In my last post I talked a lot about consent and the maintenance of boundaries. Those are both important topics for us to talk about as a community, which makes it something I’d normally cover on this blog. That post went further than I thought it would, though, and I got a lot of feedback on it – especially since it went up on Witchvox. And one of the comments that came up again and again was that I talked about establishing personal boundaries and how important that was, but I didn’t go into how to do that.
I didn’t think that was something I should address. This is a very individualized thing, and there’s no one answer for everyone. Which was a lapse on my part. Knowing where we stand on issues of sexuality and consent is so intertwined with community support of those boundaries that we really can’t talk about one without addressing the other. After all, it’s hard for the community to support us as we enforce our personal boundaries when we haven’t individually defined anything yet!
While this is a very individualized thing, and there are no wrong answers, there are wrong approaches. So that’s how I’ve decided to tackle the topic.
The Approach We’re Given
Here’s a visual of what most of us start with, I think:
For the sake of argument let’s say that the top line in that graphic is the concept most of us probably grew up with: the only permissible sex is with a married spouse in the dark in the missionary position strictly for the purposes of procreation. The bottom line represents the Pagan ideal that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred.
These are the two extreme poles we as Pagans generally start off with. These are the theoretical standards we’re supposed to work with in the real world, when we’re dealing with real people and real emotion. Notice all that grey there? That’s where those theoretical standards get fuzzy, when real life makes those simple standards unexpectedly complicated. And the space between those lines? For most of us our personal boundaries lie somewhere in there. It’s simply up to us to figure out where we draw our own clear and distinct lines in all that space.
I say “simply”, but for many of us it’s not. Simple, I mean. Figuring out where we stand can take some pretty heavy internal work. I’ll be honest – it took me several years, working in the sex industry, and a vow of celibacy to get my internal mess sorted out. I didn’t know where to start when it came to grappling with this topic, and I had some personal issues besides, so it took awhile.
I could do something like provide a list of rules here. I do like my lists, and I could do something like the Ten Commandments of Sex. But I refrained. For one, I’m no Cosmo. And anyway, the way to figure all this out for yourself isn’t to get the answers from someone else but to ask yourself the right questions.
So here is the way I approach the whole topic, the questions I ask myself. It is by no means set, and I’m still tweaking the concept, so feel free to take what you find personally useful and discard what you don’t. I’m posting this in the hope that it’ll encourage thought among those who read this. As always, whatever works for you (so long as it’s legal!) is what you should go with.
My Approach – The Fleur de Lis
The fleur de lis is a stylized lily blossom and is an ancient symbol often associated with ideas of purity and chastity. Through the Middle Ages the symbology became more specific, and each petal came to represent a different concept within that frame: Faith, Wisdom, and Chivalry. The band at the bottom that ties the petals together is the unifying force between all of them.
Over time I have adopted the symbol as my own, and it’s become how I visualize my sex life. Each of those four concepts categorize a whole slew of things to think about and get comfy with prior to getting naked with someone else.
The Band – Sharing
I have a history of using sex to fulfill other needs – connection, touch, forgetting, approval, distraction, release. And sex filled those needs fairly well, at least temporarily. However, when using sex to fill other needs my partner became secondary to the whole thing. They were faceless stand-ins for what I really wanted, self-directed dildos I used for my own gratification.
It took a bit for me to recognize what I was doing, and even longer to understand what that meant for my partners. I was dehumanizing every partner I had. It was all about me, what I needed, what I wanted. And once I figured it out I was pretty horrified. Even with my head all messed up I understood that what made sex sacred was the sharing aspect, the feedback of pleasure and intimacy that can exist between two people who come together openly and honestly. I wasn’t doing that. I was using, not sharing. And since I wasn’t sharing with them, they weren’t sharing with me either – which meant they were using me too.
Not ok, not from any perspective.
So that’s the first question I have to ask myself. What’s my personal motivation when sex comes up, using or sharing? When we’re clear in our heads that this is an experience we want to share with the person in front of us, and that the experience alone is the goal, then we can move forward with the idea. Otherwise, without that sharing, it’s demeaning to everyone involved.
The Left Petal – Faith
The faith this petal requires is faith in myself, trusting my inner thoughts/feelings instead of what other people tell me I should think or feel. This has become much easier over time, but at the beginning of things I was utterly clueless.
One of the things I’ve struggled most with is the fact that I simply don’t feel romantic or sexual attraction the way that movies and books and the people around me told me I should. I never have. But instead of trusting that, going with that, I kept trying to force myself to somehow “get past it”. I had this idea that my sexuality just had a really screwy lock, so if I could find the right key I too could enter the world of teen rom-coms and marital bliss.
By the time I was a junior in high school I didn’t care if I was straight or gay or bi or pan or anything else, so long as I found the key that worked. Or maybe it wasn’t a partner-based thing, but an experience or technique my particular lock needed. That was possible, right? So I experimented with everything, for years, hoping that one day I might find the key I needed.
It didn’t even occur to me that I could relate to my sexuality in a way different from the people around me and still be a warm, loving person with a fulfilling sex life. I was basing my identity on what people told me, instead of what I innately knew. And that seriously screwed my life in ways I didn’t understand until much, much later.
Once I started trusting myself, though? My eyes were opened to a whole spectrum of relationship configurations and approaches to sexuality that might not be mainstream, but certainly fit my needs better than anything else I had found previously. And once that happened sex became much more fulfilling and whole-hearted than it had been before. It’s easier to share when I know what I’m sharing, and it’s easier to be open and honest with partners when I know what’s inside of me and accept it as it is.
Now it’s not many out there that have this particular issue, but the question posed by this petal is still valid – am I trying to express my sexuality using other people’s standards or my own? By trusting ourselves to know ourselves better than anyone else does we lose the need to justify our sex life to others. That helps us find methods of sexual expression that work for us, and allows us to be much more honest and authentic when we’re sharing with others.
The Right Petal – Chivalry
Chivalry is a word that evokes images of knights on chargers adoring a far-off lady in a tower. It refers to an entire elaborate code of honor that was the pinnacle of medieval nobility. In this context I use it to refer to my own honor and ethics when it comes to sex.
It’s pretty simple. If I’m not comfortable doing it (or at least talking about it) on the front page of the newspaper than I don’t do it. At no point during the act, from foreplay to aftercare, should I feel dirty. Or ashamed. Or guilty. I should never worry that the sex I’m having is unethical, or that I’m bad or wrong for having it. Sex cannot be demeaning or humiliating (some people get off on that, so it’s fine for them – I don’t so it’s not).
This applies to my partner(s), too. They’re part of this too – sharing, remember? If they’re conflicted, then the sex is conflicted, and I share in that conflict. That’s not ok, and I won’t be a part of making someone feel bad about themselves or their sex if I can possibly avoid it.
This covers a ton of ground. Are either of us chemically altered? Are either of us involved in other relationships that have rules around this kind of thing (as so many do)? Are either of us lying about what we’re going for here, or under any false pretenses? Has any sort of pressure been used on either side to make this happen, that might make consent questionable? And a thousand other questions that fall along these lines.
So that’s what this petal asks – am I behaving honorably by having sex with this person, and do I trust this person to behave honorably when having sex with me? If there is the slightest doubt here, sex probably isn’t the best idea. These conflicts take away from the sharing aspect of sex, make it harder to connect with each, and could lead to actual harm. None of those are OK.
The Center Petal – Wisdom
This petal refers to my ability – my responsibility – to be an adult when it comes to my sex life. I am in charge of my personal safety. It’s all the unsexy parts of engaging in a sexual relationship, that I have to personally answer and then effectively communicate to my partner. After all, if I can’t talk about this kind of thing to the person I’m having sex with, then I probably shouldn’t be having sex with that person.
Everyone’s list here will be different. It changes depending on circumstance, but here are a few possibilities:
1) Have I been tested for STIs (including but not limited to HIV) recently? What’s my status? How about my partner? Do I have this person’s contact information in case something health-wise comes up later that was unforeseen, and do they have mine?
2) What safer sex practice(s) are necessary here, and which will be used? Can I handle the consequences should those safer sex practices fail? Can my partner?
3) Have I arranged all the safe calls or other safety nets I might need to ensure physical safety?
4) Are there any potential spiritual/magickal side-effects with this? If so, is that desired or not?
5) Are the Powers with which I’m involved ok with this? How about the Powers my potential partner works with?
These questions normally come up during the negotiation phase, and they’re important. This petal is all about physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. If anyone involved doesn’t feel safe and secure, then they’re going to be more occupied with keeping themselves safe than sharing sex. Which of course hits points on the other petals, and brings the entire encounter back into question, thus restarting the process.
Only when I have satisfactorily progressed through all parts of the fleur de lis is sex acceptable and within my personal boundaries.
Notes About Approach
Notice that the above guidelines don’t say anything at all about what kind of relationship status I have with someone before the sex. To my mind a one night stand can be sacred, and sex with a long-term partner might not be, depending on how it fits the framework.
The guidelines also don’t single out any specific acts as particularly sacred or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about how we approach it.
Like I said, figuring out our personal boundaries when it comes to sexuality is a very individualized process. How any of us choose to approach it, and the boundaries we come up with during the process, are ours and ours alone. Once we know them, though, we’ve got a system we can use when working with others, and a system our communities can help support and enforce in more public settings.