Sexual Assault Allegations Against ADF Founder Isaac Bonewits

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland, just released a new book called The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon.

Avalon

The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon by Moira Greyland. Available here on Amazon.

While the book overall speaks of horrible things (and the author herself is problematic in several ways), one of the bombshells within is the accusation that ADF founder Isaac Bonewits not only asked Bradley for permission to rape six-year-old Moira, he was apparently already raping another child.

“When I was at Greyhaven, I had some unfortunate run-ins with an individual from the Pagan community named Isaac Bonewits. Some people called him the ‘Pagan Pope’. He was a frequent visitor to Greyhaven and a friend of my parents… One day Isaac came to my mother when I was six years old, and told her he wanted to have sex with me. He told her there was a girl just my age at the commune he lived in and she had had sex with all the men there [which would have included Bonewits], and she was so ‘free’ and so ‘uninhibited’ that it would be ‘good for me’ to do the same thing with him.”    ~Moira Greyland, The Last Closet

Greyland later alludes to some time spent unwillingly in a basement with Bonewits but refrains from giving further details.

Bonewits and Bradley are both dead. In the era of #metoo, what are we to do with this information?

The ADF’s Statement

The ADF has already released a statement about these accusations on their Facebook page:

To Our ADF Members and the Pagan Community:

It has recently come to our attention that an allegation of sexual
misconduct has been made against a late, former leader of ADF, Isaac
Bonewits. This claim has been made in a newly released book and dates back
to a time prior to ADF being founded in 1983.

To all who have experienced any form of harassment or abuse, we understand
that the process of reaching out for support and reporting your experiences
can be extremely difficult and the impacts of those experiences can often be
felt for months, years, and a lifetime after the fact. Please know that we
reach out to all who have been so afflicted with compassion and care.

In our commitment to create a safe and respectful space for all ADF members
to worship, we have created clear organizational policies and practices.
Leadership Conduct and the safety of our members are taken very seriously.
Our Sexual Misconduct Policy can be found at
(https://www.adf.org/…/org/docs/policy/sexual-misconduct.html) [and then they quote from the policy]…

With the creation of the new Human Services Specialist position, we seek to
make ADF a place that is safe for all of its members, visitors, and leaders
alike. We strive to extend our hospitality to all and to insure that
everyone can worship and interact without fear of being harmed in any way.

Blessings,
Rev. Jean (Drum) Pagano
Archdruid, ADF

This statement, in my opinion, is weak. They don’t directly confront the accusations at all. They simply mention them and quickly move on to stating their love and care for victims. Then they reference their established policy and mention a new staff position (which is fab, and gives me hope that we’ll see a better response in the coming days).

So ok. Maybe they’re still working out a response. What about the policy they reference, though? Is that better?

ADF’s Official Policy

I find the ADF’s policy severely lacking.

  1. At no point is consent mentioned.

    I’ve blogged about consent before, especially in this post. Without a clear and unambiguous understanding and promotion of consent as a guiding concept, from the most established clergy to the newest member, I think we’re going to keep having problems with this. And here the ADF falls short.

    They “commit to practice” things like “love” and “respect”, but that’s not specific enough. How does that look in practice, specifically with sexual situations? We really need to see this spelled out a little more. I’ve addressed this before with my Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex, and still stand by what I said there. While an understanding of consent culture as a whole won’t stop cases of abuse, I know from first-hand experience in other communities that it will greatly reduce them.

    Openly navigating sexual situations is frankly a skill most Americans aren’t taught, and any organization that hopes to be safe for all people needs to step it up in that area. That includes the ADF.

  2. Sexual misconduct is defined too narrowly in one crucial area.

    According to the policy as written, “sexual misconduct occurs when a person with authority [emphasis mine], either real or perceived, uses their position to obtain sexual favors or behaviors of any kind. These persons in authority include, but are not limited to, clergy, elected or appointed ADF officers, ADF employees, sub-group volunteers, and Grove/Protogrove leaders.”

    So… by definition, a member can’t sexually harass or assault someone of equal or lower rank within the organization? Really, ADF? I’m hoping they didn’t mean it to come out that way, but that’s certainly how it reads. That could convince someone looking for reporting how-tos that their situation doesn’t qualify, stopping them before they start.

    And speaking of…

  3. The three steps of the reporting process are bloody AWFUL, y’all.
    “The first step in stopping sexual harassment is to directly inform the person involved that his/her conduct is unwelcome, a violation of ADF policy, and that it must stop immediately.”

    Ok, fair enough on the surface. But. What if the victim can’t speak? Is frozen? Doesn’t specifically mention ADF policy when rejecting advances? Uncomfortably, nervously waves down a friend and runs towards mutual support instead of directly confronting their harasser and possibly escalating the situation? Are they per this policy now unable to report what happened? And more importantly, if they consult this document before reporting and realize they didn’t follow all of those steps, do they now believe that they can’t make a report, even if the ADF would in fact consider it valid?

    “If the allegation is about a criminal act, it must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities.” [emphasis mine]

    This straight up tells victims that, in order to report what happened, they have to agree to get the cops involved. From what I can tell this is unlike all other official complaints made to ADF, which have an array of options with which a victim might be more comfortable, including mediation (as outlined here in the ADF’s Standard Operating Procedure, although that appears to be a member’s only document).

    There are many, many reasons a victim might be hesitant to pursue legal options. Doing so involves police involvement, rape kits, possibly testifying in court, reliving the event over and over again, opening themselves up to the horror/rage/disbelief/judgment that might be directed at them by other ADF members (which we’re already seeing in the Bonewits case), etc. Maybe they’re still closeted, even, and coming out as a sexual assault victim under their particular circumstances would also mean coming out as Pagan (which is still dangerous for many people).

    This policy blocks all other avenues, meaning folks who don’t want to jump through legal hoops simply won’t make a report.

    There’s also a time limit on criminal prosecution. Thirty-four states have a statute of limitations on reporting rape. Does the ADF follow those guidelines in regards to internal reporting? Can a victim deliberately wait until after that limitation to make a report and so bypass the required reporting rule? If the statute of limitations applies to ADF reporting, the justification for such a decision needs to be explained. If that statute doesn’t, the ADF needs to justify the criminal reporting requirement in the first place.

  4. Those making “false accusations” are threatened with expulsion from ADF, but no guidelines are given for what is required to substantiate an accusation. That alone could make victims hesitate to come forward.
    “[T]hose making false allegations and/or providing false information will be subject to disciplinary action by the Mother Grove, up to and including expulsion from ADF.”

    Statistically, “[o]nly about 2% of all rape and related sex charges are determined to be false… [but] people claim that allegations are false far more frequently than they are and far more frequently than for other crimes.  Put another way, we are much more likely to disbelieve a woman if she says she was raped than if she says she was robbed, but for no good reason.”

    With that in mind, what are the criteria for determining an accusation is false? The accused not being convicted in a court of law? Statistically, only 310 of every 1000 rapes is reported. Out of the 310 rapes reported, only 6 lead to a conviction. Using those numbers, does a victim have a 97.1% chance of being drummed out of the ADF – their spiritual home and source of comfort in trying times – when their report doesn’t end in conviction either? Is some other standard used to determine truthfulness? We need some more clarification here.

The document isn’t that long. I shouldn’t have this many questions after reading it.  Addressing these points in the near future would, in my opinion, go a long way to proving ADF’s ethical stance.

Where To From Here?

Regardless of Bonewits’s actual guilt or innocence in this case, it’s well known that there’s a sexual harassment/assault problem in Paganism. There has been for quite some time. We’ve all heard stories – big names all the way down to randos at festivals.

For instance, I blogged about Kenny Klein and the Pagan approach to sex in general in 2014. At the end of that post I offered a series of suggestions for addressing the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the Pagan community.

I offer the same suggestions to ADF and its members today.

I’d like each and every one of us to start taking responsibility for what’s happening around us. If you see something that makes you or someone else feel unsafe, say something. Speak up for those who, for whatever reason, have difficulty speaking up for themselves. If someone isn’t being heard, add your voice to theirs. Do not be silent. Safety wins out over secrecy every time.

I’d like to see our communities stop silencing those who speak out and start taking complaints seriously, especially if more than one complaint is brought against the same person.

I’d like to see communities adopt safe space guidelines and then enforce them.

It would be wonderful if someone in each area stepped up to serve as an educator and advocate for those who have questions or encounter problems.

Every young person in our community needs to be taught these rules as soon as possible, so they know how to draw a boundary and what to do if that boundary is not respected.

If there’s a big community Beltane ritual consider offering a class on Safer Pagan Sex – even if no sex will be occurring at the event. Let’s do our best to get everyone on the same page where this kind of thing is concerned.

I’d also like to see every festival and group hold regular classes on what is and is not ok when it comes to Safer Pagan Sex – especially if that festival or group is either having ritualized/magickal sex or has an officially-sanctioned “sex area”. Even better would be making this kind of class required for anyone who wants to participate in the ritualized/magickal sex or visit the designated sex area.

Along with this, festivals and groups would ideally specifically designate people to serve as educators and advocates, just like I suggested above for individual communities. That person should be both very visible and easily available, so they can be found quickly if they’re needed.

I’d like to see training offered to anyone and everyone who wants more information on how to help out newcomers, how to handle complaints, and how to address ritual/magickal sexual abuse in a Pagan-centric way that is healing and sacred.

Imagine what changes such policies could make in our community!

At minimum the ADF would do well here to acknowledge the accusations, distance themselves from Bonewits (like maybe taking his picture off of their Facebook page’s banner), not attempt to silence those speaking out, update and revamp their reporting standards, and perhaps incorporate lessons on the FRIES version of consent into the new Dedicant Path framework (whatever that ends up looking like) and any further clergy training.

Any work beyond the minimum would be gladly welcomed and appreciated. Anything less than that simply isn’t acceptable from an ethical Pagan organization. And certainly isn’t acceptable for one I continue to be a part of.

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The ADF’s Statement on #Charlottesville

Back in December 2014 I shared the very tepid official statement from Covenant of the Goddess on police violence, and my rewriting of it.

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) released a very different kind of statement in response to #Charlottesville.

I have included it below in its entirety:

From the ADF Mother Grove:

Last Saturday violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. Neo-Nazis and
white-supremacists marched in the name of hate, intolerance, and violence.
Heather Heyer, one of the many counter-protestors, died standing up to
these monsters and many others were injured when a car was deliberately
driven into the crowd.

We as a nation and a world stood up to Nazi ideology more than 70 years
ago, and defeated it with the mentality that we would never see it return
to power. Fast forward to today, and we see these racists no longer living
in the shadows and causing violence, mayhem, fear, and death.

In response to this senseless tragedy, ADF’s Member’s Advocate reached out
to those members local to Charlottesville and made sure they were safe. We
will continue to work toward an inclusive environment and welcome people
from all walks of life, ethnic origins, and races.

As a safe haven and a pagan church, ADF denounces the actions by these
racists on not only on Saturday, August 12, but we denounce all of their
past and future rallies of hate. We stand against their ideology of racism
and intolerance. We condemn these groups for appropriating our ancestor’s
symbols for their own nefarious uses. As a church which uses Indo-European
myth and symbology in our worship, we want to be clear that we stand
opposed to these hate groups.  We as a church we stand together with all
the other pagan groups and churches in denouncing these white nationalists,
and together we will work to prevent this cancer from ever returning.
___________________________________________________________

Now that is a statement. Clear, concise, definitive, firm, and calls it all out by name. Well done ADF!

Eclipse/New Moon Prayer Ritual

I’ve been inspired by Stevie Miller over at Grundsau Burrow. She’s been holding regular formal prayer rituals of late and I think that’s a damn fine idea. I’m hopping on the bandwagon and joining in. In these trying times we need all the help we can get!

That being so, when better than the coming solar eclipse? I’ll be continuing this practice on every new moon for the foreseeable future, but this seems like a great time to start!

solar-eclipse-clouds

This is an open call for prayers to be ritually made on your behalf on August 21st. If you would like to participate, please let me know your name and what you’re praying for so I can add you to the list and do the prep work. You can comment here, tag me on Facebook, PM me, email me, whatever makes you comfy. And feel free to share! I’m taking the whole day off to make this happen, so let’s get it rolling!

I will stop accepting prayer requests at 5:30a EST, August 21st.

*Note: I reserve the right to refuse prayers for anything I find ethically dodgy. Thank you for your understanding.

The Virtue of Courage

In the wake of #Charlottesville my Facebook feed has been overflowing with folks shocked and outraged by both the eruption of violence (although anyone surprised hasn’t been paying attention) and the fact that Nazis are once again an active public force in 2017.


Don’t think it was straight-up Nazis, or don’t know what went down? Here’s an on-the-ground look. Disturbing footage – you have been warned. 

I’m assuming that everyone reading this post is firmly in the “Nazis are Bad” camp, so I’m not going to belabor that point. I also don’t want to overtalk the POC and Jewish folks who need the floor right now.

However, I would like to discuss a tangential issue that keeps coming up: the guilt many are feeling because they’re not out on the front lines clashing with Nazis face-to-face, shedding blood for the cause.

Examples abound. “I wish I could protest, but I’m not able-bodied and wouldn’t be able to physically protect myself.” Or, “I would be out there, but I have two young children and can’t leave them without a parent if I’m arrested/injured/murdered.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I can’t get off of work to protest without losing my job!” It’s like they feel lacking in some way, like they’re not being courageous enough, and they’re apologizing for it.

Let’s unpack that.

What is courage, anyway? 

Courage is a virtue honored by every Pagan/polytheist path I can name. Even beyond that, though, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and when the chips are down we picture ourselves as heroes. Or even superheroes. And if – when – we fall short of being the heroes we think we should be we beat ourselves up for it.

A poster from the Wonder Woman movie with the tagline

Hero: One person, or a member of a very small group, advancing relentlessly in the face of an overwhelming force, armed with the strength of their convictions and protected by the blessings of the Gods.

It wasn’t always like that, though. Ancient polytheists valued courage too. Thing is, they defined courage differently than we tend to, and that naturally manifested in a different view of heroes.

Here, this says it better than I can:

“Aristotle describes each virtue as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness on the other.

“To be courageous is neither to shrink from your best action on account of fear, nor to foolishly go into danger when no good is likely to come from your doing so. This means that what is courageous for one person may actually be cowardly for another, and rash for a third, depending on the abilities and situations of the individuals. For a small seven-year-old to fight a large eight-year-old bully may be courageous, when it would be cowardly for an adult to act in the same manner, and rash for a four-year-old to do so.

“The key to determining the mean in the case of courage is deliberation about what good is threatened, what options one has to protect that good, and what the likely outcome will be using the different options. The course of action which does not sacrifice the good to fear, when one has a likelihood of protecting it by taking action, is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, and hence is the courageous one.”

Deborah Kest, Right Action – A Pagan Perspective, ADF

By those standards, Wonder Woman was courageous. As a superhero, her charge could conceivably make a real difference and she didn’t let fear stop her from making the attempt. Anyone attempting to emulate her would be considered rash, though, because they would have immediately died on the field without accomplishing anything. That doesn’t make everyone not Wonder Woman a failure, it just makes them human.

Ancient heroes were often blessed in some way, demigods or magical or whatever. They could do things beyond the human. That’s what made them heroes. Those of us without those blessings could never hope to measure up. Which is fine – we weren’t expected to.

In the ancient world, heroic deeds were inspirational benchmarks, not standards to be met.

Most of us are more prone to caution than recklessness, right? Were I somewhere with bullets flying I’d be way more likely to hunker in my bunker than charge screaming across a battlefield. Thinking of Wonder Woman might be the inspiration I needed to act instead of being paralyzed by fear.

On the other hand, if I were prone to being reckless? To not thinking things through? Those in the bunker would be inspirational, because that extreme would be the harder one for me to reach.

True courage lies between hunkering down and brazenly charging down the throat of a stronger foe. Hitting either extreme means we’re missing the mark. Courage is the sweet spot in the middle.

Nazis win if we quietly keep to our bunkers. They also win if all those protesting them die in the doing. No matter which extreme we’re talking about we wind up with no one kicking Nazi ass. And who wants that?

Courageous Responses to Nazis

Each of us has our own mean, our own courage sweet spot, based on our own individual circumstances. We simply have to find it.

It can be hard to find that sweet spot in the moment, though. If we’re hardwired to hide we’ll do that by default until we have time and space to process. If we’re more prone to lash out we’ll do that until we can rein it in. Our instinctive responses will happen before our brains can catch up.

Martial artists are familiar with this phenomenon. That’s why they practice the same moves over and over until they become instinctual. They’re deliberately rewiring their brains so that the training overrides their instincts.

We can do the same thing when it comes to courageous action. While most of us don’t want to live a life where crisis becomes routine, it does help to work out our logic trees in advance of a crisis. When it comes to Us vs. Nazis, we’re better off if we’ve at least grappled with the theory a little before we go about putting ourselves in harm’s way.

So let’s grapple with Aristotle.

1. What “good” is being threatened? What are we protecting?

Bam.

An image of people throwing the Hitler salute on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. The caption is

I can’t make it any plainer.

Nazis directly and violently threaten our communities, our friends and neighbors, our families, and ourselves. They’re fascist, racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and homophobic. Many of the homegrown version are theocratic, too. I don’t know about you, but damn near everyone I know falls somewhere on their hit list. All of those targeted groups need to be protected.

On a greater level, the Nazi threat radiates beyond our communities onto the world stage, especially considering the power America wields. Imagine the might of the US military in the hands of Steve Bannon and his fanboys.

With courageous action against Nazis we can help protect every citizen on earth. That’s a pretty important thing to do!

2. What are our options? What can we do to protect what we value against Nazis?

There’s a whole wide range of responses we could make here, from deciding to “focus on happier things than politics” to “drawing and quartering every Nazi we find”. I don’t find either of these options to be ethical (and I hope my readers don’t either!), so I’m not going to discuss them. That said, what are some ethical things we can do?

  • Show up ready and willing to physically throw down with Nazis in public protests.
  • Serve as support for those physically protesting (supply bottled water and food, disperse information for planned protests, host planning meetings, offer crash space for those coming in from out of town, offer transportation, offer a safe retreat option if things go south, help protestors network, etc.).
  • Take classes in de-escalation tactics and first aid and/or help other people get trained.
  • Learn self-defense and/or teach it to others.
  • Help protesters and targeted groups with self-care or networking.
  • Step in when witnessing a one-on-one case of Nazis harassment, or call the cops if stepping in isn’t advisable for whatever reason.
  • Show up to speak out against Nazis in public forums, knowing violence is unlikely but possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis in face-to-face situations unlikely to lead to violence, such as with family and friends, knowing you’re risking those relationships.
  • Actively amplify the voices of those targeted by Nazis.
  • Cut ties to those who espouse Nazi views, letting them know why you’re cutting those ties.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance knows to employers, both your own and those with whom you do business.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance known to the employers of known Nazis and the companies with whom they do business (hotels, web servers, gyms, restaurants, etc).
  • Write letters to your government representatives linking your anti-Nazi stance to recent events.
  • Speak out against Nazis online, knowing that doxxing and other types of reprisals are possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis online anonymously.
  • Refuse to let Nazis rebrand themselves, or apologists to do it for them. Call out Nazis where you find them as Nazis, without using whatever more palatable term they come up with. (Notice how many times I specifically say “Nazi” in this post? There’s a reason for that.)
  • Write, sing, dance, paint, and put on theatrical productions that show how bad Nazis are – there’s certainly PLENTY to work with!
  • Recommend those creative works to others and support the creators.
  • Form a book club to collectively read and discuss pertinent works (The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, and Number the Stars are all classic options).
  • Prepare hidden rooms in your home or on your property to hide victims of potential purges without posting that shit online! (An extreme, I know, but it is an option for any upcoming dystopian hellscape… ).
  • Get passports for you and yours in case you need to leave the country as a result of doing any of the above.
  • Leave the country to ensure the safety of yourself and your dependents while continuing to speak out against Nazis from the outside.

Please notice that these options aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also not an exhaustive list.

3. What are the likely outcomes/consequences of taking these options? What are the likely rewards?  

There’s no hard and fast answer to this because every person’s circumstances are different. Publicly stating anti-Nazi views in cosmopolitan New York has a very different range of likely consequences and rewards than doing the same in, say, Middle-of-Nowhere Oregon!

Keep in mind that the key word of this whole step is “likely”. Sure, we could catch Ebola tomorrow, but it’s not a likely scenario and we shouldn’t plan our lives around the possibility. However, that means that part of being courageous is staying informed. How do we know if something’s likely or not if we refuse to see what’s really happening around us? Information is power, always, and in this case information helps us make the best choices possible.

By confining our options to “likely” we improve our chances of finding that happy spot between “letting fear guide our steps” and “being reckless with our health and safety”.

Consider too that Nazis are making the same decisions we are, with the same consequence/reward balance. Factoring that in helps us more accurately judge a given action’s effectiveness. Besides, discouraging Nazis from being Nazis is its own reward.

4. What is the best action I could take when protesting Nazis? Which option demonstrates true courage?  

Something I find fascinating about Aristotle’s breakdown is that, by his standards, our feelings about it don’t really matter. We can feel scared or cocky or anything in between, and that’s fine. Courage relies on what we do, not how we feel about that choice. That’s why the article quoted above is titled “Right Action” instead of “Right Feeling”.

A courageous act is one that is the best choice available for the greatest good possible from a given set of options, regardless of our fear or lack thereof. It’s less berserker and more chess master.

And that leaves room for all of us to courageously protest Nazis to the best of our abilities and circumstances, with the only shame being the refusal to try.

May we all try our best.

To the Resistance!

The Elephant in the Room: Racism in Tarot Communities

This post from Tarotprose came across my feed recently and I immediately felt the need to share it. Written by a queer person of color in the Tarot community, it mirrors similar experiences I’ve heard from POC in the general Pagan/polytheist community too.

“I believe we should all feel safe and welcome [in the Tarot community] and to be completely honest, I haven’t always felt that way… I do not think anyone should feel threatened by the shared space they are part of. I do not think anyone should feel uncomfortable. I do not think racist acts should be ignored, silenced or tolerated. Tarot readers of color should not be forced to choose between silence and safety.”

This post outlines specific instances of racism this reader has experienced in what should have been a safe space. Do they ring any bells for you? For your community? For any POC you may know? We have to do better, folks. This is unacceptable.

AA Tarot

Three Major Arcana cards from the African American Tarot – the “black deck” mentioned in the original post, which was referred to as being inferior to a “normal” deck at a public event and then used to humiliate the reader. Which is a pity – that Empress is particularly gorgeous.

Sharing and brainstorming for solutions are welcome in the comments!

The original post can be read at Tarotprose.

Reclaiming My “No” and Consent Culture

The elements of Consent: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.

I walked out of a leadership training session this past weekend.

There were close to 200 people there, most having incredibly transformative experiences. I was encouraged to attend by a friend, and people I’ve never met worked behind the scenes to ensure I could. Investments were made with me, for me, to get me through the course. I met other people I liked there. And five hours before it was over, when all the hard stuff was out of the way, I calmly and lovingly explained myself to six different people who wanted me to stay and walked out.

It was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.

Prologue

A large bulk of my childhood was a series of abusive situations, and for awhile my adult life wasn’t much better. I learned early on, back when I was a very small child, that resistance – resistance of any kind at all, to anything – led to harm and pain. So I never really learned how.

I had exactly as much resistance to anything as a glass of water has to incoming ice. Picture shows a glass of water with a dropped ice cube just before it breaches the surface.

I pushed back as much as this water will when that ice cube finally hits it.

I filled whatever container I was given. I said, did, and became whatever was asked of me. I meekly accepted whatever happened, nodded and smiled, stuffed down every “bad” emotion and put on a happy face for everyone’s benefit but mine.

And all of it was a lie. Every single solitary bit of it. Because how could any “yes” be real when “no” wasn’t an option?

The Value of Consent

When I was in my early 20s a friend invited me out to a BDSM event. She said I would find myself there. I was a bit hesitant about the whole thing but I went anyway.

I’m glad I did. It was there that I was introduced to “Consent Culture”. It completely changed my life. (I talk about it here too, albeit in a sexual context. If you’re not familiar with consent as a code of conduct – or even if you are – maybe click the link and check it out. It’s that important.)

Consent Culture is based on the idea that every single one of us is independent, autonomous, and empowered. The rules are simple: a “no” is to be assumed in the absence of permission, stated boundaries are to be immediately honored and respected, and the power of the “yes” always resides with the one who gave it.

Consent – the “power of the yes” – is as easy as FRIES.

The elements of Consent: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.

Hooray for the elements of consent in an easy-to-remember form!

So let’s look at that.

  • Freely Given: A “yes” must be given only because the person giving it wants to. No guilt-tripping or other emotional manipulation. No ultimatums. No coercion or threats of any kind. The person saying it also can’t be in a highly vulnerable or chemically-altered state at the time. Permission is freely given or it’s not given at all.
  • Reversible: The person who said “yes” can change their mind at any time, for any reason, and that’s absolutely ok. Even if they agree to have a boundary pushed past a stated or signaled “no”, they still get a safeword that recognizes the reversal of their “yes”. The power remains theirs.
  • Informed: People can’t agree to do something if they don’t know what they’re agreeing to. It’s important to be clear at the start. Changes or unexpected developments require additional permissions, which must also be FRIES.
  • Enthusiastic: The person saying “yes” must be into it, excited about it, saying “Bring it on!”. This point especially relies on examining body language and tone. Reluctance of any kind is an assumed “no”.
  • Specific: Agreeing to one thing in no way implies agreeing to something else. Agreeing to something today in no way implies agreeing to it tomorrow. Each permission given is for that specific thing in that specific moment. Anything beyond that requires another permission.

Empowering and supporting people with the concept of consent is what allows us all to have real, valid choice. And it’s the act of choosing that moves us from a life we have to live to a life we are blessed to live.

“Yes” has no meaning without “no” to give it context.

The Training

Consent Culture is pretty much a given in the BDSM scene, most Pagan/Polytheist groups I’ve encountered, and feminist-oriented spaces. It’s also the baseline from which I operate. Sadly, however, it’s not widely understood in more mainstream society (although progress is being made all the time).

It was absolutely foreign to the training in which I was engaged. And while I get that the program is designed to push our buttons, and for some folks the framing is helpful, I found it all to be incredibly manipulative.

Throughout the course, over and over, it was reiterated that any resistance we felt towards the material wasn’t about the material. Of course not! It was, instead, the result of something undesirable in ourselves, something that the material would help us break through and/or overcome. They told us that our inner voice was not to be trusted and listening to it was self-sabotage. They told us that every trauma/illness we’ve ever experienced (up to and including cancer – that was specifically mentioned several times) was because we invited it in by not being positive enough.

And according to their rhetoric, anything other than agreement with all of the above was by definition wrong. Add in the fact that the speaker was speaking from a position of “authority” and it all seamlessly worked together to invalidate our “no”.

Furthermore, the whole premise was that we’re blocked or stymied by unnecessary internal walls we build throughout our lives. And I agree with that to a point. I even talk about it here, although using different terminology. Some of our boundaries are indeed arbitrary. However, some of them are necessary for health and safety. Never once were we offered a single tip or technique to help us discern the difference. I found that disturbing, and for some folks that could be downright dangerous.

With all that said, though, I’m a very results-oriented person. I’d heard amazing things about breakthroughs people had with these techniques. The friend who encouraged me to take the class said it changed his life. He had dozens of people on speed-dial who told me amazing things, too. I decided that, for the weekend, I would do my best to trust the process and go with it.

That worked until the last exercise of Saturday night.

It was completely based on platonic physical contact with other people. At first we were given a choice about our level of engagement. However, it was made very clear at the start that choosing anything less than the highest engagement level was deficient.

Ok then. I didn’t like the setup but I was still game. After a bit of that, though, even the illusion of choice was taken away. Not cool. I almost balked completely at that point, but I just wanted to be fucking done. So. Continue.

Then a guy grabbed me, painfully groped me, and propositioned me. In the middle of the exercise. Amidst 200 people.

A clown stands in the doorway of a scary overgrown building.

Not exactly a vibe that encourages trust.

Three strikes and I’m done. I found the entire exercise, from beginning to end, to be a demo of consent violations. The groping was just the cherry on top.

Between the low lighting, the speed we were moving, and my shock I honestly couldn’t say what the guy looked like. With no one specific to report I didn’t have much recourse. And if this guy was willing to behave that inappropriately in a room with almost 200 people, what would he be willing to do if there were fewer people around, or if he caught me alone somewhere? I couldn’t answer those questions, but I did know that someone there had already blatantly crossed a line. Given the tenor of the training I also had no reason to trust that anyone on staff, with the notable exception of the friend who encouraged me to go, would have my back. (That was later substantiated, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

So I did what I always do when threatened: put on my happy face, kept my back to the wall as much as possible, moved with purpose, and removed myself from the situation with urgency.

Once I got home and processed I realized that I didn’t want to let one guy ruin what until then had overall been a good experience for me. I decided to go back and finish it out. I’d already invested so much and worked so hard that staying home felt like quitting.

Vintage image of a woman in an apron rolling up her sleeves. Text reads

Rollin’ up my sleeves and gettin’ to work. Aw, yeah.

Sunday started out ok. I was trying my best to focus on the constructive parts of the event and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then we had an exercise where I stood in one place and answered the same question over and over while someone got in my face and yelled at me. I knew what was coming, knew it could be triggering, and knew I was still shaky from the night before. Because I knew these things I was careful to pick a partner for the exercise that in no way registered as threatening. I was as safe as I could arrange to be.

It was fine until two staff members I didn’t choose unexpectedly joined in. Suddenly I had three people – two of them in authority positions – getting into my face and yelling at me. The switch flipped.

I did not consent to that level of interaction, and my repeated attempts to say so – my “no” and “quiet” and “time” and even “red” – were ignored. Once more my consent was hugely violated. I no longer felt safe.

I immediately escaped the area, regrouped in the bathroom, and assessed my options.

  1. Stuff it all down, pretend everything was fine, and power my way through the little that was left. I was almost done, and I could have managed it without anyone being the wiser. However, the whole experience would then have been tainted for me, because I’d know I’d only gotten through it by falling back into my established patterns after a violation. I’m trying to break old patterns, not reinforce them!
  2. Create a huge scene, making the rest of the event all about these consent violations and how I felt as a result. However, no one would have been served by that. It wouldn’t have done anything to make me feel better, the feelings of my attacker were so not my concern, and it would have disturbed the peace and accomplishment everyone else was feeling from all of this.
  3. Exercise my power and agency by quietly informing staff about what had happened and then leaving. That choice allowed me to support my integrity by not accepting continued consent violations or behaving inauthentically, support the rest of the attendees by not interrupting their experience with mine, and support the aims of the program as a whole (even if I personally disagree with the approach and implementation).

With it laid out like that the choice was clear. I am, after all, a woman of power and integrity. So I walked.

Picture of Christopher Walken holding up a pair of boots. Text reads

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Walking Out

I didn’t just grab my shit and hit the door, however tempted I was and justified I may have been. I’m proud of that.

And let’s be real, they could have maybe talked me into staying with the right approach. I was almost done, and gods know I enjoy completion. What I needed for that to happen was threefold:

  1. Staff to acknowledge that there were consent-based issues that needed to be addressed.
  2. Assurance that I had their support if I decided to move forward with the program.
  3. Some sense that my experience (and the experiences of a few others I heard about while there, because no it wasn’t just me) would maybe inspire them to work on ensuring a safer space was created and maintained in the future.

That’s it.

The friend that originally encouraged me to attend got it, but he couldn’t do anything except help me leave.

The first (male) staff member I spoke with who had any authority tried to gaslight me, supported my attacker’s intent while calling me “reactive”, and majorly guilt-tripped me. The second (female) staff member tried more emotional manipulation, complete with tears, to get me to stay. Both of them, representatives of a program supposedly based on integrity and authenticity, advised me to fake my way through the rest of the training so I wasn’t disturbing the other attendees, abandoning my exercise partner, or blocked from further trainings with their organization.

Every non-supportive thing they did further violated my consent. Swallowing that, not standing up for myself and my integrity and my choices, would have let me down.

And they didn’t even see it.

As soon as that first staff member started spouting his nonsense it ceased to be about me. It’s not like I needed their understanding or some sense of closure for myself. All I could think about is what could happen if someone who wasn’t entrenched in Consent Culture encountered the same things I did. How much of that rhetoric would they internalize? I can resource other people as sounding boards and sanity checks – what about those people who can’t? How would someone else respond in the face of the non-support I received?

That shifted everything into a matter of principle. I put my teacher/priestess hat on and began to educate.

I openly and lovingly explained my stance, empathized with their confusion, and listened to their input. I acknowledged their experiences, offered mine, and even found some common ground. I didn’t shut down, didn’t get defensive, and used my active listening skills to create an environment of collaboration and sharing. I also did not cave and did not move.

When they were as at peace with my decision as it was possible for them to be, and I had at least introduced the foundations of consent, I drove away with a huge smile on my face.

Reclaiming My “No”

The whole experience put so much into perspective for me.

I guess I’d taken it for granted before that an organization offering this sort of emotionally intense training would understand the concept of consent. It absolutely blew my mind that they didn’t. When I brought it up I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

I don’t find that to be acceptable. How is consent not a universally understood concept yet? It’s 2017! I now have a burning desire to fix that, to bring Consent Culture to more mainstream people. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s something I’m actively thinking about.

An arm in a suit passes a flaming torch to another arm in a suit. Caption reads

Some torches need to be passed on.

I’ve been inspired to consider other, similar programs too. We’re all a work in progress, and parts of my experience were helpful. The one I attended doesn’t have a lock on guided self-exploration! Now I’m just looking around for a program based on consent. And you know what? If I can’t find one maybe I’ll make one.

I also take a lot of pride not just in leaving but in how I left. The gentle-yet-firm stance I took is one that felt beautiful and right. It’s also one that’s been difficult for me to reach in the past. I feel like everything snapped into alignment with that event, in that moment, and what would have before been a difficult thing to achieve instead became as natural as breathing.

Interestingly, walking away gave me the transformative event I was looking for. It wasn’t in the way I’d imagined, of course, but I’m learning that detours from my preconceived path are actually ok. That’s new for me too.

Overall I feel like I’ve entered a new zone, a new phase, and I’m really excited about what the new, powerful, secure-in-her-boundaries-and-choices Caer can accomplish this year and beyond. All because I reclaimed the power of my “no”.

Candles for an Uncertain Spring

I am an American.

I am also Polytheist and queer. My queer roommate is here in the US on asylum. My sister, who also lives with me, has a Hispanic last name. Of the two children in our house, one of them is disabled. Two of the above-listed people are trans.

We are 11 days into the Trump presidency, and while I am American I am also scared.

The dawn of this year’s Imbolc illuminates what is for many of us an uncertain spring. It’s challenging, I think, to appreciate the growing light when so much appears so, so dark.

sunrise

Sorry, I couldn’t find a picture as apocalyptic as my Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s just me, but Imbolc feels more poignant than it usually does. I find that I desperately need candles, and torches, and even bonfires to beat back the dark. I need purification and renewal, illumination and inspiration.

So I will take my inspiration from the following and let it define my Imbolc ritual:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Soon I will take a long cleansing shower, washing away the tension I’ve held since November. I will then go to my altar, and light candles, and invite the Powers to attend.

After that, I will stop compartmentalizing and burying my sorrow and fear. I will instead sit with them, and honor them, and then let them pass away. I will acknowledge that I could have maybe done more, and done better, but I will also recognize that the time for regrets is done now. It’s time to look ahead. Despair and hopelessness are luxuries that we can ill afford. I will do my best to leave them behind in this passing winter as I step into the coming spring refreshed and renewed.

And when I light a candle to honor a new dawn, I will do it with purpose. I will take the energies of this Imbolc and become a candle. I will commit to holding my small, fragile flame against the coming darkness. I will pay attention, and speak out, and help my neighbor as best I can, because only by combining all of our candles together will our light be bright enough to show a better path.

I will do these things. I Will these things. I WILL.

So mote it be.