Starhawk and Sexual Ethics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 29, 2007 — 7 Comments

Author, activist, and On Faith panelist Starhawk weighs in on the issue of political sex scandals. She starts off with explaining that most modern Pagans don’t have the same sexual restrictions and hang-ups as many monotheist traditions.

“To Pagans, sexuality is sacred, for it holds within it the possibility of deep, loving, ecstatic connection to the great creative life-force we call the Goddess. So, we start from the premise that sex itself is a good thing … Inside or out of marriage, sex is no sin. Our moral questions about sex or any other act would be, ‘Is it hurtful’? Is it something you have to lie about, something that breaks a trust or causes deeper wounds?”

We may not all call the creative life-force “the Goddess”, but that is a fairly decent summation of the sexual ethics often found within Pagan circles. But Starhawk runs into some trouble when it appears that she is inserting her personal opinions into an explanation of Pagan sexual ethics (without making that qualification).

“When a president has sex with an intern, or a senator with a page, there’s a huge imbalance in power. Exploiting those roles for sexual conquest is a misuse of that position – even when both parties are consenting adults, for the charisma of power warps judgment.”

So which is it? Are they consenting adults or not? Can you make a free and consenting decision if you are “warped” by the other’s power? Should people from different social and economic strata avoid sexual relationships lest the “charisma of power” propel them into an unhealthy situation, or does this only apply to those working within politics? I do think it is safe to say that this view isn’t universally held by Pagans, or by humanity itself. I wish Starhawk had made it clear that this was her view (as she does with later comments in the essay), and not an issue of broad consensus among modern Pagans.

What do you think?

ADDENDUM: I just want to be clear that I am not attacking Starhawk personally, in fact I agree with much of what she has to say about power dynamics. My point is that the essay made it seem that she was speaking for modern Paganism as whole, when if fact there are many different ideas on sexual ethics and power dynamics within our family of faiths.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • fenix

    Hm – well, while I can see her point about the abuse of power in order to gain sex/control, I doubt that’s always the case. I do kind of take exception to the view of passing her opinion off as the opinion of ALL Pagans.

  • Copper Asetemhat Stewart

    I don’t have a problem with pro/prescriptive definitions of Paganism or even discussions about what constitutes “authentic” Paganism. They are always present, either overtly or covertly, and they cannot be avoided. Best to make them explicit. I would be happier is she simply said, “This is better; this is what Paganism should be” and acknowledged that too many “Pagans” use religion as a cover for sexual predation–(as opposed to consensual sex)something apparent at the larger festivals. The manifestations are very different from those in fundamentalist forms of Christianity, but it seems to me that the greatest Pagan hypocrisy is, like theirs, around sex. Starhawk should have cast her comments as idealistic; I know as many nuerotic and sexually active Pagans as I do neurotic and sexually constrained Christians. (Maybe California really is different, but not to judge from the gossip mills).This is far more of a problem for Starhawk than for me, given her general preference for consensus, etc. The mandate to avoid speaking “for” others or in terms of subjectively perceived absolutes is a hobbling form of political correctness that often becomes tyrannical, in illustration of the magical principle that things become their opposites over time–at least those forms of speaking or pronouncing that actually have no material consequences or are devoid of imposition. Only a false presumption on the part of the reader–that her presumption is substantive–would cause this rhetoric to become a tangible imposition. Nothing can be done to contain such presumption–there will always be literalist and reactive readers.There’s also nothing wrong with healthily vying definitions of Paganism or with the Pagan “should,” especially in matters that affect the collective. Such “shoulds” are present in both Star’s piece and the query you pose in response.If Clinton had taken her advice (and if Dems had refused to defend his lies and abuses of power just because Repubs were also lying and abusing power), then I don’t think George Bush would be President. These things have consequences. Because of their tenure, I’m not voting for Hillary under any circumstances.

  • Bill Baar

    Almost all human relationships are about power.The pagans of old knew it and generally opted for the powerful.It took Christianity to start a more gentler outlook on power in family and state, and it took the founding “fathers” to give us a government based on balancing power.

  • Copper Asetemhat Stewart

    Bill, these are false generalizations based on the statist Paganism of the classical period as filtered through the Christian historians who embraced and legitimized it. Christianity was and is manifestly maintained by systematic violence, both emotional and literal. For many boys, this begins in genital mutilation. There is no better illustration of the violent perversity at the heart of Christianity than the warping doctrine of original sin and the notion that blood sacrifice atones for it. It’s abusive to teach children that they are born in sin and its abusive to tell them that Jesus suffered because of it. The man who said “I have come not to bring peace but a sword” or who is glorified as world-destroyer, and whose teachings have indeed unleashed endless war, ecological destruction and apocalyptic madness–that man is not a man of peace.A couple of Starhawk’s books are sustained analyses of what power is and how it functions in human relationships. There’s more than one kind of power, and there’s a major difference in relationships in which subordinates are aware of the construction of power and relationships in which they are not. Christianity has been, at least since the fifth century, the New Rome and it has sustained itself through violence, falsehood and mis-education.It took no one to make me aware of this: it’s patently obvious throughout western culture, which has been impoverished by trading its ancestral treasures for the false promises of Jesus and his later appropriators.

  • Sara

    I don’t have a problem with Starhawk expressing her opinions on ethical issues. She’s a much-published theologian; she gets to do that. I do have a problem with the way Pagans want any public face of Paganism to speak for all Pagans, even though that’s patently impossible and pretty much antithetical to the notion that we all get to have different opinions, when you think about it.I also think that what she says about power in sexual relationships is more than just her opinion. The warping effect of a power imbalance is harmful, and is why there’s such a concept as sexual harassment or policies against relationships in the workplace. If a college professor had sex with an undergraduate, he or she would get fired; the situation of a senator having sex with a page is exactly equivalent…except that pages are often even younger than college students.

  • whatsername

    I agree with Sara.I think that the answer to this: “Can you make a free and consenting decision if you are “warped” by the other’s power?” is an unequivocal “No.”However, you can have a relationship with someone who in another situation might have power over you. A boss, or something, for instance. But if you are in a situation where you are “warped,” then no, you’re not making a truly free decision. Telling the difference from the outside is incredibly hard, but I thought it was good of her to point this out in contrast to our general sex positive attitudes as pagans.”Should people from different social and economic strata avoid sexual relationships lest the “charisma of power” propel them into an unhealthy situation, or does this only apply to those working within politics?”I think this is a different issue. You can come from different social or economic strata and not necessarily be in a position where you reasonably hold power over another person.

  • Darren

    I agree with the general feeling that Pagans as a whole have fewer hang-ups, but the power-balance relationship issue is predicated on the idea that the junior partner is being warped by the senior partner. If there is no transfer of power/glory, and the junior partner is there out of love, I have no issue. It is when either the senior partner uses their power to force the relationship, or when the junior partner wants some of the power (or any other gain) that the relationship becomes ‘warped.’ I know many will say this is a fine line to walk, but life is full of these types of decisions…