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?

In Support of a Pagan Laity

“Clergy” is a loaded term for any faith, but it becomes especially problematic when coming at it from a Pagan perspective.

Definitions vary, but for me the difference between “layperson” and “clergy” is fairly basic. Most people focus their spiritual practice on themselves. Their spirituality is largely self-contained, and their personal spiritual fulfillment comes from their own connection with Divinity. Others find that their spiritual practice and fulfillment is dependent on serving others. Both of those types of people would fall into what I consider to be laypeople. However, when a need to serve combines with a calling to some sort of leadership role we get clergy.

This important and distinct difference gets glossed over entirely too often.

I think the line gets blurred because most of today’s Pagans are converts from other faiths, and they’re converts because the faith they grew up with didn’t meet their needs. When they finally find a faith that speaks to their soul, they just jump in without checking in with themselves first. By the time they do that they shrug and keep forging ahead, afraid of losing that spiritual home.

Personally, I tried really hard to force myself to be Christian when I was younger. It didn’t work. The stories and tenets didn’t make sense to me. Being a “good Christian” would have required me to ignore or hide my true self, compromise my principles, and make what I believe to be unethical choices. Nothing against Christianity – it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

Finding Paganism was a revelation. THIS fit. Suddenly I had a place, and the relief was intense. When you light a match in a dark room the brightness is overwhelming. It is easy to see how people new to Paganism would take that bright, shiny “I’m home” feeling and confuse it with “this is my entire life now”. Especially when we’re encouraged to make that commitment from the get-go.

It’s fairly common in the Pagan community to take on a clergy title -“priest” or “priestess” – early in the initiation process. By becoming Pagan it is assumed that you’re serving the Gods, and that by doing so you’re automatically somehow serving the larger community.

This is incorrect on two fronts. The first one is that not all Pagans believe there are Gods to serve in the first place. Some people very happily see all deities as Jungian archetypes, or universal principle made manifest, or Divinity as being in everything and so faceless, or … you get the idea. The idea that the Gods are actually distinct individuals with preferences and personalities who deserve and perhaps require worship is not even the majority in Paganism, much less the default option!

Even if the Pagan newbie does believe in individual deities, they might not know how to conceptualize that. I wasn’t really taught how to serve even the Christian God as a child. Sure, I knew how to follow the rules, but study? Devotional practices? Regular prayer? Writing rituals myself? Holidays that focused on church more than presents? That was what monks and nuns and priests did – not me. I was just supposed to show up. Once my practice started incorporating all of these other elements, the only mental category I had for it was clergy. I don’t think I’m unique in that.  And I certainly didn’t know where to start!

So that whole idea – that all Pagans are serving the Gods and so the community -is simply incorrect, either through lack of belief or lack of skill.

That assumption neatly ties into another one, that is almost an unspoken rule in Pagan circles: Pagan newbies will take on some sort of leadership role in the larger community as soon as their skills are developed enough. Again, this just is not true. But everyone is railroaded into a group leader/clergy path, whether or not they are called to it, because it’s simply the next accepted step in Pagan practice. You learn the basics, then turn around and begin teaching and leading others. That’s just The Way It Is, and those who resist that way are essentially admitting that they’re not advanced enough to handle it. Which means their perspectives and skills are overlooked or ignored.

There isn’t an accepted place for the experienced and skilled Pagan layperson, a middle ground between “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I am called to lead a group”. This is sad.

I know people right now who are serving as clergy without feeling called to do so. It’s the price they pay for remaining in the public community long enough to know which end of an athame is sharp, and expected if they are going to gain acceptance in a specific group. They are not clergy by my definition – they are artists, warriors, scholars, bards, healers, diviners, lovers. Their necessary and beautiful spiritual gifts are being pushed aside and neglected because they feel pressured and compelled to be something they’re not. Not only is all their free time consumed by something that doesn’t nurture them, they don’t have time left over for the things that do. This leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, self-martyrdom, and eventually leaving the Pagan community in self-defense. At the same time, the entire community is losing out on all the contributions these unwilling clergy could be making, if people would simply back off and give them space.

I also know people right now who know, deep down, that they will never fulfill their spiritual potential without a community to serve and a group to lead. Their gifts are all about counseling, teaching, group work, administration, and ritual facilitation. But finding people who could teach them the skills they need to capitalize on their talents is more difficult than it should be. They have no way of knowing who is serving out of sincere desire and who is serving out of duty, so they have to wade through all the passive-aggression, all the martyrdom, to find someone who gets it and can teach them. While this is going on, they see demonstrated all around them that serving the community will suck them dry, that they won’t have a life outside of it, that they have to bravely accept feeling empty and soldier on despite it. These views are internalized, and this attitude translates into the work they do.

Is it any wonder that many people reach a Journeyman level and retreat from the public scene rather than continue to offer their unique perspectives? That newbies have to get most of their instruction from books, and don’t even know which books to start with? That finding teachers and/or books for advanced topics is such a challenge?

Group leadership is no more important, valid, or devoted a path than the artist who connects to their Gods every time they create, the scholar who finds understanding through history, the lover who feels union with Divinity at orgasm.  They all serve in their own ways.

Laypeople serve different functions than clergy, but they are no less important or valuable. We need to start offering respect, support, and validation of their individual experience. The better we are at doing this the more fulfilled we’ll be as Pagans, the stronger we’ll be as a community, and the better we will serve our Gods.