Pagan inclusivity and consent

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Yvonne Aburrow is a Gardnerian Wiccan author and poet who writes extensively about inclusive Pagan communities and Pagan consent culture.

I interviewed her about her books All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca and Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy — an anthology co-edited with Christine Hoff Kraemer. Learn more at www.inclusivewicca.org and www.paganconsentculture.com

Also read about her most recent books—Dark Mirror: the inner work of witchcraft and The Night Journey: witchcraft as transformation at www.yvonneaburrow.com/publications.

Jera: Can you give an example of a recent experience (or just signs) that left you hopeful more Wiccan communities are embracing a deeper inclusive ideology?

Yvonne: I recently conducted a survey of Wiccan attitudes to inclusive ritual, and whilst the methodology may have been flawed, it certainly led me to think that people are embracing the idea of making our symbolism and rituals more inclusive. I’ve also had a lot of feedback from people saying that they are using some of these ideas in their rituals, or have developed similar concepts independently.

There are of course still people who think that being inclusive just means that gay people can join your coven. There’s a lot more to being inclusive than that, however; it’s about examining your symbolism and making it less heterocentric (not eliminating all heterosexual symbolism, but including same-sex symbolism and more general symbolism that could represent any and all acts of love and pleasure). It’s also about not excluding people of colour or disabled people.

Wicca embraces the divine feminine, masculine, and androgyne. How is the growing focus on gender fluidity changing the dialogue around achieving “hieros gamos: the internal union of masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche?”

Some Wiccans acknowledge the Divine Androgyne as well as “The Goddess” and “The God”. I am a polytheist because I feel that reflects the multiplicity of reality and of divinity. I regard the Horned God and the Moon Goddess as patron deities of Wicca. I also don’t believe in masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche, but for those that do, I think having an awareness that we all contain both “masculine” and “feminine” aspects is helpful in understanding that we are all a mixture of different traits (some of which are regarded as feminine, and some of which are regarded as masculine.

For me, the hieros gamos is the union of Self and Other, Lover and Beloved, Inner and Outer, force and form, expansion and contraction, and perhaps yin and yang. I prefer to remove genderfrom my understanding of it.

All acts of love and pleasure, as well as the body, are considered sacred in most Pagan traditions. This helps set up an inclusive ethos. Do you think this sacredness is intuitive? Is it something many of us simply lose touch with or are societally conditioned to think otherwise?

I think that it ought to be natural and intuitive to regard the body as sacred, but around 500 BCE, there was a turn towards regarding the body as “dirty”. Michael York (the Pagan theologian) describes a division that started around this time between devic religion, which is focused on nature, embodiment, and nature spirits, and asuric religion, which is focused on the void, the ontologically transcendent, and the ultimate divine source. I (and other Pagan thinkers such as Leonora James) regard this division between devic and asuric religion as the source of the antipathy towards the physical body. Interestingly, throughout Christian history, there has been a struggle between the devic tendency and the asuric tendency. One early example of this was the Gnostic antipathy to the physical, and similarly the iconoclast movement of the third century. Fortunately for Christians, most of the time, the view that Creation is good has won the day.

One of the reasons why the Pagan revival took off sooner in Protestant countries than in Catholic ones was that Protestantism has largely lost that reverence for nature and love of ritual that is retained by much of folk Catholicism and Orthodoxy. So to return to your question, yes, I think there is a human instinct to return to the joys of embodiment, in spite of social conditioning to the contrary. Everyone can respond to the simple joy of food, sex, touch, and sensuality. I have noticed that some people outside of the Pagan movement seem to struggle with the idea of sexuality and sensuality being sacred experiences, though. And there are still people within Paganism who can happily get their heads around heterosexual sex being sacred, but cannot move past that to same-sex sexuality. It does help that Doreen Valiente, the author of The Charge of the Goddess, which is the source of the quote “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”, explicitly stated (in 1997) that she meant ALL acts of love and pleasure, not just heterosexual ones. It’s also very clear from ancient literary sources that ancient pagans were more accepting of same-sex

In Pagan Consent Culture, multiple essays explored the concept of sovereignty from different Pagan backgrounds, such as Druid and Faery.

In his essay “Culture of Consent, Culture of Sovereignty: A Recipe from a Druid’s Perspective,” John Beckett wrote, “The land has sovereignty. So does each and every person. You have both the inherent right to rule your life and the obligation to rule it rightly … We all possess the inherent sovereignty to rule our own bodies and our own lives.” Later he asked, “How do we build a culture of sovereignty, which affirms eery person’s right to control their own body?”

What do you think this idea of sovereignty adds to the discussion on consent and creating a culture of consent?

I found that essay particularly helpful in framing a Pagan understanding of bodily autonomy and sovereignty. I also think it’s a very “Western” way of thinking about the issue. Many cultures regard everyone as part of a community and a social fabric, and take the view that violations of consent tear that social fabric as well harming the sovereignty of the individual. I would like to see an approach that includes the best of both these perspectives: individual sovereignty and the interconnectedness of everyone.

Is there a tension for leaders and community members when rituals that involve touch conflict with folks who are touch-adverse? How have you seen Pagan communities strive to create a safe and comfortable space but respect the sacred and powerful potential for touch?

Yes, there is a big tension about this for a lot of people. Many people find the culture of hugging very liberating, and when those of us who want to interrupt that and say that hugging is very uncomfortable for some members of the community, it can be very uncomfortable for people to hear that and take that perspective into account.

It also depends on the cultural context. If you’re in a country where touch is more usual in the wider culture, then people are better at reading the signs when someone doesn’t want to be touched (and some cultures are better at enabling people to assert themselves when they don’t want something).

I think much more conversation is needed around this subject, and I mean the sort of conversation where people can sit and talk and listen to each other and make eye contact, because social media is not a very satisfactory place to have these conversations, as it is too polarising. I’ve tried to raise the topic of consent to hugs, and people have responded with “oh you don’t like hugs?” Actually I love hugs, but I totally prefer a hug that I have consented to, as I can relax into it.

Image of tree by Rune Brimer

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