Desecration of the Divine: Awareness and Safe Spaces

Desecration of the Divine: Awareness and Safe Spaces July 19, 2018

It astounds me how often I have this conversation on consent. Not because I think it should all be magically (heh) solved after just one, but because the topic crops up everywhere I go. No matter if I’m in professional author spaces, geek celebration spaces, leave-me-alone-I-am-writing-in-public spaces, sporty spaces, or—as I turn ever witchward—pagan and p-word spaces. The same subject ends up being a cornerstone of every community.

The details vary greatly, and many might argue that comparing communities is like comparing apples to oranges to bananas. To which I say two things:

1: The topic of safe spaces is universal and vitally important to the growth of any community;
2: Apples, oranges, and bananas are all fruit. Deal with it.

So why the aggressive title? Because I am desperately trying to get your attention. Will you hear me out?

Galatea is Not a Default Setting

It seems as if everywhere I go, women and femmes are being held to a desperate standard without our consent. It’s a toxic one, to be sure, and it’s prevalent, but it isn’t a one size fits all. Scarlet Magdalene of Tea Addicted Witch wrote this about toxic objectification in paganism:

The constant putting up women on altars and pedestals, even having them as the altars, the romanticizing and fetishizing of the divine feminine as being the pinnacle of ultimate receptiveness with zero boundaries and something any woman should aspire to attain to–none of it is healthy. None of it provides a safe atmosphere for women, and all of it is attention we absolutely do not want, especially coupled with sexual harassment and a total inability to regard our “No, I’m not interested” as being sacrosanct. (Scarlet Magdalene; The Toxicity Of Objectifying Women In the Craft And Other Occult Trads)

A woman drenched in gold paint, like a melting statue
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

This is not an issue unique to paganism. There are many communities where women and femmes are considered to be there for the accessorizing or agency of men. In my experience, I have seen it most intimately in the writing industries and the gaming industries. But most apt to this discussion is the geek community, where cosplay relates to the concept of embodying a divine goddess.

For those who don’t know, cosplay is when one dresses up as their favorite character (or carpet). Unsurprisingly, many of these cosplayers are femmes who enjoy embodying sexy, powerful, heroic characters. And as has been shown over and over, these women are routinely harassed by the transgressors who occupy those geek spaces.

The theories on why are many and varied, with the bottom line running something like this: the default setting of society is male-focused; women who dress up as embodiments of sexual beings are meant to be idolized and “claimed”; men who grow up in this toxic masculinity culture (that is, damn near all of them) are raised to believe all women are made to be less than men. And powerful women, subconsciously eager to be “equal”, maintain that status quo.

And what is less than is made to appease those more powerful—even if it is ignored or discarded along the way.

What’s even worse than that is how white women are still considered more than people of color. I am not qualified to speak to anything but my experiences, but don’t think this ends with me. I am just the very white tip of an iceberg.

The Idolatry of a Goddess

The thing about gods and goddesses (and other such archetypes) is that they are meant to be worshipped. (Or, in the case of witches along the ages, both revered and feared.) In the western world, from the Tuatha de Danaan to the Greco-Roman pantheons to the Norse and early Germanic gods to Christianity, the concept of the female has been told and retold and magnified and reconfigured through the lens of men that came to dominate all aspects of society. What was once common—genderqueer and queer deities, frex—has been watered down to a footnote in scholarly writings.

And what became more commonplace among male-centric writings was the abject ownership of the female divine.

  • The Rape of Proserpina;
  • Ovid’s tale of Medusa, who was a virginal priestess in Athena’s temple before she was raped by Poseidon (better yet, in a fury for the girl’s transgression in her temple, she turned the priestess into the gorgon we know);
  • Mary, the virgin inseminated without consent;
  • Mary Magdalene, the whore who achieved sainthood after walling herself up in a cave and praying herself to death…

The list is so, so, so much longer, but what it teaches us lingers:

No matter how I feel about it, I am to be envisioned as what somebody else wants. And this is happening to pagan women specifically because of the divine worship associated with the community. Our historical examples are not all great.

About K. C. Alexander
K. C. Alexander is an SF/F author and very proud of smearing her bloody fingers all over the lines. She writes aggressive transhumanist sci-fi, co-wrote Mass Effect: Andromeda: Nexus Uprising, and may or may not be a witch. Like what she does? Want to see more? Check out her tarot reads and behind the scenes glimpses of her new projects. Every offer goes to support an author hard at work. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Sonja Sadovsky

    I like your piece. I absolutely welcome dialogue on these issues. More folks to discuss these things the better.

    One thing I would mention is that you only quoted half of my thought when you claim that the only choice I offered was conform or GTFO? Why cut the paragraph off at voting with feet? The rest of the thought I stated was: We are also empowered to call out injustice when we see it, to name it, and to claim it. This is healthy, and so necessary to weed out the charlatans. None of these are perfect systems but they are worth improving. We need to have honest boundaries and honor them. All voices are necessary and can find expression. It starts with inclusion, not exclusion.

    My question to you is why claim that my article denies people the agency to weed out the abusers? To call out injustice? I clearly endorse that choice. I am not telling anyone to go along to get along. So why frame it that way?

  • Thanks for the questions; you aren’t wrong! I think it’s worth editing, too to note that, although I want to explain why I chose the words I did:

    Primarily, it’s not that you offered “the only choice”, but that the term “vote with our feet” tends to lean more towards folks who don’t feel comfortable, welcome, or empowered at all to call out abuses and transgressions. Voting with my feet, to me as a frequent receiver of the phrase, has come to mean “conform or gtfo”. Or, in another way of phrasing it, “if you can’t hack it, start your own club.” I will absolutely edit my words to indicate that these words have a triggering effect for me (and based on disability circles I frequent, for many).

    The rest of your words as you quoted are strong and powerful. However… they contradict the sections that I felt needed addressing, and so I felt like they muddied the waters. I did address something similar you had written (and agreed with wholeheartedly) regarding the agency to worship as you please. If I may be gently blunt (and I truly mean no ill will), the addition of “We are also empowered to call out injustice when we see it, etc” as you wrote it doesn’t feel as if it supports the other points I pointed out. It feels from a flow perspective to be something added because it is what you truly believe and it needs to be said, but the noted points I pointed to suggested to me that what you truly believe and what you are very close to in terms of behaviors in your circle seem conflicted.

    These in particular left me feeling as if I would not be empowered (as an example) to talk about my discomfort with a community:

    “If we truly believe that we are free to do as we will, then it is simply unethical to expect other folks to change their behaviors and reject the symbols that feed them to satisfy one’s own discomfort.”

    (Again, PLEASE let me know if this is a pronoun error! As it stands, it suggests implicitly that folks who are made uncomfortable by being treated as idols/sexual objects without their consent have no ethical standing to ask the empowered people MAKING them uncomfortable to stop.)

    “[…] I have seen just as many women bring their own insecurities and agendas into these organizations as much as men.”

    With this single sentence, I feel that I have been told that I am ALREADY starting in a hole when it comes to assertions of harassment or discomfort. This stems from centuries of ownership by men, and it stems from actual experiences in this modern world: the victim of sexual harassment has always, ALWAYS been the one to bear the burden of proof. And if they are already thought to be just like the women who bring their own agenda, well… That is not empowerment to change.

    “We need to own our own limitations, our own darkness in order to transmute it and grow.”

    So true! Except in the context of communities that don’t have explicit consent requirements. When the communal concept can be boiled down to “a feeling”, it becomes an issue of “Does she fit into our circle or can she not hack how we do it?” I feel as if this statement says that if my internal limitation of shutting down when a man touches me without permission, then I need to face that directly… somewhere else, and come back when it’s transmuted into something good.

    These elements frame why I didn’t include the paragraph you asked about. On the one hand, you’d already said how you feel about consent and it was great! But the points you continued to make didn’t support those statements. At least, not explicitly.

    One doesn’t have to support or encourage injustice to misstep. “Conform or GTFO” is a very blunt and short way of saying, “It’s possible you aren’t a good fit”, especially in communities where people disagree with how it is being done. Not because the person saying it is a jerk, but because many truly believe that voting with your feet is an excellent solution to these issues. Except for the people who feel forced to go because they can’t or won’t be heard.

    It’s all about how we speak, and what we put up there. That’s the hard part about working within communities and with diverse people.

    [Edited to add: have included that paragraph and explanation, because you are right: absolutely a good thing you said there.]

  • Sonja Sadovsky

    I appreciate your points and thank you the edit. The truth is that these are complex issues and are triggering for sure. But we need to strive to approach these issues as multifaceted components of a whole, which is a challenge when we feel strongly about a particular point. I am really honored that you were moved to respond and took the time to do so. Your piece is very well thought out. And I’m completely flattered that you said my words were dangerous! Means I made your brain itch, so mission accomplished.

    I understand your point on people being labeled as trouble makers or unable to address issues within a group that are valid for fear of being diminished or not taken seriously. This is definitely a pattern that is present in our society, and I think your analogy to the gaming community is apt. There is a lot of crossover in the sci-fi subsets.

    It is not ok to silence folks, I have been on the receiving end of that dynamic. I have been in Covens that have been totally fucked. It’s not a healthy place. I was voluntold that I would be leaving the group, and no one was allowed to come with me, which is a definite abuse of the system.

    However, I have also taught folks who used the group dynamic to inflict their own stuff on the rest for no other purpose but to create negative attention. I have seen people stuck in Ego and claim it is everyone else’s problem to fix. Abuse of the power dynamic goes both ways. It is not strictly a male or female thing, I have seen all of these instances for both.

    This is complicated as there are folks that are also dealing with heavy trauma and are willing to do the healing work, but might need more time or specific attention. This is definitely a delicate area, for both the teacher and the student.

    The challenge that I see a lot is that folks are not willing to own their limitations. As in, many students do not disclose or mitigate their boundaries in order to get involved, and often times teachers have an inflated idea of what they are actually capable of handling in a responsible way. What happens is that both parties end up in a place neither feels comfortable in, and the rest of the participants are forced to deal with the fallout.

    I am all for unpacking this stuff and coming up with ways to better serve our communities in ways that honor everyone’s boundaries and help us all grow. But I feel like part of the challenge is that we are all coming to the conversations from our own perspective and respectively, our own broken bits as well.

    To be blunt, part of the game is finding the folks whose broken bits align with yours to create a better picture, like jigsaw pieces. When this happens it is a wonderful thing. The less successful outcome though is that folks pretend there are no broken bits, or their bits for together in unhealthy ways and bad patterns from our family/past/traumas get replayed.

    It’s heavy. Burnout is high and collateral damage is a thing. These topics should be brought into the light and discussed.

    If we can have convos like this that are healthy, own our stuff, we can determine if group work will be beneficial for all involved. But my point in writing this piece is that we are empowered to change things. We don’t have to be part of systems that do not feed us. We can create our own clans.

    For myself, I have been through some crazy nonsense with some of the groups I have been involved with but if I am honest with myself, I own the fact that it is a coalition of the willing. I am not forced to participate, and if a group determines they don’t want me, well that’s on them. That is not a reflection of my self-worth. Nor yours.

    We could go on forever on these things but I wanted to reach out and state I appreciate your input. It is definitely a compliment to inspire more people to come out and play!

  • WanderingDruid

    Yes, women are seen as sex objects in our society, and it was quite shocking for me to come to the realization to what extend I had internalized that, even when never engaging in sexual acts myself (I am asexual, and because of that, a virgin).

    It took me a long time to come to the realization that asexuality even existed (mainly because in our society we do not have proper open conversations about sexuality as often as we should). Coming to the realization that that was my sexual orientating was very liberated, as it freed me from the notion that I was a ‘failed heterosexual’, because of failing to engage in that kind of relationship.

    And yet, the very moment when I started identifying as asexual, I started questioning my right to call myself a woman. Because… if I am not using my body in a sexual way, then how can I be a proper woman, if I take no part in these mysteries? It took me multiple years and an intervention from the Goddess herself to realize that in denying my own womanhood, I was actively participating in the objectification of women…

  • Sonja Sadovsky

    Women have every right to abstain and there are historical examples of communities of women that did just that. Not everyone was forced into the convent, many wanted to be there to focus on their spirituality, be educated, and supported in communities of like minded females to use their power for a purpose that is not biologically determined. I would recommend that you research the life of Hildegard of Bingen. Yes, catholic figure but so inspiring and a beautiful example of radical female power. Healer, philosopher and saint.

    Never allow yourself to consider yourself less of a woman for your choices. Your sexual power is yours to direct as you Will. You are empowered to move in this world as you choose.

    We are not failures for making other choices. We are individuals and need to support each other. There is more than one way. I honestly believe the Gods are delighted by diversity. It is human who screw up the message.

  • I am nonbinary. I am both genders (oooh, mystical!) but also neither. And I understand completely what you are saying: when there is a great deal of focus on the sexual energies of women, primarily placed as the default on an individual by other people, one begins to wonder… Is my existence right? Am I doing it wrong? When others are looking at me with worshipful or expecting eyes, am I supposed to act like they want? Is my default supposed to be “acquiesce to this pedestal”?

    And if I don’t… will I ever be accepted?

    For me, it’s these feelings that have me itching under the concept of this default setting. I’d like to ask and be asked before I just go around assuming every femme is mine to claim, either by worship or ownership of energy or even “woman”.

    Your Goddess needs no thumbs up from me, she’s got your back. 🙂 And so do I. Thanks for commenting. You do good work.

  • This is why my main point (and always is in every conversation about this) is about being upfront from the get go: the topic of consent.

    Just by changing the default to “How should I treat you?”, so, so much of this would be a) not as confusing as people think; b) easier to manage when a misunderstanding comes up; and c) putting the power back where it belongs: the rights of individuals to control their OWN energies.

    It’s the easiest of all decisions to make and enforce, but so many communities just balk. Why?

  • Timely piece. Very well written. In another community I inhabit these conversations about what is a person’s comfort level are called negotiations, because both parties are negotiating to get what they want while remaining safe and sane.

  • This reminds me that the kink scene is one of the best examples for consent there ever is. Not gonna lie. Not sure if that’s your community, but if it’s not, so good to hear more communities do this.

  • It is a shame that certain other groups can’t learn from the kink scene about negotiation. Its amusing that some claim it ruins the “mystery” to have a proper negotiation. It is horrifying that those same people completely lack a concept of proper and responsible after care as well. Yes kink is the other community I refer to. I learned much about communication and my responsibility to others from it.