An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.
How do we want to present ourselves to the world? How does the world at large view the Pagan community, and are we happy with the way people see us?
These questions have circulating for years, and often the answer is something like, “Why should we care what they think? All they’re going to do is judge us anyway - and they’ve already made up their minds.”
But not every mind is made up. In fact, there’s more openness toward Paganism and other paths outside the Judeo-Christian framework than ever before. This is why it’s crucial that we step up to the plate and shape the discussion to the extent we can. If we refuse to do so, we can rest assured that those who already have made up their minds will shape it for us … and we won’t like the distorted picture they’re sure to paint.
The arrest of Pagan musician, artist and lecturer Kenny Klein has raised fears that others will shape the discussion to our detriment. Shortly after Klein was charged with possession of child pornography, many began to express concern online that, in the words of one commenter, “no doubt this will be thrown at us for years to come.”
There’s reason to be concerned. For centuries, Pagans have been depicted as irresponsible, hedonistic and immoral (or even amoral). Now, a leader within the Pagan community has been charged with one of the most despicable crimes on the books. There are bound to be plenty of people pointing fingers at Pagans in general, muttering, “I told you so” and saying, “They’re all that way.”
Unfortunately, Pagans are still burdened by centuries of baggage heaped on our collective backs by those who don’t approve of us. As a result, we’re fighting an uphill battle in our attempt to move beyond the less-than-flattering labels others have pinned on our lapels. When something like this happens, it can seem as though the hard-fought steps we’ve taken forward has been erased by a very large step backward.
Of course, we as a community cannot be blamed for the reprehensible actions of a single individual. That is beyond our control. It does us no good to react defensively to something we have no part in by objecting, “We’re not like that!” or pointing out that people of other faiths have been accused and convicted of precisely the same way. Protesting too much, even when such protests are perfectly justified, seldom does much good.
Rather, we should seek to act in such a way that no one can credibly associate us as a community with such acts. We should behave with maturity and act with dignity.
The formative years of modern Paganism paralleled and, to some extent, overlapped with the hippie era, the anti-war and civil rights movements, the golden age of rock ’n’ roll and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. A generation of people tired of being forbidden to express their individuality for no other reason than “I told you so” decided to defy the traditions and prejudices of their parents and do things their own way for a change.
The focus on freedom after an age of authoritarian attitudes was an immensely positive development, both artistically and intellectually. A generation demanded the right to think for itself, throw off the shackles of prejudice via the civil rights movement and exercise a new degree of creativity that hadn’t been possible before. Many Pagans were part of it, and amid the inevitable backlash from the previous generation, Paganism and Wicca became havens for those who wanted to the freedom to express themselves beyond the bounds of their parents’ rules and traditions.
A half-century onward, this love of freedom remains a vital part of many Pagan traditions. Unfortunately, it will invariably attract people who want the freedom to act with impunity. Such people are attracted to Pagan and Wiccan communities because they (the people being attracted) have an “anything goes” mentality and believe that they can get away with doing whatever they want. To such people, Pagan communities offer not a haven from repression but a means of insulating themselves from the consequences of their own actions. They’re less interested in spiritual or creative growth than they are in exploiting what they see as an opportunity to manipulate others.
It’s certainly not unusual for men to seek out Pagan communities as venues to meet women. My wife told me of a Christian elder in a Southern California church who admitted to her that he had begun attending Pagan events for just this purpose. When some people hear about a skyclad ritual, they see it a chance to ogle people of the opposite sex. It would be naïve to think otherwise. To object that “no real Pagan would ever think such a thing!” is to hide from a reality that Paganism has long accepted: that people are sexual beings. We, of all people, should understand the power of sexuality, because of the singular place it holds within nature as a means of intimacy, love, connection, and renewal.
Sex as Sacred
Indeed, sexuality deserves a place, not of repression, but of reverence. Yet too often, we appear to treat sexuality not as sacred but almost recreational. Not wishing to be ruled by earlier generations’ Victorian-era disdain for all things sexual, some of us go to the opposite end of the spectrum and behave as though sexual expression is commonplace and ordinary.
References to casual sex and conversations about multiple sex partners can be heard at many Pagan gatherings, sometimes leaving the impression that this is the norm within the community. Of course, sex between consenting adults - whether casual or committed - is perfectly legal and an entirely different sort of thing than the heinous act of downloading child pornography. That said, treating sex as though it’s no big deal can foster an atmosphere in which people dismiss actions that otherwise might raise red flags as simply being part of Pagan “culture.”
The Wild Hunt posted several examples of people who reported that Kenny Klein made unwelcomed sexual advances on them, including this: “Kenny cajoled me into doing a set of nude photos when I was about 18 or 19, essentially using the ‘nudity at a Pagan festival’ vibe to justify it.”
Another person stated she voiced concerns about Klein to leaders of the Georgia Pagan community and felt as though she was “not being taken seriously.”
This is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about.
Predators seek out places where potential prey can be found in abundance. This is why pedophiles seek out schools and parks. It’s also why sexual predators can be attracted to Pagan events and communities.
Please don’t get the idea that I’m trying to “blame” Pagan culture for the vile acts of predatory individuals. Pagan culture isn’t at fault any more than a school or park is at fault for the acts of a child molester. The blame lies with those individuals who violate the law, our children and any sense of ethical decency. As I stated earlier, we can’t control their behavior, so we should focus on what we can control: our own. We can begin to treat sexuality with greater reverence. This doesn’t mean a return to our parents’ era of whispered indiscretions. Nor does it mean sex shouldn’t be fun. But fun and frivolous are two entirely different concepts.
Maturity isn’t synonymous with blind obedience. Exactly the opposite. It involves a willingness to question the status quo and to change one’s behavior if it isn’t working as well as it should. True freedom never comes without responsibility. We cannot and should not tolerate child molesters and manipulative sexual predators in our communities. We must not allow them to violate our sacred space.
By the same token, if what we are offering appears attractive to such people as a place of refuge from the consequences of their actions, something needs to be done. We owe it to ourselves and our children to examine how we might do things differently.