In recent years, there has been growing public discourse surrounding something called ‘consent culture.’ It has led to the institution of laws and policies, the creation of workshops and launching of public actions in mainstream communities around the world. The prime objective is to confront and end the near passive acceptance of what is termed ‘rape culture’ and to replace it with the promotion and enforcement of positive personal interactions initiated through mutual consent.For example, The University of Georgia’s Heath Center joined the “Consent is Sexy” college advocacy campaign. Their website includes a clear definition of what is and isn’t consent. In 2015, the Scottish Police launched a “We Can Stop It” (#wecanstopit) public awareness campaign that featured billboards, press packets, and a clear reminder of the 2009 Sexual Offences Act. In 2013, a number of American advocacy groups launched the “No More” campaign, which gained notoriety when a number of NFL and College football players appeared in a #nomore television commercial.The No More organization,which speaks out about domestic and sexual violence, also sponsored a public service announcement that aired during the XLIX Super Bowl in 2015.
These are only three very visible mainstream examples of a much bigger movement; one that has touched all facets of society, both small and large. And, the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist communities are not exempt from the conversation, becoming increasingly vocal on the topic in recent years.
This past last week, co-editors Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow released their anthology Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. Published by Asphodel Press, Pagan Consent Culture contains 503 pages of essays, personal stories, and resources on the topic of ‘consent culture.’
Kraemer has a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University. She is an instructor in theology at Cherry Hill Seminary, a licensed massage therapist and the former editor of Patheos Pagan Channel. Kraemer has authored several books, including Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies and Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake. Kraemer believes that the editing of this book was a natural flow out of her previous work.
Aburrow holds a master’s degree in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University. She is a poet, and the author of a number of Pagan books, including All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca. Aburrow felt that “it was time to do something to promote consent culture.”
We caught up with both women to talk about the book, its place within the global conversation and why it was “time to do something.”
Kraemer said, “Pagans are no different from our wider society when it comes to our struggle to honor each other’s boundaries and treat each other as whole people rather than as objects.” Aburrow added, “Pagan communities often feel they are immune from the ills that beset the overculture, and we congratulate ourselves on being enlightened about sex and sexuality, but just as much sex-pressuring, slut-shaming, prude-shaming, and gaslighting goes on among Pagans as it does anywhere else.”
Kraemer first stressed the need for creating clear definitions of the various “emotionally loaded” terms used within these conversations.The book’s introduction makes this effort. Kraemer summed it up, saying,”‘Rape culture’ is a culture in which we consider widespread sexual violence to be inevitable. It’s also one in which we dismiss many smaller, daily boundary violations as a normal part of social life.” She added:
Consent culture is all about the practice of respecting others’ autonomy — their ability to make choices for themselves — as well as claiming the right to make one’s own choices. It’s about respecting “yes” as well as “no,” and it’s about far more than just sexuality. Consent culture is about helping a community develop a more robust concept of personhood, and about normalizing behaviors that protect that personhood. It’s about celebrating individual sovereignty, while also exploring how to balance individual sovereignty with community, and honoring each others’ needs.
Pagan Consent Culture is broken up into three sections that contain a total of 33 essays written by an impressive diversity of writers. Aburrow said, “Most of the writers involved had a pretty clear idea of what consent culture is and why it is important – after all, a human being is a human being with the same needs for autonomy and respect. What was really interesting was how the contributors relate consent to their own religious, spiritual, mythological, and professional backgrounds and experiences.”
Kraemer agreed, saying, “I think our writers are so acutely aware of differences in expectations based on background and religious tradition that we all advocate for explicit verbal negotiation when it comes to establishing boundaries, especially around touch.”
After an introductory chapter, the first section, titled “Developing Pagan Philosophies of Consent,” leads with essays discussing “Pagan philosophies of consent and tackling complex issues.” The writers contributing to this section include John Beckett, Brandi Williams, Yeshe Rabbit, Helix, Sophia Sheree Martinez, Julian Betkowski, Theo Wildcroft, Raven Kaldera, Grove Harris, A. Acland, Thenea Pantera and Sebastian Lokason.
In the second section titled “Responding to Abuse and Assault,” writers share “personal narratives of abuse and healing.” The contributors include Sarah Twichell Rosehill, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Jason Thomas Pitzl, Shauna Aura Knight, Katessa S. Harkey, Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown, Lydia M. N. Crabtree, Lasara Firefox Allen and Diana Rajchel.
The final section is titled “Building Communities of Autonomy and Empathy.” Along with the included appendix, it provides “resources for teaching and practicing consent culture.” The writers offering insight here are Staśa Morgan-Appel, Tom Swiss, Nadirah Adeye, Zabrine Gray, Sarah Whedon, B.B. Blank, Sable Aradia, Raven Kaldera and Jo Anderson.Aburrow said, “Consent is much the same in the different cultures, but how it plays out in Heathen, Druid, Wiccan, and Polytheist settings will have different challenges and issues due to the different custom and practice in these traditions.” When asked if, in the editing process, they found any culturally-based differences between themselves, with Aburrow being from the U.K. and Kraemer, from the U.S., Aburrow said yes and she described the nuance:
The UK has a different relationship with Christianity (less than 10 percent of the population attends church, though about 70 percent regard themselves as “C of E” according to the census). Since much of Western culture’s attitude to sex is strongly influenced by the Christian obsession with it, I think the U.K.’s attitude to things like nudity, polyamory, kink, and casual sex is very likely to be different from that in the U.S.. The legal framework is rather different too.
As she noted, the U.S.’ age of consent does vary between 16-18. Like the U.K., Canada and Australia both hold 16 to be the age of consent. Even with that distinction made, Aburrow added, “We have Pagan camps and events in the U.K., and it would be great if they took a more robust approach to promoting and supporting consent culture.”
She did go on to say that she was pleased that the Pagan Symposium,”an umbrella group of all the different Pagan organisations in the UK,” endorses a Code of Conduct that supports ‘consent culture.’ Similarly, in recent years, many U.S.-based groups, such as Covenant of the Goddess and Coru Cathudbodua, have instituted organizational consent policies. And conferences and festivals, such as PantheaCon, are tackling the issue as well. That trend is only increasing.
However, the ‘Consent Culture’ movement and the campaigns have been criticized, even by advocates. For example, some feel that, in their simplicity, the mainstream campaigns fail to recognize the complicated entanglements of moral and social constructions that have given rise to ‘rape culture.’ Such campaigns, as illustrated above, are focused specifically on sexual interaction and are gendered, assuming a male attacker and a female victim.
Kraemer remarked that ‘consent culture’ is not only about sexuality. She said, “[It] is about helping a community develop a more robust concept of personhood, and about normalizing behaviors that protect that personhood. It’s about celebrating individual sovereignty, while also exploring how to balance individual sovereignty with community, and honoring each others’ needs.” She added:
For women and minorities, simply being out in the “wrong place” in public can be seen as violating social norms. Violence and the threat of violence are used to try to keep social hierarchy in place. These inequalities can make it very difficult to secure enthusiastic consent to many kinds of interactions.
The issue, or its solution, is more complex than simply “yes” and “no.” And, through the diversity of experiences and religious backgrounds of the included writers, Aburrow and Kraemer attempted to capture the many nuances embedded in the broader and very complicated discussion. Aburrow said:
There are a unique set of issues confronting Paganism – because we are both different from the mainstream, but we arose out the mainstream, and sometimes we are reacting to it, and sometimes we are just echoing it. We need to create communities that don’t replicate or perpetuate the abusive patterns of the overculture. We also have survivors of abuse coming into Paganism from elsewhere who needing healing and welcoming.
When asked if it was difficult to edit a book that handled such a personal and emotionally charged topic, they both emphatically said no. Kraemer said, “I find working with this material to be very heart-opening. We don’t look away from the stories of abuse — we have included some personal narratives, as well as some excellent articles from professional therapists and counselors about how communities can help guard against abuse.” Aburrow agreed, saying, “It actually felt really great to be doing something positive and worthwhile about this issue.”
Pagan Consent Culture is primarily aimed at “Pagans in positions of leadership” but can be useful, as Aburrow noted, to “anyone who is interested in consent culture, and in grounding consent culture in a set of ethics and stories.” Kraemer also said, “I hope the book will also be eye-opening for leaders in other religious traditions, who may want to understand more about Pagan ethics in general and Pagan sexual ethics in particular.”
Right now, there is no follow-up book planned. However, Aburrow and Kraemer will, on occasion, expand the material for those “individuals and groups who want to delve more deeply into the topic.” They are also developing a list of “Pagan consent culture consultants — educators who are willing to make themselves available to anyone who needs support around these issues, or who wants to arrange a consent culture training in their area.”
In addition to the text itself, Aburrow and Kraemer have provided a companion study guide. Both the guide and the book are available in digital and paper format through their website and Lulu.com.