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.
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.
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.