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Dealing with sexual misbehavior in our community

I was just in a rather dispiriting discussion of sexual predation in the Pagan community, sparked by an interesting piece in the Wild Hunt. The article was good. which is more than I can say for some of the discussion that followed. 

    The piece was about the decline of nudity at Pagan events and the reasons for it.  But much of the discussion shifted to the related but different issue of why many women felt uneasy or defensive when sky clad at such events.  Despite all the energy and more than a little venom that accompanied that discussion, one important issue remained unaddressed.

What do we do about sexual predation at Pagan events?

Those talking the most about it were long in criticism and short on suggestions.  It certainly exists. Too many women report bad experiences for those of us men who have never seen it to doubt it happens.  And I know it has happened in other Pagan contexts, but they are contexts where the community is powerless to influence it except indirectly. As when a teacher demands sexual access to a student- probably a problem as old as history.

    Sexual misbehavior has existed in all societies and all communities.  But it is worse in some places than in others. How can we as Pagans reduce its incidence among us? To find an answer I think there are several dimensions to keep in mind.

    1. America’s cultural ethos. Not good on these issues but certainly better than India, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

    2. NeoPagan cultural ethos as compared to American culture. (By comparison NeoPagans are sex friendly, woman honoring, and affirm feminine values.)

    3. Individual personality characteristics. Some people avoid conflict, some seek it out, and some do not back down  when confronted. These orientations influence how we act when we see something of which we disapprove.  These qualities are to some degree independent of culture but they can be influenced by it.

    4. Organizational contexts. Most people cut people in their their organization more slack than they do people in different organization’s.  When discussing how organizations ‘went bad’  I often asked my class how many played team sports. Most did. I then asked how many saw a teammate cheat in a game.  Most of those had.  Then I asked how many reported the infraction to an umpire. Hardly anyone ever raised their hands.

    We all have some in-group loyalty where we would give the benefit of the doubt to those in our group that we would not to those outside it.  What is abstractly wrong, and which we would condemn if done by someone within a different group, might seem to have extenuating circumstances in our own group. We vary in how much we look the other way, and the extreme case is tribalism, but I think we all have it to some degree.

    If individual Pagans fall to actively discourage a predator, or fail to report the action, or even belittle a woman's discomfort, that does not necessarily mean the community is flawed. It might. But it could also be organizational dynamics and it could be individual failings. There are three possibilities. And they interpenetrate.

    Our community is not oriented towards approving or tolerating sexual predation or aggression. It's dominant values are in the opposite direction.  The challenge is to strengthen those values in our interactions within our own community, including within the organizations within it of which we are a part. Given that these factors interpenetrate, how do we strengthen cultural values and limit organizational solidarity in violation of those values and how do we strengthen the likelihood individuals will intervene effectively when they see these values violated? 

The stategy

My basic point is that the more public the disapproval of an action the easier it is for some one else to act who otherwise might not when they see a similar action repeated. Public attention is central.

    This point has been repeatedly demonstrated  in psych experiments, for both doing more good actions and for stopping or condemning more bad ones.  We are social critters as well as individuals. We shape and are shaped by our networks.  So we can shape the networks that in turn shape us.

    The more often sexual misbehavior is exposed, the easier it becomes for others to do the same in the future regarding other misbehavior - and so the riskier that misbehavior becomes. Community norms get stronger when more members take them more seriously- and the best way for that to happen is to see them taken seriously by others and to see bad behavior exposed and condemned.  That is why I liked Jason Pitzi-Water’s article about Marion Zimmer Bradley's involvement with child abuse.   Some of us defended her book "Mists of Avalon," (I did)  but no one defended what she did. Just as importantly, many people praised Jason for making the issue public.

    This widespread approval of Jason's actions makes it easier for others in the future to do the same when this kind of thing happens. And it will.

    It also makes it riskier for others to misbehave. Some of those who might go either way will behave.  In doing so they improve their own inclinations as well as strengthen the power of our culture.

Never fully solved

    The problem will never be fully solved, as it has never been fully solved in any human community. Sexuality is too powerful an energy for everyone to handle wisely, and probably for anyone to handle wisely all the time. I certainly haven't. But there is a big gap between always being wise on these issues and being or tolerating a predator, however the term is defined.

   To make the issue more complex, often sexual situations are ambiguous. When does appreciation become staring? People differ, and they may well differ depending on who is doing the looking. Disagreement, honest disagreement, is inevitable.

Back to festivals

    But certainly continued efforts to get physically close to someone or unauthorized touching when told not to or coming on verbally when  asked to stop are unambiguous, and deserving of expulsion from large gathering. This behavior is hardly illegal, but we are not talking law, we are talking strengthening our basic community values.

    Festivals can do what Pantheacon does (and possibly many others do as well) and have people appointed to hear complaints of misbehavior.  Seeing or hearing about one or two people ejected from a gathering and not allowed back will have a salutary impact on might-be would-be predators and the women they might otherwise target. But for this to work requires both a festival willing to kick such people out and attendees willing to report them.  The more people know it happened in the past, the more likely they will be to report it if they see it in the future. Publicity again.

The issue is not what some suggested in the Wild Hunt discussion: that voluntary nudity even among adults be eliminated at events that are currently clothing optional. Plenty of predation takes place when people are wearing clothes.  Rather it is learning how to strengthen community cultural values when they conflict with the biases involved within an organization or the weaknesses of human character.

 Addendum the next day

I prefer using the term "misbehavior" over "predator," the term that dominated the Wild Hunt discussion. Not because there is no sexual predation; the Marion Zimmer Bradley and Kenny Klein cases demonstrate it does.  But the unpleasant experiences reported by the loudest complainers fell very far from those examples.  Never defined, the term extended from serious crimes to persistent unwanted attention, or perhaps simply unwanted attention.  Those folks avoided concrete details.

I think "misbehavior" is  a better all encompassing term. All genuine predation is certainly misbehavior. Other people blatantly looking at you too much when you are sky clad is misbehavior but seems to me very far from predation. Predation implies violence and as such is justifiably illegal.  Misbehavior falling short of that may or may not be illegal, while still not being violent except perhaps metaphorically.




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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Wednesday, 02 July 2014

    I am a little confused at what you are referring to here. "This point has been repeatedly demonstrated in psych experiments, for both doing more good actions and for stopping or condemning more bad ones." Are you speaking about operant conditioning?

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 02 July 2014

    No Crystal.

    My favorite experiment was one where they had a guy 'broken down' on the side of the road and someone pulled over helping him. A little farther on the road they had another guy'broken down.' Lots more people stopped to offer assistance in that case than when they only saw the second guy with no one earlier. There are a lot of such studies showing how we influence and are influenced by our surrounding community and networks. That story is on an older book I used as a text once "The Economist's View of the World." It showed how wrong economists' theoretical model was. There is a new book, just out, called "The Power of Others" I am reading now that reinforces this point and adds a great deal more. Also a good discussion there of the dark side of this.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 03 July 2014

    I cannot find anything in the discussion above that remotely resembles what you just wrote.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 03 July 2014

    Let me expand on the point. Some commentators on the Wild Hunt site seemed to use a very broad definition of "predation." Not all were women. Some women defended my argument. They would likely have also called themselves feminists. When we turn to simple dichotomies when discussing complex subjects we often just confuse the matter.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Thursday, 03 July 2014

    Gus, in your experience at pagan festivals, have you ever seen any single woman expelled for being a "sexual predator" or even asked to cool her behavior? I haven't, despite having known many women who practiced the same kind of sexual behaviors. I have also known festivals that didn't allow any men to sit on their appointed council to review complaints. Unless there becomes some kind of equality in this discussion and actions at festivals, it is just more anti-men hate campaign.

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Thursday, 03 July 2014

    We are not living in post patriarchy society, and we are not better than every one else's religion because we are Pagan. We have brought our baggage with us.
    Sexual abuse of children is like a viral behavior that is taught by example and many times passed on to it's victims. Some victims may not become infected, but many that manifest the disease as adults were infected as children. Sexual abuse of adults (usually women) is the same thing except that the disease has infected the whole society, and is so prevalent that it has gone virtually unnoticed, until some started speaking out.
    I know this because I was in another “religious movement” where abuse happened. I was an adult victim. But I was set up. I had been infected as a child, seeing my father abuse my mother. So I learned that, as a women, it was to be expected.
    “Victim-hood” is not a club anyone wants to belong to. We all want to be the cool person who projects self confidence and is in demand. No one wants to be the sobbing hysteric who is trying to get someone to believe a story that sounds like it came out of a Penny Dreadful.
    I am a solitary. I don't trust group dynamics, so I don't join covens. I don't trust people just because they are “Pagans”. At sixty-five, I am just beginning to trust myself.
    It will be up to the leaders of covens, festivals organizers, and all of us, whether we seriously want to stop this disease. It is up to the women. Getting between a perpetrator and his or her victim can be an uncomfortable space. Are we willing to listen to the hysteric and question the confident? Are we willing to challenge the authority and hold the hand of the powerless? Are we committed to actually create an egalitarian society? Will we have the sense to go through our old baggage and throw away things that feel as familiar as an old binkie.
    Thanks for bringing up group dynamics and how to deal and solve this problem. It's a conversation we all need to have.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 03 July 2014

    Greybeard- I have not known any women such as you describe. None.

    As to the latter, I agree with you. The festivals you describe were wrong. Period. Festivals should have both genders represented. I would agree women should be a majority given the nature of the problem, but the men should be at a ratio large enough so that if there are 5 on the council two should be men. And no such council should be 3 women and 1 man.

    Most men are not sexual predators, and most feminists do not regard most men as such. But it's important to have both genders present when something as blurry around the edges as sexual misbehavior/misconduct is involved.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Thursday, 03 July 2014

    "I have not known any women such as you describe. None," Gus

    "What is abstractly wrong, and which we would condemn if done by someone within a different group," Gus

    Yes, there is a contextual (sexist) prejudice in all of this. The witch hunt goes on and on.

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Thursday, 03 July 2014

    Greybeard, I'd urge you to avoid derailing the topic. Gus diZerega's post about how Pagan festivals can better promote a culture of safety and consent has very little to do with misandry or sexism toward men.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 03 July 2014

    Not at all sure what you mean here.

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