Sex and Revolution

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 27, 2008 — 17 Comments

Oh good, I hoped the title would get your attention. Above all, I do not want Jason’s blog traffic to suffer while he goes gallivanting and leaves some of us less disciplined bloggers to mind his site. I mean really, writing a post every day on important Pagan issues? Relevant, researched, and heavily linked? Frankly, he puts the rest of us to shame, and I for one am glad to pitch in to give Jason a much-needed break.

My topic today was brought on in part by an incident that happened to me last Fall, when I was dropping off my teenage daughter at another Pagan household. Exiting their house through the garage, I came upon—literally almost bumped into—an enormous…sculpture I guess is the word.

It was a three-dimensional thing, its heavy wire frame mounted to a base and standing about eight feet tall. The frame was maybe three feet in diameter around the middle, narrowing to a point at the top and bottom, and was wrapped in deep magenta crushed velvet.

I was looking at it from the back, and even from that angle I started to have a bad feeling about it. Slowly I circled to the front of the structure, fearing the worst. Sure enough, the front had a long vertical slit down the middle, almost from top to bottom but not quite, and it was lined in purple velveteen and bordered with a purple feather boa. Yes, that’s right, a purple feather boa. At the top of the slit was a white flower made of fabric petals, decorated with rhinestones or beads or something—I seem to have blocked out the details.

I stared at it as the realization sank in: I have just dropped off my daughter at a house with a giant plush vagina in the garage. What possible explanation could there be for its presence here? Was it a prop for a Code Pink action? Perhaps a piece of scenery from a play—The Little Shop of Horrors (Feed me! Feed me!), or a remake of The Velveteen Rabbit?

But I knew it was none of these things. It was, I am fairly certain, made for some ritual Goddessy-womanly-sacredy-sexuality altar. And as surely as I knew that its presence was embarrassing for the teenagers who lived here and visited, I also knew that any critical mention of it would lead to the accusation that I was not “sex-positive.

Needless to say, since this incident I have thought long and hard (ahem) about Pagans and sexuality. I have good friends who teach sacred sexuality and personal boundary work, and help women and men recovering from incest and abuse. Over the years I have advocated for children of all ages, as a mandated reporter in the schools, as parent, relative, neighbor, and concerned adult friend. I get how damaging it is to have one’s sexuality stigmatized or invaded at any stage of life, and I have seen how Pagan culture, with its welcoming and accepting attitudes toward sexuality in all its forms, has been a source of healing for so many.

Against the backdrop of mainstream society, sex-positive activism continues to play an important role in getting accurate birth control, safe sex, and STD information to youth, removing the scourge of sexual and gender oppression, and helping people accept themselves and lead fuller, more joyful lives. Pagans have taken this mandate and re-framed it as part of our spiritual birthright: to join with Nature in ecstatic union, to increase our capacity for pleasure through the body, and to use the energy of eros to power our desires in all the worlds.

What’s not to love? Yet there is a disturbing side to it, too. For many years I didn’t question the ubiquitous “sex-positive” workshops in the Pagan community, and merely rolled my eyes at some of the stories I heard from participants. Of course, I never went to any of them; they just weren’t my thing. Having spent all of my twenties and the better part of my thirties coming to terms with sexuality, childbirth, intimacy, relationships and all the rest, I felt like it was time to move on to other matters. Besides, it was my policy to never attend anything where I had to use words like “lingam,” or pull a Meg Ryan in a group of any size.

Over the years, though, I have gone from shrugging my shoulders and thinking “not my thing,” to being genuinely concerned about what goes on in the name of some “sex-positive” and “sacred sexuality” work. I know many people who have been hit on, manipulated, and used by workshop leaders. Some Pagans who do this work seem to claim “sex-positive” as an excuse for having really bad boundaries—ironically, while supposedly helping others create healthy boundaries. And such an edgy field naturally attracts narcissists, who are more interested in pushing limits than encouraging authentic sexual expression—and yes, there is a difference.

After my close encounter with the Velveteen Vagina, in fact, I started thinking that it might not have anything to do with positive sexuality at all. And if thinking that made me un-sex-positive, what did that even mean? Had the Pagan sex-positive movement devolved into a freedom of speech test for exhibitionists? In that case, what we were doing was not revolutionary at all; it was reality television.

Paganism, for all its easy entry and near-universal acceptance of difference, is riddled with minefields if you scratch below the surface. For instance, we value self-empowerment and individualism, yet we loathe leadership, which is a natural outcome of being empowered. Diversity itself becomes a trap when, in upholding the principles of relativism, we are unable to set basic standards of accountability.

By equating sexuality with liberation, we create a rhetorical climate where any reasonable questioning of sexual behavior can be characterized as a campaign of oppression. As far as I can tell, this is where the discussion of sexuality and Paganism is currently stuck.

Yet in order to progress as a New Religious Movement or whatever the heck we are, we must resolve these questions in some way. If everybody’s mileage varies, how are we to determine whether Workshop Leader A is a power-hungry predator or a brilliant, unorthodox teacher? If Pagans as a rule don’t trust leaders, are we fated then to end up with leaders who are fundamentally untrustworthy?

The ecologist James Gould writes about striking a balance between “the unprofitable extremes of blinding skepticism and crippling romanticism.” I have travelled quite far from the romanticism of my first encounters with Paganism, and obviously I am skeptical of much of the rhetoric around “sacred sexuality.” But after so long in the mosh pit of relativism, I am comfortable erring on the side of skepticism—without the blindness—for a while.

What I most long to see is a thoughtful discussion of these issues that isn’t ended by setting into motion Brock’s Law. Sex is sacred. It can be em
powering, liberating, ecstatic, life-changing. It can be sweet rain in a time of drought, a spark of fire that lights up the world. But even great sex does not change the world, trust me. There is still plenty of work to be done once we rise from between the sheets.

—Guest posted by Anne Hill of the Gnosis Café blog

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • goiriath

    I’m pretty tired…I was following along, velvet vagina, ok. And the existence of this in someone’s garage was scary.Or. Wait, no. It might be an example of sex-positivity becoming a freedom of speech test for exhibitionists? Except it was in a garage. Which isn’t very exhibitionist.What? Ok, I think I see my mistake. Maybe the velvet vagina was not actually an example or an analogy of the point like I was expecting it to be. Letting it go now…Some people who advertise themselves as sex-positive, aren’t, who claim to be about establishing boundaries, don’t, who are seeking power, shouldn’t be.All very true.A relativist or liberal viewpoint may mean that non-harmful practices and opinions are not biased against, however eccentric, but it also carries the danger that harmful practices may not be biased against – or that people will err too far on the side of ‘caution’ in the liberal sense, before discerning that something is harmful.Also true, but establishing boundaries between harmful & non-harmful is the role of every person and society, and the carries the same implications as any other civic area – how strictly do we judge our criminals, and how much do we weight the possibility of judging an innocent person to punishment against the possibility of not punishing a non-innocent/criminal?Do we judge a leader a predator or an unorthodox teacher?I wonder if that’s really about paganism, or more to do with where people swing on the liberal versus fundamental axis, and that pagans tend to be more liberal?Too far in either direction has it’s negatives, but as Bonewits points out with ABCDEF, there tend to be more widespread and institutional dangers on swinging too far to the fundamentalist side.

  • Jane

    It IS sex-positive to have healthy boundaries and to encourage others to do the same. If sex is sacred (and it is), it deserves respect. If my sex is sacred (and it is), then I deserve respect, both from others and — perhaps most challenging of all — from myself.

  • seithman

    I’m with Jane on this one. I think that part of the problem is that we don’t spend enough time discussing what it means to call something sacred.I also think that one of the things that would help is to bring discussions of sexuality into a larger context of our spirituality and ethics. To use one of my favorite examples and pet peevs, people foucs on the one line from The Charge of the Goddess (“All acts of love and pleasure…”) and completely ignore the rest of the paragraph in which that statement appears. The rest of the paragraph frames the ethical context of a true act of love and pleasure quite nicely in my opinion.

  • kerrickadrian

    You make several good points here, of which the most useful perhaps is that sex positivity should not be confused with having bad boundaries or feeling free to manipulate others—something that I have seen in many religious groups, including mainstream monotheist ones. It’s interesting how sexual repression, which could be considered a “bad boundary”—a boundary that’s too constricted, rather than too open—isn’t usually called by that term because it usually only seems to harm the individual rather than others. It’s important for sex positive spaces to be as open and supportive to people’s needs for safety as they are to people’s desires. And some of the worst abuses I’ve encountered have been in the context of non “sex-positive” space where I could not speak up because sex was not to be talked about.As I say, you make very important points—and yet I feel they’re undermined slightly by the fact that the anecdote you use to kick off this discussion—which make no mistake needs to happen freely, especially among sex positive people—is about a piece of bad art. Not bad as in abusive or degrading—just bad as in trite and silly-looking, but ultimately harmless. Please don’t trivialize your subject matter by attacking what is harmless, when I am sure there are skeezy gropy coven-leaders and dubious books on SeX Maygycks!!1! awaiting your attention. Or better, take a look at the whole fundamental premise of neopagan theology—that the function of the Goddess is to mother creation, and the function of the God is to impregnate Her. Of course this has the potential to give rise to serious gender role and sexual coercion. So how do we approach a theology that is fundamentally heteronormative and enshrines sex as the source of all creation without making heterosexuality and unhealthy emphasis on sex an obligation? And since that very enshrining of sacred sexuality, the Goddess/woman symbolized by the giant receptive feather-boa lined vagina, strongly contributes to the bad art you found so troubling as well as the skeezy coven leaders and dubious sex magic manuals, I would have expected more discussion of it in this post. I hope we’ll get to that in the near future.

  • brock-tn

    If the Sexual Revolution gave us anything, it was the freedom to choose for ourselves when and where and what we do to express our sexuality. Which includes the freedom to choose to not do certain things. Or anything, for that matter. As Jane points out, if it’s all sacred, then the boundaries people set for themselves must be considered sacred as well.Merely trading one set of rigid societal expectations for a different set of rigid expectations (even if they admit of a wider scope of potential experiences,) does not sound particularly revolutionary to me.The idea of sacred sexuality has the potential to transform the way we relate to our partners and to tour Gods. But there’s a distinct difference between approaching sex as a sacramental act, and using the idea of sacred sex without the substance: “It’s not just a quick shag; we’re really worshiping The Goddess!”

  • HR Mitchell

    This is a thoughtful topic, Anne, and I am mostly in agreement with what you say about sex-positivism; however, I have to question your primary assumption — HOW do you know that its presence was embarrassing for the teenagers who lived here and visited?

  • anne hill

    They told me. I knew (intuited) it at the time, and they confirmed it (unsolicited) later.

  • turtlemoon

    Growing up in Catholicism in South Dakota, and now being a pagan in Colorado, I see a need to stir the cauldron of sexuality, spirituality and ethics. And, being a teacher, I think sexuality classes, call them sacred or healing or whatever, is one of the best services to offer the community. I don’t go for sexual behavior in the class, but exploring boundaries and feelings and history is one of the most constructive experiences of my life. I think sex ed DVDs, and there are many excellent ones out there, is much more constructive than actual sex in the class.When I read Cora’s description of sexual energy being the same as spirit energy, and that removing sexual blocks advances spiritual development, I was so excited. Finally someone wrote what I had known since I was 10. I never found that in the Catholic catechism.I would much rather have a velvet vagina on the altar or in the ritual space than a model slinging her boobs to sell whiskey or cars or stock options. Give me that statue of a satyr with an erect phallus, celebrating our lust for its own sake!

  • HR Mitchell

    Well, that certainly clears it up, doesn’t it.

  • Hecate

    I love the velvet vagina. So, sue me. The problem isn’t the velvet vagina, it’s the culture that makes teenagers (and you) embarrassed by it.

  • Hecate

    I mean, just imagine what that implies. A culture where a vagina is embarassing.

  • Carol Maltby

    Any inkling that your parents (or someone else’s) has or ever had a sex life is profoundly embarassing to most teenagers. My own daughters have been known to scream in horror if I should so much as mention that I made out with my high school boyfriend 40 years ago.Like any religion, we have some people who do not respect boundaries. Our thealogies can further contribute to that. I’ve seen issues come up recently in the Pagan community that show that many are completely clueless of the dynamics of sexual abuse, and that we’ve got a long way to go to educate on the subject.It would be great if an 8 foot tall vulva made of crushed velvet and feather boas was the worst thing we had to grapple with. I wish you’d taken the first step and asked the parents what it was all about, instead of just imagining what you think they might have said to you if you asked.

  • Jacqueline

    A mix of what Turtlemoon and Hecate said sums up my reaction to the velvet vagina – if it was the poor execution that horrified, I can empathize, but I am much more horrified by the violence in movies we show our children and the using of the female body as an over-sexualized object to see crap. Sometimes, for some folks, it may take creating an 8-foot velvet vagina to work toward reclaiming our female bodies as sacred and its their damned garage, they should be free from being judged there, at least.I have a hard time getting past how immediately judgemental and poo-pooing this sounded of someone else’s expression that you knew nothing about the spirit behind – and kids are embarrassed by anything that acknowledges sex in front of both them and their parents, period, and that’s not because its gross or wrong to do so, its because society teaches us this should be embarrassing and that thinking about your sexual organs is embarrassing. To me, that’s a problem, much more so than a statue of a vagina. Heck, lets see more vagina statues and less use of the female body as an object for judging, scorning, or financial gain! I am not some “out there” feminist, whatever that means, just someone more skeptical of those who are embarrassed by a harmful self-expression of reverence for the female body that might have been executed poorly in one’s opinion than dismayed by the messages young people received everyday about the value of the female body. I admire you for writing this post on a tough topic and grappling with it. I just don’t think we come down on the same side of it. People who manipulate faith to get sex or break boundaries exist in every faith path – its a human problem, not a Pagan one. And to respond to someone earlier, sexual repression does hurt more than just the individual, it is spread through mass cultural venues like churches where many are hurt, it passes on to all the children in your life, it gets all over everyone and it does stunt a part of a person that effects the health and well being of almost every other part of who we are, for the majority of us. That damage has been downplayed so long, it might be why many pagans would rather error on the side of sexual abandon and freedom to the point of excess.

  • Jacqueline

    Gods, so many typos, I am posting when I should be sleeping – I mean “harmless self expression”, not harmful. ;)

  • deborah oak

    Great post,Anne!! An awareness that I have found sadly lacking among some of those who call themselves sex positive, is that there is no awareness that for every person who is learning to say yes, another is learning to say no. In early Reclaiming sex workshops, this was especially true. For me, being sex positive means being authentic about sex and respecting all our choices. Why is having one partner less sex positive than having three?My experience too is that it’s part of most teenager’s experience and development to be embarrassed by us. For my own, I figure it’s tough enough having a witch/queer/anarchist mom. Compounding this with large velvet vaginas I know push’s it over the edge. Better to have some good books on sex casually tucked in the bookcase. But then, I still cringe at how we feminists went whole hog with our cunt coloring books and speculum circles. I’ve seen enough cervix’s to last a lifetime, let alone big ‘ole yoni representations in every fabric, color, and size imaginable.I still like The Dinner Party by judy chicago though! contradictions are the spice of life!!

  • scarlett

    I don’t see what the problem with the “velvet vagina” is. You said that any criticism of it would brand you as not being sex positive. What was there for you to criticise? Just about everything their parents do is an embarrassment to most teens so that doesn’t cut it. I can’t think why you would object to this item that was being kept in the garage.

  • Ross

    As the father of the teenage daughter, and the keeper of the garage which had the “velvet vagina” aka the “Giant Yoni”, I would like to add a little more context to this blog post discussion. The Giant Yoni is a beautiful fabric art ritual creation which has cradled many small children and anchored the south alter at the Reclaiming spiral dance in San Francisco for several years. It also has made other ritual appearances as guided by its beloved creatrix, a midwife and centrally grounding member of the Bay Area Reclaiming community.The Giant Yoni was resting in my garage on the way to another midwifes home office alter to await more ritual appearances. I found it a wonderful conversation starter with my daughter and especially delighted with her showing it to her friends. I explained that it represents the sacred power of the feminine in all its aspects and that she was free to touch, but was to big to get inside. I saw the energy flow through her as she slipped her hand into the opening.I wondered where the companion pillow had wandered off to? Though it had always seemed a little small to me, I appreciated the balance and wholeness this masculine representation represented, although as far as I know it does not have a name. Then I remembered, the member is a favorite snuggle toy of the creatrixes granddaughter, and as it doesn’t have an eight foot internal frame of rebar, takes up a lot less space. I breathed relief as a understood that it was only a matter of time before these two ritual softies were reunited.