Further Thoughts After the Women’s Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010
At the most recent Pantheacon, I was honored to participate in a panel of authors who contributed to Immanion Press’s recent Women’s Voices in Magick anthology. It was a real treat to be able to take part in a lively conversation on the state of contemporary occultism with women from a diverse range of magical communities. Celtic Reconstruction, Thelema, Chaos and experimental magic were among the stated approaches used by such notable occultists as Erynn Rowan Laurie, Kat Sanborn, Amy Hale, Lupa, and Jaymi Elford. Despite the disparity in our training and in the communities and Gods we choose to serve, there were a number of common threads in our discussion that I feel shed light on compelling issues of contemporary magical practice. Since taking part, the issues have been much on my mind, and I present some of my thoughts on these topics as well.
Heterosexism, Privilege and Magick
All of us affirmed our affection and respect for our male colleagues, mentors and teachers. We expressed gratitude for their guidance and friendship. But in examining our personal experiences with sexism and heterosexism, it was starkly obvious to all of us that neopagan culture was not immune from either of these ills. It has manifested for us, both subtly and not so subtly. All of us have had to deal with criticisms that our hobbies, interests and life’s work, were not “natural” for women. These are not the attitudes of conservative family members, but rather those of our contemporaries and magical peers. We were told that there was something exotic, unusual, or just flat wrong about a woman Thelemite or Chaote. In those circles, we were either tokens or dupes. We’ve been told that we were doing our magick “incorrectly.” One woman spoke about how she and the other women who founded their tradition now feel pushed aside by male colleagues who monopolize conversations and blog threads with arguments among themselves, while ignoring female voices. Many of us spoke about feeling the hostility of male colleagues in traditionally male occult societies, and feeling distrust from other women occultists for working magick outside of a traditionally female context (Wicca, witchcraft, etc).
We all agreed that we had felt, at one time or another, reduced to sexual and biological objects. We were made to feel, by male colleagues, that our function in our spiritual community was to be sexually attractive and available to men, and if we weren’t, this was interpreted as somehow hostile on our part. To encounter this type of attitude in what we had hoped would be safe magical space is disheartening. What made it worse was the not so subtle message in many magical communities that women’s secondary status is “natural,” that it is somehow “natural” for us as women to serve men in all things, because that’s “how it is in nature.” In addition, this “natural” heterosexism asserts itself as phobic against homosexuality and transgender. “Nature” is used as a litmus test for what is “natural” in human sexuality; therefore, heterosex is privileged above all other sexual expressions for being more “natural.”
This construction of human sexuality is faulty and reductionist, and owes far more to the hidebound moralities of our dominant / dominator paradigm than to reproductive biology. This model is limited because it’s couched in polar binaries only, and even in context of so-called “fertility religion,” it provides an incomplete vision of the natural world as a source of gnosis and connection. The mysteries of egg and sperm, of seed and pollen, are ever present. They are primal forces, the engine that runs our planet. These energies are the forces of creation and destruction that we all engage in, everyday, with every breath: they are not exclusive to one sex, gender or orientation. The deepest human need has ever been to understand these forces, and the religions of these mysteries have ever tried to explain the infinite to finite human minds. The male-female heterosexual current is only one iteration of this primal energy. It’s a powerful one, and it is self-evident. From an evolutionary standpoint it has been wildly successful because it yields the greatest genetic diversity. But it is only one of many currents that energize our planet, our natural world, and in no way does it demand the type of oppressive constructions that culture puts on gender and sexual orientation. These are not natural; these are merely prejudice.
It is one of the more demoralizing tricks of the dominator paradigm to take the entire range of human enterprise, experience and emotional potential, divide it in half, give half to one gender and half to the other, and then expect whole, integrated adults to emerge. The most ancient, and truest, magical injunction remains: Know thyself. We cannot be fully human if we accept the limitations of dominator gender roles without question or complaint. As women magicians, we all had felt at some time pressured to abandon our magick in order to conform to someone else’s vision of what a woman should be. Rejecting those values is part of our commitment to our magical work.
Sex, Pleasure and Consequence
Despite having overcome our dominant culture’s sex-negative programming, we all felt that we had all been sexually objectified at one time or another. In many ways, the pro-sexual attitudes and relaxed sexual mores of Neopaganism have been just as limiting to women occultists as the anti-sexual stances against which many occultists have rebelled. Again, this is a reductionist attitude in which women are relegated to only those roles which serve men. Promoting sexual “liberation” for women serves heterosexual male interests, by encouraging and privileging (pressuring) women to be sexually available. This also manifests in how sexual or love Goddesses are lavished with devotion and reverence, while other Goddesses (mothers, crones, virgins, warriors) are given short-shrift except in women-only ritual contexts (Dianic Wicca, Goddess worship, etc).
The reclamation of sexuality as a sacred act of pleasure and connection is a central tenet of many occult traditions. Certainly for me, who follows the path of the Qadesha (sacred harlot), sexuality acts as both a sacred mystery and spiritual practice. Sexual pleasure can be a conduit for gnosis and connection with our most sacred selves and deity. But often the hedonism of Neopaganism frames sexuality as a purely physical pursuit. It sets up sexual pleasure much as the dominant paradigm does, as a commodity, something superficial, available upon demand, and having no consequence. (This is why the dominant paradigm really has no interest in what women occultists are saying. The vision of a sacred sexuality that we espouse cannot be sold to us, nor can it be purchased from us. Therefore, it really has no assigned value in the larger culture.)
The lie about this reductionist vision of sexuality is that sex is reduced to something inconsequential and tame, and it absolutely isn’t. Sex is full of peril: the peril of connection, of vulnerability, of the very real life and death consequences of . . . life and death. We as human beings have by and large removed procreation from a direct line to reproduction, and medical technology has mitigated much of the risk of childbearing. But those risks, that peril, have been part of human sexuality from the beginning and are encoded deeply within us. (Could the intensity of sexual pleasure be evolutionary coded, in order to offset the pain, danger and risk of childbearing?) Sexuality is more than just “scratching the bunny itch” and a sexual philosophy that diminishes that fact is ultimately false. Sometimes this fact is lost in the hedonism.
An example of this is a Beltane ritual I attended years ago, while I was quite pregnant. Our hosts were gracious, their home and grounds lovely and private, the ritual was beautifully executed. But I became profoundly uncomfortable by the “sermonette” in which our priest discussed the “universal” sexual dynamic of the female enticing the male to chase her till she catches him, which is present in the mating habits of all animals everywhere all the time. I found this fairly reactionary, of course, but as the evening wore on, the vibe became even more sexual as folks got flirty, then lascivious. As it was Beltane, it was considered perfectly appropriate. But once the vibe became licentious, I found myself pointedly ignored. My pregnant state put me outside the “fun and games” — I was no longer sexually available or accessible; I was “spoken for,” not by a husband, but by my unborn child.
While it may seem intuitive to consider a pregnant woman sexually unavailable, I don’t feel it was respect for my relationship status that had this effect. I believe I was ignored because I was a reminder of an aspect of sexuality at odds with the vision of the no-strings, sport-sex that was being celebrated that night. The risks, perils and consequences of sex can transcend the momentary pleasure we are driven to experience, and I was a very present reminder of those consequences. It also hints at old concepts of a divided female sexuality, in which the sexual is degraded as selfish and debauched, and the mother is admired as purely spiritual and selfless, almost virginal. This is ironic, of course, in that the only way to achieve becoming a mother is through that nasty sex. It’s this type of cognitive dissonance that keeps women occultists and witches from feeling fully empowered in magical community. The new boss looks remarkably like the old one.
Women’s Space or Ghetto?
With so many magical spaces and communities being so hostile, what spaces can we as women occultists create? This was a conflict we had all had: finding that the magical communities and work that we were most attracted to, were not necessarily welcoming to us. Specifically, our male colleagues were hostile to our participation, and demanded that we conform to perceived “male” standards of practice and conduct. Even the magical spaces that we and other women created, we could be displaced out of by our male colleagues taking control of the intellectual space. This type of dynamic happens both online and in person. As the group space becomes fractious or argumentative (as will happen when fine points of doctrine are debated endlessly, or when individuals assert their authority or their place in hierarchy), women tend to feel silenced — they do not wish to step into the fray, and feel ignored when they try to redirect the conversation. As a result, many women occultists feel compelled to go “underground,” to create a parallel conversation among themselves only, in order to speak more freely and push forward their own work.
There are benefits and liabilities to this approach. Certainly, this type of woman-only space has been vital in fostering the work of countless women magicians, and is at the core of feminist activism and Goddess spirituality. Its value, its necessity, to the women who feel silenced outside this space, is incalculable. However, by not speaking outside these safe spaces, female voices become more absent where they need most to be heard. These spaces can become ghettos, where women’s creative expression is tolerated at the same time it is barred from the more prominent position in culture that it deserves.
The challenge for all of us — as magicians, as conscious individuals — is to continue to create the work that is sustaining to us and supportive our communities. The stakes are incredibly high — we are all of us engaged in creating culture that is healthy, sustainable and flourishing. This work of generating culture is now inextricably linked to our survival as a species. We have to work together, and seek connection, and look beyond the minute differences that keep us isolated.
©2010 by Leni Hester.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.