Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone

The recent arrest of Kenny Klein, Pagan author and musician, on 25 counts of possessing child pornography, although this has not yet resulted in a conviction, has prompted everyone to ask, how can we keep our Pagan communities safe from people like this?

There was a horrific abuse case in the UK in 2012, but those involved were not part of the wider Pagan community, or of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan community; nor it seems, of any recognisable Wiccan or witchcraft community.

Nevertheless, the widespread nature of abuse in society means that sooner or later, it is simply statistically likely that some member of the Pagan community will perpetrate some kind of abuse.

In response to cases which came to light in 2010, Jason Pitzl-Waters called for an ethics statement on abuse. In response, Brendan Myers and a group of others created a community statement and invited people to sign up to it. This is alright as far as it goes, but it is not enough, because it does nothing to challenge the silencing of victims of abuse.

However, this is not just about ensuring zero tolerance of child abuse in our communities; it is also about creating a safe space for everyone.  That means zero tolerance of creepers – people who think it is acceptable to sexually harass others. It also means that we cannot sweep rape, domestic violence, and abuse in our communities under the carpet. If someone is brave enough to say they have been raped and abused, we should believe them. We should also encourage them to go to the police. And for those of you who are thinking that the police don’t take rape allegations seriously, rape convictions are at an all-time high, with the conviction rate in the UK currently at 63%.

I have heard too many stories of people being told off for “rocking the boat” when they have complained of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. I have been in situations where Pagan men have not understood that no means no. Being in the same bed as someone does not constitute consent to sexual activity. Consent is continuous and explicit, not merely acquiescing to the sexual act because it is easier than arguing.

We are supposed to be a community that values women, that believes women are the embodiment of the Divine just as much as men, if not more so.

We are a community that celebrates all acts of love and pleasure. Well, let me tell you right now, anything less than enthusiastic consent is not an act of love and pleasure. Love and pleasure are sacred. Rape and abuse are the most horrible violations of the sacred integrity of the human body.

What is enthusiastic consent? It is where sexual partners actively describe what they do and don’t desire. It means not just avoiding a No, but actually getting a clear Yes. And not just a yes to sex, but also a yes to all the other activities that surround it. Maybe your partner doesn’t like being touched in a particular way, or in a particular place – so don’t touch them there, and/or don’t touch them like that.

It became clear after the Steubenville rape case that many people thought that an unconscious drunk girl was “asking for it”.  The victim was blamed for “ruining the careers” of the young men who raped her. No, they ruined their careers by raping her. More importantly, they also ruined her life.

Many anti-rape posters are victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The only ones that actually reduce the rates of rape are the ones that make it clear what consent means, and what rape means. The “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada, which does make it clear that non-consensual sex is rape, has reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

We live in a rape culture, where a woman who gets raped is blamed for complaining about it, rather than the rapist being blamed.

People assume that rapists are 100% evil and bad, therefore the “nice” people they know can’t possibly be rapists. But a very high percentage of rape and sexual assault is committed by partners or acquaintances of the victims.

Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual act or activity. Rape includes the non-consensual penetration of the vagina or the anus with any object.  That is the legal definition in the UK and in the USA.

We live in a rape culture, where every time someone brings up the subject of rape, someone says, yes but men get raped too. They do, but the numbers are much fewer than the number of women being raped, and it is often done as a form of power-over to ‘feminize’ the man who was raped.

We live in a rape culture, where men’s rights activists are rape apologists, who claim that women were asking for it, or are just frigid, or were to blame for being raped. They claim that feminism is emasculating men, or they blame their mothers for not making them proper men. Or something. So they go down to the woods to hang with the dudes and connect with the “male energies”. And some of these people use Paganism as a cover for these activities.

We live in a rape culture, where rape apologists claim that men “need” sex, or that it is in their nature to be rapists; that’s why women are the ones who have to take all the preventive measures against rape, like not dressing “provocatively”, not walking home late at night, not getting drunk and incapable. This is horrible slut-shaming nonsense, but it is also grossly unfair to the majority of men who are not rapists.

We live in a rape culture, where people derail conversations about rape culture by claiming that women lie about being raped. This represents a tiny minority – and if we did not live in a patriarchal culture of slut-shaming, where women who have sex at all are regarded as sluts, no-one would need to lie about it.

“In the period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, 6 for making false allegation of domestic violence and 3 for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence. ” (from page 2 of the UK Crown Prosecution Service report on false rape allegations, March 2013)

Pagans think that we are immune to the problems of the wider society, including rape culture, because Pagans are ethical, or because high priestesses are very wise and intuitive and supposedly always filter out dodgy people, including rapists and abusers. I am aware of enough cases of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence among the Pagan community to know that that just is not true. And besides, some of these people are downright manipulative, and can be quite convincingly ‘nice’.

So what can we, the Pagan community, do about it?

I have said it before, and I will say it again: we need a safeguarding policy and committees for Pagan communities, of people trained in safeguarding. I do not care how difficult it would be to set up. We need it, period. Yes, I know covens and other groups are autonomous; I know the Pagan community is more of a network than a gathered community; I know it would cost money, and maybe only have partial coverage – but we need to do it. Which would you rather join – a coven/grove/hearth that is signed up to the safeguarding committee, or a coven that isn’t?

We really need to have consensus: no more creepers, no more rapists. If a woman says she doesn’t like someone’s behaviour – don’t just ignore her, or tell her it’s not that serious, or tell her not to rock the boat, or take the piss out of the perpetrator – bar the perpetrator from the group for a period of time, or permanently, depending on the seriousness of the act.

Do not tolerate creepers (today’s creeper is tomorrow’s rapist). If a woman says she has been assaulted, believe her, and encourage her to report it to the police. If a woman objects to sexist behaviour and/or creepy behaviour (e.g. unwanted touching) don’t silence her. If you hear someone making misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist comments, challenge them and make it clear that their views are not welcome in the Pagan community. Tell the perpetrator of sexual harassment that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We need to do this to make the community safe for everyone.

Silencing the victims of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse happens over and over again. The parable of the rats on the boat gives a powerful illustration of silencing and victim-blaming.

In the past couple of days I have been feeling very angry. I have been angry about sexual harassment, sexual assault, creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, men exploiting the way in which women are socialised into being polite and non-confrontational for the purposes of the aforementioned creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, and also the fucking cover up and culture of silence around the above. Especially the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. As in “don’t say anything to that creepy guy in X society who always hangs around the youngest women possible; that would be rocking the boat”. As in “don’t make a big deal about that one guy who sent you those creepy, sexually harassy emails: don’t rock the boat”. As in “yeah, there’s this guy who’s a creep and we all know about him but we don’t DO anything about him because we don’t want to rock the boat” (oh my god, the amount of times I’ve heard this). This is a stupid fucking metaphor which is used to silence women and values calmness and stability (and the feelings of creepers and sexual harassers)  above the feelings and comfort and happiness of those women.

When someone complains about sexual harassment or abuse or rape, don’t assume that they are just being vindictive against the accused person. Don’t dismiss or make light of their concerns. Encourage them to report it to the police, and to get specialist support.

However, if a victim does not feel able to go to the police, because they do not have physical evidence, or the abuse happened a long time ago, or because the police in their area are not supportive of rape victims, that is their choice, and should be respected. Don’t make them feel ashamed for not going to the police. They may already be feeling shame for a variety of reasons.

Of course we need to be careful about rumours from third parties. There have been some vicious rumours that have gone round the Pagan community, and far too few people checked on both sides of the story – but they are suddenly very keen to say “oh well we don’t know both sides of the story” when it comes to allegations of abuse.

Don’t make excuses for creepers and claim that they are “just socially awkward” – that is no excuse. There are behaviours that are creepy and unacceptable: commenting on the bodily characteristics of others (just because your tradition practices nudity, does not give you the right to comment on the size of other member’s breasts or penises or extra weight); unwanted touching, especially on areas of the body that are considered erotic, is harassment. Everybody knows what makes people uncomfortable, but we are all too polite to challenge these behaviours.

All covens, groves, hearths, moots and groups need to educate their members about consent and enthusiastic consent, and make it clear that violations of same will not be tolerated. Have a regular talk at your local moot, make sure people understand the issues, and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. If a new person joins your coven, grove or hearth, make sure that they understand about consent.

I can think of a Pagan pub moot that collapsed due to the presence of someone whom everyone considered to be a creeper, and no-one wanted to be in the room with him on their own, and yet no-one asked him to leave, so in the end, the group collapsed, because no-one turned up in case they were alone with the creeper. I can think of a student society where a creeper was asked to leave, and the society flourished.

Quite often, when someone suggests ostracising or banning a creeper or an abuser or a rapist, they are told, “Your feelings, your problem”, or “we don’t really know what happened”, or “That’s just the way that person behaves; they’re a bit weird”, or “It’s wrong to ostracise people”. This phenomenon has been described in “Five Geek Social Fallacies“.

Above all, don’t keep going around the missing stair, and mostly warning others about the missing stair, but occasionally forgetting and then not being surprised when someone is injured by the missing stair.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

We need to make the Pagan movement safe for everyone. Except abusers.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.


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