Consent culture, sovereignty, holy embodiment

Content warning: violation of boundaries; non-consensual touching

I have to say, I’ve been reading some of Thorn Mooney’s posts over at Patheos Pagan and I’m a fan of her writing style and the subjects she covers. I may no longer consider myself “any fucking flavour of Wiccan at all,*” but she’s still managed to inspire me in my witchcraft practice, and the rest of her stuff is just good.

Such as this week’s post: Pagans, Hugging, and the Fine Art of Consent: A PSA. Seriously, well worth a read. In fact, I think it should be REQUIRED reading before people attend pagan festivals.

Predictably, there were a few comments from people who think their entitlement to others’ bodies trump personal sovereignty — to them, I say, “Hug without my consent and get your ass cursed.” In fact, can I get that on a tee-shirt? That would be awesome. But the rest of the comments were good, from people who truly understand this issue.

A lot of pagans like to say the body is holy — well, the holiest thing about your body is that it’s yours. It belongs to you and only you, and only you can say what happens to it. 

In theory. In practice, we live in a kyriarchal culture that teaches us to disregard consent and to feel entitled to others’ bodies. It starts in childhood and continues on to adulthood. This shit can be hard to shake; it can be difficult to learn how to draw clear boundaries, to tell people when they’ve violated them.

Story time. I am not a confrontational person. Yes, I rant on my blogs, but that’s the equivalent of venting to my S.O. when I get home from a social gathering — not the same thing as bringing up things in person. It actually makes me acutely uncomfortable to inform people when they’ve violated my boundaries, or to even draw those boundaries in the first place. Why? Long story; summed up with “trained that way (by the kyriarchy)”.

I realize this is an issue. It’s one I’m working on. I do need to be better at delineating my own boundaries. That’s not in question here.

But.

I went to a Beltane event a few years ago. It was my first time attending Beltane put on by that particular group. I was excited, because Beltane is one of my favourite holidays, and I was getting to celebrate that year’s with my then-boyfriend and my then-wife (now fiance and ex-wife, respectively).

It was as Neo-Wiccish ceremony, which didn’t bug me, really. I can find meaning in things. However, there were two things that happened that were direct violations of my boundaries and personal sovereignty — and when they happened, I was in so much shock I couldn’t muster any proper rage until far past the event.

One was my being forced to participate in “Women’s Mysteries.” There was no option for people who were uncomfortable with binary-gendering, and you HAD to go to the one that matched your assumed gender. If I’d presented as male that day and they’d not realized I was AFAB, I would probably have been kicked out of the Men’s Mysteries when the naked wrestling started. (How do I know there was naked wrestling? Because the women’s mysteries were so BORING that my wife and I escaped and snuck off to watch the men’s mysteries. We didn’t get very close, though; there was a guard. And before you argue that watching the men’s mysteries makes me a terrible person, let me remind you: I was forced into boring mysteries that nonetheless reinforced some severe dysphoria for me to the point of almost being triggering, and I had to get away, and there was no where else to GO but to watch the men’s mysteries.)

The other thing happened when it came time to pass a kiss around the circle. I had no issues with this, as I was standing between my then-boyfriend and a female friend of mine — I didn’t mind kissing them. I have issues kissing strangers. The High Priest had issues with this, however, because he stated the kiss had to be “male-female”, stopping me from passing the kiss to my female friend, and kissing me without consent on the lips before I could say anything.

You should be feeling pretty grossed out right now. It was a gross thing.

I haven’t been back to that particular group’s Beltane since this event happened (I went to their Imbolc in 2012 because it was different people in the group running it), and when I see the guy who kissed me against my will at any events I walk the other way to avoid him. I have heard that the event organizers are working towards being more inclusive of genderqueer identities, at least, so there IS improvement happening. But it doesn’t change the fact of what happened to me, at a pagan event.

Would this happen at an event like pagan pride? Perhaps not. Events like that are open to the public, so the rituals tend to be a bit tamer on the sexuality side — I’ve yet to see a kiss passed around a circle at pagan pride. However, I know that people get groped or otherwise touched without their consent at events like pride — so it’s not like this was an issue limited to this one group. It’s sort of endemic to pagan subculture. (If I had a dime for every time I’ve been touched without my consent…I’d have a lot more jars in my life. #witcheslovejars)

The point is, we — as pagans — have to be better about this if we truly want to grow our communities, if we want to build communities that are truly supportive of everyone in them, not just the old guard. We have to get better as respecting others’ sovereignty — especially if we honor gods or goddess of sovereignty (there are quite a few of them out there!). Even if the gods don’t come into it at all, we need to be better at this. If we truly do believe that the body is holy, sacred, a temple — then bodily sovereignty should be the BASIS of all our interactions. If we truly believe in the sacredness of embodied life, then there should never be any incidence of hugging or touching without consent. 

I’m not trying to state what all pagans believe with these statements. Rather, I’m referring to the numerous comments I’ve seen in DEFENSE of non-consensual hugging that have been along the lines of “Pagans believe the body is sacred, therefore hugging is sacred!” That line of reasoning is inherently faulty. If you truly do believe the body is holy, then you cannot argue for the presence of non-consensual hugging, nor state that people who have issues with hugging should just “not come to pagan festivals”. I mean, you can, but you’ll look like someone whose logic chip short-circuited beyond repair and then no one will listen to you about anything.

The thing is, I think the people making this argument truly don’t understand how EASY asking for consent can be. Really, very easy — assuming you can handle a response of “no” as just a “this person is not a hugger” and not a personal rejection — yes, even if you see them hugging someone else. Some of us have levels of knowing people where hugging is okay for close friends/family, but not acquaintances.

Here’s the script.

You: (meeting someone new for the first time) “Hi there, nice to meet you. Welcome to [pagan festival]. My name is [name], and I’m a hugger. Are you a hugger?”

Them: “No, sorry, I don’t like hugging.”

You: “No need to apologize! I am still very pleased to meet you, and you are welcome here.”

OH MY GODS, SO EASY

Or even easier: open your arms and say “Do you hug?” When they say no, shrug, smile, and say “That’s totally cool.”

On this issue, it’s easy to be better. It really is. You just have to take that extra step to make it a habit — just like you did with your daily meditation, or weekly ritual, or monthly devotion, or whatever habits you have in your pagan life that you built over time. And yes, you might fuck up. It happens. Apologize and aim to do better next time.

Look, even I have trouble with this and I’M NOT A HUGGER. Why do I have trouble with this when my instinct is to NOT hug people I don’t know? Because a lifetime of socialization that taught me I was a bad person for not wanting to hug people I hardly knew has dulled my ability to HEAR my instinct — and this is not limited to me. Lots of us are socialized that way from childhood and it can be difficult to break a lifetime of conditioning. That conditioning led me to believe that everyone likes hugs, and that I am the strange one for not wanting them — so I need to buck up and just hug people, or they won’t like me. It took me to adulthood to realize that wasn’t true, and that I wasn’t alone.

So yeah, I get it — new habits are hard to build, old habits are hard to break. But compared to some of the other areas where we can work on bettering our world, this shit is downright easy. And I don’t know about you, but I want to raise my future kids in a culture where they understand they are allowed to refuse hugs, that they are allowed to draw lines in the sand, to state their boundaries. It would be great if the pagan subculture was a place where they could feel safe to declare their boundaries.

So give it a whirl — if not for yourself, then for future generations of pagans.

And if you’re still in the camp of “I’m never going to ask permission and people can fight me off when I come in for a hug if they don’t want one,” well. No one will have any sympathy for you when you get punched in the face or someone summons a murder of crows to peck at you. I am just saying.

-Morag

*Others may look at my practice and decide I am a flavour of Wiccan because of the bits that cling to me like lint. They would be wrong.

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