All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Dealing with sexual misbehavior in our community
I was just in a rather dispiriting discussion of sexual predation in the Pagan community, sparked by an interesting piece in the Wild Hunt. The article was good. which is more than I can say for some of the discussion that followed.
The piece was about the decline of nudity at Pagan events and the reasons for it. But much of the discussion shifted to the related but different issue of why many women felt uneasy or defensive when sky clad at such events. Despite all the energy and more than a little venom that accompanied that discussion, one important issue remained unaddressed.
What do we do about sexual predation at Pagan events?
Those talking the most about it were long in criticism and short on suggestions. It certainly exists. Too many women report bad experiences for those of us men who have never seen it to doubt it happens. And I know it has happened in other Pagan contexts, but they are contexts where the community is powerless to influence it except indirectly. As when a teacher demands sexual access to a student- probably a problem as old as history.
Sexual misbehavior has existed in all societies and all communities. But it is worse in some places than in others. How can we as Pagans reduce its incidence among us? To find an answer I think there are several dimensions to keep in mind.
1. America’s cultural ethos. Not good on these issues but certainly better than India, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
2. NeoPagan cultural ethos as compared to American culture. (By comparison NeoPagans are sex friendly, woman honoring, and affirm feminine values.)
3. Individual personality characteristics. Some people avoid conflict, some seek it out, and some do not back down when confronted. These orientations influence how we act when we see something of which we disapprove. These qualities are to some degree independent of culture but they can be influenced by it.
4. Organizational contexts. Most people cut people in their their organization more slack than they do people in different organization’s. When discussing how organizations ‘went bad’ I often asked my class how many played team sports. Most did. I then asked how many saw a teammate cheat in a game. Most of those had. Then I asked how many reported the infraction to an umpire. Hardly anyone ever raised their hands.
We all have some in-group loyalty where we would give the benefit of the doubt to those in our group that we would not to those outside it. What is abstractly wrong, and which we would condemn if done by someone within a different group, might seem to have extenuating circumstances in our own group. We vary in how much we look the other way, and the extreme case is tribalism, but I think we all have it to some degree.
If individual Pagans fall to actively discourage a predator, or fail to report the action, or even belittle a woman's discomfort, that does not necessarily mean the community is flawed. It might. But it could also be organizational dynamics and it could be individual failings. There are three possibilities. And they interpenetrate.
Our community is not oriented towards approving or tolerating sexual predation or aggression. It's dominant values are in the opposite direction. The challenge is to strengthen those values in our interactions within our own community, including within the organizations within it of which we are a part. Given that these factors interpenetrate, how do we strengthen cultural values and limit organizational solidarity in violation of those values and how do we strengthen the likelihood individuals will intervene effectively when they see these values violated?
My basic point is that the more public the disapproval of an action the easier it is for some one else to act who otherwise might not when they see a similar action repeated. Public attention is central.
This point has been repeatedly demonstrated in psych experiments, for both doing more good actions and for stopping or condemning more bad ones. We are social critters as well as individuals. We shape and are shaped by our networks. So we can shape the networks that in turn shape us.
The more often sexual misbehavior is exposed, the easier it becomes for others to do the same in the future regarding other misbehavior - and so the riskier that misbehavior becomes. Community norms get stronger when more members take them more seriously- and the best way for that to happen is to see them taken seriously by others and to see bad behavior exposed and condemned. That is why I liked Jason Pitzi-Water’s article about Marion Zimmer Bradley's involvement with child abuse. Some of us defended her book "Mists of Avalon," (I did) but no one defended what she did. Just as importantly, many people praised Jason for making the issue public.
This widespread approval of Jason's actions makes it easier for others in the future to do the same when this kind of thing happens. And it will.
It also makes it riskier for others to misbehave. Some of those who might go either way will behave. In doing so they improve their own inclinations as well as strengthen the power of our culture.
Never fully solved
The problem will never be fully solved, as it has never been fully solved in any human community. Sexuality is too powerful an energy for everyone to handle wisely, and probably for anyone to handle wisely all the time. I certainly haven't. But there is a big gap between always being wise on these issues and being or tolerating a predator, however the term is defined.
To make the issue more complex, often sexual situations are ambiguous. When does appreciation become staring? People differ, and they may well differ depending on who is doing the looking. Disagreement, honest disagreement, is inevitable.
Back to festivals
But certainly continued efforts to get physically close to someone or unauthorized touching when told not to or coming on verbally when asked to stop are unambiguous, and deserving of expulsion from large gathering. This behavior is hardly illegal, but we are not talking law, we are talking strengthening our basic community values.
Festivals can do what Pantheacon does (and possibly many others do as well) and have people appointed to hear complaints of misbehavior. Seeing or hearing about one or two people ejected from a gathering and not allowed back will have a salutary impact on might-be would-be predators and the women they might otherwise target. But for this to work requires both a festival willing to kick such people out and attendees willing to report them. The more people know it happened in the past, the more likely they will be to report it if they see it in the future. Publicity again.
The issue is not what some suggested in the Wild Hunt discussion: that voluntary nudity even among adults be eliminated at events that are currently clothing optional. Plenty of predation takes place when people are wearing clothes. Rather it is learning how to strengthen community cultural values when they conflict with the biases involved within an organization or the weaknesses of human character.
Addendum the next day
I prefer using the term "misbehavior" over "predator," the term that dominated the Wild Hunt discussion. Not because there is no sexual predation; the Marion Zimmer Bradley and Kenny Klein cases demonstrate it does. But the unpleasant experiences reported by the loudest complainers fell very far from those examples. Never defined, the term extended from serious crimes to persistent unwanted attention, or perhaps simply unwanted attention. Those folks avoided concrete details.
I think "misbehavior" is a better all encompassing term. All genuine predation is certainly misbehavior. Other people blatantly looking at you too much when you are sky clad is misbehavior but seems to me very far from predation. Predation implies violence and as such is justifiably illegal. Misbehavior falling short of that may or may not be illegal, while still not being violent except perhaps metaphorically.
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