Archives For sacred sex

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

  • Is the Chico Goddess Temple doomed? According to the Chico News and Review, noise complaints for an illegal festival held four years ago has led to a much larger struggle to survive and gain the permits needed to stay open. Owner Robert Seals thinks that hostility to Goddess religion might underlay the resistance he’s encountered in obtaining the permits he needs. Quote: “This is nothing new, worship of the Goddess, but it goes up against a lot of fundamental religions.” You can learn more about this struggle, and the upcoming appeal hearing, here.

That’s it for now! Happy Friday the 13th! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Since I first took note of the “Wiccan coven” sex scandal that has engulfed John Friend, head of the popular Anusara hatha yoga school in America, the story has left the confines of the American Yoga community and been picked up by larger media outlets. William J. Broad, author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards”, informs readers of the New York Times that no one should be surprised that this has happened.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

“Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise. Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness [...] if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”

Broad’s somewhat controversial notion that the many recipients of Friend’s affections should have seen this coming, because yoga is a sex cult at its roots, isn’t sitting well with Indian-American commentator Sandip Roy, who blasts Broad’s correlation with yoga’s founding and the bad behavior of some teachers.

The bafflement with the Times article is the ridiculous equation that Mr. Broad has seen fit to draw between Friend’s personal fall from grace and the roots of yoga. His argument suggests philanderers and yoga are a natural fit. (I wonder if Bill Clinton knew about this.) Also a yoga class is just an affair waiting to happen given all that “arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress.” Houston, we have a sticky mat problem. As proof, alongside Friend and other fallen yoga gurus like Swami Muktananda and Swami Satchidananda, Broad cites the fact that the student-teacher sex problem was so prevalent the California Yoga Teachers Association had to deplore it as “immoral.”

Yes, yoga does draw a lot of starry-eyed groupies and yogis have become rock stars. Yes, after Mahesh Yogi’s Beatles adventure many so-called gurus set up ashrams in the West and dispensed the spiritual East in five easy poses and nirvana in five easy doses. But that’s really a gullibility problem, a megalomania problem, an abuse of power problem, not a yoga problem. A lot of cult leaders (even non yogic ones) have that very same problem. Remember David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas? Or Jim Jones? Or even Thomas Peli in Papua New Guinea who told his followers that the banana harvest would increase every time they fornicated in public? The problem really is, as Lauren Jacobs points out in her Huffington Post blog the “guruization of religious leaders, spiritual teachers, politicians, and even therapists who seem to be permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us.”

SF Gate Columnist Mark Morford also skewers Broad’s piece, noting that it explains “how yoga can make you into an orgasmic pervert sex monkey love guru.”

“I’m happy to report the NYT and Broad are mostly full of crap on this. Yoga is a physical, spiritual, energetic, wildly interconnected practice that can transform every aspect of your world. It’s based on some powerfully sacred, ancient philosophy and scriptural teachings that only want you to become a fully realized, divinely illuminated being, right now, this very second, on your very next breath — no gods, guilt, cultish sex rites or blind faith required. What’s not to like?”

While this back-and-forth over the place of sex and sexuality within yoga is interesting, there’s still almost no talk about how Friend’s Wiccan coven enters into this scandal, including the fact that Friend said Anusara yoga is “a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level.” What does that mean to him in light of these scandals? In a leaked letter, Friend seemed to hint that sacred sex was a common denominator.

Tiffany joined us in this auspicious and sacred endeavor. As part of our rituals you and I both agreed that we would use sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices, which is a common element of most Wiccan circles, as you know.”

Yet there’s been almost no talk about how Wiccans see this scandal, no interviews with Pagans or Wiccans who are also yoga practitioners, no mentions at all, except for fleeting ones. Only the Jezebel blog even attempts to grapple with how these two traditions intersected within the scandal.

“Both personally and as a means of seduction, Friend appears to have embraced Wicca, which he seems to feel aligns quite closely with the foundations of Anusara. He even causally mentions Wicca in his official bio, but it looks like he was pretty deep into it. In a letter that seems to be addressed to one of his lovers, he details how Wicca intersects with their sexytime … [excerpt of the letter I quote above ] Oh, the old Wiccan coven trick. But seriously, since this man is essentially a quasi-religious leader to his many devoted students and employees, his willingness to exploit his teachings and beliefs for sexual purposes seems particularly gross.”

Lauren Jacobs at HuffPo also briefly mentions the “old Wiccan coven trick.”

“Alleged special (supposedly ‘Wiccan’) sexual circles with teachers and students, including married individuals whose partners were not aware or had not approved?”

Beyond that? Nothing, and that’s a problem. No doubt that many will think this will all soon fade from memory now that Friend is stepping down from Anusara, taking a “leave of absence,” and reorganizing the tradition. That controversial Wiccan coven will get lost in a cloud of allegations that need “verification.” However, I think this scandal should be a wake-up call for national Wiccan organizations, and an opportunity to engage with myths versus the reality of how our traditions work. If we allow this aspect to simply get lost in the larger narrative about Friend’s downfall, it only allows misconceptions to grow. To cultivate the idea that maybe we are OK with non-transparent sex covens centered around a powerful leader.

Like yoga, Wicca’s roots, its core, is in sacred union. Many over the years, both detractors and adherents, have called it a “sex cult” or a “fertility religion.” This can lead to some taking liberties that ignore our ethical base, our commitment to sacred trust, our belief that “as above” is at one with what’s “below.” It can lead to people like Friend misusing the currents of both Wicca and yoga for his own gratification. Here we stand with Hindus who are fighting against yoga being turned into something it’s not, as we both see our traditions cynically used. This is not the time to hope it “blows over,” but a time for our leaders to engage in powerful outreach on what Wicca is, what its ethics are, and what our stance is on Friend’s behavior. If we don’t, we run the risk of others doing it for us, quietly, with whispers, insinuations, and misinterpretations.

The Phoenix Goddess Temple in Arizona, a neo-tantric religious organization that defines itself as “a sacred place to know the secret inner wisdom of the Cosmic Mother,” was raided by police on Wednesday. Eleven women and five men were taken in for questioning, and made to do a “perp walk” for the cameras, but police would not say, exactly, what the raid was looking for.

“CBS 5 News has also learned this was part of a long term investigation that spanned from the Valley to Sedona. Police served three additional search warrants in the Sedona area and detained several more people for questioning at those locations. [...] [Sgt. Steve] Martos would not confirm the nature of the investigation, saying investigators would be working well into the night and more details would be available tomorrow.”

It was revealed that police also raided Sedona Goddess Temple, an affiliate of the Phoenix Goddess Temple. It’s plainly obvious that this is a raid looking for proof of prostitution, though previous sting operations have turned up empty-handed. Why else do a highly publicized raid and perp-walk? So far, there are no reports of actual charges being made, and Phoenix Goddess Temple has released no statement regarding these events. If Phoenix Goddess Temple was simply a house of prostitution with a veneer of religion painted over it, wouldn’t they have been closed down by now? Earlier this year the Phoenix New Times called the temple’s activities “New Age prostitution,” though the men and women at the temple insist that they are engaged in a higher calling.

But despite the obvious eyebrow-raisers at the temple, [Temple founder Tracy] Elise says she’s doing nothing wrong. “The temple is really a church for us,” she says. “We open ourselves with love as an empty channel, and that’s the authority by which I heal. I don’t get my credentials on the ground level. I get my calling and I am under the jurisdiction of the most high.”

Even if no charges are brought from this current investigation, the writing is on the wall. It’s obvious the police are looking for any excuse to shut these temples down. The question now is, should they be able to? Even if some sessions end in “happy endings” aren’t their activities protected by law so long as they don’t directly charge money for sex? If they took this matter to court, would they be able win broader protections since they are religiously sincere in their activities? How should the broader Pagan community engage with sacred sexuality practitioners?

Yesterday the noted Pagan author, activist, and teacher T. Thorn Coyle, in a three part series on her blog, tackles the issue of teachers and leaders with “feet of clay”. Specifically, she discusses the controversy-loving Frosts (that would be Gavin and Yvonne Frost of The Church and School of Wicca), their ongoing defence of largely indefensible sexual politics, and processing a recent panel she ran where she allowed them to participate.

“I am struggling with the Frosts. Struggling because it would be too easy to do as others have which is to demonize them or relegate them to the “sweet old couple.” They are something far more varied than either of these. Some people want to sweep them under a rug, but I do not think they should be ignored. Why? We need to figure out our theolog(ies). We need to know where we stand on sex. Many of us would still rather just suppress it like the overculture teaches us, because abuse may happen otherwise, or we may need to deal with our own demons. I say that abuse happens because of the suppression. Our demons grow stronger the more we constrict around our fears. Abuse happens when we don’t deal with our own sexuality, and we don’t teach our children about their own. And abuse sometimes just happens … If sex is sacred, we need to figure out how that translates and is reflected in our own lives, and in how we pass on that teaching.  And this is why, Gavin and Yvonne, as two people who have taught many others, I wish you would explain. Or I wish you would retract. Or I wish you would apologize. We could use discerning words from you instead of simply a shut down or blustering defense, or the insistence that those who disagree with you are “plastic”.”

She closes with some questions for the Frosts to answer:

“What do you really think, today, about the sexual education of children? Is sex between adolescents with adults really the best way they should learn these mysteries? How did you teach your own daughter to appreciate the powers of sex, love, and Nature?”

And some questions for her readers:

“What do you think about your own relationship to sex? To magic? To life force? To our process? To mistakes? To feet of clay? To your own regrets? To the sacred? To teaching our children?”

The sexual politics, and controversies, of the Frosts is a topic I’ve covered more than once here on this blog. I applaud Thorn for bravely stepping forward to process her own participation and feelings regarding these issues. I agree with the sentiment that we need to have an ongoing and constructive dialog concerning sex in our wider community, to actively engage with tough issues instead of ignoring them or allowing certain individuals to frame the entire moral question. I urge my readers to go through all three of her essays, and to answer her questions at her blog. Then, if you’d like, feel free to answer them, and continue the conversation, here, too. You should also keep an eye on Thorn’s podcast page, where audio and video from the panel in question will soon be posted.

The Arizona Republic reports on the travails of a downtown Scottsdale Goddess-worshiping temple that neighbors accuse of being a “sex church”. The Phoenix Goddess Temple, run by mother priestess Tracy Elise, claims that they teach Tantra (actually they claim to practice a syncretic “Neo Tantra”) and don’t engage in prostitution (sacred or otherwise).

Scottsdale police spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark said police visited the Phoenix Goddess Temple last week to investigate a complaint that it was a house of prostitution but could not determine if the allegations were true … The temple has drawn police attention because its tenets connect spirituality and sexuality and it employs sexual healers and teaches its members about tantric sexual techniques. “It’s perceived as a sex church,” Elise said. The 48-year-old priestess was unapologetic about the temple and its views on sex, which she said are far more enlightened than those of most other religions. A waiver that members sign states: “I acknowledge that I will not receive any type of sexual gratification in exchange for money during my session” at the temple. A citizen’s complaint to police alleges that prices listed at the temple say services are $204 for one hour and $440 for 2 1/2 hours but do not say what those services are.

Though a police sting operation yielded no arrests, and despite the fact that they seem quite careful to avoid veering into illegality concerning their sex-oriented teachings and sessions (note the rules for a “cuddle party” held at the temple), that hasn’t stopped neighbors from complaining to law enforcement officials and making assumptions about what goes on inside the temple.

Kim Edwards, president of the Scottsdale Southwest Village homeowners group, said she witnessed congestion problems at the church but was unaware of what was going in the home. She figured it was a business operation. “I almost hit somebody crossing the street there,” she said, adding that she complained to the city. “I wouldn’t support any church at that location because of the traffic it draws. But because of the nature of this church, it sends up a lot of red flags.” Another neighborhood leader, Hope Monkewicz, said she was disturbed by a veil of secrecy surrounding the temple. “If you’re operating there and no one knows about it, you can’t be doing something good in there,” she said.

But unhappy neighborhood leaders can breath a sigh of relief, the temple is moving to Phoenix. Not because they were forced out due to their teachings on sex, but because of local zoning laws.

In Scottsdale, the city code enforcement inspectors notified the Phoenix Goddess Temple on Oct. 21 that it needed approval to operate a church out of the home at 68th Street and Exeter, said Malcolm Hankins, the code enforcement manager. After meeting with city planners in December, the temple considered its options for acquiring an adjacent property or moving to a new location. It ultimately decided to move to Phoenix but was still operating this week in Scottsdale … Earlier this week, Elise said she plans to move to a home in 5900 block of East Shea Boulevard in March. Phoenix planner Alan Stephenson said the city has not received an application to operate a temple at the home, but a church would be allowed in that residential zone.

No doubt the Phoenix Goddess Temple will continue to do well for itself, let’s hope the neighbors and local authorities are a bit more tolerant at their new location. Though the only laws they were breaking were local zoning ordinances, I’m disturbed by the neighbor who found them suspicious simply because “no one knows about it”. This is a group that seemed to have no trouble talking to the press, and keep an extensive web site explaining what they do (and don’t do), yet the spectre of sex and female empowerment seemed to trigger suspicion and hostility. If you want a crystal ball to predict how the future growth of modern Paganism will be received once we’re fically robust enough to open temples and sanctuaries in local communities, you could do worse than to examine how these men and women were treated.

I’m on the road today, making a normal post difficult, but I do have a quick item I wanted to share with you. A couple bloggers have been discussing a brand new book from the controversy-loving mail-order-Witchcraft mavens Gavin and Yvonne Frost. While Chas Clifton found much to admire in “Good Witches Fly Smoothly: Surviving Witchcraft”, fellow Pagan blogger Hecate found at least one passage troubling.

“Any initiatory sex should be with a “stranger” — an initiated Witch of the coven [that] the neophyte plans to join. . . . The underlying tradition here is sometimes overlooked. If the Craft means enough to you that you are willing to abide by its tenets then abide by them! If you cannot transcend your cultural brainwashing and accept the assignment to have sex one time with an assigned partner, in accordance with centuries of Craft tradition, the Craft can’t mean that much to you. Here’s the door. Don’t call yourself a Witch.”

This prompts Hecate to make the following disclaimer regarding the Frosts:

This is just wrong. And I need to point out the wrongness so that any young or impressionable people new to Wicca, who may stumble upon the Frosts’ work, don’t believe what the Frosts say about initiation and sex.

After the last major storm over their sexual politics, you have to wonder what the Frosts are playing at. Are they, as some defenders have asserted, being shocking on purpose in order to stir the cauldron? Creating controversy to boost sales? Or are they, as their most vocal critics say, sick people with a warped moral compass. Personally, I think the Frosts started out by wanting to trigger debate and controversy but have begun to believe their own hype over the years. After all, there’s no such thing as bad press right? Needless to say, I haven’t run into a Witch or Wiccan group, traditonal or eclectic, who demanded sexual congress with a “stranger” for an initiatory process. Have you?

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