I believe in being sex positive. Not just in the Pagan community–I’d like to see more positive, healthy behaviors across the world. I hear Pagans talking about wanting that too, but there’s a few elephants in the room. And until we acknowledge some of them, we aren’t going to have a healthy sex dynamic in our community.
First, what does “Sex positive” mean? Wikipedia says: “The sex-positive movement is a social movement which promotes and embraces open sexuality with few limits beyond an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of informed consent.” The idea is that sex is healthy, and that there’s nothing wrong with being sexual and seeking pleasure, assuming the sex is safe/consensual. This article’s a good overview too.
It’s sometimes easier to understand a concept via its opposite. Sexually negative culture sees sex as evil ,unless for procreation. Seeking sexual pleasure is “bad” and typically sees homosexuality, polyamory, BDSM, or any alternate sexual expression as “bad.”
I write a lot about shadow work…and this is a huge cultural shadow. Any time there’s a basic human need, and our culture deems that need as “bad,” we end up with this need that’s shoved it into our mental/psychic dungeon. We need it but are ashamed by that need.
So the pendulum swings to the sex positive movement/sexual liberalism which was adopted early on by the Pagan community/subculture. (I refer to Pagan community as a subculture, since Paganism isn’t any one religion with no single ethical dogma). However, then you have Pagans trying to shrug off the the overculture, and there becomes almost an over-emphasis on sexual freedom.
Here’s the sad truth; Pagans who are trying to be sex positive are usually stuck with the same cultural baggage because they grew up in the dominant culture. Worse, some Pagans try to shrug that baggage off and instead end up actually engaging in sexual harassment and unethical sexual behavior.
Here’s some things that aren’t sex positive:
- Sex positive does not mean you must fuck everybody in your group.
- Sex positive does not mean it’s ok for people to pressure you into getting naked.
- Sex positive does not mean you have to be ok with having sex in front of other people
- Sex positive does not mean it’s ok to aggressively flirt with or physically touch anyone just because you think they’re hot.
- Sex positive does not mean it’s ok to use your position as a group leader or teacher to get people to have sex with you.
- Sex positive does not mean that you have to dress sexually all the time or have lots of sex.
- Having lots of (consensual) sex does not mean that you are less deserving of respect.
Why Aren’t We Sex Positive? How can we actually embrace sex as healthy and positive without it going into the dark side? Pagans try to embrace healthy sexuality but we’re still stuck with a lot of the same cultural shadows. I chose to write about the topic of sex activism for two reasons.
- Recently I’ve traveled all over the country teaching, and the same thing has come up a lot; people ask me how to deal with a group leader who are sexually harassing people, or I hear about group leaders and teachers who have seduced group members, including minors.
- I just published my first romance novel, and I realize that when I tell Pagans about this, I’m actually a little embarrassed. When I have my book out on my table for sale with the half-naked guy on the cover, I realize that I’m hesitant to say, “Yeah, I wrote that.” I consider myself to be a pretty sex positive person, and I was surprised by how awkward I feel telling people I write romance.
Sex and Cultural Shaming
The latter example exemplifies how Pagans want to be sex positive, but we still have cultural baggage; I found to my surprise that I still do, too. I’ve seen people who know me as a teacher of Pagan leadership, ethics, and ritual arts. When I tell them I have one romance novel out and more being published soon–I can literally see their little respect-meter dropping. I feel like I’m going to be taken less seriously as a Pagan leader.
I made the choice to not use a separate pen name intentionally because I thought that would say, “I’m embarrassed to be writing romance,” but the truth is that—much to my chagrin—I am.
Sexuality and Lack of Respect
Taking this a step further, I find I walk a tightrope when it comes to sexual ethics. I work hard to promote a sex positive environment in groups and events that I organize. Whatever your preferences, genders…as long as it’s safe and consensual, that’s cool. However, at the same time, as a leader I feel an intense pressure to not be oversexualized myself. When I’m choosing what to wear at a class or a festival, I feel the pressure that if I dress too sexy, then I will be seen as promiscuous and thusly, not respected as a Pagan leader and teacher.
I’m essentially playing into the dominant cultural expectations of sex = not professional.
Actually, I face the same challenge with weight. I am an activist against fat shaming, but at the same time, I recognize that to be taken seriously as a facilitator, I need to be as fit as possible. I won’t go into that as I’ve posted on weight before, however, it’s worth pointing out that there is a double stigma against people who are overweight that are also blatantly sexual.
Overall, I still face the same judgments within the Pagan community that I do in the dominant culture. I have to be careful about what I wear, what I say, what I write. I have seen (ethically) overtly sexual folks who teach good stuff who’ve been dismissed within the community because they have been deemed a hussy/slut/man-whore, or other shaming words. When folks come out as being polyamorous, into BDSM, or who aren’t shy about sleeping around, I have seen other Pagans judge them and dismiss their wisdom.
There are many Facebook memes detailing (tongue in cheek) how to prevent rape, offering advice like, “When you see a woman dressed in a sexy skirt, don’t rape her.” They’re a response to the institutionalized idea that women who dress sexy are “asking for it.” That to prevent rape, women should dress conservatively and not distract men. What makes the slut shaming concept tricky is that it’s linked into the pressure the dominant culture puts on women to dress in a sexy way, to oversexualize women.
The whole “debate” about Mylie whats-her-name’s performance is rife with this issue. On one side, the idea that dressing like a slut denigrates women and she should be a better role model, ie, should dress more conservatively. On the other side, the idea that she’s dressing like that to cater to what’s expected of her as a successful star, and she can’t be a star without oversexualizing herself.
It’s a twisted mess of spaghetti, isn’t it? Chicken or egg?
There’s kind of this subtle cultural assumption that, if you’ve had an abortion, you acted irresponsibly. Unless you were raped, then abortion’s ok. I hear pro-choice folks make this judgment. You might notice that almost nobody, even in the so-called sex positive Pagan community, talks about having abortions. There’s too much of a stigma. It’s only in the past years that I’ve seen women even talking about miscarriages.
Shaming of Alternative Sexualities
I won’t belabor this, but I’ve taught in a number of Pagan groups all over where I was surprised to hear Pagans referring to homosexuality in a derogatory way, calling Transgender people freaks, or having other similar judgments about people who are Polyamorous or into BDSM.
So here we have these issues where Pagans, and the Pagan community subculture, really isn’t as embracing of sex positive attributes as we’d like.
Pagan Leaders and Sexual Ethics: What Behavior is Acceptable?
Let’s go to the other side of the pendulum, because there’s a lot of unethical behavior out there that exacerbates the non-sex-positive judgmentalism. I see a lot of Pagans pressuring Pagans to be more sexualized than they’re comfortable with, Pagan leaders preying on folks in their group to get them to have sex.
“You’ll get used to it, once you ease up.”
I’ve had community leaders say that to me. The context was, I was indicating that I didn’t really want to have sex by the fire in front of everyone, or be naked dancing around the fire, that I preferred privacy for such things. And, that I really didn’t want to watch such things.
I was told that I’d get over being such a prude.
Sex positive does not mean I should be pressured to engage in experiences that I’m not comfortable with. In fact, that’s quite the opposite, that’s peer pressure and shaming. Being sex positive means, I support someone’s choice to not dress in a way that is sexy, not get naked, not have lots of sex.
This is a multifold problem. There’s the leader engaging in the harassment…but then there’s the community that sweeps it under the rug. At a recent workshop, a Pagan woman said that she was experiencing unwelcome sexual advances from a noted leader in her local community, and she wanted to find ways to try and change that behavior without causing an interstellar war between herself and this man.
Sadly, I know several group leaders in her area who fit that profile, one of whom has a consistent reputation of being “a lech.” “He’ll hit on any young, pretty woman,” men and women will say with a fond smile.
That’s a problem.
If you’ve never been sexually harassed, or don’t understand why it’s a problem, I invite you to read this blog post about a former editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivkovic. It turns out that Zivkovik was sexually harassing women—using his position of power to flirt inappropriately with people trying to engage professionally with him. This is a blog by the whistle-blower, and there are a number of comments and other posts that offer examples.
This could come right out of some Pagan communities I’ve heard of. I’ve had older group leaders who were touchy-feely, trying to hug me, touch my hand, flirting with me in a way that made me very uncomfortable, and they don’t stop when you give the “I’m uncomfortable” signals. I do the same thing many of these women describe—shrinking away, hoping it’ll end, and then ignoring/marginalizing the behavior after.
How do I call out a well-known teacher/leader on their behavior without turning myself into the unpopular whistle-blower/drama llama? Without breaking up a group?
It’s important to understand the concept of cognitive dissonance. We (humans) have a hard time believing that a beloved leader could be “bad” because they’re nice, they’ve have done so much for community. Zivkovic was beloved by coworkers. They couldn’t believe that he was doing this….Except, he was. It goes back to cultural shadow. We want sex, but it’s “bad.” We learn maladaptive strategies to try and meet our needs. Those fail, so we do it again and again.
To eliminate sexual harassment, there’s the tactical phase of actually standing up and confronting the harasser so that they can be removed of a position of power or at least given oversight, and hopefully getting them help. The larger issue is, if we had a sex positive culture, we wouldn’t be ashamed of wanting sex in the first place and engaging in maladaptive strategies to try and get sex.
That’s the work of generations, but it is the world I want to live in.
Predatory Teachers and Coven/Group Leaders
Generally they target younger/newbie/more vulnerable attendees. Sometimes they’re the creepy folks cruising events hitting on people. Often, they are the nice, shiny leader that you want to be around. They are group leaders and teachers who intentionally use their position of power to pressure impressionable members to have sex. These are the coven leaders that tell group members that they’ll need to have sex in order to get anywhere in the coven. They use the grooming strategies that abusers do. I’ve written an article on my regular blog to explore this topic. If you think that this doesn’t happen, think again. I hear about with disturbing frequency. Here’s an excellent overview of cult behavior in Pagan groups.
When I travel and teach I can’t even tell you how many people have told me they’ve been in an abusive, sexual dynamic with a coven leader/teacher, or that they’d been pressured for sex. I’ve heard of coven leaders raping coven members. Just this past trip I heard about a coven HP and HPS who had minors in their coven. They informed these minors (13-15) that they had to have sex with the HP or HPS in order to be initiated. It’s sad, hurtful, and disgusting to hear about how many Pagans have had this experience.
This is not sex positive. Pressuring people to have sex is not being sex positive.
Here’s my take: If you’re a group leader, coven leader, teacher–if you’re in a position of power–it’s unethical for you to have sex with people you’re teaching and leading. Period. One exception would be a sex temple; if the group bills itself as a sex temple, that’s a little different. I’m honestly on the fence about groups that require sexual initiation; I want to respect individual traditions, but this gets abused. It also ruffles my transgender-homosexual-ally feathers, because most do the “HPS initiates men, HP initiates women” gender-binary. (That’s a tangent worthy of a separate post.)
Back to power dynamics, I believe it’s possible to grow a healthy peer relationship vs. a power-over dynamic, but this takes time and intention. It’s not easy. I’ve worked hard with people who met me as a teacher to shift to a peer dynamic as friends/colleagues.
Though, even when people within a coven or group are dating, there are group dynamics. Romantically-involved covenmates is actually the primary conflict in one of my romance novellas; I chose that theme because it’s so commonly the cause of coven breakups and “witchwars.”
Dating Within the Community
I have a policy that I don’t date people I met as students or ritual participants. Imagine…I’ve just facilitated a deep, transformative, ecstatic ritual. We’ve gone to the underworld, faced our shadows. Participants have big cathartic moments. After the ritual, a participant comes up to me. I find him attractive. He asks me out. Though he is hitting on me, is it ethical for me to date him?
Ritual participants are in a vulnerable headspace, and with students there’s a power dynamic. Using your position as a teacher, priest/ess, or leader is slimy, unethical, and I believe it’s an abuse of power.
I’ll date someone I’ve met as a peer–for instance, another teacher, a group leader. It’s possible one day I might meet someone while teaching where we share a mutual attraction, and then we work to establish a peer dynamic, but that takes years and it’s walking an ethical tightrope. I lean toward making sure I’m not taking advantage of someone. I need to be off what’s called the “Priest/ess Pedestal” for anyone I want to have a meaningful friendship with, much less something romantic.
Handling Sexual Misconduct
To address my elephant in the room, my former teaching partner/romantic partner used his position as a Pagan leader to date/sleep with students, ritual participants, and women he met in context of teaching at festivals. He cheated on me, and on other partners before me and after me. He lied and stole money, too. Lots of people felt used and abused by his behavior. There isn’t a good way within our community to handle this sort of thing. Those who have been stuck in an abusive situation where no laws were broken have the choice:
- Speak out and risk your own reputation by people yelling at you for being a drama llama/starting a witch war.
- Or, be silent and complicit in continuing, and then hear about others that person hurts.
I opted to speak out. Some thought less of me for a while until it came out that he’d done it again, and again. Women came forward to tell me they’d stopped coming to Chicago events because he was hitting on them and they felt uncomfortable. The pattern became clear, as it did for the editor at Scientific American. People using any excuse to have sex/be sexual is not healthy sexuality.
If one party pressures or manipulates the other into sex, it’s not sex positive. There’s also the mistaken idea that if we don’t talk about this stuff, that it won’t happen. It couldn’t possibly happen in our groups, could it?
So What is Sex Positive?
How do we get there? How do we build a culture of people that see sex as a healthy expression of humanity, or, that can choose to not have sex and not be judged for it? How do we build a culture of people who are free to have sex with people of any gender, any relationship shape, without judgment? Yet, a culture of people that isn’t obsessed with sexuality and trying to pressure others into being oversexualized? It’s a tall order. And I think it starts with talking about sex, talking about pleasure, talking about our shadows.
Talking Frankly About Sex, Pleasure, and Health
People tell me I’m a prude because I don’t like sexually-themed jokes, but when I talk frankly about sex, they blush and try to change the topic. I often speak frankly about sex, bodily fluids, and topics that many people tend to shy away from. I don’t do this to gross people out, nor do I do it to oversexualize a situation.
I do it because I believe if we actually talk about this stuff, we can take away its shadow power. If we want pleasure to not be a sin, then we have to talk actually talk about pleasure. Similarly, there are so many basic sexual health issues that are not openly discussed because there’s a stigma. Periods, miscarriages, abortions, difficulty with orgasm, erectile dysfunction, difficulty with lubrication, cysts, endometriosis, pain during sex, hymens, birth control …the list is tremendous. There’s things that we don’t talk about and that aren’t taught in sex ed.
Being sex positive means talking about sexual health, but we’re usually too ashamed to do this. Every time I talk to people about sex very frankly, I am amazed at the things I learn. Or when I go through something and then a nurse says, “Oh, yeah. That happens.” So many things I wish that I knew.
Confronting our Assumptions, and Standing for Ethics
Sex positive is when we work to confront our assumptions. Just because someone is Polyamorous doesn’t mean they’re the creepy person trying to get laid unethically. But, it also doesn’t mean they aren’t. It’s not about someone’s sexual label, it’s about their actions and their integrity. We have to look at who we are, at what is ok and what isn’t in our community.
What do we expect of our leaders, of each other? What behavior is acceptable, and what isn’t? What do we do when a Pagan leader acts in a reprehensible way? How do we hold them accountable?
How do we discern from gossip and power-mongering and actual whistleblowing? I don’t have answers to these questions, but these are at some of the core of what it takes to be truly sex positive.
To talk about the difficult things, the shadows in our community that we wish weren’t there but yet are, because we’re human.
Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.