Fleur De Lis – A Symbol of Sexual Boundaries

In my last post I talked a lot about consent and the maintenance of boundaries. Those are both important topics for us to talk about as a community, which makes it something I’d normally cover on this blog. That post went further than I thought it would, though, and I got a lot of feedback on it – especially since it went up on Witchvox. And one of the comments that came up again and again was that I talked about establishing personal boundaries and how important that was, but I didn’t go into how to do that.

I didn’t think that was something I should address. This is a very individualized thing, and there’s no one answer for everyone. Which was a lapse on my part. Knowing where we stand on issues of sexuality and consent is so intertwined with community support of those boundaries that we really can’t talk about one without addressing the other. After all, it’s hard for the community to support us as we enforce our personal boundaries when we haven’t individually defined anything yet!

While this is a very individualized thing, and there are no wrong answers, there are wrong approaches. So that’s how I’ve decided to tackle the topic.

The Approach We’re Given

Here’s a visual of what most of us start with, I think:

boundaries

For the sake of argument let’s say that the top line in that graphic is the concept most of us probably grew up with: the only permissible sex is with a married spouse in the dark in the missionary position strictly for the purposes of procreation. The bottom line represents the Pagan ideal that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred.

These are the two extreme poles we as Pagans generally start off with. These are the theoretical standards we’re supposed to work with in the real world, when we’re dealing with real people and real emotion. Notice all that grey there? That’s where those theoretical standards get fuzzy, when real life makes those simple standards unexpectedly complicated. And the space between those lines? For most of us our personal boundaries lie somewhere in there. It’s simply up to us to figure out where we draw our own clear and distinct lines in all that space.

I say “simply”, but for many of us it’s not. Simple, I mean. Figuring out where we stand can take some pretty heavy internal work. I’ll be honest – it took me several years, working in the sex industry, and a vow of celibacy to get my internal mess sorted out. I didn’t know where to start when it came to grappling with this topic, and I had some personal issues besides, so it took awhile.

I could do something like provide a list of rules here. I do like my lists, and I could do something like the Ten Commandments of Sex. But I refrained. For one, I’m no Cosmo. And anyway, the way to figure all this out for yourself isn’t to get the answers from someone else but to ask yourself the right questions.

So here is the way I approach the whole topic, the questions I ask myself. It is by no means set, and I’m still tweaking the concept, so feel free to take what you find personally useful and discard what you don’t. I’m posting this in the hope that it’ll encourage thought among those who read this. As always, whatever works for you (so long as it’s legal!) is what you should go with.

My Approach – The Fleur de Lis

The fleur de lis is a stylized lily blossom and is an ancient symbol often associated with ideas of purity and chastity. Through the Middle Ages the symbology became more specific, and each petal came to represent a different concept within that frame: Faith, Wisdom, and Chivalry. The band at the bottom that ties the petals together is the unifying force between all of them.

Fleur de Lis

Isn’t it lovely?

Over time I have adopted the symbol as my own, and it’s become how I visualize my sex life. Each of those four concepts categorize a whole slew of things to think about and get comfy with prior to getting naked with someone else.

The Band – Sharing

I have a history of using sex to fulfill other needs – connection, touch, forgetting, approval, distraction, release. And sex filled those needs fairly well, at least temporarily. However, when using sex to fill other needs my partner became secondary to the whole thing. They were faceless stand-ins for what I really wanted, self-directed dildos I used for my own gratification.

It took a bit for me to recognize what I was doing, and even longer to understand what that meant for my partners. I was dehumanizing every partner I had. It was all about me, what I needed, what I wanted. And once I figured it out I was pretty horrified. Even with my head all messed up I understood that what made sex sacred was the sharing aspect, the feedback of pleasure and intimacy that can exist between two people who come together openly and honestly. I wasn’t doing that. I was using, not sharing. And since I wasn’t sharing with them, they weren’t sharing with me either – which meant they were using me too.

Not ok, not from any perspective.

So that’s the first question I have to ask myself. What’s my personal motivation when sex comes up, using or sharing? When we’re clear in our heads that this is an experience we want to share with the person in front of us, and that the experience alone is the goal, then we can move forward with the idea. Otherwise, without that sharing, it’s demeaning to everyone involved.

The Left Petal – Faith

The faith this petal requires is faith in myself, trusting my inner thoughts/feelings instead of what other people tell me I should think or feel. This has become much easier over time, but at the beginning of things I was utterly clueless.

One of the things I’ve struggled most with is the fact that I simply don’t feel romantic or sexual attraction the way that movies and books and the people around me told me I should. I never have. But instead of trusting that, going with that, I kept trying to force myself to somehow “get past it”.  I had this idea that my sexuality just had a really screwy lock, so if I could find the right key I too could enter the world of teen rom-coms and marital bliss.

By the time I was a junior in high school I didn’t care if I was straight or gay or bi or pan or anything else, so long as I found the key that worked. Or maybe it wasn’t a partner-based thing, but an experience or technique my particular lock needed. That was possible, right? So I experimented with everything, for years, hoping that one day I might find the key I needed.

It didn’t even occur to me that I could relate to my sexuality in a way different from the people around me and still be a warm, loving person with a fulfilling sex life. I was basing my identity on what people told me, instead of what I innately knew. And that seriously screwed my life in ways I didn’t understand until much, much later.

Once I started trusting myself, though? My eyes were opened to a whole spectrum of relationship configurations and approaches to sexuality that might not be mainstream, but certainly fit my needs better than anything else I had found previously. And once that happened sex became much more fulfilling and whole-hearted than it had been before. It’s easier to share when I know what I’m sharing, and it’s easier to be open and honest with partners when I know what’s inside of me and accept it as it is.

Now it’s not many out there that have this particular issue, but the question posed by this petal is still valid – am I trying to express my sexuality using other people’s standards or my own? By trusting ourselves to know ourselves better than anyone else does we lose the need to justify our sex life to others. That helps us find methods of sexual expression that work for us, and allows us to be much more honest and authentic when we’re sharing with others.

The Right Petal – Chivalry

Chivalry is a word that evokes images of knights on chargers adoring a far-off lady in a tower. It refers to an entire elaborate code of honor that was the pinnacle of medieval nobility. In this context I use it to refer to my own honor and ethics when it comes to sex.

It’s pretty simple. If I’m not comfortable doing it (or at least talking about it) on the front page of the newspaper than I don’t do it. At no point during the act, from foreplay to aftercare, should I feel dirty. Or ashamed. Or guilty. I should never worry that the sex I’m having is unethical, or that I’m bad or wrong for having it. Sex cannot be demeaning or humiliating (some people get off on that, so it’s fine for them – I don’t so it’s not).

This applies to my partner(s), too. They’re part of this too – sharing, remember? If they’re conflicted, then the sex is conflicted, and I share in that conflict. That’s not ok, and I won’t be a part of making someone feel bad about themselves or their sex if I can possibly avoid it.

This covers a ton of ground. Are either of us chemically altered? Are either of us involved in other relationships that have rules around this kind of thing (as so many do)? Are either of us lying about what we’re going for here, or under any false pretenses? Has any sort of pressure been used on either side to make this happen, that might make consent questionable? And a thousand other questions that fall along these lines.

So that’s what this petal asks – am I behaving honorably by having sex with this person, and do I trust this person to behave honorably when having sex with me? If there is the slightest doubt here, sex probably isn’t the best idea. These conflicts take away from the sharing aspect of sex, make it harder to connect with each, and could lead to actual harm. None of those are OK.

The Center Petal – Wisdom

This petal refers to my ability – my responsibility – to be an adult when it comes to my sex life. I am in charge of my personal safety. It’s all the unsexy parts of engaging in a sexual relationship, that I have to personally answer and then effectively communicate to my partner. After all, if I can’t talk about this kind of thing to the person I’m having sex with, then I probably shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

Everyone’s list here will be different. It changes depending on circumstance, but here are a few possibilities:

1)      Have I been tested for STIs (including but not limited to HIV) recently? What’s my status? How about my partner? Do I have this person’s contact information in case something health-wise comes up later that was unforeseen, and do they have mine?

2)      What safer sex practice(s) are necessary here, and which will be used? Can I handle the consequences should those safer sex practices fail? Can my partner?

3)      Have I arranged all the safe calls or other safety nets I might need to ensure physical safety?

4)      Are there any potential spiritual/magickal side-effects with this? If so, is that desired or not?

5) Are the Powers with which I’m involved ok with this? How about the Powers my potential partner works with?

These questions normally come up during the negotiation phase, and they’re important. This petal is all about physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. If anyone involved doesn’t feel safe and secure, then they’re going to be more occupied with keeping themselves safe than sharing sex. Which of course hits points on the other petals, and brings the entire encounter back into question, thus restarting the process.

Only when I have satisfactorily progressed through all parts of the fleur de lis is sex acceptable and within my personal boundaries.

Notes About Approach

Notice that the above guidelines don’t say anything at all about what kind of relationship status I have with someone before the sex. To my mind a one night stand can be sacred, and sex with a long-term partner might not be, depending on how it fits the framework.

The guidelines also don’t single out any specific acts as particularly sacred or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about how we approach it.

Like I said, figuring out our personal boundaries when it comes to sexuality is a very individualized process. How any of us choose to approach it, and the boundaries we come up with during the process, are ours and ours alone. Once we know them, though, we’ve got a system we can use when working with others, and a system our communities can help support and enforce in more public settings.

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?