Sunday, January 28, 2018

Pagan Consent Culture Reflection 1: Defining Consent and Why We Need It

As I finish up the first week of Cherry Hill Seminary's course on Pagan Consent Culture, I have thoughts. We have been tasked with completing this class and engaging in the work of creating a better culture of consent within our organization in light of the allegations against our founder and former Archdruid, Isaac Bonewits.

This week, we read through several excerpts from Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Friedman & Valenti, 2008) with a focus on defining consent and taking a look at the general state of paganism as it relates to consent. From our discussions, I can see we still have a long way to go to truly embrace a culture of informed, enthusiastic consent. We tend to be quick to view this as an issue specific to patriarchal religions—one we like to believe doesn't exist in paganism. While I agree that much of our social norms originated with the religious over-culture, I strongly disagree that we are free from them in our own groups.

I have heard members of ADF discussing how much better we are than other groups, and I have to disagree here, as well. Power differentials along gender lines are definitely an issue in ADF just as much as in other areas. To date, we have never had a female Archdruid, and the argument for this is always, "well, it's an elected position, so it's not our fault.” Why aren't we lifting up our own women? If we are so much more progressive than other religious traditions, why are we still viewed as patriarchal from the outside? There are a lot of questions ADF needs to answer in terms of consent and equality within our own organization. That's why we are all here right now.

I have also heard complaints that young men are told to embrace their feminine side and learn how to share their feelings while in the same breath they are told they are “mansplaining.”  This response is typical: the behavior of men is blamed on the confusing messages they receive from women. Such responses are subtle forms of victim-blaming (which I agree is a harsh term for the notion of blaming the person with the lesser power differential for the negative reaction), and these types of responses muddy the waters for real communication. These cycles place the responsibility for social change on the population with less power. This is why social change is slow and/or doesn't happen often.

I have heard that “you can just tell” when someone needs/wants a hug. In terms of consent for touch, I wholeheartedly support a move to a place where everyone is asked whether or not they want a hug. Every. Time. Yes, even for something as “harmless” as a hug. I know many people who will hug you back, albeit awkwardly, when they are hugged without being asked or when everyone else is hugging and it seems expected. The hugger may never know, because folks who don't want to be touched have learned how to “get it over with” as quickly as possible without making it weird. This is a primary issue within our culture: implied/assumed consent. If we really want to make a change in our groves, we need to make it important to ask every time before we touch someone, regardless of how many times we have hugged them in the past.

The pagan community is a place where folks who have been hurt seek refuge. Many of these individuals have past traumas we don't know or understand. Giving them the option to receive a hug or not is allowing them to decide if they are in the right frame of mind to be touched at that moment. For example, a woman in a domestic violence situation may have had a bad night with her partner the evening before a grove high day. When she gets there, to her safe place to pray, she wants to have her moment with the fire and let the flames help bring her healing and connection to the Kindreds. She may usually be open and very fond of hugs, but today is not that day. By forcing this woman to give everyone a hug, or assuming she wants to be hugged, we take away her power in that moment. She had a negative touch interaction that removed her personal sovereignty. She needs the space to be in control of her own body and not hug anyone if she chooses to help her heal. She will hug you to avoid confrontation, but it is not the choice she would have made if given the option.

Women and marginalized individuals yield to those with more power. We cannot truly embrace consent as a cultural change until we recognize that we need to provide space for folks to voice their personal desires AND to be heard and obeyed, even for something as seemingly simple as a hug. In terms of consent, we have a lot to learn, and until we recognize our own issues and truly examine the roles we play as individuals into feeding the cycles, those with less power will continue to be held from realizing their potential within our groups.

Friedman, J. & Valenti, J. (2008). Yes means yes!: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. New York, NY: Seal Press.