Sexual Initiation, Discrimination, Consent, and Rape

shutterstock_162051386–Shauna Aura Knight

I have heard from many people who felt pressured to undergo a sexual initiation with a teacher, coven leader, or other person in a leadership position. And by definition, if someone’s been pressured into sex, that’s not consent. It’s rape.

I believe in transparency so I want to be clear I debated with myself about posting on this topic. Why? Specifically because I have never belonged to a tradition that conveys mysteries/initiation through sex.

I’ve been accused of “destroying Wicca” with some of my blog posts about sex and consent, so I felt it was important to explore this topic. As with any of these big questions, I’m left with more questions than answers.

Believe it or not, I’m not out there to destroy British Traditional Witchcraft (BTW), Wicca, or other traditions with sexual initiation. When I posted about the Frosts’ infamous Chapter 4, a number of people told me that I was trying to destroy their ancient traditions. My stance has always been that I have zero issues with sexual initiations, or any kind of sexual magic, as long as there is actual consent.

The problem, though, is how do we ensure consent?

It’s more complicated than you might think. In addition, when digging down into the practice of sexual initiations, we also have other issues. Gender bias, homophobia, transphobia, and more. In other words, though this is an uncomfortable topic and tempers rise on all sides because of the core and collateral issues, we have got to continue having conversations about sex, and initiations, and sex magic, and consent, and rape.

Because–rape is happening in our communities. Sexual harassment is happening in our communities. And we have Pagans who go solitary not by choice, but because they can’t speak up about what happened to them because of the culture of victim blaming.

What are the Logistics of Sexual Initiation?
I found I have a lot of questions. I’ve heard various stories from various people about the requirements, but some things aren’t discussed at all.

  • Does it have to be heterosexual sex?
  • Does everyone get tested beforehand?
  • Can condoms be used?
  • Can birth control of any type be used?
  • If a woman gets pregnant by accident, is she expected to have the baby?
  • Who has to orgasm for it to work? Does it only work if the male orgasms?
  • Does the initiation fail if the female party cannot achieve orgasm?
  • What happens if the female can’t orgasm from intercourse?
  • How long do you have for the sex?  
  • Are people watching or is it private?
  • Are initiates pressured to cheat on their partner if that partner isn’t open to it?
  • How many people feel pressured to be initiated?

Fertility and Discrimination
I have heard of traditions where you aren’t supposed to be on any method of birth control at all for the initiation to “work” and you have to expect to have the baby if you get pregnant because “it’s a fertility religion.” I can see situations where a woman who plans to have children and who is involved in a very tight-knit coven/group might be perfectly ok with this. However, in other situations this could be involve some really icky pressuring.

At the very least, women who don’t want/aren’t in a position to have children must either choose to not be initiated, or, get pressured into it. Another question: if either party is naturally infertile, does that mean they cannot be sexually initiated?

Cheating and STIs
If the seeker’s partner isn’t ok with them having sex with someone else, are they barred from initiation? Or are they encouraged to cheat? How are all parties protected from STIs, particularly if condoms are prohibited?

Let’s talk about STIs. Most HIV tests are accurate for any exposure about 3 months prior to the test. About 80% of adults have been exposed to HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) which is responsible for most cervical cancer as well as numerous other types of cancer. About 15% of adults have HSV2 (Genital Herpes) but 80% of those don’t know they have it because they have light symptoms or no symptoms at all, and it’s not something most clinics test for. Using a condom reduces the risk of transmission  of HSV and HPV but doesn’t eliminate it.

I could go on, but the point is that any time we have sex with a new partner, we’re put at risk for STIs. And even if you get a test today for an initiation tomorrow, unless you’ve abstained from sex for at least three months, many STIs won’t show up. If you’re cheating on your partner to give or receive a sexual initiation, you’re putting them at risk for STIs in a way that they didn’t consent to.

And if you have an STI, that probably bars you from giving or receiving sexual initiations unless someone’s willing to take the risk.

Gender Binaries and Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Discrimination
There are still many BTW and Wiccan groups that are homophobic. Because so much of the theology/magic was focused on fertility and duotheism (Goddess and God), gay and lesbian witches didn’t have a place. The creation of Dianic (women/Goddess only) groups was a radical divergence from “traditional” witchcraft. And there are still groups that do sexual initiations that state that in their tradition the only way to sexually initiate someone is male to female or vice versa.

For Pagans who are gay or lesbian, and for Pagans who are transgender or who don’t define themselves by the gender binary, this presents problems. Those community members are then discriminated against because they cannot partake in the sexual initiations as described.

GLBTQ folks can opt out of those traditions, since those traditions obviously aren’t welcoming them. However, given the predominance of Wiccanate/Duotheistic/Gender Binary groups, it can be difficult to find a group that doesn’t, at least covertly, discriminate against GLBTQ community members. “You’re of course welcome to our rituals where the only sacred and holy sexual union we celebrate is the heterosexual union of the Goddess and the God.”

Some traditions have thus adapted to offer same sex initiations and there are groups specifically for gay men and lesbian women.

Yet another question: if a tradition feels that the initiation only works on the gender binary, that feels pretty discriminatory to me. Also, what about people who define as asexual?

People in those traditions often say, “Then this tradition isn’t for you.”

But if that’s the only way that it “works,” I have to wonder if the theology/tradition needs to be updated for the times. A similar example could be how women are prohibited from being Catholic priests; that’s a religious tradition that needs updating.

Attraction and Orgasm
Let’s talk about some sexual health issues you probably didn’t learn in health class. I’m aware that some sexual initiations require orgasm to seal the initiation. Which makes sense to me in some ways, given my own experiences of sex magic and ecstatic ritual.

However, this presents some problems. What if the male partner has erectile dysfunction, or is just nervous? What if the female partner doesn’t easily achieve orgasm, or can’t orgasm at all?

Studies I’ve read offer slightly different numbers around this, but they suggest 5-10% of women cannot reach orgasm at all. Something like one third to one half of women cannot orgasm from intercourse alone. Some women can orgasm, just not during intercourse.

In fact, I’m going to go vulnerable here and tell you about my personal experience because it’s relevant. I dread having sex with someone new. The first time is always really awkward; I have to explain what works for me, what doesn’t. When I explain that intercourse doesn’t get me off, many of my sexual partners have overtly shamed me. Others get off their usual way and then grumble about having to do anything other than intercourse.

Why do I bring this up? Imagine being someone who has difficulty reaching orgasm. You’re told you have to orgasm for the initiation to work. You’re supposed to have sex with someone you’ve never had sex with and who doesn’t know what works for you. You also aren’t really attracted to any of the people available to initiate you. The whole coven’s going to be in the next room/a nearby grove of trees, waiting and listening.

Does that sound sexy, inspiring, and magical to you?

If I don’t feel safe and relaxed, and at least moderately attracted, how can that be any kind of magical or transformative experience?

On the other hand, if all that’s required for sexual initiation to take is “receiving the magical seed” from my male initiator, or for a female initiator to have an orgasm, that also isn’t something that feels energetically right to me.

People who might be unable to be initiated, then, include some men with erectile dysfunction, women who cannot orgasm, women who have difficulty reaching orgasm, and people in general who cannot orgasm during intercourse.

The issue of consent weaves through these issues. Sexual initiation could be potent and magical–some have told me that’s how it was for them. But for many others, it’s an experience they’d sooner forget.

What is Consent?
By legal definition, a minor cannot consent to sex. Now–we can wrestle all day long about the issue of what age someone miraculously gains the ability to consent. Because that’s complicated, for today I’m just going to go with 18.

An adult who is drunk or otherwise incapacitated is also incapable of legally offering consent for sex.

Taken further, just because a seeker is an adult and is agreeing to a sexual initiation, doesn’t mean that this is being done with enthusiastic consent. Consent is not the lack of a no. Consent is an enthusiastic, informed, and sober “yes.”

If someone’s been groomed and pressured, is that consent?

Sexual Pressure
For every person who tells me about how their sexual initiation was a positive, powerful experience, I hear about others who felt coerced to have sex with their high priest or high priestess. There are some traditions that offer the Great Rite in actual (physical sex), or you can choose to do it symbolically. However, a phrase I’ve heard with that is, “You don’t have to have sex with your initiator…but it’s really a shame if you don’t.”

Guess what? That’s shaming. That’s manipulation. If people say “Yes” when they are pressured like that, it’s pretty dubious consent.

There are other traditions that state outright that you must have sex to be initiated. For an impressionable new seeker, that’s a lot of pressure.

I will point out that one person I talked to says that she never felt pressured by anyone have sex with her initiator, but it was the other way around–she felt pressured by potential initiates who wanted her to have sex with them and initiate them.

More typically I hear anecdotal stories from people who have joined covens and groups only to find that everyone was formally or informally expected to have sex with one of the group leaders, or with each other.

Then there’s this heinous quote:

“The underlying tradition here is sometimes overlooked. If the Craft means enough to you that you are willing to abide by its tenets then abide by them! If you cannot transcend your cultural brainwashing and accept the assignment to have sex one time with an assigned partner, in accordance with centuries of Craft tradition, the Craft can’t mean that much to you. Here’s the door. Don’t call yourself a Witch.”
– Gavin and Yvonne Frost

“You’re a Prude.”
This is the ad hominem I hear when I (or others) bring up issues of sex and consent. Speaking for myself…I think good sex is awesome. I’m not going to go into a detailed resume to debunk the idea that I’m a prude, but I’ll offer this. I’ve done some sex magic, some that I’ve detailed in my book on Dreamwork. I write romance novels, and I’ve written nonfiction articles on sex and sexuality. I like sex, and I want people to have happy, healthy sex lives.

Is our culture squeamish about sex? Absolutely. But bringing up sexual issues doesn’t mean that someone is ashamed of their sexuality. It’s a way to avoid the conversation.

Rape and Consent
Rape is a tough word that we have a visceral response to. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a rapist. And, for that matter, many of us who didn’t consent to a sex act don’t want to identify as a victim of rape.

I have had sex I didn’t consent to. I wasn’t beaten, I wasn’t forcibly raped. But I didn’t say yes, and a few times I said no. Sometimes with rape there’s physical damage, and sometimes rape isn’t about physical trauma, just the lack of consent.

Many people have come to me when I teach leadership workshops and have told me that they were either coerced to have sex with their HP/HPS, or that they joined a group and later found that they were supposed to have sex with the HP/HPS and they left Paganism for a long time because of that.

There’s a fantastic article that talks about focusing on consent. Here’s a quote:

“Data shows that many men will confess to the act of rape as long as you don’t use the word “rapist.” In fact, if you start asking college students about their behaviors with questions like “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who did not want you to because they were too intoxicated to resist?” you end up with a lot of them volunteering the information that they have, without realizing that this counts as rape.”

Just because someone agreed to an initiation doesn’t mean they were enthusiastically consenting. If they are young, if they are new to Paganism, if they are desperate to be accepted, if there is a culture of sex pressuring, if they are shamed by group members…you might eventually wear them down to where they give in.

But that’s not consent.

Initiation and Rape
We’re really talking about several categories of problem here. There is a difference between a tradition that has in-depth experience around the mysteries of ecstasis and sexual initiation, and a creepy group leader who is making things up in order to get laid.

However, what we must acknowledge in both cases is how consent and pressuring can play a part.

And this begs another question. Because in almost every tradition using sexual initiation, the initiation is passed on from a teacher/mentor/priest/priestess/leader to a seeker/student, there is an inherent power dynamic.

Any time that someone has a position of power over someone else, can there ever be true consent? Are they agreeing to this because they are afraid they’ll lose their position or be kicked out? Are they agreeing to this because the leader is charismatic?

I do believe that there are scenarios where this can be handled ethically, but that is a lot of pristine boundaries and personal work, plus checks and balances, to make that happen. I acknowledge that, particularly if you are initiating into a tradition of sex magic, someone has to teach you how to do it, so there’s no way around the teacher/student power dynamic.

There’s a sex temple in Chicago. I’ve heard of the cult dynamics and the psychological damage they have caused from several escapees. The HP/HPS used to attend public Pagan events to recruit. They also offered their temple space for free to local groups for classes. Then they’d pick the young, pretty girls and say, “Hey, we’re hosting a barbecue tonight, you want to join us?” And then the newbie attends the barbecue and people pay lots of attention to her…and then at the end of the evening after perhaps some mind altering substances have been ingested, it turns out that the evening’s agenda includes a collaring ceremony.

This process is called “grooming.” The newbie wouldn’t come over for a collaring ceremony, or sex. So they are invited over under false pretenses to try and seduce them into agreeing to more.

That’s not consent either.

Updating Traditions
One of the consistent arguments I hear in favor of sexual initiation is the fear of taking away one of Wicca/Witchcraft’s inner mysteries that has existed for “hundred” or “thousands” of years. I’m not going to debate how old modern Wicca and Witchcraft are. Since we do know that many ancient Pagan cultures had sexual practices, let’s just lean on that evidence.

So we have thousands of years of tradition including sexual magic. Ok. Does that mean it’s still useful today?

Let’s look at other established religious traditions. Arranged marriages. Child brides. Selling young women or men to be sex slaves at temples. Male and Female genital mutilation. Human sacrifice. Only men can be priests.

In other words, just because we have hundreds or thousands of years of established tradition, that  doesn’t mean those traditions should continue.

Sex and Magic
After all that, you probably think I’m dead set against sexual initiations and sex magic, and the truth is I’m not. The problem isn’t necessarily with sexual magic–the problem is that so many people have done it in an abusive or coercive way, often unintentionally.

I believe that really good sex is magical all on its own, whether that’s sex with one (or more) partners, or solo sex. Pleasure, intimacy, and connection create a power. Most of my own experiences with sex magic are techniques such as orgasm for trancework or the mysteries of divine communion. Orgasm can be used as an effective technique for energy raising and to get into a trance state.

But I suppose I look at sex magic as just one tool in the larger toolkit of ecstatic techniques that include singing, dancing, sensory deprivation, plant assistance, pain. Sex is a road, it’s not the only road, to the mysteries. There are lots of ways to get into ecstasis.

The core reason I talk frankly about sex isn’t that I want everyone knowing my private business so much as I value living in a culture where we can talk about sex without cultural shame. I believe that one of the reasons that we have unclear consent for some initiations, and clear (but usually unreported) rape in others, is because we still have so much shame about sex.

I’m not saying, let’s stop doing sexual initiations.

What I am saying is, let’s question these things. What does sexual initiation add to a tradition? What does it remove? Which of our leaders are abusing their position of power to get sex? Who has been pressured into sex, even unintentionally? Who has been hurt?

Let’s ask the questions. Let’s talk about this in our groups and communities. Let’s make the experience better and healthier for the next generation.

—————————————————————————————–

BioShauna2

Shauna Aura Knight writes on the topics of community leadership, spiritual transformation, and activism. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and Spiritual Scents, as well as a contributor to many magazines and anthologies, as well as a fiction author and fantasy artist. Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, facilitation, leadership, and personal growth.

Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information.

About Shauna Aura Knight

An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in the anthologies Stepping in to Ourselves, A Mantle of Stars, Calling to our Ancestors, and Bringing Race to the Table. She’s also the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, A Fading Amaranth, and The White Dress, the Autumn Leaves. Shauna’s mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. She is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination. http://www.shaunaauraknight.com ShaunaAura@gmail.com
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13 Responses to Sexual Initiation, Discrimination, Consent, and Rape

  1. rayna noire says:

    Good Morning,

    US Statistics is one out of four women are sexually abused before the age of thirty. This is higher in some areas. Often abused women can’t even determine what is consent. Those who want sex take a dubious ‘consent’ and run with it.

    My take on the whole deal is why? Why force someone to do something they don’t want to do. It is simply another form of bullying or worse. It also reinforces the belief woman to are only good for sex. Her mind or spirit are not considered enough, which is ironic considering spirit/soul continues on after the body expires.

    Those who howl about it not being traditional, please, get a grip. We don’t do a lot of things now that were traditional a short time ago such as beating or killing your wife if she burnt your dinner or raping your own children. (Although some still do.)

    Tradition can be a rod used to abuse the vulnerable.

    BTW, nice article.

  2. Christopher Blackwell says:

    I would question any claim about what has been traditional for thousands of years and that includes sexual initiation. Lets be honest we don’t even know what Witches did a few centuries ago, even if there were covens, or if most witches were solitary. The same goes for ritual nudity, or robes, and we don’t know what tools were used.

    Basically all we have is what the founders of our more recent traditions wanted. Gardner was a Nudist, Sanders was rather free with sex with both genders in that time of sexual freedom that birth control encouraged. I would say it is likely that Witches of old did not do anything like we do today and rarely did ceremony. I have had the luck to discuss this with some in the family trads. Witchcraft was a craft not a religion back then.

    So perhaps what we should decide is what do we want modern day Witchcraft to be? Just in my thirty years Wicca has gone through any changes even with the left over baggage some of us first generation may have fro our earlier beliefs. Now the second and third generation don’t have that baggage so change may even come faster. In the end in magic all that matters is what works for the person.

    I do what I do. I a not going to claim that my way is the only way and I watch with interest what our second and third generation do. I am not going to complain that their way was not the way that I was taught. We have yet much to discover about being Witches, Wiccan or otherwise.

  3. caelesti says:

    Speaking as an ex-cult member myself- I am going to say that I am against sexual initiations (or sex between teachers/clergy and students/laity) period. There was enough authoritarian manipulation from the leader of my group without sex being involved- I shudder to think about what would have happened if it did. Sometimes attraction does happen between students & teachers/clergy (of similar/appropriate ages!) but they need to be responsible adults and hold off on pursuing sex or romance until they are no longer in that power structure. In Minnesota (my state) law therapists and former clients are allowed to date/have sex after a few years of ending their professional relationship, if I am not mistaken. I think we should have a similar ethical standard among our communities, even if we probably couldn’t make it a law. I’m not sure about sex in ritual in general- it should be approached carefully, done for specific reasons (not “just because”) I really think we have swung too far to the anything goes hippie moral relativism and there’s huge range between that and insisting everyone is either strictly monogamously partnered or a Vestal virgin. It’s due to that mentality that we convince ourselves we need to be “tolerant” of people like the Frosts.

  4. Reblogged this on Shauna Aura Knight and commented:

    I’m reblogging my post from Pagan Activist on the topic of sexual initiation, discrimination, consent, and rape.

  5. Pingback: Sexual Ecstasy, Mystery & Social Boundaries | The Lefthander's Path

  6. GG says:

    I have seen sex interfere with too many Pagans in Power… most notably, that North Chicago group that got caught up in braiding private relationships with public community groups. Sex is like fire. When used with reverence, it warms the heart and hearth, it transforms and it consumes us (There is a reason for the saying “In the heat of the moment”) but when used with ignorant intent… it is a wildfire, rampant and unyeilding, unapologetic for it’s consumption without abandon and can leave a once fertile space barren. The value it has in Divine work is… well, quite bluntly put, its delicious. It has great merit. WHEN USED WISELY AND WITH RESPECT FOR THE ACT AND THOSE INVOLVED. Vanilla, kink or Magical, sex is a slippery slope we must traverse cautiously but with an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out. That wouldn’t be sexy.
    Also, like the mention of trans people as I am one.
    Thanks, Shauna.
    ~GG

  7. Peredwyth says:

    There’s a lot to digest here, I’ll grant that. Notwithstanding, being initiated into a tradition by great rite, I have to wonder what tradition has kept that portion intact, but bypassed the bit about secrecy? Traditions that include great rite initiation usually have a lineage associated with them, and there is a degree of accountability to elders (i.e. a heirarchy that is responsible for the actions of those they initate.) Lacking that, I would consider the whole tradition suspect. This sort of thing is policed by the line, harshly. Such matters are not aired publicly, but that by no means should be taken to indicate a lack of concern, or sweeping things under the carpet.

    Then again, I have seen the entire way of life diluted by self-professed “witches” with no training beyond a few books picked up at HPB, and no, those sort have no business proclaiming themselves as anything other than eclectic. Something I made up last year isn’t any sort of “tradition” by definition. This is doubtless a major part of why there has been of late such a huge problem with sexual impropriety in the community – and precisely the type of thing that has traditionalists distancing themselves. Ideas like “each one teach one” and “your student is a reflection of you” are thick in actual traditional Craft, and I have seen entire lines invalidated by the banishment of a bad apple who forgot the most basic precepts. Seriously consider how the Rede can be held intact by anyone willing to violate a student in these ways, and we arrive at an obvious conclusion. Traditional witches do not balk at dealing with these behaviors.

    I will add that although I am no fan of the Frosts, the quote you used has some validity. A lot of heartache and damage would be avoided if the student were honest with themselves and took the mindset seriously… if you aren’t comfortable with how a group does things, it ISN’T the group for you. If someone is insisting you have sex with them to be considered part of the group, you aren’t dealing with a coven of witches, you’re dealing with a cult.

  8. Pingback: The End of 2014 | Pagan Activist

  9. mewgirl723 says:

    The Rede is Wiccan… it should not be referred to when talking about “Pagan Community”, unless it is referred to in a personal manner.

  10. saffronrose says:

    This is a really good article, and I’ve bookmarked it in two places in my files. Thank you!

  11. Thanks! I’m glad the articles are a useful resource for you.

  12. If I am asked to do anything that I do not feel comfortable with and I am told it is required and that I must, I walk. Simple enough.

  13. Pingback: (Spoilers) The Love Witch vs the Pagan Patriarchy | Diana Rajchel

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