In the wake of Kenny Klein’s recent arrest for possession of child pornography, many Pagan groups are discussing what policies and ethics statements might help to safeguard our communities. My co-writer Yvonne Aburrow has some excellent concrete suggestions here, and various people are again looking at the collective statement of sexual ethics spearheaded by Brendan Myers to consider whether it might be formally adopted in their groups. I hope these resources will be of use to our readers.
As these discussions continue, I’d like to offer some recommendations on how new sexual ethics statements and policies might be framed. In times of crisis, we often focus on what we DON’T want. But if we are to create a healthy consent culture, our vision of our erotic ethics must be framed in positive terms. What does a Pagan consent culture look like?
1. Rather than focusing purely on sexual touch, let’s focus on touch in general. If we create a culture of consent around touch, and learn to treat touch as an opportunity for a sacramental moment between two people, we will have clear standards for what constitutes appropriate touch in all cases. Not only will it be easier to identify boundary-violating warning signs from potential predators, but well-meaning people will find it easier to offer and accept touch only when it’s wanted, not out of a sense of social obligation.
2. We must acknowledge that our culture is rife with power imbalances, and that all relationships occur within these power imbalances, because no two people are perfect peers. With this in mind, we need language to talk about power in those relationships so as to maximize the autonomy of both parties. Further, we need to be able to speak openly about the fact that with a large power differential, there is a greater chance for exploitation or abuse–and yet retain the conviction that adults do have the ability to consent to touch. No adult’s experience of pleasurable, consensual touch should be dismissed as “patriarchal brainwashing,” as some sexual ethicists of the past have done in order to attack the validity of unequal relationships (such as heterosexual partnerships).
As a Pagan, I believe deeply in the potential sacredness of touch and of sexuality. Accordingly, my sexual ethics are different from those espoused in mainstream religious institutions. I seek to create a culture in which enthusiastic, ongoing consent is an expected part of any relationship involving touch, and I believe deeply that adults have the right to consent to any form of loving touch that they desire, regardless of whether or not that touch is considered “deviant” by our society.
In our fear and grief over recent events, let us not mirror mainstream culture with destructive assumptions about the danger of desire, the asexuality of adolescents, or the responsibility of potential victims to protect themselves. We need to change our culture. We need to change the conditions that create people who abuse others, and that allow others to overlook the signs of abuse. Further, we need to avoid utterly demonizing those who commit sexual violations and acknowledge that problematic behaviors are rife in our communities — some persisting as a result of ignorance and lack of understanding, some as a result of genuinely dangerous mental illness. We need to be able to confront those who violate others with compassion, with the understanding that compassion can involve calling the police and sending predators to prison, for the good of all.
So I repeat: let’s take the long view here. Let’s not focus the coming discussions purely on seeking out predators. Instead, let’s concentrate on creating a healthy culture of enthusiastic consent. Not only will that approach better help to reveal those who seek to hurt others, but all our relationships will benefit.
Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective, by Christine Hoff Kraemer (Particularly the discussion of consent at the end of the introduction) [Full book available here, or contact me at ckraemer at patheos dot com]
Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, eds. Friedman and Valenti
Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals by Cristina Traina