Pitfalls of Growing Up Pagan: a Reprise

I have had a few people say that their feelings were hurt by my blog post about growing up in the neopagan community and say that I’m being ungrateful and unappreciative of all the work that they put into creating that community and including it. So I just want to address that. 

A. You can love something, be grateful for something, appreciate something…and still look at it objectively, look at it critically, and want to make it better. I can cook a delicious meal and still think, “ah, I think I should add less pepper next time so my stomach doesn’t hurt so much after eating it.” It doesn’t mean the meal wasn’t good, just that the first try could be improved upon during the next try. You don’t prune a rose bush to punish it or because you don’t appreciate its beauty, you do it so that it can grow bigger and more healthy. 

B. It’s not really about gratitude or your feelings. It’s about bringing the community off of its pedestal for a minute and out into the light and taking an honest look at the dangerous and damaging parts of it. My wedding dress arrived and it was gorgeous…but the arms didn’t fit. As we began to refit them, we discovered that there were a couple pins left in the seams. That doesn’t mean that the dress is evil or that I don’t love it or that I’m not going to wear it. It means that it needs some adjustment for it to be safe and comfortable for me to be in. 

So, while I love all the people who are grumbling and I understand that your feelings are hurt, I’m just honestly not in a place where I believe that I need to apologize for speaking up and speaking out. I have watched too many awful things happen in the name of “self discovery,” “loving all bodies,” “practicing openness,” “exploring pleasure,” “creating your own reality,” and “encouraging natural urges.” None of those things are inherently wrong. Not all the people practicing those things are doing so in a damaging way. But those ideals were, and in many ways still are, being used by people in dangerous and damaging ways in the neopagan community and I am unwilling to look away or be silent about it just so that I don’t seem ungrateful. The good parts of that community raised me to be strong, vocal, and try to make the world around me a better place. I honor the good parts of the pagan community by trying to make it better—or at least more conscious of where it’s sometimes falling short. Even the most marvelous and beautiful gardens need tending sometimes; you don’t get healthy plants by ignoring diseases, predators, and other hazards. As we discovered at PSG this year, it’s not always safe to dance barefoot, and when you notice broken glass and sharp metal objects in the ritual circle, you’re not doing anyone any favors by not pointing them out and/or picking them up. 

So, for me, the reality is this: there are problems, and pointing them out is not being ungrateful, it is simply NECESSARY. This is not a community I would be okay raising a child in. It is not a safe space. There is safe space within it! But that’s very different. One of the strongest and most sex-positive women I know has been continually—and is currently being—sexually harassed by a high-ranking member of her neopagan community, and when she asked for help, an enormous number of people in that community refused to believe her, made excuses for her abuser, and made her feel unsafe in her own space. Almost every member of my group of childhood friends, male or female or otherwise, in the pagan community was sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or otherwise coerced into wanting or thinking they wanted things that were simply not safe, sane, or consensual, all when they were too young to be making those decisions in an informed way. I was personally sexually harassed while growing up—by teenagers and adults, both men and women, both directly and more indirectly in the form of grooming and coaching, from many members of the community, most of whom thought that what they were doing was a good thing.  I got a lot of my best lessons from the same people who gave me the most horrible misconceptions. The problem is not that one or several people are bad; the problem is people thinking that being asked to change a behavior is the same as being accused of intentional wrongdoing. 

This isn’t any single person’s fault, and I’m not putting blame on the people who were trying to create an atmosphere different from the one they escaped—but now, now that these things have been noticed, have been said, have been observed, documented, and voiced loudly and publicly? Now, if they continue, it is someone’s fault. I do blame. Because once you know, you become complicit if you choose to look away. So don’t look away. Do better. Stand there and look at what’s happening under the free love and good time vibes and see if it’s the world you’re trying to build—and when it is, celebrate. But when it isn’t, course correct. Make the change. And don’t come barking up my tree for being ungrateful. I’m super grateful. I’m grateful that I am in a position to see and to speak out. I am grateful for the people and the moments and the parts of the community that made me the kind of person who isn’t just ABLE to say this, but HAS to say it.

AND AN ADDENDUM IN CASE IT WAS UNCLEAR—grooming kids growing up pagan to be overtly sexual, sexual too young, sexual with inappropriate partners, or to believe that monogamy is bad and a trapping of conservatism is NOT the same as encouraging kids to ask questions, encouraging them to personally and privately figure out what they like *with themselves* until they are of an appropriate age and ready, encouraging them to practice safe sex and openly talk about their sexual preferences and needs when they DO start having sex, talking to them about consent and boundaries, normalizing queerness/non-heteronormativity, or talking about/normalizing informed and consensual non-monogamous situations and relationships. 

Normalizing healthy discussions of sex and its many totally acceptable permutations is fine. Making jokes to chubby twelve year olds that they’ll “get all the men” once they’re legal “because fat girls are better at sex to make up for it,” telling thirteen year olds that “you better learn to swallow if you don’t want to end up pregnant!” or other things that groom them to treat sex as a way to have power over other people, as a replacement for self-awareness and appropriate expression, as a way to validate themselves, or as a means of escape is NOT fine. 

Giving young people open access to birth control even before they begin to consider sexual activity is GREAT, it normalizes safe sex and integrates contraception/STI prevention as part of the concept of sex as they mature and that is TOTALLY FINE. Teasing them about being virgins, making comments about what you’d like to do to them or what others would like to do to them “once they’re legal” is NOT okay. 

Encouraging young people to normalize nudity and exploring their body is fine—they came out of vaginas, it is a-okay for them to know what they are and how they work! Making jokes about small penises, men not being able to find the clitoris, or other things that will make them ashamed if they or their partner experience what you’re talking about or eaching them to sexualize and sensationalize nudity by making comments like, “ugh, why is it always the people who you wish wouldn’t get naked that do?” or making lewd comments towards naked people you *do* find attractive is NOT cool. 

Normalizing a desire to explore mind-altering substances and creating an atmosphere where young people can feel comfortable asking questions or otherwise talking about how to do that in a relatively safe way is great. Making them feel that doing drugs is a “rite of passage,” something they will inevitably do, something that they are not normal if they DON’T do, making drugs a required part of spiritual practice or associating the two as if they are naturally and integrally linked is not cool. Shaming or mocking a young person for not wanting to smoke weed or drop acid or get drunk or be sexual is ludicrous and just shows that you need to validate your own choices by forcing others to make those choices, too. It’s still peer pressure even if you’re not the same age and it’s gross. 

Verbally trashing non-monogamous relationships as “cheating but with rules,” one partner “settling” or “putting up with” another’s “desire to sleep around,” or otherwise portraying them as bad or degrading while also bragging about/chasing threesomes as long as it’s with two people of the gender YOU prefer (looking at you, hetero dudes, and your constant hunt for the girl/girl/guy hookup) is not cool. Also, objectifying lesbians or coercing hetero women into girl on girl acts to gratify your male gaze is SO two decades ago and also gross and shitty of you and you need to stop. 

Teaching kids and teens that all bodies are good bodies and to love themselves is not the same as telling them that they HAVE to be naked to participate in ritual if they want it to “be real,” telling them what it’s “normal” to want because it was what *you* wanted, or otherwise forcing the issues of sex and consent in relation to normalcy is not okay, no matter how you mean it. 

You want to celebrate sex? CELEBRATE IT. You want to consume mind altering substances, whether it’s marijuana, alcohol, or “the hard stuff”? DO IT. But that doesn’t mean have it everywhere all the time or make it the center of every social interaction or religious/spiritual situation, especially with young people. It’s time to pay attention to the lessons we’re teaching or modeling and make a conscious choice about what we’re normalizing for the kids in the community. You can celebrate things without forcing them down people’s throats. 

Struggles With Faith: Pitfalls Of Growing Up Pagan

There are more important things going on. Human beings are being detained in what are basically concentration camps with a different name. Medical attention in the US is prohibitively expensive and people (people I know and love) are literally dying because of it. Climate change is real and terrifying and the Earth is probably doomed and no matter how much you recycle your bottles and cans, even if we all do it, our collectively mitigated carbon footprint will never be enough to offset the damage done by even one Fortune 500 company’s environmental damage. My state and several others are passing laws to deny me control over my own body, even in a survival situation. The world is ugly and getting uglier and there are way more important things that need to be discussed than what I’m about to talk about.

At the same time, if I had heard some of what I’m about to say from anyone else growing up, it might have saved me a lot of hurt and fear. So no, this is not the most important thing. But I’m going to take a sec to talk about it anyway.

I just came back from a big pagan festival! It was not a good time for me for a lot of reasons, most of them health-related. Health and festival organizational issues and weather aside, though, being in the pagan community and seeing how it is changing (in some ways very positively, like with gender inclusivity, and other ways not so positively,) brought up a lot of thoughts I’ve been having over the last few years about my faith and my identity.

When people talk about struggling with their faith, it’s not usually a pagan faith—paganism is where the people who worked through that struggle and found the Truth end up. At least, that’s the narrative I grew up with. Not an orchestrated narrative fed to time by my parents, but a natural, background one I absorbed from almost everyone active in our community, in the pagan faith. They’d been raised Christian, usually, but they weren’t sheep! No! (Christians are automatically sheep in these stories, obviously, by virtue of not having found the Truth.) They had questions! And they found their answers in the balance between the god and goddess! It was a very tidy story, even when the person had suffered mightily because of that journey—it felt like a coming out story. Even if it meant giving up everything, losing the love of their families and friends, anything, it was worth it because they had found the truth. And that made sense to me. I saw Christianity as the starting point, the Fool, a faith of well-meaning ignorance, and Paganism as the end, the World, the faith of the wise and learned, the followers of truth and love. Everyone around me was sex positive, accepting of queerness, chill about gender fluidity, down with science—it was basically The Dream(tm), right? I was raised to question everything and find my own answers, to know myself and love myself and live in joy and love and gratitude toward the god(s) and goddess(es.) Religious and sexual freedom—it’s what everyone, especially a young person, wants!

Well, as you’re probably guessing, it’s not actually as straightforward as all that. It turns out that knowing yourself as you grow up is bullshit—there’s nothing TO know except that you’re hungry for life and have no idea what you’re gonna be yet, even if you’re super self aware and logical. It just makes you try to pin down who you are instead of letting it happen naturally. Forces you to internalize the desires of your community because you don’t know what yours even ARE. But sex is good, right? Everybody is really obsessed with it—the Christians with not having it, the Pagans with being super all for having it! I mean, the chalice and athame are symbolic genitals, literally every ritual we engage in has sex as the sacred act, the thing that blesses the cakes and wine! Sex is a great place to start, because it’s EVERYWHERE and everyone is talking about it and you’re a kid becoming a teenager and hormones are a thing and you don’t know what the deal is, but you know it must be important, must be POWERFUL.

Okay, look. All the pagans I grew up with were super into talking about how Christianity swooped in and stole all their shit—their gods, their holidays, everything. And that’s pretty frequently true! But neopaganism swooped right back and blew a giant raspberry at Christianity while yelling, “WRONG” at the top of its lungs and based a whole hell of a lot of itself around being a reactionary clapback to Christianity. It’s not all about truth and love. It’s not all about ANYTHING. No, it’s about EVERYTHING—put six pagans in a room and ask them what their religion is about and you’ll get two dozen answers, ten of them from the same guy who thinks that just because he prays to a woman, he’s absolved from sexism and the mansplaining phenomenon and just wait until you’re legal, baby, you’re DELICIOUS, but that’s not gross to say because he’s not touching you or anything and paganism is sex positive and honest! Never mind that you’re being groomed as a sex object just like a girl in any other religion—no, it’s fine, because it’s sex you’re allowed to want, supposed to enjoy! How do you know when you’re ready? You know yourself; you’ll know! The goddess will speak to you! Oh, wait, all you hear is ringing silence and the bloody volcanic roar of hormones drowning out any semblance of objectivity? That’s just the goddess speaking to you through your primal nature! Listen to your instincts! Know yourself! Trust and love the goddess, she is all the answers you need! Get naked in the moonlight and dance! You’re young and beautiful! Oh, wait, you’re thirteen and fat and have floppy old lady boobs and weird proportions that don’t match this Barbie-shaped statue of Artemis I have on my mantle/altar? Haha why is it always the people we wish would keep their clothes on who want to get naked? Hahaha GROSS! But why aren’t you comfortable with this naked sweatlodge ritual again? Explore yourself, make mistakes, live free! Smoke some weed, drop some acid, try this peyote! Young people don’t need structure and boundaries or to keep mind-altering chemicals out of the already mind-altering cesspool of hormones blooming in their bodies! They need boundless freedom and encouragement!

Okay, look, first gen neopagans. I appreciate what you tried to do. I do. You escaped stifling censure and the weird, invasive strictures of your parents’ Abrahamic faith and you found a new path. A path where you could explore yourself and make what you would of your findings. You wanted to raise your kids in that freedom, spare them your suffering. Give them the space to explore things and make mistakes. But here’s the reality. Too much of a good thing is still too much, and unlike you, we didn’t have a starting place where we learned what we wanted even if it was denied us.

Sure, you encouraged us. Encouraged us to do what worked for you. To be okay with wanting sex, wanting to experiment with drugs, wanting to find the right god/ess and commune with them in my own way. But no one ever, ever said that NOT wanting those things was an option. You were so caught up in finding yourselves and your freedom that you didn’t consider that wanting those things and having those desires repressed wasn’t necessarily the default, that kids maybe wouldn’t automatically KNOW that it was an option to say no, to not want. You told us—me—that those things were natural, integral in human nature.

But they weren’t in mine. And I didn’t get to figure that out for like two decades because I was so caught up in the neopagan propaganda machine. I was a young, independent woman! I was sexual and my body was my own! I had the world at my fingertips! Except that I was a kid. I wasn’t ready to be independent. It took years of therapy and actually looking after real human children to find out that letting a kid spend that much time alone isn’t actually healthy. To realize that I was pressured into “wanting” sex YEARS before I actually wanted it, into seeing it as a source of power and identity and self-empowerment and being desperate for those things and thinking sex was necessary to have them. Having the world at your fingertips is cool and everything, but everyone needs some guidance on what the hell to do with it.

My generation, the first gen really born into and raised in the neopagan community, is an absolute SHITSHOW. Most of the kids I grew up with are disasters. I’m a disaster, and I’m doing pretty well, comparatively. So many of the others are drug addicts, in overly sexualized and dehumanized relationships, or raising children they don’t want because your rampant sex-positivity didn’t include any decent or specific sex ed. (You were really into everyone knowing where the clitoris is and having access to condoms, but not actually that big on showing anyone how to use them or emphasizing how necessary they were.) Or all of the above. Most frequently all of the above.

I’m not a prude who’s against all forms of fun. I’m all for it. I’m not against an active sex life, polyamory (except linguistically,) or responsible drug use. But I’m against telling your kids that those things are integral, necessary parts of being human, that everybody uniformly wanting those things is the natural order of things and that not wanting them is self-denial. Until I was like 25, I pressured every significant other I ever had into sex before either of us were ready—because I was told, over and over from day one, that everyone wants to be having sex and anyone who doesn’t is lying. Literally. My friends used to say that sentence all the time. And when I say “my friends,” I specifically mean my middle-aged divorced women friends who thought it was totally fine to say that to a thirteen year old and then complain about how men were lazy monsters who couldn’t find the clit with a map and a compass. A specific one of those friends, a grown woman and a schoolteacher to boot, used to say to me all the time, “If you don’t want to end up pregnant, you better learn to swallow,” and then laugh. I was hearing this from age twelve on a near daily basis. I was being told that monogamy was unnatural and stifling and that people who wanted it only did so because they were jealous and controlling and wanted to own other people, that it was tantamount to slavery and WRONG. I was being told that as soon as I was of age, I wouldn’t have any trouble dating, because teenagers might care what I looked like (i.e. fat,) but REAL MEN wanted REAL WOMEN (again, fat) and they’d be lining up around the block as soon as I hit eighteen. From the age of 14 onward, I had grown men telling me how boys my age might think I was fat and ugly (a comment I NEVER GOT from an actual boy my age, by the way—sometimes girls being catty, but never, ever from someone I was interested in; if they turned me down, even if it was because of my looks, they didn’t SAY that,) they, REAL MEN, couldn’t wait until I was legal. But they weren’t pedophiles because I got breasts young and looked older and they never tried to touch me. The fact that they sexualized me was natural because I was not only female, I LOOKED like a “real woman,” so I would obviously be super sexual to make up for not being thin, right? All those middle-aged divorced pagan women friends (often high priestesses, I shit you not) assured me that men wanted a girl they could really “grab hold of,” that fat women were better in bed because we try harder to make up for being fat, and frequently gave me overt sex tips (which I can tell you, now that I am an adult, were not only inappropriate but wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.) They told me how it wouldn’t be too hard to get men because I would put out when skinny girls wouldn’t, that I would have power those girls wouldn’t because I was in touch with my sexuality. And this was not only all fine, but actually because I was so “mature” that they could talk to me openly about all these things! And those men only said those things because I (definitely not in response to those women telling me that I was supposed to say and do these things…definitely not, no…) was sexual and flirtatious and curvy! (Read: my fault if I complain about it, because me having an adult vocabulary and being a curious kid and opinionated teenager amounted to permission for adults to violate all rules of appropriate conduct in relation to me.)

Like. I get that you wanted freedom for us. But I’m not sure when freedom became grabbing and hoarding power however we could find it, growing to adulthood with zero respect for our own basic needs and obsession with our base desires, and basically living the life of a cartoon satyr. How was any of that okay? How IS any of it okay? This was not a progressive, egalitarian society—no, it was just an inverted, reactionary copy of the patriarchal mainstream, where instead of letting men sexualize us, young women were supposed to turn the tables on them by being the sexual predators, where instead of letting someone “trap” us in a monogamous relationship we were supposed to be manic pixie dream girls who slept with whoever we “wanted” as long as we didn’t want to sleep with just one person, where instead of having guys get us drunk and feel us up, we were supposed to get THEM drunk and demonstrate our superior fortitude and how much better we were than “normal” girls. Come on, guys.

Oh-ho, I see you in the back, there, pagans who are saying, “oh, not me, I’m part of a structured pagan tradition and I wasn’t a part of THAT.” Well, look, sure, you maybe weren’t the ones saying, “fuck everybody and control them with your mystical vagina,” “mo penis mo power,” but you were the ones wearing wreaths of fake berries on your heads and yelling at us when we mispronounced your infinite and arbitrary titles or wore amber without being third degree priestesses. Your religion is younger than the modern vacuum cleaner and you should be embarrassed that you take yourselves so damn seriously. Your obsession with writing convoluted rituals and dressing for the maximum pageantry quotient doesn’t make you less complicit in creating a culture that perpetuates the same sick values as the one you ran away from, one that just does it while wearing a sarong and a flower crown instead of a priest’s collar. You’re ridiculous. Get over it. Humans are all ridiculous and you’re no exception.

Where I was going with this actually has very little to do with sex, but I may have some frustrations with my childhood that I needed to let out a little bit. Keep rolling with me, here.

What I was getting to was actually how I have no idea how to worship the goddess. I’m well-versed in the technical aspects of goddess religions; I know all the mystical correspondences of stars and elements and ancient symbols. I spent three years as a religious studies major, I spent a childhood learning the ins and outs of goddess worship, I have spent my adult life as a feminist and student of the mystical. But the practical eludes me. If I see her as the beautiful, sexual maiden goddess, I’m annoyed and uncomfortable. I’m supposed to be like her, and I never have been. She’s the source of unreachable standards for my looks and behavior. If she’s the Great Mother, well, I kind of can’t help but draw parallels to MY mother, who, while a cool human, isn’t someone I would worship in a divine way. She’s too harsh, too critical, too judgmental. My grandmother came to me and was like, “I’d like to see you start to have a relationship with the Blessed Mother,” and the part that repulsed me wasn’t the catholic part, it was the MOTHER part. So that’s an issue. So where does that leave me?

Even as I’m typing this, my brain goes, “the Crone, Alena, duh.” And okay, maybe that’s actually true. Maybe I should be shuffling towards Cerridwen and Hecate–and I sometimes try to. But there’s this lingering sense of women older than me being the horribly misguided (albeit well-intentioned, probably) source of all that inappropriate, petty, hypersexualized shit I went through in my younger years. I’m starting to realize that the only female figures in my life that I trusted to give me guidance without agenda are both DEAD.

And yeah, I can pray to them. But uh. I kind of don’t want to be like, hey, Kathryn, I know you’re busy with dead person stuff, but here’s where all the stuff you loved about me was actually a giant ballooning shitshow of falsehood and confusion, also could you please help me sort this out? I’m weak and small and scared and I was never who you deserved as a goddaughter, but could you intervene for me in a cosmic way with the deities I don’t know how to talk to? A) ow, self loathing and emotional agony, and B) it feels a liiiiittle too Catholic for me.

I have the same problem with gods. I’ve never had a grandfather figure in my life. I’ve had a great Dad, but uh, again, things I need to pray about are NOT things I want to be handled by a parent, not things I ever want to associate with parents. I never had a grandfather figure, and that’s still a complicated relationship dynamic even if I DID have a model for it. Other male deities are automatically uncomfortably sexualized by my upbringing and are therefore judging me in my head or are totally sexless and aloof and inaccessible.

Abstract deities are a little easier. Animals, elements. But they’re too abstract to be helpful in specific, human instances. Ancestors are tainted by personal judgment; the idea of a creator is tainted by the idea of control. And the more abstract, the less I can believe they give a shit about me.

And see, this is a problem, because no matter what lingering childhood issues I may have, I’m a witch. I believe, in some unconscious, unshakable part of me, that humans have the ability to pluck the strings of the multiverse and affect change and that I am one of the ones who should and does. And that’s all well and good, but uh…it’s lonely. I’d like a guiding force to look up to. One who won’t let me down. One who won’t judge me. One with no ulterior motives, about either my actions or my soul. They don’t have to fix things for me, just have to be something I could believe in. But when I break it down, belief is complicated and heavy, and I’m actually not even sure I believe in gods in a literal kind of way—I’m pretty sure I don’t, actually. But I’d love an archetype, an idol, an idea who I could trust and respect and ask for help, literal or theoretical. And for all the freedom to “know myself” or what the hell else, it’s been 27 years and I still have no clue. I don’t know. I look at myself and I say, “I know you, self,” and my self looks back and says, “that’s great and everything, but uh, I don’t know jack shit.”