Consent is a huge issue in the modern pagan movement. From hugging without permission, all the way trough to ritual abuse there are many issues to be found in Paganism relating to consent. I am no expert – what follows are my thoughts and feelings about the conversation going on, or which needs to go on. If you are interested in further reading one book I recommend is Pagan Consent Culture by
Consent as a Cup of Tea
The place to start is the best analogy for consent to date the cup of tea, a conversation tool used to discuss consensual sex and rape culture. I strongly recommend that you watch the video in full but for now, here is an abridged version.
You’ve met someone for the first time and you’ve decided that you want a cup of tea with them. You like tea but you don’t know if the person you met does as well. Do you…
A) make them a cup of tea and force them to drink it regardless of what they say?
B) make them a cup of tea and guilt them into drinking it?
C) make them a tea and complain when they say no?
D) make them a cup of tea and accept that they may not want it?
E) ask them if they would like a cup of tea and accept their response and respect it?
Sounds a bit of a no-brainer doesn’t it? You’ve only just met this person and you have no idea if they even like tea, let alone whether or not they want to drink a cup with you. The sensible and reasonable thing is obviously to ask first rather than assume and I am sure that many reading this would have gone with option E.
It all seems quite nice and civilised, there is a clear boundary of ‘ask, don’t assume’ but swap out ‘make a cup of tea’ with other concepts people start to get some very strange ideas about what is sensible and reasonable.
Let’s start at one end of the scale and work forward.
There are some in the pagan community that feel they simply must use kinship terms when speaking to people. Some think it a term of respect whilst others seek to establish a connection based on what they perceive to be shared interests. There are other who simply wish to acknowledge a shared connection as human beings, looking to the genetic Eve’s for some kind of commonality. These people are taking option D as their starting point. They don’t know if the person they are talking to will like being called Brother/Sister but they are going to use the term anyway.
The counter arguments to these beliefs and assumptions are many and wide ranging but regardless of the reasons a lot of people, myself included, are uncomfortable with this level of familiarity from strangers. Many reserve such words for their immediate kinship group, such as blood relatives or those acquired through marriage. Even where kinship terms are used in a religious or spiritual context it is limited to a single denomination/group where the numbers are small.
In the case of the latter it is a choice made by all parties and the terms is only used in amongst a select few. The words have meaning and imply degree of connection and knowledge regarding both parties which they value and hold dear and by having them applied to them by a strange can seem highly presumptive at times.
So how does consent apply?
Most people I know will simply ask the person talking to them to not use those terms. They withdraw consent, politely, and establish a boundary. In most cases people will respect this request, staying at option D. In some cases people will pout and a whine, sliding into the territory of option C but by and large they respect the withdrawal of consent and stop.
Unfortunately, it is common for the person to persists in using the sibling term, totally ignoring the withdrawal of consent. They place their preference over and above that of the person they are speaking to and settle into a category between an A and C depending on their response.
Now this issue has as much to do with about common courtesy and respect as it does consent. Someone has said ‘stop’ and the polite thing to do would be to do as requested. Continuing on with the method address once asked to stop shows a total lack of regard and respect for the other person.It may seem a small thing but in society where consent culture is in a fledgeling state and so easily overwhelmed by privilege (real or perceived) it is an important line.
Let’s move this up a scale.
Give Them a Hug
This is definitely more of a real life thing. Some people are hugy whilst others are more aware of their personal space. Paganism isn’t alone in experiencing this phenomenon but there is this on going assumption that if you’re at a Pagan gathering hugging is mandatory.
This is a different level to sibling terms entirely because it involves personal space and sovereignty of self and potentially unwanted physical contact.
Now again, many people will try and communicate their preference but in this case it may be a non-verbal form of communication depending on the confidence of the individual. They may step away from the hug, shake their head or even attempt to avoid the huggy person in some way such as putting other people or objects between themselves. This is often interpreted as being very ‘negative’, with people being seen as rude or standoffish and the hugger may feel rejected, if indeed they notice the avoidance tactics at all. In this case consent is established but option C like behaviours are displayed, which make for a rather unpleasant environment when there no real need (I’ll cover why in a moment).
Unfortunately it isn’t always possible to avoid a hug as physical contact is all too often initiated before there is time to react at all. When this occurs consent is completely forgotten about and the act is forced upon someone regardless of their thoughts and wishes.
At the core of this issue is personal space and sovereignty of self. So much time is spent in modern pagan literature is spent on discussion how it is important to remain true to oneself and be aware of ourselves and those around us but only one aspect of these teachings seem to be taken up. People become aware of themselves and begin to express themselves freely but completely ignore the people they come into contact with subconsciously forcing their preferences on to the people they meet without a second thought.
Undermining Consent Culture
We live in a world where consent is under almost constant discussion in regards the rape culture which dominates certain sections of our society. We see rape culture in many places today, from t-shirts and comments in the street to the legal rulings of clear cut rape cases; the idea that the will of one individual can be imposed on another in the most intimate of ways should seem abhorrent but yet we allow it to occur at all points along the scale.
People get just ad upset when you discuss hugging in terms of consent ss they do with regards to sibling terms. They don’t see these things as carrying the same weight as rape or sexual abuse but what they fail, or refuse, to see how these things are part of the drip-drip breakdown of a consent culture which is really struggling to gain a foot-hold in the face of a very entrenched mindset of ‘might gives right’.
Whether is is calling someone by a term of endearment after they have asked you to stop or hugging some even though they have pulled away once you carry on or repeat the action after consent has been withdrawn a message is sent about the worth of an individual’s right to consent to what happens to their person, and for some that message can be life defining. This is one reason that when my daughters refuse to give an older relative quality hug or a kiss I will defend their right to choose not to. It isn’t an insult or a sign that they don’t love that older relative, but it is a process through which they are defining their boundaries and ultimately their sense of self-worth in relation to others. These lessons may not protect themselves from everything that life throws at them but they will certainly help.
Consent culture is becoming increasingly important to Paganism and organisers of pagan events, particularly in relation to hugging. Those people who are uncomfortable with hugging, particularly where invasions of personal space can relate to traumatic life experiences, can find it difficult to engage in ‘real life’ Pagan events. Some events operate a ‘sticker’ system which allows people to communicate their preference on this matter very clearly like, and there have been a number of cases where events have been managed through live streaming, such as the new Live function on Facebook, which enables not only pm those less physically mobile to attend but individuals who have social anxiety in one form or another.
Another reason for its increasing importance as a discussion topic is around the central role that sex has in some traditions.
Why Consent is Important in Paganism
In some Pagan streams sex plays an integral role, whether that is the act in itself or by representation. Clear conversations about consent not only protects the prospective initiate but also the group or coven which incorporates it.
Let’s go back to our basic example, though there needs to be a bit of a wiggle round to add a few new options which I see as subsets of option B.
B/i) make the tea and present it as the only avaliable option
B/ii) make the tea and lie about the benifits
Sex and sexual activities as a form of initiation are of course perfectly legitimate pathway to gnosis but it is one that is open to misunderstanding and abuse. If the issue is misrepresented or coercion used by one group then the actions of other groups can be called into question. This can be problematic for legitimate working groups and this is why consent is so important as a conversation.
Sexual initiation isn’t the only form of initiation. It may the only route in a particular traditions but if someone is uncomfortable with the idea then that stream really isn’t for them. A responsible group will guide the seeker to a path which is better a better fit for the individual, not pressure someone into an act they are not comfortable with. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case and many find themselves being tricked into giving consent.
I also included an option around being lied to about the benefits of the tea. Frankly put, not everyone offering sex-based initiation are actually offering any form of initiation at all. It is simply smoke and mirrors designed to trick people into consenting to one act or another either expressly or by implication (by which I mean sending sexy photos, agreeing to meet for the purposes of sex or engaging in naughty chat).
Note for clarity – evidence of implied consent doesn’t make a crime less real or damaging but it does make it harder to prosecute. One of the reasons to really shout about consent and make it a topic for discussion is to make sure that the reality of implied consent is firmly in the mind of everyone.
Enter Mr Lady Gardens again. He offered a spiritual awakening through sexual initiation. He did have a working coven, nor was he even attempting to build one, but he was claiming that sex with him would lead a great spiritual awakening. Now I didn’t have sex with the guy but I’m pretty sure he was fibbing in an effort to get vulnerable women in a position where they were even more vulnerable.
People like Mr Lady Gardens are unfortunately common, particularly on social media, and they aren’t always so blatant. Predators are not easy to spot and it is all too easy to get tricked into implying consent which is one reason to be self-aware and maintain a healthy level of scepticism when connecting with people over social media.
As I said above, people get upset when the ‘smaller’ issues of kinship and hugging are brought up as part of a consent discussion, or even at all in some cases. I’ve put that in bunny ears because I don’t view them as small, I view them as the start. Ignoring the relationship these things have with consent is the point at which we start to undermine all the efforts to build a working consent culture not only within paganism but within society as a whole.
Rape is the ultimate betrayal of consent but by continuing we normalise the ‘small’ things; the little breaches which may be more thoughtless rather than malicious, we not only send messages to people about the behaviour they can or can’t engage in we also indicate what people are expected to accept in their day to day lives. We also establish moving goalposts for boundaries for any issue which is touched by consent culture when really we should be should be establishing a very clear culture of option D. Ask first, don’t assume.