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

Jason Pitzl-Waters