Pagans, Hugging, and the Fine Art of Consent: A PSA

Consensual hugging should be the only hugging.

Consensual hugging should be the only hugging.

It’s festival season! Hooray!

I really hadn’t planned on attending any events this summer. Being back in school keeps me busy, and I’ve just been feeling really burnt out lately. Being Pagan can mean being part of a large community, which is wonderful and potentially recharging, but it can also leave you feeling stretched thin if you don’t pace yourself. This has been a rough year for me and I was anticipating needing some time to myself. But the siren song of my favorite festival was just too strong, and when a lower-priced ticket fell into my lap I snapped it up.

Aside from the usual preparations that need to be made (packing for a festival can be as simple or as complicated as you like), I have one thing in particular on my mind that always comes up in public Pagan spaces, but is most concerning at large festivals: nonconsensual touching.

Pagans are a huggy bunch. It’s not uncommon to meet people for the first time and exchange hugs instead of handshakes. Sometimes hugs are exchanged as part of public rituals. People hold hands, put their arms around each other, and are generally a lot more likely to be in each other’s personal space. I’m not even talking about the sexy stuff (although that can certainly be part of it depending on the festival); I’m just talking initial meetings between strangers.

For many people, this isn’t a concern. The openness of Pagan spaces can be liberating, and one of the ways we enjoy that is through physical contact. It makes us feel connected, provides comfort and support, affirms our bodies and our sexualities, and just generally contributes to the public happiness quotient. All good stuff.

But some of us have anxiety disorders.

Some of us are abuse victims coping with PTSD.

Some of us are really introverted and it takes a lot of energy just to be surrounded by so many people, let alone to deal with the expectation of hugging everyone we meet.

Some of us just don’t want to be hugged, and we don’t need a reason.

It’s important to remember that, regardless of where you are and what sack of religious labels you’re carrying around, you don’t have the right to anyone else’s body. Personal boundaries don’t disappear just because we’re in Pagan space. They also don’t disappear just because a person is naked, in costume, or drunk at the fire circle. They definitely don’t disappear just because a person has been intimate and friendly with other people (or even you in the past). You don’t get automatic access to anyone else’s body—even just for a friendly hug—no matter who they are (or who you are), what they look like, what they’re wearing, or who else they’re friendly with.

It sounds obvious, but I have experienced some truly stunning breaches of boundaries at festivals, and generally by people who would (I’m certain) be mortified to think they’d done anything wrong. Usually people aren’t grabby because they’re jerks. They’re “affectionate” because they’re “spiritually open” or “we’re all one” or “hugs are healing” or whatever.

Poor Corvus is constantly ducking out of hugs. She doesn’t like them and doesn’t want them, even from people she loves. I’ve seen people sidestep her handshakes and force her into a hug. I’ve seen people openly reject her request for no contact, asserting, “Oh, but I’m a hugger!” Well she’s not. These moments are frustrating, draining, potentially scary, and purely the result of oblivious self-absorption disguised as love.

My favorites are the people who claim to be empaths, but nonetheless can’t detect body language (or verbal language) that clearly says, “HOLY CRAP STOP TOUCHING ME.”

Aside from hugging, I’ve had my hands and arms grabbed (some of those self-proclaimed empaths are hell-bent on emoting over the scars on my arms), my hair pulled, I’ve been kissed, and I’ve been groped. A lot of my friends have similar stories and are just uncomfortable saying anything about it.

So I’m saying something here.

Ask before you hug. Actually, ask before you touch at all. Most people will be fine with it. Many people will love it and find comfort in it, just the way you intended. But you should always ask.

Also understand that silence is not consent. It can take a lot of energy and gumption to work out a “no” so be mindful of body language, too. If you go in for a hug and someone counters with a handshake, accept it gracefully and don’t ask for more. If someone shrinks in, shies away, leaves their arms at their sides, or tenses up, back off. Don’t take it personally. It probably has nothing to do with you. Either way, you are not entitled.

One of the greatest things about festival is the freedom to be who you are (or who you want to be) without fear of judgment. That freedom gets lost when we fail to respect each other’s boundaries, particularly with regard to our bodies. So be mindful! Enjoy meeting new people, sharing within your comfort level, and spreading whatever touch makes everyone involved feel good. Just ask first.

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About Thorn Mooney

Thorn Mooney is a Gardnerian high priestess operating in Charlotte, NC. A practitioner of various kinds of witchcraft since adolescence, she blogs about traditional Craft, coven life, contemporary Pagan studies, and being Pagan in the American South. Thorn holds an MA in religious studies and works as a university lecturer, musician, and tarot reader.