Promoting Consent Culture in the Pagan Community

by Yvonne Aburrow

It's good that the Pagan community has been making more efforts in the direction of creating a safer space (though no space is ever going to be 100% safe, I suspect). However, we need everyone - both potential harassers and potential victims -  to understand consent culture. We cannot assume that only newcomers to the Pagan community will violate others' boundaries, nor can we assume that only old hands will do so. There is potential for both.

The existing  system of leaders keeping an eye out for perpetrators and steering people away from them has several issues (it is potentially useful as part of a wider strategy, but no good on its own). The people who do this cannot know about all the perpetrators everywhere. Perpetrators can commit violations in one sub-community and when they get chucked out of that one, move onto another one and do it all over again. (I myself am aware of perpetrators who have been ejected from one community, only to move on to another community to do it all again there.) It is also subject to the "he said, she said" problem - that one group of people will believe the victim, and another group of people will believe the perpetrator. So I don't have much faith in the existing system.

This is why Pagan events need to adopt a code of conduct. Recently I attended an event that had adopted the Pagan & Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct. I went to one of the organisers to report a violation; the organiser said that others had also reported similar, and that the individual concerned would be spoken to, and if necessary, banned.

What is rape culture?

The way I see it is that wider society is a rape culture. What does that mean? It is a society where violation of consent is routinely validated, approved of, and promoted. Where the existence of valid consent is constantly erased and undermined. The view of mainstream culture is that women should not have sexual desire. A woman who does have sexual desire is viewed as deviant and a "slut". Because she is viewed as an object and not a subject, once she has become sexually available, she is therefore available to all men, and can be raped with impunity. A "pure" woman, on the other hand, has to be cajoled and persuaded into sex. Because she is seen as not wanting sex, she can only consent if she is offered an inducement - the security of marriage, a nice dinner, a few drinks, a compliment. (Obviously this is a caricature of mainstream society's views, but you can see echoes of this as being the underlying attitude in many conversations and interactions.)

Paganism is a subculture that seeks to regard women as subjects and to validate women's sexual desires. However, the attitudes of the mainstream can and do find their way into Pagan discourse, because not everyone is perfectly acculturated to the Pagan world-view, and because we are still subject to the influences of mainstream society. 

Preventative measures 

In their chapter in Pagan Consent Culture, Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown present a four part model, which is summarised below, though I would strongly recommend reading their chapter, as it explains in considerable depth how they arrived at this conclusion.

1) Reducing motivation to abuse -- done on a societal / communal level (what are the wider societal factors that promote abuse, i.e. rape culture?)

2) Reinforcing internal inhibitions (shame, knowing right from wrong, empathy for others) -- “How can we all develop a state of mind that makes us more likely to take others’ consent very seriously.”

3) Strengthening situational barriers (procedures or systems that protect potential victims) -- "This is the area most ripe for action, because it is where communities, groups, covens, organizing committees and so on can have influence."

4) Reinforcing the individual victim’s own defences (to coercion, physical means etc) -- "This is the last level of defence and if the rest of the pagan community does nothing at levels 1-3, this puts the potential victim in the position of being entirely responsible for defending themselves. Hopefully the more active the community has been at earlier levels, the less likely action at this level is to be needed."

Creating consent culture 

This is how I think we need to go about creating consent culture.

(1) promote consent culture within Paganism and wider society, e.g. run workshops about consent, promote conversation about what consent is, what consent culture is, etc.  Embed consent culture within the Pagan world-view by relating it to Pagan theologies and mythologies. (These were some of our aims in continuing and spreading the conversation about consent culture by editing the book.)

(2) promote the code of conduct, because what this does is to create a situation where both potential victims and potential perpetrators know that the event staff & organisers take consent and violations of consent seriously, and will act on reports. Obviously the Code of Conduct is not going to fix the issues on its own - it is only one prong of a multi-faceted approach, which includes holding workshops, writing articles, etc. Absolutely no-one has suggested that it will fix things on its own, and we would be incredibly naive if we did. This approach worked really well in the SFF and IT communities - we didn't invent it.

(3) educate everyone about consent and what it means, as this will strengthen individuals' resistance to violations, and discourage potential perpetrators from committing violations.

There is no quick fix

If there was a single "magic bullet" that would fix things, someone would've done it by now. Warning people about perpetrators is still a strategy that's worth doing; promoting the code of conduct is worth doing; holding workshops on consent will help, promoting consent culture will help.

It was noticeable that having a code of conduct immediately increased people's confidence in the willingness of the organisers to do something. However, having a code of conduct does not mean that all that needs to do has been done - in fact, having a code of conduct is only the beginning of a long process and a wider conversation that needs to be had.

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