I’m not sure if the stand of poison oak surrounding my campsite these last three days has gotten onto my skin. I’m covered in dirt, sweat (my own and other’s), a few bruises, at least one small cut from rocks along a stream, and it will take me several weeks to shed all the plant matter which clung to what little clothing I wore during Beltaine week.
I’ve spent most of this week at a Radical Faerie sanctuary in southern Oregon, surrounded by queer Pagans of every gender imaginable, watching them dance, cry, laugh, eat, urinate, and unabashedly copulate amongst the grasses and trees of the land which hosts an indescribably serene and beautiful sanctuary from the world from which those of us gathered had come and must return.
The Radical Faeries are known for many things, but the one thread of their existence which is often most discussed is their embrace of queer sexuality. A sex-positive community of displaced and alienated left-leaning queers, informed by, composed and embracing of spiritualities which align well with other Pagan traditions, but without a specific central tradition, the Radical Faeries were the first pagans whom I encountered, and the first people with whom I truly felt a sense of home.
It is interesting, then, to consider their existence and what they represent through the current lens of tensions over sexual ethics and scandals in several Pagan traditions. It’s not my goal to address or critique these specific scandals, nor the accompanying reactions; rather, it seems better to address the legacy of sexual liberation within Paganism and to present a broader framework for understanding the position we find ourselves currently in, both internally and historically.
“Neo-Paganism” and the 1960’s
There are multiple ideas regarding Paganism and its particularly modern (and American-specific) iterations. While some hold to the idea that what we call Paganism now is particularly new and disconnected to the various Paganisms which existed in history, there seems such a preponderance of potential connections (if not direct continuity) to older traditions scattered about the western, “disenchanted” world that I do not hold to this reading. That being said, the specific iterations of traditions (many actually new or reformulations) which we call Paganism, at least in America, seem to have sprung up during a specific recent historical period—that is, the years we call the 60’s. While not precisely descriptive of the actual time period (several traditions started before the actual decade between 1960 and 1969, while many more started after), it’s a useful short-hand.
When speaking of this time period, however, one cannot ignore what else was also occurring during the time that Pagan-aligned traditions began to flourish and gain currency. If one studies the social unrest and upheaval across much of the western (disenchanted) world in the 1960’s (strikes in England, the political union of leftist students and worker-unions in France, the rise of leftist and campanero movements in South America) and compares it with the radical political and counter-cultural movements in the United States during that same period (student anti-war coalitions, massive protests, black and indigenous rights movements), one becomes hard-pressed not to draw the conclusion–or at least follow a strong thread of suspicion–that some significant international anti-authoritarian movements had arisen, apparently spontaneously, in multiple places at once.
The legacies of these foments and upheavals is certainly mixed and this is hardly adequate space to discuss the successes, failures, and even impact of these movements and their politics; what shouldn’t be ignored though is the concurrence of Pagan spiritualities during this same period, particularly in America, as well as what is a more popular legacy of this time and the one which holds the most collective memory for those of us who were not yet born: sexual liberation.
Free-Love and Radical Politics
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I encountered what seemed to be the buried legacy of those years, and I suspect I am not alone in this. From history books I’d learned of the civil rights movements, of course, and of the protests against Vietnam and feminist bra-burnings, but more than anything, the theme which seemed to be most portrayed in those histories (and much more so through popular media portrayals) was that of sexual liberation and “free-love.” Still when I attempt to conceive of that time within my mind, it stands out more than anything, and I suspect it is not just my own mental failings. Witness most films and marketing campaigns using motifs birthed from that time period and try not to think about sex. Besides sex sells.
Thus, when I first heard tales and read about the existence of the Students for Democratic Society, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, I experienced what best might be described as utter disbelief. What I’d come to understand of that period through the history I’d been taught in school, as well as popular portrayals in film, television and music didn’t begin to match the ferocity and severity of these radical movements which existed at the same time as the sexual-liberatory currents. To the extent that these narratives seemed incongruent, I initially rejected them—had there really been a time in the United States where such a traumatic gap in hegemonic control over people had been so weakened? Had we really been so close to revolt? And what did this have to do with sex?
A legacy of the Sixties can certainly be said to have been sexual liberation; however, this is hardly the only legacy, and as far as it related to the particular traditions of Paganism which gained currency during that same time period, this legacy should be examined. Many of the Pagan traditions which gained currency during this time bear very strong influences of the discourse around sexuality which arose during the sixties, and our conceptions of the sacredness of sex were undoubtedly influenced by those discussions.
To be clear, I’m not asserting these ideas and questions are new, specific to Paganism, or specifically resulting from the 60’s. As a matter of fact, feminist and European critical theory writers have convincingly detailed that the “liberation” that seemed to be within grasp during that time of upheaval was likely a resurgence of early movements and tendencies which had earlier been crushed in the western world in the past several centuries. Such research also offers tantalizing hints of Pagan continuity alongside discussions of these movements, particularly in the intersection of radical outbreaks, sexual liberation, and Pagan spiritualities.
Hegemony and Traumatic Gaps
That is, the repression of sexual desire, activity and expressions seems to correspond with the oppression of indigenous and non-hegemonic spiritualities. This particular process of oppression and repression, which Marxist-Feminist cultural historian Silvia Federici (and others, including Starhawk) have tied to the process of proletarianization (the creation of a populace whose primary identity is one of wage-worker, disconnected from ancestral, cultural, communal and spiritual identities) is remarkably recent in the Western and Disenchanted world (and is still occurring, particularly in Africa, South America, and Asia), each time involves violent demonization of sexual expressions and culturally-forced gender roles.
Hegemony is a political arrangement, but it also functions as a social and cultural force. In essence, it is the totalizing influence of an oppressive political center which becomes internalized by the people who are “governed” by its centrality. Similar to the notion of the superstructure, hegemony functions within each individual as an implicit threat against certain modes of thought and behavior. For instance, a queer Pagan is subject to hegemonic influence in their expressions of desire and spirituality because of the sense of threat or reprisal by society (or what some have labeled the “overculture”), and thus represses internal inclinations and tendencies, often unknowingly. Only certain sorts of identity are, in essence, “allowed,” and these, at least in disenchanted states of existence, tend to be those which make an individual more governable. A queer Pagan (particularly one who might also be trans*) can be a worker or an American with ease and without fear of reprisal and scorn; on the other hand, a queer male (but born female) gods-worshiper is a claimed identity which is an act of rebellion against hegemony.
There are times when hegemony breaks down, though. Such moments (akin to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone theories) occur for short periods of time and are often geographically isolated. In rare instances, however, traumatic gaps (that is, moments of opening for resistance) in hegemonic rule of society seem to occur in many places at once. These moments of traumatic gaps, times of weakness or crisis within the hegemonic and totalizing power of authority (in our case, Capitalist and “Liberal-Democratic” hegemony), often see strong cultural revolt as the oppression (and its internalized complement, repression) temporarily loses its grip upon the expressions of people within those societies. In such moments, Pagan spiritualities, radical/leftist political movements, and sexual-liberationist movements all seem to push back into that gap at the same time.
As such, we can then approach the mode of Paganism which arose in the 1960’s as a resurgence or reclamation of older forms of spiritual and cultural identity, and note that it occurred alongside radical anti-authoritarian revolt and attempts to reformulate sexual and gender expressions. Was Paganism responsible for this? Unlikely, but it isn’t surprising, then, that sexual liberation became central to many Pagan-aligned movements which began or gained popularity during this time, just as so many of the Pagan traditions have currents of leftist and anti-authoritarian politics woven into their spiritual understandings.
Rather than looking at sexual liberation as a core foundation of Pagan religions, or as an unfortunate intruder into a sympathetic spiritual movement, one can see it as an aspect of the same revolt against hegemonic control over the spirit, social-relations, and bodies of the governed during a time of traumatic opening.
The Next Assault
This all begs another question, though. If moments of resurgence, of assaults into the breaches of those traumatic gaps often involve anti-Capitalist and sexual-liberationist trends as well as Pagan spiritualities, how are they linked? And what happened to Paganism now, where discussions of sexual ethics and political analysis have become so fraught with anger and indifference? And why has it been so difficult to re-encounter the other currents of the sixties?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I do have a theory. If indeed the sixties were a time of a traumatic gap in hegemonic rule, and if the strength of the varying movements which fought to press into that breach truly threatened the existing Capitalist, disenchanted order, than it should be utterly unsurprising that the gap needed to be filled so that the current order could survive. That it is now difficult for us to connect the legacies of these anti-authoritarian, anti-hegemonic movements together except in simplistic motifs of “free-love” and peace marches shouldn’t surprise us, either.
That is, the traumatic gap was closed. But if history teaches anything at all, these gaps occur again. It’s difficult for me not to see the survival and strength of groups such as the Radical Faeries and other sexually-liberated groups, the sudden resurgence in Pagan (particularly polytheist) spiritualities, and the rise of new anti-authoritarian movements as a marshalling towards another assault against cracks appearing in those walls which keep us from creating our own individual and collective identities outside of hegemonic rule.
Wrestling, then, with the legacies of our last rebellion and critiquing how those legacies have been diluted or even perverted away from liberation (and unfortunately also towards abuse and more oppression) is essential if we’re to learn this time to tear down the entire order.