?
A funny thing about Western culture is our attitude about sex and children. We recognize that children cannot properly consent, but we are disagreed about when childhood ends. Many of us avoid the issue by refusing to allow our children to get involved in Paganism until they are adults. But that gives the unconscious message that Paganism is something shameful to keep secret, and many of us don’t believe this. Also, Wiccan/ate Paganism teaches that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals.” So why do we believe teenage sex should be avoided? Our children are confused by the mixed message.
And why do we have different standards for boys and girls? Why do some of our Pagan men still joke about getting shotguns when they have pretty daughters? Why shouldn’t our daughters claim their sexuality as their own, and why should their fathers have any say in it at all? I think that my partner had the best Wiccan attitude about it I had ever heard when he said to his daughter, “The only acceptable reason for you to have sex is for your pleasure, because you want to.”
Is this too permissive? For some, especially those of us who have been abused, perhaps it is. But because of my own issues with sexual shaming and body shaming, I never made efforts to conceal nakedness in my house, and I raised my children in this way. I told them if they were old enough to ask the question, they were old enough to get the answer, which I dealt with as honestly and as directly as possible given ages and context. And my children, my son and daughter both, called me to tell me when they had chosen to claim their identities as sexual beings. Both of them had an attitude of celebration. Both of them viewed it as an empowering choice. Neither of them have any regrets about the decision. Both of them chose to experiment with male and female lovers; my daughter is bisexual and my son is heterosexual and engaged to a lovely young woman that he has been with for almost five years now. I believe that for me and for them, I did the right thing. But each of us must find our own answers.
I strongly believe, as do most of us I’m sure, that abuse, and especially abuse of children, is absolutely unacceptable and must be actively and vigorously opposed. I’ll revisit the issue of abuse and consent in Part Two of this article.
There is also a certain double-standard with age. I have had relationships with a man my age, a man who was many years younger than me and a man who is many years older. For me, the attitude about my younger lover was a coin-flip between “what a sleazy old bag!” and “you go, girl!” Some were quite uncomfortable with it. And strangely, I have not had this reaction in regards to my older partner. For older men, it is often just “what a pervert!” When it isn’t, the response is usually, “How does an old goat like you get a beautiful young woman like this?” which shows an unconscious belief that there must be something wrong with us when we get older. The assumption is usually that there’s money involved, which is a terrible judgment of my partner’s sexuality and my morality. We claim not to be ageist, and we claim that we celebrate sexuality in all its forms, but obviously we lie to ourselves.
These are some examples of many of the unconscious prejudices and ideas that we will have to examine and challenge a lot more deeply, if we intend to be true to the ideals we claim to hold.
Next column: A Sticky Issue: Teaching Sex Magick, Part Two