Sex, Sovereignty and Consent

All right. I’ve been keeping my head down and nose to the book, mostly, and I didn’t think I was going to join the public debate around sexual abuse and sexual ethics in Paganism. Besides, I try not to be one of those bloggers who bandwagon-jumps onto every hot issue whether or not they have something original to add.

But. It is hard to focus on other things when you have a Sovereignty Goddess breathing down your neck.

So let’s talk about sex and sovereignty. And let’s talk about consent culture. I’ve said before that sovereignty is rooted in the body. That while sovereignty in its traditional sense speaks more directly to the relations of the collective and its leadership, that relationship is a personal delegation of sovereignty by each individual. And that a person who is denied the very sovereignty of their own body cannot fully participate in collective sovereignty. Sovereignty is a set of interlocking relationships each dependent upon the integrity of its parts for the flow to occur.

I want to unpack that a little bit more. Because this is important. We have to recognize that the fundamental, inviolable unit through which this flow occurs is the body of the individual person. Yes, the body. Sovereignty is not an abstract, it is a living power, and thus rooted in land and body. When the individual participating in this set of relations is not in possession of the sovereignty of their own body, the entire set of relations breaks down. Thus the fundamental ground of sovereignty is the sanctity and inviolability of the body.

And here enters sex. Sex is where we grant access to the sanctity of our bodies to another person. In terms of personal sovereignty: we are laying our being and body bare, sharing our very life force, inviting someone to enter into our sovereign space in the most intimate way. And by this I do NOT simply mean penetration of the body – an individual who is not experiencing penetration is still granting access to their body and life force in any sex act.

This is why consent is absolutely fundamental. Because sex, by its very nature, involves compromising the inviolability of the body. Opening its defenses. Entrusting access to the sovereign body to another being. With consent, this compromise is an alliance of trust that further sanctifies the sovereignty of both bodies. Without consent, sex destroys sovereignty at all levels, from the individual to the collective.

For most of my readers, I imagine the above arguments will not present anything very new. This is, of course, what we are always on about in working against rape culture. But let’s bring it back to the issue of sexual abuse by religious leaders, which was the trigger for this post.

In the model of sovereignty, the power that flows from the land through every person is invested in the leader or sovereign. This is as true in religious communities as it is in civic structures. And here too there is a relation of trust. In the act of granting power to a leader, there is a compromise of individual sovereignty, to at least some degree. We invest our sovereignty into our leaders because we expect that reciprocal benefit will flow back, we expect that sovereignty will be upheld, and most crucially, because we believe that the vulnerability we take on in that exchange will not be exploited.

In civic life, that compromise is substantial: we actually give our leaders the power of law over our bodies and lives, and in some cases, the power of life and death (e.g. the death penalty, military draft, police action, etc). In the realm of medicine, we also grant our caregivers, doctors, therapists, a portion of our sovereignty: the power to determine a course of treatment for our bodies; to guide our life choices; to analyze and guide our emotional life. In religious communities, what we are compromising is sometimes more subtle: we may be giving our leaders power to represent us to the outside world; to shape and direct the focus of our spiritual lives; to shape and articulate our values and ethics; to counsel us toward a course of action. In the case of initiatory ritual leaders, we are granting them access to our bodies to put us through ritual experiences that we know will make us vulnerable and may radically change our future life experience. Just as in sex, initiatory ritual involves a powerful temporary surrender of sovereignty undertaken in sacred trust.

Thus ALL positions of leadership and caregiving, whether civic, medical, educational, or pastoral, involve an inherent power relation in which some portion of our sovereignty is delegated UPWARD into the person of the leader or caregiver. This shift in the locus of sovereignty (even if partial) means that there is not a level playing field from which to grant consent for risky endeavors such as, oh, let’s say, having sex with your priest. When a religious leader who holds your future in a spiritual tradition in their hands tells you that you’re expected to have sex – or even gently suggests that you should consider it – you’re not freely deciding whether or not to have sex with someone based on  your own interests. What’s happening there is your spiritual life and path is being subtly put in the scales against your willingness to grant sexual access. As your religious leader, some level of compromise in sovereignty has already been delegated to them in trust for their guidance. Now that entrusted sovereignty is being used against you. You’re being asked to give consent for the deepest compromise there is IF you value your spiritual path in their tradition.

Friends, that’s extortion. No free consent can be given under those circumstances, however subtly the stakes are communicated. I make that statement baldly in full recognition that my own origin tradition, the Feri tradition, includes practitioners who engage in sexual initiation of students by teachers. It’s a practice I don’t agree with.

Sex without consent is rape. Sex in a situation where consent cannot be given (such as an underage person) is statutory rape. I would make the argument, based in the primacy of sovereignty, that sex between a leader or caregiver and a person under their guardianship is equivalent to statutory rape. We could call it custodial rape until we find a better term.

All this comes back around to the current cases being discussed in the Pagan community. In particular, I’d like to focus this lens we’ve just polished on the case of the Frosts. For background, read this series of posts in the Wild Hunt archives.

Now, the Frosts defend their publication of material advocating ritual deflowering and sexual initiation of young people into the Craft by their elders by pointing to a disclaimer which states that these rites should take place after the age of 18.

“No formal initiation into the a group that practices the Great Rite should be done before the candidate attains the age of eighteen (18).”

You see, this defense is no defense at all. The age of 18 is only relevant here to the extent that it may alter what kind of rape we’re talking about here. What the Frosts are advocating and still stubbornly defending is custodial rape of young people.

Not to mention, it’s a lie anyway. The website for the Church and School of Wicca baldly states that minors who want to join without a note of permission from a parent or guardian can just pay them an extra $100. Because hey, forking over some extra cash to your religious leaders should serve just as well as an adult guardian’s consent for the safeguarding of a child’s sovereignty.

Friends, we have to stop shrugging this stuff off. This isn’t a charmingly harmless couple of elderly eccentrics. It is a monstrous policy that unapologetically encourages and defends custodial rape.

Otto Skowranek: Sword Dance, 1908

Let us not follow the Catholic church’s example of ashamedly, hurriedly covering up the ugliness lest it be seen and damage our reputation. I want my community’s reputation to be built on our accountability, authenticity, and strong ethics. Let the world see that we have this problem in our midst – it’s not like we’re the only ones. Let them see us square our shoulders, step up and face it head-on. Let them see us stand to account for how we handle sovereignty and vulnerability. Let them see us choose to evolve.

For me, I will make this statement: I will not attend or present at an event where I know leadership honors and teaching platforms are being given to people who promote religious sexual abuse. I will be working with organizations I’m a part of, such as the Coru, toward adopting strong policies on leadership and religious ethics. I encourage everyone to take a stand in the ways that you see fit as well.

19 replies
  1. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    If we allow for the (false) reasoning that a congregant in a church *cannot possibly* consent to sex with a priest/rabbi/pastor, then you must agree by logical extension that they must remain celibate (or only have sex with other priests/rabbis/pastors).

    Most people know that isn’t true. Consent is absolutely possible, and depends on the situation, and this includes many pagan groups that openly, consensually, have sex-based magical practices (such as A. Crowley himself).

    The broad-stroke approach lacks depth of understanding that context matters.

    Reply
    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      I think there’s a big difference between having sex with A priest and having sex with YOUR priest.

      I think the comparison between a priest and a doctor or therapist is a good one. Of course doctors and therapists don’t have to be celibate, nor do they have to only have sex with other doctors or therapists. But it’s inappropriate to have sex with a patient or client. In fact, I know that at least with licensed counselors you can lose your license for that.

      Reply
  2. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    People may not realize that this “power prohibition” is much of the same reasoning that led the Catholic church to ban priests from having families – which for the entire previous history had been common practice.

    Its silly reasoning, of course. People can and do consent to sex with their priests, and bear their kids, and have families with them. It is by no means “always” non-consensual. **Context, not power, determines if it is consensual**, and the article does not allow for that: on the contrary, it insists that such relationship is impossible.

    The vast majority of Americans (and Pagans) disagree with the article’s proposal. Jewish rabbis, protestants, mormons, some Catholics and virtually all pagans agree that this “oppressive power relationship” is no such thing *in context*, and there are benefits to non-celibate priesthoods.

    I don’t think pagans should encourage diverging from that clear, mainstream approach. The “power prohibition” on sex isn’t useful. *Abuse* of that relationship is certainly possible, but it depends critically on the context. A more mature approach (in my view) recognizes that sex in a power-divergent relation may or may not be consensual – we can’t determine this for priests in advance. Context, context.

    Reply
  3. Lon Sarver
    Lon Sarver says:

    Excellent analysis. The only thing I’d add is a note to the effect that not all of these exchanges of power are entirely conscious, and many are presented as “just the way things are” and agreed to before the full impact is understood, or even understandable, to the individual. There’s a lot of work to be done to really understand where one’s sovereignty is invested. That you put it so clearly here is a testament to your writing.

    Reply
  4. Jeyn
    Jeyn says:

    Thank you so much, Morpheus, for adding your perspective to this issue. The subject of sovereignty, and personal sovereignty in particular, has been a subject near and dear to my heart for several years now. As a young girl growing up, I was not taught to claim and honor my personal sovereignty, i.e. I was not taught to say no, I was not taught to embrace my anger and express it appropriately, I was not taught to utilize my powers of intuition and discernment. Suffice to say, this lead to problems later in my life; it took me a good long while to realize that I had every right to own my body, to own my Self, to own my sovereignty. As a parent, I am also doing my best to pass this along to my son and my daughter.

    I personally think that the lessons of sovereignty, both personal and politic, are of vital importance for the health and well-being of the pagan community, as well as the larger human community. What I find both intriguing and very disturbing is the pattern of behavior that reflects the message “You have no right to own yourself.”and the propensity of individuals that buy into that message – how does that happen? Why does that happen? How insidious is it that for a culture (and by that I am referring to mainstream American culture) that prides itself on the quality of “independence” and “self-reliance” we seem to really only be paying lip service to those qualities. The ideas of sovereignty, stewardship, warriorship, and community inter-dependence seem either ignored as a viable and sustainable way of living, or buried under other cultural messages that promote fear, greed and intolerance. How strong and beautiful we would all see ourselves and each other if we were taught from birth that we are sacred, our bodies are sacred, what we choose to do with our bodies is sacred, and that honoring our personal sovereignty, and the personal sovereignty of others, created ripples that influenced the wider community in positive ways!

    Oh, to live in a world where the philosophy was “Sovereignty Rules!” ;) :)

    Thanks again for posting, many blessing to you and yours!

    Reply
  5. Christine Hoff Kraemer
    Christine Hoff Kraemer says:

    Thanks for this article. I hate to comment only to nitpick on what’s generally a strong article, but in this case I hope it is a nitpick that can add some necessary complexity to these discussions.

    Coercion/rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual manipulation are different things, and when I learned to differentiate them, it really helped me unpack some of the subtleties of power dynamics in sexual relationships. All relationships have unequal power dynamics, of course; none of us are perfect peers, but the greater the difference, the greater the chance that exploitation or abuse will occur.

    Exploitation is a situation where one party takes unfair advantage of another’s vulnerability or natural proclivities. For example, imagine a situation in which a woman leaves her husband, then agrees to return to the relationship only if the husband cedes total control of the family’s finances to her. The husband is not being coerced with threats of force, but his desire for his wife may lead him to allow himself to be exploited in this way. Manipulation similarly does not remove the ability to consent, but involves deception, without which consent might not be given. A woman who has sex with a man she believes is a millionaire, but who is actually a used car salesman, has been manipulated and wronged, but her consent to sex is not invalid; she has been deceived, but not raped. Exploitative relationships are often consensual, then, but that doesn’t make them ethical.

    True loss of consent — which is where unethically exploitative or manipulative relationships can cross over into rape — requires one or more of the following:

    –the absence of a clear, wholehearted, intentional “yes” to the situation (as opposed to the absence of a “no”)
    –lack of *informed* consent: one or both parties does not fully understand the activities they are agreeing to perform and their risks
    –clear coercion, as with threats of harm
    –lack of competence on the part of one of the persons consenting (s/he is intoxicated, under extreme emotional duress, below the age of consent, etc)

    One of the reasons I emphasize the difference between exploitation and true nonconsensual sex is because certain sexual ethicists of the past have argued that due to the power dynamics between genders in our society, no woman can ever validly consent to sex with a man. To me, this infantilizes women, and it also has allowed these ethicists to claim that women who have unusual sexual desires are brainwashed or otherwise in bad faith. It is always dangerous to assert that certain adults categorically cannot make decisions for themselves, as in the past, this logic has been responsible for all kinds of horrors (including the forced institutionalization of “hysterical women”).

    Sex between adult students and teachers can be exploitative, but unless one of the above conditions apply, it’s not rape. As an ethical issue, it needs to be handled in a way that doesn’t strip the student of the right to be autonomous and make their own informed decisions.

    Reply
  6. Nami
    Nami says:

    I’m glad to see more and more as this particular saga moves forward that people are disgusted and outraged over this issue. I want to celebrate witchcraft in integrity and that integrity can only be maintained by bringing to light practice which encourages predatory behavior. No predator is quite as insidious as the one who feigns the ability to hold divinity hostage should they not get their way. Whether this has been spoken of or not and regardless of who may be tired of discussing it, it has to be addressed until each member of the Pagan community knows how wrong it is and won’t stand for it any longer.

    Reply
  7. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    Very well written and very well said. I am glad there is finally dialog about this issue. We have to be careful because the world at large is just waiting for us to screw up so they can point their finger at us and say things like, we knew they were bad and devil worshippers. It is much different than the catholic church fiasco because we do not have the millions of followers and admirers they do that are willing to forgive a few bad men in their midst. I’m afraid if a huge majority of us do not come out loudly against such things in our communities we may have the uncomfortable experience of witnessing a modern day witch hunt that could destroy any credibility we have worked so hard to attain up to this point.

    Reply
  8. Dane
    Dane says:

    Every community has its fair share of “sickos.” I think it’s entirely to do with the darker side of human nature, not the nature of the community, itself. I wish the pagan communitites well as they battle this challenge, and applaud those who are or have been willing to stand up for decency in religious practices.

    Reply
  9. Renna Shesso
    Renna Shesso says:

    Well-written and well-reasoned. One thought that occurred to me: “Custodial” as in “custodial rape” sounds like a reference to “custodial parents.” Might “hierarchical rape” make more specific sense here?

    Reply
    • Sara Amis
      Sara Amis says:

      We already have a phrase for using a power imbalance to pressure someone into sexual relations. It’s “sexual harassment” if it does not meet the legal requirements for rape; if it does meet them, it’s just “rape.”

      Reply
  10. RevAllyson
    RevAllyson says:

    Sexual initiation is… an odd topic. Not odd as in out of place here in this discussion but odd as in difficult to talk about for a variety of reasons. In the best of worlds, it is a wonderful and truly sacred act between two people who are no longer student and teacher. That was my experience. But we don’t live in a”best ” world.

    I would no more tell a determined couple to not initiate in that way than I would take away a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body under any other circumstance. Or a man’s, because it does happen in the other direction. :-(

    However, I caution people. It worked for me largely because my relationship with my priest was romantic several months before it became officially religious as well. Others may experience it differently. I would go so far as to say that if some religious authority says you MUST have sex to gain a Degree, then it’s a pretty milquetoast religion. Degrees are given by our Gods, and only confirmed by priesthood.

    Reply
    • Sara Amis
      Sara Amis says:

      What you said. I am of the opinion that adults are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves who to have sex with, and under what circumstances, without advice from me. I am also confident that should I offer such advice, it would not be listened to.

      I think it would be much more useful to teach people how to know when they are being conned…and while sex is definitely sometimes part of a spiritual con, it’s not the only possibility.

      Red flags: Not being honest. Being contemptuous of other teachers/traditions/Pagans/humans (contempt is an anti-virtue). Drama-laden relationships with others in the community (especially if they go ballistic when challenged or criticized). Self-aggrandizement. Pushing you to do things you don’t want to (including but not limited to sex). Putting pressure on you in general. Anything that smacks of a sales technique. Trying to limit your contact with information or people, or otherwise exerting undue control over your behavior. Telling you how “special” you are (or how special THEY are), that your relationship with them/the tradition is “meant to be” (because making it about fate takes it out of the realm of choice). Asking unreasonable things of you, especially for something abstract and emotionally charged like “proving your loyalty/fitness/etc.”

      Lots of these are also warning signs of an abuser, or a cult. There’s a reason for that.

      Reply
  11. Sara Amis
    Sara Amis says:

    Interestingly, when you put it that way, I don’t see the difference between initiation with sex and initiation without. If you’re already giving someone else responsibility for a spiritual transformation of your life via initiation, at that point you’re just quibbling about the details. I don’t think initiations should be comfortable, because the aftermath certainly won’t be. And I think that if you can’t/don’t trust someone, or can’t have difficult conversations with them, you shouldn’t be their student in the first place…or their teacher.

    On the other hand, I disapprove of teachers having sex with students in general, though classifying it as rape is hyperbolic. It’s more akin to sexual harassment.

    On a third paw, I think the impulse to sanitize witchcraft and make it palatable for mass consumption (not saying you’re doing this, but that’s certainly a motivation in some quarters) is a horrifying mistake, and will lead nowhere good. Interestingly, it mostly seems to have led TO abuse and unethical behavior, rather than away from it. This is because the emotional character of those impulses is murky in the extreme.

    On the back left paw, ethical choices lead to clear, ethical outcomes…and I don’t think rules make good ethics. They only inspire the unethical to find a way around the rules. I’ve seen plenty of abuse in the Pagan community that was not sexual in nature, some of it aimed at me. I actually think that sex is not the important component here, but power, the abuse of it, and attempts to subvert the sovereignty of another person…which is what you were getting at, I know.

    I’m out of paws. So I’ll just say this: You can’t say “yes” unless you can say “no,” and that cuts both ways. No has to be ok. It has to be ok coming from a student, and it has to be ok coming from a teacher. One of the reasons why I object to teaching for pay is that it weights such decisions with obligation…they paid for something, they “invested,” it creates an implicit if not spelled-out contract. I have to be able to tell someone “no, I can’t be your teacher” at any point, even if they’ve been with me for years. They have the absolute right to say “no” to anything I propose as well…in fact, it’s one of the things I want them to learn. If they can’t say “no” to me, they can’t say “no” to the Gods, and I think that’s a very dangerous position to be in; part of my conception of what a witch IS rests on the ability and willingness to look bigger and more powerful beings in the eye and tell them “no.” And, at other times, “yes.”

    Reply
    • Robin Miller
      Robin Miller says:

      You seem to not consider that in some relationships, there is such a context of power-over that consent or refusal are loaded with implications that go beyond the immediate act being proposed. “[No] has to be ok coming from a student….”. Well, yes. However, if the context is such that the student fears the possibility of reprisals, changes in relationship, loss of something or possibility that is prized (relationship with coven, tradition, teacher, are some examples) – then it can be very difficult to say no. The earlier in one’s path to self-possession, the more coercive these situations can be. Notice I said, be, not seem. If a person feels that they must weigh other factors besides the simple act of sex being proposed, it’s a loaded situation. If the person putting them in that position is a spiritual teacher or leader, it’s coercive and potentially very damaging.

      For that reason, while my co-coven leader and I are lovers (and were before we formed our coven) I will not take any other lovers who choose to pursue initiatory or dedicant training into my coven. I will help them find other people who can teach them without any of the complications involved in trying to please the teacher, the lover, whoever I may be in the moment.

      I think even the “appearance of impropriety” needs to be avoided, or dealt with head on, in order for spiritual leaders to retain credibility. So….no matter how strongly the student believes their “yes” to be uncoerced, I don’t buy it for most situations. If that would cause me to disregard the agency of a person in order to make a protective decision, I think it would be warranted, given that my agency and integrity are also involved. There is nothing and nobody so tempting that it should override my command of myself – if I am worthy as a teacher and counselor, that is.

      As for the Frosts, their repeated pointing to the age limit below which they will not sexually manipulate people only assures me that the consequences they fear are legal, not ethical or karmic; their practice, and the apologia that stream forth, repulse me. They are not a whole lot different from the child-raping/marrying branches of the LDS, or from the Man-Boy Love folks and other pedophiles, in their self-justifications. Some of their young initiatory sex partners are probably fine with it and fine afterwards, but given that those least likely to be able to say “no” or express doubts are those most likely to have been previously abused as children, I believe the risk of causing lifelong trauma to even one person makes the practice indefensible.

      Reply
      • Sara Amis
        Sara Amis says:

        Well, you start with a misapprehension. It’s not that I don’t consider that there may be a context of power-over in some teacher/student relationships…it’s that I think that IS the central problem, and the sexual ethics of it are a product, not the root. If your tradition is riddled with that dynamic, it WILL be abused, and focusing on a particular aspect of the abuse only blinds you to the rest.

        My position is that if you have an unbalanced power relationship with a student, deal with that. If your tradition does sexual initiations, let them know UP FRONT before they have invested time, energy, and emotion into it. Let them know what other options they have (other teachers, other traditions, different approaches to the issue). And taking a student as a lover (outside of a ritual context) is the moral equivalent of sexual harassment, for certain.

        I find the Frosts repugnant. But the problem is that they are manipulative, self-aggrandizing, and culty, not just who they are having sex with. One might as well say that because some people have used being a Pagan teacher as a means to defraud people (I am thinking of someone specific, who cut a swath across the Southeast and was finally arrested in New Orleans), that no one should EVER charge money to teach a class on Pagan religion. Money is definitely just as much a locus of manipulation and corruption as sex, and it can also be very personal…but people react to improprieties with it differently. Somehow, people don’t react to a case of fraud (which can also ruin someone’s life) with the same sweeping assertions.

        For the teachers to think carefully about the power relationships they are engaged in and modeling for (hopefully) future teachers as well, is supremely healthy. I just don’t think we all need to come to the exact same conclusions in order for the solutions to be ethical. I agree that there should be accountability, preferably from peers in the same tradition. (How to enforce it when someone won’t listen is a whole other issue). For how I think people should deal with it from the student’s end, see my list of red flag behaviors above.

        Reply
  12. Rebecca McClard
    Rebecca McClard says:

    Powerful words and one hopes that people will read and comprehend. Thank you, for truly these things need to be addressed. Those that would silence the victims or just turn away are no better than the predators that stalk any community.

    Reply
  13. JoBeth Sexton
    JoBeth Sexton says:

    BAM!!!
    VERY well said!
    Thank the Goddess that there are people like you in our community, who are not afraid to S P E A K.
    I, too, have a huge problem with this type of thing and will not stand for it in anything that I am involved in.
    Thank you for posting this.

    Reply

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