In my last column, I examined many of the contentious issues around sacred sexuality and the teaching of sex magick. Since then the column has seen a fair bit of circulation, which tells me we’re talking about this issue in the Pagan community. I’ve also read some great work in the same field. In particular I’d like to recommend my readers to a series called “Let’s Talk About Sex” from the blog “The Serpent’s Labyrinth” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
In this column, I continue where the last one left off:
The Issue of Consent
This is probably the keystone of all issues surrounding the teaching of sex magick and sacred sexuality. In a community that embraces or at least accepts the Wiccan idea that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals,” there is a general agreement that what goes on between consenting adults is their business, and it’s all fine and good as long as no one is getting hurt. The issues are compounded for those of us who remember the “Satanic Panic” and all the allegations of ritual abuse. Most Pagans who follow a Wiccanate philosophy believe that many of the widely-held beliefs of our culture regarding sexuality, both conscious and subconscious, are unhealthy. We are looking to invent a new sexual ethic. Rather than concerning ourselves with specifics, we concern ourselves with consent. And therein lies the rub.
Age and Consent
I think it safe to say that we all believe that adults should not engage in sexual congress with children. As a society we view child molesters as sick, evil human beings, and most of us advocate some pretty drastic punishments for violation of that rule. When, many years ago, Gavin and Yvonne Frost wrote a book that advocated a Pagan sexual coming-of-age ritual, the outcry was huge and the resulting tidal waves have continued to lash the shores of Paganism ever since. Indeed, the reason we’re all currently talking about this is that a respected Pagan elder was recently accused of possessing child pornography, and other allegations of abuse in the community emerged as a result of this discussion.
So here’s the heart of the question really: when does childhood end?
Perhaps I should approach this with a less volatile example. Let’s take sex out of the equation entirely. Recently in Kelowna, BC (the closest major city to me) a man was arrested for leaving children in the car in the Wal-Mart parking lot on a very hot day. Most of us, me included, would immediately say, “What a jerk! Glad they caught him!” Now here’s the catch: the boys were ten and five years old respectively. When the man came to the car to be put in cuffs, he was with an eleven-year-old girl who had accompanied him into the store.
I’m a parent. I can visualize this scenario pretty clearly:
Dad: “Okay, let’s go in.”
Older Boy: “Awww, DAAAD, I don’t wanna go in the store! It’s boring!”
Dad: “Come on, you have to go.”
Older Boy: “But I don’t WAAAANNNA!”
Younger Boy: “I don’t wanna either.” (bottom lip comes out, signaling impending whining)
Dad: (with exasperated sigh) “Fine, you stay here and look after your little brother while your sister and I go get stuff for dinner. Here’s the keys. If you decide to come in, lock the doors behind you.”
How many of us are asking, “And what’s wrong with the ten-year-old that he was incapable of taking his brother into the store and finding Dad if he got hot or thirsty?” Thirty years ago, my ten-year-old self was considered capable of getting on a bus unescorted and travelling about 300 miles from Vernon to Chilliwack with a transfer en route. Certainly taking my little brother into the store if he or I got too hot was not beyond my capabilities. Yet now this is against the law and this man is being criminally charged.
Certainly a ten-year-old is indeed a child. But part of the problem is that our society is confused about when childhood ends. This varies from country to country and state to state. In my province and country (British Columbia, Canada) you can be held criminally liable at twelve, drive at sixteen, join the armed forces at seventeen, and vote and sign contracts at eighteen. You must be nineteen to drink and gamble, and twenty-one to smoke. So you are considered to be legally responsible for criminal behavior six full years before you able to take legal responsibility for a contract; you can be sent to fight for your country a full year before you’re allowed to help decide who runs it; and you can kill people your government tells you are enemies a full two years before you’re allowed to engage in activities that might harm yourself. Oh, and apparently you should know whether or not you want to kill yourself with alcohol a full two years before you can know if you want to kill yourself with tobacco.
What is the current age of consent where you live? You have to know! When I was a teenager, the age of consent was fourteen. Now it’s sixteen. (I approve of the change, by the way.) So does that mean that sixteen is old enough to engage in sex magick and Great Rite? Don’t worry, I sense your hesitation and I agree with you. Certainly when the Frosts thought that was okay, the community disagreed! But I also happen to have heard a story about a coming-of-age manhood ceremony for a sixteen-year-old in the early nineties. A couple of Aphrodite priestesses discussed with the men performing the ceremony whether or not they should offer an introduction to sex as part of the initiation to the young man. The men felt that publicly offering this as part of the ceremony would put social pressure on him to do something he might otherwise not wish to do, so one of the men quietly made it known to him that these women had made the offer; and the young man turned it down. Was this appropriate? A reasonable person might conclude that because the young man was of the age of consent and the offer was made in such a way as to avoid any kind of coercion, be it covert or overt, that this was perfectly fine; but others might not agree on that and I would not make such an offer myself, even though one of the goddesses I work with – Erzulie – is a goddess of sacred sexuality.
Some sexual activities might be considered okay, but some might not, depending on age. Until 2003, fourteen states still had anti-sodomy laws. Homophobia and other discriminatory views regarding sex and sexuality might also lead to the law being applied unevenly. In a recent example, an eighteen-year-old lesbian was charged with statutory rape for not breaking off her relationship with her fifteen-year-old girlfriend on her birthday, even though the relationship had been going on for two years and the girlfriend ran away from home to be with her lover. Many believe the law would not have been brought in if the couple had been heterosexual.
How do you feel about this situation? What if it were an eighteen-year-old boy? What if the younger partner had been the boy? How about if the older partner were transsexual? What if they engaged in a little “slap and tickle” as part of their sexual relationship? Would these circumstances change your feelings at all? This case is a great example of the gray areas, and I bet no two of us would have precisely the same opinion about what’s right or wrong in this situation, or under which circumstances. Let’s consider the manhood ceremony I spoke of. What if the candidate had been a girl? What if it was a priest of Eros or Pan who made the offer? How does that change your feelings?
How would you feel about teenagers practicing sex magick together? How would you feel about teenagers undertaking their own sexual initiation rite with one another? If they came to you for advice on how to go about it, what would you tell them?
I would think that a group that practices sex magick or sacred sexuality would start with a firm commitment to, at the very minimum, obey the law (clearly not enough, but let’s start there); so we aren’t about to accept anyone into our practice or instruction who is not at least of the regional age of consent. After that, it gets gray, and we’re going to have to talk about it, both among our groups and in the community at large. What happens if a fourteen-year-old comes to me and asks about sex magick? Should I put on a poker face and seek refuge in the law? (“I’m sorry, I am simply not allowed to talk to you about that at all until you turn sixteen.”) And yes, that’s exactly what I would do. Do I now have an obligation to contact the youth’s parents about this?
A recent issue that came up in our own tradition is that a fifteen-year-old girl who is practicing with her parents in one of our covens wanted to initiate to First Degree, and her High Priestess and High Priest both believe she has the necessary knowledge and maturity to do so; but the tradition leaders (of which I am one) forbade it because our initiation rite is a traditional one; it’s done skyclad and involves ritual binding, blindfolding, and a challenge at the threshold. Too much potential for that to be taken badly, whether you think a fifteen-year-old can have the maturity to truly understand it anyway (and I don’t).
I have a personal policy that I will not engage in sex magick with anyone under the age of nineteen and even then I would hesitate. I was twenty-one when I performed my first Great Rite, and I know I had the maturity then to understand it, so that would be my minimum age for that ritual; and I would have serious questions and hesitations with anyone below the age of twenty-five. Those are my personal decisions on the subject. Each of us has to find our own answers. But we should talk about it.
The Teacher/Student Relationship
I’m not going to dance around it or sugar-coat it: Wicca has a fatal flaw. Here’s the dilemma: it is against the law in most of the “Western world” for a teacher to have sex with a student, or for a clergyperson to have sex with one of the congregation. It is culturally understood that people in such a position of authority might exercise undo coercion on a person who looks to them for guidance, and that a person under their authority might feel that s/he has no choice but to engage in a sexual act. But many Wiccan traditions have initiation rites that could either be perceived as having sexual elements (skyclad practice, bondage, scourging) or are undeniably sexual (Great Rite). Some Thelemic orders have similar dilemmas. And therein lies treacherous ground for those of us who are involved in such practices.
We magickal types, from the earliest shamans, have danced on the edge of cultural taboo and many would say that this is where the power is found. By nature we question everything and find the limits. But this is a dangerous area and it requires some extra caution.
Most of us would probably say these days that our traditions don’t require sexual acts for initiation; or at least, that such things are not required of our neophytes, though they may be for those of the higher degrees (and I’m definitely on board with that). I think that’s how we have to handle it to dance the razor’s edge, and I think that if sexuality is sacred, we must be assured of consent in order to avoid blasphemy. But for some traditional types, that sits uneasily, and I must confess, I understand this. The Great Rite is a sacred mystery. Does a person who wishes to initiate to Third Degree actually grasp the truth of the mystery if s/he is unwilling to engage in the Great Rite? There are still quiet traditional groups out there who would say that they do not, and would not do the initiation.
And what happens if your students think they’re ready for First Degree but they don’t want to do it skyclad? I have a student in this category and am currently considering my feelings on the matter. For me, the First Degree is about birth. You go into the ritual bound, blind and naked, and are birthed into a new life with a commitment to the path of Wicca; that’s why some call initiated Wiccans the “twice-born.” Your nudity symbolizes your vulnerability and rebirth. Everyone else is naked too, so you’re not in a position of disadvantage and you’re not a sex object. Does she understand the mystery if she’s not willing to be skyclad with us? And how am I to take this when her sister covener, who was once a victim of rape, was willing to do this as long as she could wear panties (which we were happy to accept)? Of course everyone has their own opinions and feelings and levels of comfort; but part of the point of initiation rituals is to challenge your comfort zone and face your fears. If my Priest and I decide not to do the initiation because of our doubts, and we refer her to someone who is willing to do it without requiring skyclad practice, is that coercion?
To be able to dance on this razor, we need to consider our approach. What does initiation mean? What do the degrees mean? What is the nature of our relationship to our initiates?
We say that we are all Priestesses and Priests of the gods. If you truly have that understanding, then initiation rituals are acknowledging a peer, not elevating a student. From that point of view, you have successfully negated both the student-teacher relationship and the clergy-congregant relationship. But then you also have an obligation to be sure that your initiate understands that you are peers! The community at large seems to have this idea that initiations are like grades in high school. Initiating to the next degree, for many, is viewed like collecting merit badges that raise you in the hierarchy. Until I have successfully dissuaded my coveners of this notion, I must not do any sort of sexual ritual with them.
Gerald Gardner believed that the reason that Wicca was a religion of priestesses and priests was that it was forced underground, and that there would come a time (and soon) in which Wicca would no longer be forced to be hidden, and once again there would be a priesthood and laypeople. This is another view that you might have with initiatory traditions. Initiated Witches are members of a priesthood, but not everyone who practices Wicca is required to be a priestess or priest! From that point of view, again, there is no requirement for initiation, so there is no coercion. But again, most of those who come to me for coven training seem to believe that initiation is something they should all be working towards and that they’re somehow falling down on the job if they don’t. So are they really coming to the threshold of their own free will?
Here’s where those who object to hierarchical traditions have a point. If you have authority, sexual ritual could be an abuse of power. If you don’t, sexual ritual is a practice among peers.
This also applies in festival sex. From one point of view, a High Priest who has sex with a covener at Beltane is demonstrating clearly that he regards him or her as a peer; but he might also be abusing power if that person views him- or herself as his student.
Another possible approach is to bring in outsiders who are peers to perform initiations. If you are not the teacher of the initiate, that might remove some of the ethical grayness. I know that some groups do this.
Again, there are no easy solutions for this. The uneasy compromise that my tradition is currently operating with is that none of the transgressive elements of our initiation rituals are required, but they are strongly encouraged, and those of us who can initiate have the right to choose under what circumstances we will perform initiations. If we are unwilling to do an initiation under a given condition, then we must refer the candidate to someone else in the tradition that will, provided they meet all the other requirements. Our minimum age for First Degree initiation is sixteen (preferred eighteen); our minimum age for Third Degree initiation is twenty-one (though most of us would not initiate someone so young). I don’t know if that solves all the problems, but it’s our best attempt to be ethical and hold true to our beliefs. Personally, I do my best to use my discernment and take each situation on a case-by-case basis.
A legally-incorporated group must be even more careful. I would say that such groups should not engage in skyclad or sexual initiations at all; certainly never as part of their official activities, anyway. And I’d say that if clergy in such organizations (like me) do so off-camera, then they should be sure that anyone they practice with who is not clergy in the same organization is not a member of it.
If you’re going to engage in this kind of work, being part of a group of peers that you can consult with is advised. If the coven leaders that I spoke of earlier with the fifteen-year-old bucking for initiation had not spoken with the rest of our tradition leaders, they might have gone ahead with it, blissfully unaware of the risks. Tradition Witches have an advantage in this because Wicca has been around for sixty years now and they have all that experience to draw upon, and Thelema’s been around for longer than that; non-Traditional types should seek out others in the community to talk to. As a practical and useful side effect of this, a climate of transparency makes it more difficult for abuse to fester when someone is doing something inappropriate.
Above all, realize that no matter what, you are taking a risk; just as driving means you are risking a car accident. Despite your best intentions, problems may arise. The law, your tradition’s guidelines, and your own personal judgment are all that you can go on. Divination probably can’t hurt either! One might think that it’s safer to avoid the issue entirely, but if sacred sexuality is an important part of your practice and belief, you can only do your best to try to consider the consequences of your actions and do the right thing.
Next column: A Sticky Subject: Teaching Sex Magick, Part Three.