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!

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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.

In the Wake of Tragedy

This has been a hard morning for all of us, and my thoughts are a bit scattered. I’ve had a hard time putting everything in words, to be honest, but here goes anyway.

For those who don’t know, here in the US we recently had a peaceful protest against police brutality – specifically the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling – interrupted by sniper fire. Five police officers lost their lives and more were wounded. It’s the deadliest law enforcement attack since 9/11.

The death of those police officers in Dallas is a truly terrible thing. I have so much respect for our first responders (remember, valuing the police and wanting them to actually obey the law themselves are not mutually exclusive!), and seeing them ambushed was horrific. I in no way condone what happened.

However, my relationship to the police is very different than that of black people in the US. As a white femme ciswoman I see a cop and feel safer. I don’t fear getting shot in my car when I’m pulled over for a traffic violation. Should I be arrested I’m not scared I’ll die in custody. I can’t picture a scenario where cops gun me down outside of a convenience store, or walking down the stairs, or playing in the park.

Black people DO fear those things, though. Justifiably so. In case you’ve forgotten every single one of those above scenarios has resulted in black people – even black children – dying in the last year alone.

I can’t imagine the heartbreak of the families in Dallas, but I can’t imagine the heartbreak of watching my boyfriend shot to death beside me with my child in the backseat either.

Thing is, I know damn well that every single resource will be made available, and every effort will be made, to both apprehend the people who murdered those police officers and prevent the same thing from happening again. I have no such faith that the deaths of Philando Castile‬, and ‪ ‎Alton Sterling‬, and every other black person shot by cops will receive the same level of care and attention. They certainly haven’t before.

ALL of these bodies can be laid at the feet of the racism infesting our criminal justice system like a plague. Peaceful protests and speaking out hasn’t fixed it yet. How much violence do we have to see, and how many people have to die, before we buckle down and commit to fixing what is so obviously broken???

Racism and Covenant of the Goddess

There’s a lot of unrest going on right now in the US. In several different cases around the country, unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers. None of these officers will be tried in a court of law for these deaths.

I haven’t been commenting on this much. I’m about as white a white girl as it’s possible to be, and the cops aren’t nearly as likely to respond violently to me as they are to a black person. There’s really nothing I can say on this topic that isn’t being better and more appropriately stated by black people. Because of that I’ve preferred to simply hold space for those who are unfairly targeted, showing my support by promoting black voices above my own.

Until tonight.

Tonight the Covenant of the Goddess, a well-known Pagan group, issued a statement regarding these events. Here’s the statement in its entirety:

“We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

Today, we the members of the Covenant especially stand together with people who are not privileged by race and class and say to you: Your life matters. We stand with you and work alongside you in ending the systems that disenfranchise you. We encourage and support all efforts by those within our communities to explore the realities of racial inequality and to work to find ways to eliminate these injustices. We hope this will create a wave of introspection and reflection throughout our world, bringing about new levels of understanding and an appreciation for the unique expression of the Sacred we each embody. We stand together with communities seeking nonviolent means of safety and reform, for the unnecessary harm of any person is an affront to the Sacred and is in contrast to our central ethical tenet: An it harm none, do what ye will. May the work we do together today create a peaceful and just tomorrow. “

And this response is useless. It’s actually worse than useless, because the mealy-mouthed way it’s written allows people to feel like they’re taking a stance without requiring them to actually understand why a stance is necessary.

The first paragraph refers to “inequalities in justice”. Which ones? It’s never specified. That’s a shame, because we’ve got quite a few to choose from. Is this addressing the refusal to try police officers for killing unarmed black men? Is it referring to the recent Native American land-rights issue before Congress? Both? Something else? It’s never once explicitly said. Quite a feat in an official statement. As Pagans and polytheists we know the power of names. Why not invoke them in an official document of all places?

The first paragraph also specifically uses the phrase “all lives matter”, simultaneously referring to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and pointing out how utterly clueless the authors of this statement are. Because while yes, all lives matter, all lives are not being systematically and disproportionately targeted by our justice system. Black people are MUCH more likely to be killed by police officers than white people are. Saying “all lives matter” as an alternative to “black lives matter” has been pointed at, again and again and again, as yet another attempt to disconnect the inequalities in our justice system from race and thus derail the conversation.

The second paragraph then goes on to say absolutely nothing of importance or use in a grandiose way. It’s like politician-speak. Which systems disenfranchise those who are not privileged by race and class? What realities of racial inequality? A wave of introspection and reflection about what exactly? How does CoG, a Wiccan organization, distinguish between necessary and unnecessary harm? What kinds of safety and reform would CoG like to support or help bring forth? What are they actually going to do, besides make mouth-noises?

Nothing is specifically called out. Nothing is addressed or pointed to as a problem. Nothing is named. This statement is as devoid of meaning as the blank screen it was originally typed on.

I decided these problems needed to be addressed. So I rewrote it. Here’s my statement:

“I, a proud polytheist and member of the larger Pagan community, acknowledge that modern American society is sadly rooted in racial discrimination. In the wake of recent events – the very public deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, and the many other similar cases now coming to light – denying, dismissing, or ignoring the racial bias in our society,and especially our justice system, is unconscionable. I believe that it is our sacred duty to stand up to and speak out against injustice wherever we may find it, and even more so when that injustice actively harms other people.

Today, I especially stand with the black community, a community treated as lesser by our shared justice system because of the color of their skin. I say to you: Black Lives Matter.

In support of that belief I will work to end racial injustice in the following ways:

I will hold space for you to share experiences I will never experience myself solely because I am white.

I will listen to what you say and learn from your stories how to be a better ally in the struggle against racism. Furthermore, I will not rely exclusively on members of the black community to teach me about racism and its effects on society – I will do my research and teach myself all I can about it, because I too have a responsibility towards ending it.

I will share those experiences and lessons with other white people who might not understand that these things happen, and are real, and are a problem, because they have never themselves experienced them.

I will speak out against racially-driven injustice privately, publicly, and in the voting booth.

In doing these things I stand with every other person fighting against racial injustice.  Only by working together to understand the realities of race in America can we hope to eliminate racial injustice entirely.

We are all interconnected with and dependent on each other by the ground beneath our feet, the blood in our veins, and the Powers with Whom we engage. May the work we all do today lead to a more peaceful and just tomorrow.”

There. That’s better. That’s a damn statement.

Ending racism isn’t a fight we can win by making grand gestures and empty promises. We’ve tried platitudes, and we’ve tried fuzzy feel-good statements, and still a disproportionate number of unarmed black people are getting gunned down in the streets. Or in stores. Or apartment stairwells. That’s not ok. It’s just not. It’s been 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement – have we learned nothing?

The only way we can win this fight is to actively engage in it. We must commit. As above, so below. As without, so within. We can’t just say the words and make the gestures and leave them both hanging there, unsupported. That won’t accomplish anything, brings us no closer to our goals. We have to acknowledge the problem, clearly state our intent, and we have to move from problem to goal by actively doing something.

That’s why the statement I wrote is written the way it is. That’s the kind of thing we need from our leaders and our Elders. Please, give us fewer platitudes and more plans. Give us less kumbaya bullshit and more uncomfortable truths. How can we work on improving ourselves if we can’t work on improving our world, and how can we possibly expect to learn from the Powers if we can’t first learn from each other?

Pagan Men and Patriarchy

I haven’t written much here lately. To be honest, most of my attention has been wrapped up in discussions/debates about the UCSB shooting in other forums. Those discussions have been so draining I honestly haven’t had the energy for much else. And I didn’t have the heart. I had just finished a whole thing on consent in response to the Kenny Kline situation – what more could I say?

Well, according to my tired fingers, lots.

I don’t think it can be argued that we live in a patriarchal culture with a prominent layer of misogyny. The silver lining to the Rodger rampage is that the misogyny has been exposed for viewing in a way we can’t ignore. It seems like everyone I know has had at least one conversation about the #YesAllWomen hashtag, about rape culture, about male privilege. Misogyny might be “the way it is” now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can change it.  The question is how.

Again and again, as I’ve participated in these discussions, it’s occurred to me that Pagan men have a somewhat unique perspective when it comes to the fight against patriarchy and misogyny. In most cases, these men voluntarily stepped away from faiths dominated by a patriarchal Father-god to embrace faiths that include a Divine Feminine. That’s huge.

As a result of that step, they’ve learned whole new ways of relating to masculinity, femininity, strength, and power. Some of the most passionate feminists I know are Pagan men. They are pioneers, working with women to confront power-over structures and find alternatives. I’m not saying that Pagan men are the only men doing this kind of work, but they’re doing a lot of it!

These are exactly the kinds of lessons other men need to learn if we’re going to address the issues brought to light by recent events, and in my opinion, these lessons are going to be most effectively taught to men by other men. There’s definitely something to be said for effective role modeling!

I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about all of this and couldn’t find the words. Luckily, a bunch of Pagan men can, and have, and did. They stated this better than I ever could.

Here are some of my favorite posts Pagan men have made recently addressing these issues. May you be as encouraged by the reading as I was.

Dude, It’s You” by John Beckett on Patheos

“’Men Need to Decide if They Want to Stand Up and Be Allies’: Dude, It’s Not About You” by Anomalous Thracian on Thracian Exodus 

Thoughts About Being a Man” by Phil Brucato on Satyros Phil Brucato

Misogyny and Killing Sprees” by Adrian Moran on Looking for Wisdom, Ancient and Modern

Pagan Men Speak Out on Patriarchy and Misogyny” by Tim on Intersections and Circles

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex: A Guide

Many of us grew up hearing every variation possible of “sex is bad for you and will turn you funny colors”. There was guilt and shame associated with having sex, with our bodies, with our pleasure. Most of this sex negativity was community-enforced and dumped on teens who were already flailing around trying to figure all this crap out anyway. There was no defense against it, so most of us absorbed it to greater or lesser extents. It’s not like we had another viable model to follow!

Sex Negativity 101.

Sex Negativity 101.

And then came Paganism. For many of us Paganism was our first exposure to a sex positive environment, where sex wasn’t feared but embraced. Doesn’t The Charge of the Goddess explicitly state that “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”? Sex went from morally reprehensible acts done in the dark to sacred celebrations.

We all know what Beltane's maypole represents!

We all know what Beltane’s maypole represents!

We learned that the path to being a good Pagan was through indulgence, not restraint. Hedonism, not asceticism. And while the attitude was different, the pressure to conform to the community standard was still there. When I came in to the community it was pretty well accepted that those who didn’t embrace the Pagan ideal of sexual freedom were obviously still dealing with whatever rules they were raised with. Eventually they would get past all that repression and join with the rest of the Pagan community. Pun intended.

And oh, did that create some potential problems. When the community emphasis shifted from sexual repression to sexual permissiveness, exploitation and abuse situations shifted too.

In this new sexually permissive environment saying “no” and “that makes me uncomfortable” suddenly became rebellion against community pressure. After all, didn’t all good Pagans ditch those sexual limits when they ditched their old faith? What, you still haven’t overcome all that Christian upbringing? Then why are you here? There was way more pressure encouraging sex than not. Add in the fact that, for many, Paganism is the first time they’ve ever felt accepted and the pressure to conform was even greater.

But if saying “no” and “that makes me uncomfortable” was bad, did it necessarily follow that everything had to be a “yes”? There were people out there who honestly didn’t know. The situations were all different but no one was talking about how to handle them.

Safely and successfully navigating a sex positive environment takes a whole different skillset than most of us learned growing up. And it’s not like Pagan groups regularly cover this stuff, either. Newbies are expected to just kinda pick it up as they go along, and since there’s no real hierarchy in the community there’s no one designated person to go to if we run into problems somewhere.

We as a community cannot allow our members to be victimized if there is any way to possibly avoid it. It’s time for us to step up and better care for our people.

Why is this a concern, anyway?

For those who have not been keeping track, there was a lot of drama recently around a fairly prominent Pagan author and musician named Kenny Klein who was arrested on child pornography charges. When news of his confession and arrest got out, people from the larger Pagan community started coming forward with their own allegations against him. Allegations that, when reported at the time, were downplayed or rejected or ignored. Some of these allegations go back almost 20 years, and many are from teen girls who were targeted by Klein during festivals and events.

Needless to say the fallout has been extreme, and everyone has been wondering how this was allowed to go on for so long.

My take? We had a bunch of people in a sexually permissive environment who suddenly didn’t know what was and was not ok, who were unsure of their rights, and who didn’t know what to do or who to go to when something bad happened. The victims were confused and scared, and the rest of the community was confused and divided over responses. I saw this concept popping up several times in the article above, in the quotes from people Klein victimized.

We have to do better.

What can we as a community do to help prevent victimization in the future?

There are two things everyone in the Pagan community needs in order to prevent victimization: empowerment and safety. “Empowerment and safety for everyone!” should be our new rallying cry when we think about our community spaces.

Victimization is a lot less likely to occur when people know exactly what is ok and what’s not, understand how to navigate these complex situations, and have a guaranteed support network from their entire community if something bad happens. Uncertainty and secrecy are the tools of predators. Let’s do our damnedest to take them away.

The first thing we need to do to make that happen is figure out a new code of conduct. The old rules we relied on to prevent victimization were all based on ideas of sexual repression. When we ditched the repression we ditched those old rules, and Paganism as a whole community has not yet replaced them with something that works with ideas of sexual openness. A commonly held set of community guidelines would take away the confusion, and give us at least the seeds for a united community response to violations.

I figured I’d do my part to get that particular ball rolling. So here are my Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex.

What are the Six Rules?

I’d like to state up-front that I couldn’t care less about the specific activities a person chooses to engage in. As long as all people involved are happy then all’s well. These rules all address the interpersonal skills needed before, during, and after indulging in those activities.

These rules are:

1) No means no. Period.
2) Negotiate your sex prior to getting naked.
3) Altered people can’t consent.
4) Sex space is safe space.
5) What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
6) Don’t be that guy.

No means no. Period.

This is a big one. No one can touch you without your expressed consent. You and only you are in control of who touches you and how they touch you – I ask if hugs are ok until I know the person well. That extends to hair, jewelry, clothing, and anything else that is not community property.

Permission given once does not mean that that permission is given forever. It can be revoked at any time for any reason. And agreeing to a touch from one person does not extend that permission to anyone else.

If someone says “no”, whether it’s for a conversation or a touch or sex, that “no” is accepted at face value. There is no “trying to talk someone into it”, no questioning it, and no justification required. A simple “no” should end whatever the hell is happening immediately, and a “no” can be given at absolutely any time. You’re in the middle of ritual sex and one of the people involved suddenly feels uncomfortable? Then that sex stops, on a dime, and the person who put the brakes on it can’t be hassled about that decision.

Boxing gloves should never be required.

Boxing gloves should never be required.

This has to be community enforced. If for whatever reason someone isn’t listening to someone else’s “no”, other members of the community should damn straight step in and assist, up to and including removal of the person with boundary issues. No one should ever feel unsafe.

Negotiate your sex prior to getting naked.

Agreeing to sex doesn’t mean your partner now has total freedom to do whatever they want to you. Agreeing to have sex means you’re agreeing to have sex. How that sex happens still has to be decided. That’s negotiation.

The preferences and boundaries of all participants have to be made very clear before anything happens, and everyone has to be ok working within those expressed boundaries. “I’m ok with this, and love this other thing, but if you do that I’ll have to kill you so don’t.”

Yeah. Talk about it. Even if you think you already know the answer.

Yeah. Talk about it. Even if you think you already know the answer.

Negotiation requires a lot of honesty and communication, but it’s another way to help make sure everyone feels safe. Regular partners can usually boil this down to a short-hand form, since they’ve negotiated before, but it’s still an important step. Things could have changed.

If anything is not specifically agreed to during negotiation, it’s not done in the heat of the moment. Coitus – especially with a new partner – is not the time to whip out the surprises. But saying no at any time is perfectly ok.

In other words, agreements during negotiations are not binding, but refusals are.

If the idea of talking about sex like this makes you uncomfortable, you might want to reconsider whether you’re ready to engage in sexual activity at all. If you can’t talk about it you probably shouldn’t do it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sitting out until you’ve figured out what you’re ok with, either. I have personally witnessed negotiated “sex” that was three hours of a guy brushing a girl’s hair. And that was perfectly ok. No one present gave it a second thought – except to comment on how gorgeous her hair was.

Sometimes negotiations break down in the middle, and that’s ok too. Maybe the only thing you like sexually is the one thing that freaks your negotiation partner right the hell out. Or vice versa. Aren’t you glad you figured that out before getting naked?

Altered people can’t consent.

People cannot consent if they are chemically altered in any way. If you get drunk or high before the event, stay the hell home. If someone shows up to an event who is drunk or high, don’t let them in. If you were a little enthusiastic with the mead cup during the event, leave if possible or tell someone in charge what’s going on so they can look out for you while you sober up. If the person you want to have sex with is drunk or high, don’t have sex with them.

Here is a handy guide for what you CAN do with someone who’s altered. Fun times!

On this note, the endorphins released by your body during sex are also drugs. Naturally occurring drugs, true, but drugs all the same. That’s why negotiations are done before the sex and not during the sex. Someone suddenly being open during sex to something they were not down with during negotiations? That’s the endorphins talking, and does not constitute consent. They’re altered. Talk about it after the sex, and if they still want whatever you can always have sex again and include it.

Sex space is safe space.

There are a bunch of different types of people involved in the Pagan community, and for many of them the Pagan community is the only one in which they feel completely accepted.

Discrimination in any form – racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, size-phobia, ageism, etc – is simply not acceptable. Anyone who expresses or acts on any of the above is not helping other people feel safe and should either leave or be removed from the area. That goes across the board in general, and is even more important when sex is on the table. Getting naked makes people feel vulnerable enough in this society. There’s no excuse to make that worse.

See? They get it!

See? They get it!

This also extends to the types of activities people are doing. If someone is doing something that makes you uncomfortable, it’s not your right to interrupt them or make them feel bad for liking whatever it is (unless there’s a clear consent/safety issue). You don’t have to watch it either, though. Simply remove yourself from the space, quietly and without fuss.

I’d put relationship drama under this category too. Dragging your relationship drama into a space where people need to feel safe isn’t cool – it drags in a bunch of bad vibes that these people did not sign up for. If you run into an ex, or start that big break-up fight with a soon-to-be ex, take that noise elsewhere. There’s no reason to make everyone present uncomfortable with your personal issues.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Or wherever.

This is another way of making sure people stay safe. Who does what to whom is not discussed with anyone else. You can talk about the event in general terms, and you can certainly discuss what you did, but names and/or identifying characteristics of other people are not yours to share. So don’t. Respect the fact that some people have reasons for not advertising their involvement in whatever went down, and it’s not your right to question their decision. We’re all adults here, and maintaining confidentiality is respectful.

However, if something happens that makes you unsafe? If you see someone else feeling unsafe? If someone is victimized? Then fuck confidentiality. Report it immediately to whoever you can find. Safety trumps confidentiality every time.

Don’t be that guy.

There are a few special rules for those who are doing their thing in group settings, which for Pagans is generally at festivals and conventions. Different venues may have different rules, but these are fairly standard. If you find yourself in one of these more public venues please follow these guidelines. Please.

that guy

A little courtesy goes a LONG way in these situations!

Do not perv on someone having sex in front of you. You can watch. You can get turned on. Depending on the rules of the space you might even be allowed to masturbate. But don’t get right on top of them to watch, don’t interrupt them, don’t ask to join in while they’re in the middle of things, and don’t have a loud conversation right next to them. It’s just rude. Keep a respectful distance away and make sure your enjoyment of what you’re watching doesn’t interfere with what they’re doing.

Clean up after yourself. Dispose of used safer sex materials in the appropriate place. Wipe things down. Sanitize surfaces. Take soiled linens to wherever the soiled linens are supposed to go. Keeping people safe doesn’t just mean emotionally – when body fluids are present there are physical health concerns too.

Keep activities to the designated space. Usually there’s a “social” area and a “sex” area, and the two are kept distinctly separate. Respect that, and use that. Do negotiations in the social space, so that the rules are set before you get lost in the middle of things and agree to something you wouldn’t otherwise be ok with. Overwhelmed in the sex space? Hit the social area. I’ve done entire events in the social area, and that’s ok. Things start heating up between you and your soon-to-be sexual partner(s)? Move it to the sex area. You might be fine having sex in the social area, but that chick in the corner who feels brave for sitting in a chair around naked people won’t like it nearly as much. Respect the space, and by doing so respect the needs of the other people present.

I can see the value of these rules, but how do we start applying them in a Pagan context?

The more that comes out about the people affected by the Kenny Klein situation the more obvious it is that whatever the Pagan community has been doing thus far to keep people safe is not working. We need to try something new.

Hence my posting this. Read it. Share it with your friends, your working group, the people you see at the next PNO, those at the next festival or convention you attend. Discuss it. Disagree with me, even! Because as long as we’re actively engaging these topics we’ll pay better attention to them.

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.

Community support is the most important thing here.

This is HUGE, and it can only happen if we work together.

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.

We might not have these skills and processes in place, but we can. This is my place to start. What’s yours?