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. 

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