Many prominent Pagans are now talking about consent culture and how to make Pagan spaces safer. It particular, I would recommend Christine Kraemer’s Consent Culture 101: Basic Practices and Teaching Games, Yvonne Aburrow’s Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone, Shauna Aura Knight’s Harassment and Boundaries, and especially Stasa Morgan-Appel’s Some Experiences with a Culture of Consent and Radical Inclusion.
To me, a culture of consent means that activities only happen with the enthusiastic consent of all participants. It is where lack of enthusiastic consent is sufficient to stop an activity and seek better communication; a spoken “no” is not necessarily required. And it goes beyond sex and even beyond touch and into all interactions so that games and activities, religious rituals, and even conversations are all based on consent. If we establish an expectation for seeking consent in all things, maybe it will be easier for all us to create and respect boundaries in more challenging areas such as sex.
At a Pagan event, I was in the washroom with someone with whom I generally get along and she made a comment that I didn’t want to engage with. I said “I don’t want to get in the middle of that”. She had started towards the exit as we talked and she then stopped in front of the door, blocking it, holding the handle, and proceded to rant at me. It was brief – probably only 30 seconds – but I felt disrespected and annoyed. Had I been less startled, I would have spoken up, but it happened so fast. I don’t think she thought about it either; she didn’t consciously override me or disregard my feelings, but simply got caught up in her own head.
At a drumming workshop, the instructor asked each person to individually play back a rhythm. I decided to pass on that particular exercise, being self-conscious about my sense of rhythm. When it came to my turn, I told the instructor that I would prefer not to and he was fine with that, but someone else in the class said “we’re allowed to not do it?”. It shocked me that those around me didn’t know that they were allowed to say “no” to something.
If we value consent as individuals and as a community, we will all develop the ability to lovingly enforce boundaries and respectfully step back if requested. That’s what a complete culture of consent could help us all with. There’s a phrase amongst people that are seeking to create “consent culture”: “yes means yes”. Instead of defining consent in terms of what we don’t say no to, it is about seeking enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent and participation is what we should want in all our rituals; it will make our magic and our worship stronger.
There a few things I consider non-negotiable to warn for going into a ritual: skyclad (especially if it is mandatory); blood drawing; and drugs, including alcohol, in the working portion of the rite (a small amount of alcohol in the food and drink portion seems acceptable to me as long as consumption is voluntary and an alternative is presented as equal in value). Unfortunately, I have seen or heard from trusted sources of all three of these things being sprung upon ritual participants at different times by ritual leaders who should know better. I believe that sometimes ritual leaders are using the element of surprise in these matters as ways to shortcut to intense experiences. By springing something controversial and difficult on the participants, they can provoke an emotional response to add to the energy of the ritual. I think it is a lazy way of creating a heightened atmosphere and has no place in a religion that calls all members priests and priestesses.
Warning for or avoiding nudity, blood, and drugs is just the minimum we should do, though. The next step would be doing what this year’s event coordinator did at the Gathering: making sure all event descriptions include information about scents/incense and food so potential participants with allergies and sensitivities can make informed decisions in advance. Finally, I believe we should make it clear how people can opt out of any part of a ritual or leave the sacred space completely.
I feel like it is an incredibly powerful thing to be able to have a skyclad ritual at a Pagan event. I’ve felt and seen the magic that happens when people have the chance to be naked in Circle together: how people gain confidence and become more embodied, and sometimes even become more comfortable in their skin. I don’t practice skyclad at home, but I lead mixed groups of almost strangers in nude rituals at the annual local Pagan camp (The Gathering for Life on Earth) because I believe it is important for the experience to be available there.*
This year, the camp’s theme was “The Wild Hunt” and my ritual, called Challenges of the Wild Ones, was on the first night, at about 11 PM. This has been the traditional time slot for the “starlit skyclad” (known in previous years as the “nude moonlit”), and I like it for the feeling of jumping in to cold water: everyone who wants to take the plunge can do so early in the weekend, before they have time to talk themselves out of it. I know how much courage it takes for people, especially first timers, to take off their clothes in front of other people, especially if they are also coming to one of their first group rituals ever. I feel honoured that several times, my skyclad ritual has been someone’s first group ritual besides the camp’s opening. I am flattered by the trust they’ve put in me.
When I write rituals for strangers, I cast my mind back to when I was new to public rituals and I never include anything that would have made that self feel unsafe or embarrassed. So when I was writing “Challenges of the Wild Ones” and wanted to include a part where everyone had to respond to a question, I considered a couple of different ways of making that more comfortable while keeping the feeling of a challenge. One option I considered was to give the questions in the pre-ritual explanation so people would have more time to prepare their answer. This was ultimately rejected because I didn’t want everyone distracted by thinking up and remembering their answers during the first part of the ritual. The solution I came up with was to offer the option of a silent response. Since everyone would have their eyes closed, people wouldn’t necessarily know who spoke and who responded silently, so hopefully that would minimize peer pressure. Honestly, I expected most people would respond silently when given the option, but when that portion of the ritual started, every single person gave their answer out loud. I don’t remember many of the answers – the answers were to the gods or spirits, so not mine to collect – but I was deeply touched by the authenticity and honesty in how people spoke. I felt that most people responded from deep truths, even when their words were simple.
Later that weekend, I spoke to someone else who had been in that circle about how that surprised me, and she said that maybe because I had given people an “out”, they felt safe enough not to use it. This dovetails nicely with my theory that if we make it easy for people to know how to leave a ritual, they’ll be less likely to want a way out. I don’t think offering an opt-out option will usually result in a ritual of non-participants watching… if it does, the ritual needs to be redesigned from scratch.
The pre-ritual speech I had my priest give (while I ran down to the beach to finish setting up) included directions on what to do to opt out of an activity, permission to respond silently, mention that I would be touching people on the shoulder to prompt their response, and instructions to bring their cloaks and towels with them for the optional skinny dipping. Looking back, I would have liked to have added a note about how to leave the ritual completely. There was one originally, but when the opening ritual didn’t include a circle casting, I hastily wrote a circle casting into my ritual and didn’t have the time to thoughtfully consider how people should exit. I would have also made sure to draw attention to the ingredients in the food and drink (several people took only apple slices until they found out that the cookies were gluten- and nut- and dairy-free), and to mention that opting out or leaving would have no consequences and there would be no questions asked, though my priest and I would be available to talk or receive feedback throughout the weekend.
Our most popular Pagan lithurgies hold that we are all divine, or at least all capable of reaching the divine on our own. If everyone is god/dess, or even if everyone is “merely” a priest or priestess, then we owe each other respect. One of the ways we can show each other respect is to seek consent in all things. It is the least we can do for our fellow deities.
* This non-Pagan article about the power of public nudity captures a lot of what I feel about skyclad. Just add in a religious context and make it co-ed.