Racism, Rape Culture, and Pagan Events

3210478_xl–Shauna Aura Knight

Having just taught workshops at three of the big four Pagan conferences, and having attended a number of large Pagan festivals, I wanted to offer a bit of context for how some of these larger events have handled issues of social justice. While these events don’t represent the entire Pagan community, they do reflect issues and trends that ripple out to Pagans across the globe.

I’ve noticed a definite contrast in how specific events/communities are dealing with issues of racism, rape culture, harassment, cultural appropriation, transphobia, and other related issues. Some communities and events are actively embracing dialogue, and others don’t address these issues at all.

Running Pagan Events
First, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t go to these events, or other festivals and events, for that matter. Or that any of these organizers are “bad.” I fully believe in change from within, and if there are events where there is behavior going on that you aren’t ok with, the best way to effect change within an event is to be a part of the community as an attendee or as a volunteer or organizer.

All of the events that I mention here are events I support and teach at.

Some of these are issues that many Pagan organizers aren’t even aware are problems within their communities and events. Sometimes on the surface everything seems fine, and event organizers may not know that some attendees are struggling with racism, transphobia, other bigotry and discrimination, or sexual harassment. 

Let’s be clear; running events is a tough job. Every time I’ve run a public ritual or a smaller conference or other event, there is always negative feedback from someone. I respect anyone who has stepped up to organize an event, whether that’s a local public ritual or a four-day conference or week-long festival. It’s mostly done by overworked volunteers who have to field a lot of questions and complaints.

I write this because I want to see our events and communities grow stronger, and I think that the overlapping Pagan communities are facing a lot of these issues all at once; these issues are hitting a kind of critical mass. While that can (and does) mean difficult conversations and some conflict, it also presents tremendous opportunity for growth.

Last time I posted on Pagan Activist, I wrote about racism issues that came up at Pantheacon, the largest Pagan conference that takes place in San Jose, California. A week after Pantheacon I was teaching at ConVocation in Detroit, Michigan, and just last weekend I was a guest presenter for Paganicon in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

So often these topics become doom and gloom; I know I often post about topics where there’s no easy answer, no clear path to what would make the situation better. In this case, I’m excited to say that Paganicon is, for me, a shining a beacon of hope for how to approach these difficult topics. The Paganicon organizers included a lot of risky programming to address some of these specific community challenges. They specifically asked me to pull together a description for a panel on sex/ethics/consent/power. They held another panel on cultural appropriation. And, at the last minute, they worked to shift their schedule to add in a panel on #BlackLivesMatter. I was also invited into their process for the new safety policy http://www.paganicon.org/safety-policy-2015/ and asked to offer feedback, along with several others.

What was exciting about this is that Paganicon was actively soliciting this kind of programming, as well as proactively working on a safety policy.

I was honored to sit on three panels discussing controversial issues at Paganicon. I always have a love/hate relationship with panels; we take on the difficult topics, but it’s not like we (the panelists, or the participants) are necessarily going to come up with any clear solutions in the brief time allotted. Nevertheless, I think that it was important just to have the topics on the program, to have people who attended, and to establish a safety policy and process for dealing with formal complaints on behavior.

I’m impressed with the Paganicon organizers’ willingness to address such topics, and I hope to see more of this in the future. I also have found the Paganicon organizers willing to make their process transparent, and I feel that transparent process is crucial for the work of building healthy, sustainable communities and events.

Pantheacon is a far bigger, and far older, event. Typically, the older the event, and the more complicated, the harder it is for an event to make changes or address issues under the surface. Nevertheless, Pantheacon has worked to address some of these crucial topics. My understanding is that the Pantheacon organizers have adjusted their harassment policy in recent years as issues have come up. Here’s there current policy: https://pantheacon.com/wordpress/con-policies/anti-harassment-policy/ as well as their policy on limited-access events (in other words, women-only or men-only, etc.) at the conference: https://pantheacon.com/wordpress/con-policies/pantheacon-policy-on-limited-access-events/

This past year there were a number of social justice topics addressed at Pantheacon including cultural appropriation, resources for younger leaders (and addressing some of the ageism and discrimination against younger leaders), gender (and gender binary) issues within the Pagan community, and a panel on the anthology Bringing Race to the Table. As I mentioned in my last post, there was also a session added during the conference itself to give voice to the Pagans of Color to speak up about the racism they had endured at the event, and within the broader Pagan community.

ConVocation in Detroit is the one conference I presented at where these issues were not discussed. At least, not in the approved programming. I ran into two of the ConVocation staff/organizers early in the conference and they referenced my blog post about the racism issues at Pantheacon. They said something along the lines of, “I’m just astonished, we don’t have racism issues like that here.”

And here’s where we get to the difficult part of this type of conversation. With any of these intense issues–racism, transphobia, sexual abuse, harassment, or other related issues–it can often seem like these things aren’t a problem, when in fact there are things going on under the surface. Most people (not just Pagans) will avoid addressing an issue until a fire has to be put out.

During ConVocation, a number of participants and presenters took me aside to talk about issues of sex/ethics/abuse/consent/rape culture. In specific, they wanted to know why I wasn’t speaking on those topics, given that I write about them, and given that there were some issues in the local (Michigan) community in the past year that prompted some intense discussion on those topics in the ConVocation Facebook group. As I talked to more people, I discovered that there were a number of workshops and panels that had been proposed on those topics, but none of them made it into the program.

In fact, there were no workshops or panels addressing those topics at all.

ConVocation itself doesn’t have a specific safety policy; they have a list of rules printed in their program book but there isn’t a clear definition of what might constitute harassment. http://www.convocation.org/about/rules-of-convocation

Now–I’m not here to just pick on ConVocation, because ConVo is, I think, the status quo as far as most Pagan events out there. Most events have a vague policy about safety/harassment, if they have anything at all. And most people I know will work to avoid dealing with controversial topics til they are forced to by circumstances.

What I do want to say about ConVocation is that I notice perhaps just a bit more of the ambient physical boundary pushing at the event than I do at other Pagan events.

When I write about harassment, abuse, and rape culture, one of the long-term solutions is to grow community members with better boundaries and respect for boundaries. This makes it a lot easier to determine whether someone’s touchy-feely, or whether someone’s sexually harassing you. When there’s a very sex-pressuring environment, or there’s a lot of ambient touchy-feely physical boundary violations, it can be difficult to tell.

I’ve written on my main blog about how sexual harassment proliferates in the Pagan community because many of us don’t want to be the prude/party pooper/stick in the mud.

Two of the incidents I wrote about in that previous blog post were things that happened at ConVocation. One was when my cleavage was sprayed with whipped cream without my permission and my friends told their other friend to lick it off. Which he did, while I kind of sat there in numb shock.

At ConVocation I’ve had incidences of people coming up to me from behind to hug me, meaning I couldn’t see who was touching me or consent to it.I’ve also had a situation where a woman who was significantly larger than me, and who was extremely drunk, was full-body leaning on me and rubbing her boobs on me, and leaning like this on other women. I couldn’t quite tell if she was actually flirting because she was drunk enough that she didn’t make sense. Everyone else seemed content to just try to wriggle out of this woman’s grasp and shake their heads at her behavior, but in retrospect, I wish I’d thought to flag someone from security.

In fact, this year at ConVocation I had to consent-check someone almost immediately on arriving. I was setting up my artwork in the art show area and another artist had made items out of wood including spoons. I said something like, “Nice spoons,” and she said, “They are love taps. See?” And before I could say anything, she had tapped me with the spoon. I managed to say “Please don’t,” but she’d already tapped me by that point.

She immediately apologized, and I suggested that she might ask for consent before touching people.

Now–do I think any of these folks are “bad” for this? Nope. I think it’s ambient cultural behavior that we get acclimated to. I do think, however, that it’s important to address it. To discuss boundaries and consent, and rape culture and harassment, and what behavior is appropriate at a given event. Different events will have different rules and regs, but that’s where a safety policy comes into play to make clear what behavior is acceptable or not acceptable, and what the procedure is to speak up about behavior, as well as what the consequences are for behavior deemed inappropriate.

It’s worth pointing out the irony that as I was addressing some of my concerns with a ConVocation staffer, someone grabbed his ass. While he seemed totally ok with that, I have to say that I witness a lot of people touching other people without their consent. I don’t just see it at ConVocation, I see it all over the place, I’ve just personally witnessed or experienced more of it there.

What I hope to see in the future at ConVocation, and at other festivals and events, is a more specific safety policy along the lines of what Paganicon has crafted. What I also hope to see are more events that take on the difficult topics and actually address them, whether that’s racism, sexual harassment and abuse, consent culture vs. rape culture, transgender and genderfluid inclusion, cultural appropriation, and more.

Pagan Spirit Gathering
Pagan Spirit Gathering is another event that has at times worked to sidestep some of the challenging issues or controversial topics. Last year (in the wake of the Kenny Klein debacle) when I proposed a leadership workshop on the topic of addressing abuse in the community at Pagan Spirit Gathering, I was told that this would be handled by Circle Sanctuary ministers. In fact, there was only one workshop that addressed the topic at all, and it was focused more on pastoral counseling.

PSG doesn’t have an extensive safety/harassment policy detailing what constitutes harassment, though I understand that at least one person has been escorted off the property for poor behavior almost every year of PSG. I’m unsure how many of those incidents were related to any kind of sexual harassment, but having been a presenter at PSG since 2009, I can attest to the willingness of the Guardians (security and safety team) and staff in addressing behavior and removing someone if needed. Here’s their comprehensive rules and regs: https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/pagan-spirit-gathering/guidelines

I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that back in 2012, PSG hosted Ruth Barrett as a presenter. Ruth offered the Women’s Ritual (one of the main rituals at PSG) as a “women born women” ritual, excluding transgender women from the ritual. When a trans woman and other allies stepped up and spoke out about this, there was an attempt to address this during the week of PSG, but I know of several trans people, and allies, who haven’t felt safe returning to PSG after that. While Pantheacon worked to address their gender inclusion issues proactively, PSG hasn’t followed up on this.

In essence, what I mean is that one event might do a really good job at ABC issue, and not a great job at DEF or XYZ issue.

Going Forward
What does all of this mean? As I stated at the beginning, it’s not that any of these events (or their organizers) are “bad.” It’s that social justice issues have become a hotbutton in the larger world around us, and Pagans have had to wake up and realize that they are an issue within our communities as well. I know so many Pagans who say, “Pagans are tolerant of other religions, we’re welcoming of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, we’re not racist, we don’t have issues of rape or sexual harassment,” etc., etc.

It’s not true.

We have all of those issues and more. And, while your initial reaction when these issues crop up at your favorite conference or festival might be to cringe, it’s actually a blessing in disguise. If you’re into Tarot, the Tower card is a fantastic example. The Tower is struck by lightning, which can be a traumatic event, but it’s necessary to clear out the structure that keeps us from what we actually want. The Tower isn’t a structure we want to keep. 

We don’t want racism in our communities. We don’t want sexual harassment or rape. We don’t want bigotry and discrimination. When conflict arises and people speak out and say, “Yes, these are issues here,” sure, it means that there might be some uncomfortable conflict. However, it also means that there’s the potential to address those issues and build a stronger event and a more sustainable community.

Just because everything seems ok, doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Addressing those problems isn’t always easy but it’s necessary if we’re going to have the kinds of events and communities that feed our souls.

Activist vs. Antagonist
I challenge you to hold the paradox; are you willing to speak up to your local event organizer or community leader about things you have seen, or difficult topics you’d like to see addressed? And, can you do this in a way that holds compassion and respect for the difficult work that event organizers are doing? There’s a big difference between being an activist (standing up and speaking up to bring about a positive change) and being an antagonist, the difficult person who causes problems.

If you’re looking for some assistance in determining whether or not to speak up, and how to speak up as an activist vs. an antagonist, there may be some resources for you here on one of my previous Pagan Activist posts: http://paganactivist.com/2013/05/14/pagan-leadership-dissension-transgender-activism-ethics-and-community/

And for those of you who are event organizers; are you willing to hear feedback about your events and consider shifting how things are done?

Being in community is hard work. The communities and events I’ll be gravitating toward in the coming years are the ones that commit to safety policies, the ones that tackle the difficult issues, the ones that strive for social justice and healthy boundaries.

What can each of us do to help support social justice work within our communities and events?

9 thoughts on “Racism, Rape Culture, and Pagan Events

  1. Darren Hobbs

    Holy crap, is this behavior considered typical of Pagan events?? This would likely get people hospitalized at a Heathen event. Maybe the problem isn’t boundary issues, safety policies or “awareness”. Maybe the problem is encouraging a culture akin to a hippie love-in. I find all this completely bizarre.

  2. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    I don’t know if it’s “typical.” I mean, it vastly depends upon the event. What is worth pointing out is that PSG, which is the only clothing optional event of the four events I mention, is probably the one with the most family-friendly vibe. I do wish they had a more specific safety/harassment policy outlined, but that being said, the fact that there is a staff of Guardians on hand for people to ask for help, as well as other avenues to ask for help (such as Psyche’s Grotto, where people can check in if they need a little support during the grind of the week-long event) contributes to that.

    Here are a few other articles I’ve written on related topics, if it’s of use.


  3. Leona H.

    I have personally never been to one of these events (I like out in the middle of the country and do not have the financial means yet to go) but I have been witness to some of these issues in the small gathering I have gone to over the years. Many people tend to idealize our community because we do promote tolerance and acceptance but we are still people who are subject to the messages of our parent society. I would definitely like to see these topics being discussed more and actively working to solve these issues for a stronger community! I would like to help too but I am not sure how besides re-posting and discussing it from here. Thank you for the article!

  4. Carol Rivermoon

    Darren Hobbs, Many of us Enjoy the atmosphere akin to a “Hippy love-in” which often characterizes Pagan festivals. While I consider myself one of those ‘touchy-feely’ folk, it’s usually with people I a.) know from previous Fests, or b.) Have been talking with. If in doubt, I Ask. IMO, the only situation in which someone =might= claim license to spray whipped cream onto someone else’s bosom, would be at a “Fun with Whipped Cream !” workshop (playshop?) and I’d still ask first.

  5. Pingback: Harrassment, Bigotry, Safety Policies, and Changing Culture | Pagan Activist

  6. kimmacy1

    Hi Shauna!
    Many years ago, I went to our local Pagan festival for the first and last time. I was extremely disturbed by the behavior of an older man with a young girl who was maybe 13 or 14. He pulled her onto his lap and exuded sexual energy while she giggled and blushed. She said something about him being her “High Priest”. I just stared at him. He knew what he was doing and I knew what he was doing and she was oblivious probably due to her age or her deep desire to be accepted. There was also a tent where some female of unknown age was publicly receiving lover after lover and loudly moaning in a totally fake way. A line of men stood outside of the tent, waiting their turn, making horrid comments reeking of misogyny. Used condoms littered sacred space for the Divine Feminine. There were children all over the place; there was no way I would ever expose my children to any of this behavior. The focus was less on connecting with magic and ceremony and Spirit and definitely centered on a F*ck Fest. That’s fine-just promote it as what it is rather than pretending like it is a spiritual gathering.

  7. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    Kim, I’m so sorry to hear that. And I have a feeling I know which event you’re referring to. If memory serves, you and I met years ago when I was briefly in KC organizing an event, Keepers of the Flame. I went to one of your workshops, this would have been in probably January of 2008. Glad to reconnect with you, even if it’s via an unpleasant topic.

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