Harrassment, Bigotry, Safety Policies, and Changing Culture

4333805_xxl2It’s a sad truth that harassment and discrimination occurs within the Pagan community. However, I want to call some positive attention to several Pagan events that have adopted safety and anti-harassment policies at their events. While a lot of Pagans tell me, “Duh, of course we’d kick someone out for racist comments/sexual misconduct/gay bashing,” the truth is, this is not always the case. And further, some issues–such as discrimination against transgender people–have only recently become something that more Pagans are even aware of, much less working to address.

First, a quick aside. This is my last regular post for Pagan Activist. I’ve been absolutely thrilled that Michelle invited me to write here, and I think the authors here have done a lot to bring attention to activism issues within the Pagan community. That being said, I’m blogging a lot of places now, plus trying to finish writing books, so my plate is pretty full. I’ll post links to ways you can keep up with my writing at the bottom of this post.

I won’t stop writing about issues of activism, however, I feel weird admitting that my life has come to the point where I have to plan “anxiety days” for when I post about controversial topics. There’s the blogging axiom, “Don’t read the comments,” except when you post a blog…you automatically get every comment sent to your inbox.

And as much as it pains me, within the Pagan community we have plenty of trolls, racists, homophobes, misogynists, and other bigots. This is why I’m a big advocate for Pagan groups and event organizers to adopt safety policies. I believe that it’s one important step in shifting our culture.

What’s a Safety Policy?

Sometimes these are referred to as a harassment policy, or an anti-harassment policy. In general, though, it’s a set of agreements. I talk a lot about establishing group agreements when I teach leadership classes. The essence is, you’re making clear:

  1. What behavior is not acceptable,
  2. What the process is to complain about behavior, and
  3. What the consequences are for that behavior

In the wake of the news that Kenny Klein was arrested for possession of child pornography, and the resulting fallout that included several people speaking up to indicate that Klein had attempted (or succeeded) in molesting them when they were minors, there was a lot of discussion about how to shift the disturbing trend that was made clear: The Pagan community has a history of sweeping abuse claims under the rug. Cara Schultz from the Wild Hunt posted an article about how science fiction/fantasy conventions are dealing with the same trend, specifically, by adopting safety policies.

Similarly, in the wake of the transgender exclusion that happened at Pantheacon, Pantheacon has adapted their policy. I’ll sum up the Pantheacon incidents as best I understand them (and if I got some of the specific details wrong, do feel free to comment or message me and I’ll make a correction).

  • Back in I think 2009 there was a “women only” ritual hosted at Pantheacon which did not specify in the program book blurb that only “women born women” would be allowed to the skyclad ritual. Several transgender women were turned away at the door.
  • Pantheacon altered their policy to indicate that any exclusions must be listed in the blurb for the ritual.
  • The following year, Z Budapest led another “women only” ritual, this time specifying “genetic women only” in the blurb.
  • Pantheacon shifted their policy to indicate that no programming offered officially at Pantheacon could discriminate in this way based on someone’s race, sexuality, or gender identity.
  • Pantheacon further clarified their policy that private rituals in hotel rooms or hospitality suites are not subject to the hotel policies, however, any ritual that has an open invitation to conference attendees must abide by the policies.

This is an excellent overview of how a safety policy can adapt over time as new challenges are encountered. Here’s their current Anti-Harassment Policy, and the Limited Access Events Policy.

Paganicon/Twin Cities Pagan Pride

Paganicon is the newest large Pagan conference, and they have been very progressive as far as offering programming on controversial social justice topics, as well as adopting a clear Safety Policy that goes along with their General Guidelines. I was honored to be asked to look over it and offer feedback and I think it offers a great, comprehensive overview of what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable, some of the philosophies and legalities behind that, and what the process is for reporting harassment.

Pagan Spirit Gathering

Pagan Spirit Gathering has also just adopted an Inclusiveness Policy, and I believe that their specific Safety Policy is also new, or at least, the details have been recently expanded. PSG has done an excellent job of making their General Guidelines available which are very useful in determining what’s appropriate, and inappropriate, at the gathering. In fact, even something as simple as clearly noting who’s in charge and who is anchoring what areas is an important part of running a group or event, and ensuring event safety. The event staff at PSG has (to my knowledge) done a fairly good job of ensuring respectful behavior particularly around the issues of physical harassment, and their on site staff is absolutely willing to remove someone from the grounds for inappropriate behavior.

I mentioned in a previous post that PSG and Circle Sanctuary had never fully addressed the transgender exclusion at the 2012 Women’s Ritual, which was facilitated by Ruth Barrett, so I’m really glad to see that PSG has now adopted a formal policy that will allow transgender people to self-identify their gender.

But Pagans are Morally Superior!

I run into a lot of Pagans who seem to believe that Pagans are, by their nature, morally superior to everyone in the dominant culture and thus, that we don’t need safety policies. (That idea a myth sometimes held by those who are discriminated against, bullied, or abused, but that’s a whole tangent in itself.) The gist is that I hear from a lot of Pagans who tell me, “Well Pagans aren’t racist!” or, “Pagans welcome gays and lesbians too!” or “Pagans would never abuse anyone, if they did they aren’t truly Pagans, all Pagans believe in harm none!” or “Pagans are tolerant of all religions!”

I used to believe all that too. 

Pagans have a lot of the same ambient, systemic racism and homophobia as the rest of our toxic culture. Despite the fact that the Pagan community tends to be empowering for women, we still have misogyny within our communities. We still exist in rape culture. We still sweep sexual harassment by our leaders under the rug.

While a safety policy doesn’t end this, it does provide a way to address that behavior within the confines of a specific group or event. A safety policy isn’t a quick fix. It’s a commitment to envisioning the future, to being the change you want to see in the world.

There’s a leadership axiom that I wish more Pagan groups would embrace. It’s not if, it’s when.

What I mean by that is, it’s not “if” you’ll have an issue of harassment, it’s “when,” and it’s far better to have a policy in place for what you’ll do before it happens. There’s nothing worse than seeing a disaster unfold and thinking, “Well, what do I do here?How do I handle this?”

Often, our urge–as Pagans in a discriminated-against subculture–is to hide it. “We can’t report this to the police! They’ll come after us just because we’re Pagan! It’ll make other Pagans look bad!” And all that does is make more and more fertile the dark underbelly for those behaviors.

Dark Underbelly

Here’s the thing. A lot of discrimination and bigotry comes from ignorance. It comes from behaviors we’ve learned growing up. I’ve written in the past about some of the discriminatory, racist behaviors I learned growing up. I didn’t even see them, they were just things I did and said that I had seen around me. Growing up, my first introduction to the concept of gay people was from my babysitter when I was about nine years old. She referred to them as “homos” and that it was “gross.” My dad and other family friends would make gay jokes, so all I knew is that homos were bad. It wasn’t until years later that I reversed that opinion through reading about (positively represented) gay characters in fantasy fiction, and meeting actual gay and lesbian people.

Similarly, I had a lot of misconceptions about transgender (and genderfluid) people until I became more educated.

I’ve also learned a lot in the past years about rape culture vs. consent culture. In specific, that a lot of the behaviors we all just put up with are actually violating our bodies and our sovereign right to consent to what kind of touch we are ok with.

In other words–just because someone has violated your harassment policy doesn’t immediately make them Darth Vader. I’m not saying this to excuse bigotry and physical harassment, more that I often find that it’s a matter of education to explain why what they said or did was harmful. Someone who is used to events where it’s ok to be touchy-feely might need that behavior corrected. Pagans who are raised in this racist, homophobic, transphobic culture of ours are likely to say offensive things. The question is, are they clueless, are they intentionally bigots, and are they willing to address their perceptions and behaviors.

Some people are resistant to policies and procedures because they think it means that the PC police are out to nail anyone and everyone for any slip-up.

For my part, I like to think of these policies as the beginning of an educational dialogue and a shift in culture. If someone is unwilling to apologize or acknowledge that they said something bigoted or offensive, or if someone is unwilling to acknowledge that they shouldn’t be touching people without permission–then it’s time to consider booting them from your group or event. Or if someone apologizes but continues the behavior, that’s a serious red flag as well.

Comparing Notes

One of the most important pieces of a safety policy is the the data gathered from the complaint process. A challenge with he said/she said situations where there are no other witnesses is that it’s hard to consider booting someone from a group or an event when there’s no proof that they engaged in the harassing behavior.

A further challenge is that when all the complaints are funneled to a specific leader, the knowledge leaves when that leader leaves or passes away. And it also depends on the strength of that leader’s memory.

I speak very much to my own experience; I hear all sorts of things about Pagans around the country. People contact me for help with local leadership issues, issues of abuse and harassment, and I have quite a “database” in my head, but none of it is tracked.

When you have a process, as part of your policy, to collect detailed complaint information, you can then begin to derive a pattern. If you get a complaint about Person A three times in a row, that’s significant. Similarly, if Person B complains about a lot of people and there’s never anything to support those claims, that’s also significant. That information then resides with the group/event, vs. being knowledge that leaves as group members roll in and out.

It’s also information that can be shared amongst event organizers. Event A could contact Event B and say, “Hey, we’ve had a complaint about Person C, have you ever recorded any complaints of their behavior?” And Event B might say, “Yes, Person C is banned from our event, and you should also be aware that Person C has a criminal record for assault, here’s the information we’ve collected.” This is a big step up from, “Yeah, I’ve observed Person C in some creepy behavior but I can’t pin it down, and nobody has ever stepped forward, so I just keep an eye on them.”

Safety and Freedom

While I know that some people reading this are cringing and thinking about all the reasons they want Paganism to stay wild and free and without such rules, policies, and procedures, I really feel that it’s irresponsible event organizing to not have a safety policy. And in fact, that safety policy makes the event able to be more wild and free because it makes it harder for the real predators and bigots to hide.

Just the process of crafting a safety policy that’s right for your group or event begins to change culture. You’ll be forced to confront your assumptions as you create the policy, and as you field your first complaints. You may need to adjust your policy over time, particularly as you become more sensitive to what constitutes harassment.

You’ll discover that many things you took for granted are actually pretty offensive. And it’s a process of change–and people are notoriously resistant to change. Some of it’s cognitive dissonance, some of it’s just the function of our ego identities.

Change isn’t always easy, but if you want to begin to reduce bigotry and harassment in the Pagan community…if you want to builds a culture of consent…consider adopting a safety policy. You can begin by brainstorming with your group about your shared values together, and what behaviors do not support those values. You can write your own from scratch, or you can use some of the policies referred to in the links in this article as a place to start.

Already have a safety policy? Please consider posting it publicly so that other Pagans and Pagan groups can reference it as a boilerplate. Feel free to post links to any publicly-posted safety policies in the comments to serve as a resource.

Where to Find My Work
You can find my writing in a few places:

I also write articles for various magazines and guest posts on other blogs. You can join my email newsletter for occasional updates on some of my current articles, or announcements when I release new books.

I run several FB groups on topics of Pagan leadership, ritual facilitation, and more. You can find links to those here. 

14 thoughts on “Harrassment, Bigotry, Safety Policies, and Changing Culture

  1. Becca Davis

    “Not if, when”… *applauds* Thank you for being a responsible adult and counseling others to do the same. Just because we are being responsible adults does not mean we cannot be and have fun, be wild and free. After all you wouldn’t pitch your tent in the middle of the road, would you?

  2. caelesti

    Reblogged this on The Lefthander's Path and commented:
    Pagans, being human mess up just like everyone else…Glad to see more policies confronting this! I will be making a commenting policy for this blog to encourage open, civil dialog & discourage (& ban/delete) uncivil & bigoted comments.

  3. Joy

    Excellent points. I would also add that the best and most comprehensive policy is worth nothing unless it is consistently enforced.

  4. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    So very right you are, Joy. I wanted to mention that, but the tangent would have been an article unto itself. 🙂 In short, the scifi/fantasy/geek community is a little “ahead” of us when it comes to running big events and adding safety policies, and they also are further along the curve of the unfortunate next phase, which is where claims of harassment get ignored even with a policy. What’s required at *that* phase of things is the broader attendees of the event and the community at large keeping on the pressure to hold the organizers accountable so that the policy is enforced. Those policies are often glossed over in those instances especially when it’s a big name author. Which isn’t unfamiliar to the Pagan community. Thus, it’s still a long road ahead.

  5. saffronrose

    I agree with everything you’ve said above. That the 2009 PSG never fully addressed transgender issues, given the facilitator, does not surprise me. I used to admire her, now I avoid her at PCon.

  6. noinden

    Sigh, I get SO frustrated when pagans pull the “moral superiority of the path” urban myth. IF it was safe, sane, and consensual in paganism, to the level they said it was, we’d not have the stories of abuse appear constantly. No seriously how many of us now sigh, when we hear stories of misdeeds. Even the tiny local community (Dunedin New Zealand) has problems every long time member refuses to deal with (or let me deal with, since I am willing to got to the police and be the bad guy).

    I feel that most of these problems can be broken down to two areas
    (a) Naivety. People are either new and thus inexperienced or they are unwilling to acknowledge the problem, because it might go away.
    (b) That people don’t want to have the community seen in a bad light. Within and without the community.

    Both these allow abuse, harassment and general asshattery to happen and thrive. I’ve lived iun three real life communities for extended periods of time. Dunedin (New Zealand), Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and Wellington (New Zealand). They all generally fall to those two areas of avoidance. I also have been a 15 year member of ADF, and our group agreements reduce (but sadly do not prevent) problems.

    The problems usually come down to
    (1) Abusive jerks on a power trip
    (2) Predators of all sorts (sex, money, power)
    (3) Borderline behaviors. This is the Racists, those who call swinging polyamory, and those who refuse to follow the “laws of society, because they are not beholden to them”.

    No matter where I am, that is what it comes down too. I’ve been a jerk in communities in the past, sometimes it happens, but I’ve always owned my screwups and tried to learn from them. Sadly Paganism’s greatest failing is that it accepts behavior of all types, not because it should, because its inclusive, but rather out of fear it will exclude people. Some behavior is never OK. It is One des not need to be rude, abusive, just firm. Similarly it is OK in a community to point out “we’re being assholes guys” and try to fix it. Again, no need to be rude, or verbally (let alone physically) violent about it. Yet we can’t do it, for some reason, and it comes to a head. A toxic explosion to release the problem (and sadly usually make the “infection” worse).

    So how do we fix it? Uh good question Gareth….
    I guess, learn to have boundaries, and not shitty ones. Years ago Shauna taught a workshop in Milwaukee, and one of the first lessons was “boundaries are OK, but not shitty ones” and also “look after yourself”. Both are important. If your communities boundary conflicts with yours (and it may), leave that community, because trying to force change, almost never works, you need a movement, not an individual.

  7. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    I’ll answer that one. What I actually teach is that you want to have healthy boundaries, not shitty boundaries. Shitty = weak, poorly defined, easily permeated. An example of poor boundaries would be that any time someone asks me for help with something, I find myself unable to say no. Because, if I say no, they won’t like me, right? So I say yes, even at cost to myself. On the other end, poor boundaries is pressuring someone to say yes. Group leaders who pressure people into volunteer roles for the ritual they are running, or the Pagan event they’re organizing, also have poor boundaries.

    Think of boundaries as skin. Except, it’s psychic skin. Poor boundaries often reflects a poor self identity and poor self esteem. If I’m saying yes all the time so others like me, that’s poor self esteem. If I’m pressuring others to say yes, that’s a different set of baggage, but it also comes from a lack of ability to discern that you are not me. Meaning, I want this event, I want it to be awesome. So, you should want the event to be awesome too. Everyone wants the event to be awesome! Someone constantly pressuring others to take roles and not understanding when they try to say no, especially if they pitch a fit about it, has no concept that the other person is not just an extension of themselves.

    Thus, when we’re talking about sex/harassment and boundaries, we’re talking about the same thing on a physical level. Person A wants to grab Person B’s ass, and does so. They have not asked permission, they have simply assumed that Person B would be ok with this. Because, Person A wanted it, so Person B must want it too, right?

    Enthusiastic consent, at its core, requires and respects boundaries. “Is it ok if I kiss you?” “Yes!” or, “Is it all right if I hug you?” “Not right now.” “Ok.”

  8. carl

    Hi Gareth (“noiden”)

    You do realise that you yourself has been described by people as an abuser, a name dropper, and power mad bully.

    Remember that book “Sword of Truth”, you’re the perfect example of Michael (Richard’s Brother). Always ready to suck up to anyone in authority and throw your self around as the enforcer to win favours.

  9. carl

    “. An example of poor boundaries would be that any time someone asks me for help with something, I find myself unable to say no. Because, if I say no, they won’t like me, right? So I say yes, even at cost to myself.”

    But if you say _no_ and mean it. And stick by it. You tend to lose your voice in the community don’t you? Or is that just me? Especially if you have facts and logic and quotable “accepted pagan policies” such as “speak up for yourself”,”be yourself”,”don’t let others put you down”.

    A lot of people go from what is termed “inferred consent”.
    If Person A has gone to the happy event then they assume that other members of the community also must have compatible or similar values. So that “infers” that they _must_ be in agreement with Person A.
    This is something I constantly fight !! This is what happened previously.
    Just because Person A believes one thing to be The Truth, does NOT mean that others in the community must agree ! Therefore is it not up to Person B, to say NO, and KEEP saying NO?

    Part of the problem is what is poor described as “social contract”. The term/idea itself is a falsehood. Often the excuse given by lecturers and those taught to believe it to pass exams, is that the consent is inferred. Which as we clearly know, consent _cannot_ be inferred !! “infer” and “consent” are contradictory terms, either you have consent or you don’t. An invitation is not “inferring”, it is direct consent to act. For consent there needs to be informed choice.

    When Person A grabs Person B or bullies them through an authoritative position. They remove that choice. This is what concerns me about the “actions of the tribe”, or abuse through “social contract” and positions of power is it removes that choice. And who are you, if you’re not the choices you make?

  10. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    This is why it’s important to continue to teach healthy boundaries both to Pagans in positions of leadership, and Pagans who join groups and attend events.

  11. saffronrose

    You asked about safety policies already in place, and I’d like to offer one not in our community, but likely very useful as a model to work with.

    I attended & graduated Pomona College, one of the Claremont Colleges. Here’s the URL for the article, which I think is possibly useful to formulating prevention & bystander involvement in the case of sexually inappropriate behaviour. I learned about it because the Pomona College President sent out a note to alumni.


    I confess that it reminds me of the Green Button program that never made it past the first phase. It’s compounded by the fact that the Teal Dot program is a variant on the nationwide Green Dot program with the same aims.

    Thank you for your explanation of shitty boundaries!

  12. carl

    On the sexual harassment topic. My martial arts instructors also used to run Women’s Self Defense classes. Male black belts students were brought in for the second to last class to act as crash test dummies for scenairo work.
    My favourite memory was doing a “movie theater” scene. I had to play that sleazy guy that sits next to you in the movies and makes inappropriate comments and moves – not outright assault (that gets the sleaze bag arrested) but just does everything else. One slight girl clearly felt dominated and unable to respond, and one of the older women behind me asked “This is really making me uncomfortable watching you do that, can WE do anything? Or do we have to sit silent?”
    My reply was “this is the scenairo, your scenairo. If you are alone or ignore such things then you can just sit there. But if you really would act the choice is yours. I only play the part that I’m expected to play”.
    So went back to the scenairo… I tell you, Mr Sleazy runs like the wind when a bunch of really annoyed people jump up and put him ON THE SPOT straight away. There was some _serious_ intent coming at me, so much that I practically teleported out of my seat.

    A lot of these folks prey on what they can get away with. What can be socially excused, or brushed off. Many of them ARE so used to it that it IS normal for them, but shone the light on them…. they’re also used to wising up WHEN they get called on there actions. But call them on it as a group, then and there.
    Yes, it WILL disturb a few rituals, break up a few friends. But that will get the message OUT THERE. That making others feel bad for your own interests is not acceptable. It is a fine line…but if everything is out in front where it can be seen then rational thought can be used.

    But then I am biased. My patron goddess is Athena/Pallus Athene.

    So justice is about what gives better freedom and better happiness tomorrow and is based on _factual_ observations. Not authoritative power structures. the only way (IMO 🙂 ) to get better people is to teach them, every day. Forcing obediance, is a stop gap – a necessary one often, but as the Confucians say “I do what’s right from reason and mediation what others do only by force and laws”. But to achieve that people need to speak up and not accept or wait for others to do the job. “Karma” will NOT give you a better job or payrise 😉 learning how to ask and what is required WILL work. (googlefu: Athena necklace maid , for mythology reference)

  13. Pingback: Pagan Values Event: A slow subtle start for 2015 | The Pagan Values Blogject

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