Further Thoughts After the Women’s Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010

May 3, 2010 by  
Filed under culture, sexuality and gender

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.

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21 Responses to “Further Thoughts After the Women’s Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010”

  1. Psyche says:

    Hear, hear!

    Going to ruminate about this for a bit. I like that these issues are rising to the surface again. This does not get enough discussion.
    .-= Psyche´s last blog ..Diabolical stuff and models =-.

    • Sheta Kaey says:

      I definitely agree that this issue does not get enough attention or discussion. It’s too easy for most people to just ride with the status quo rather than approach “controversial” topics, especially those that represent ongoing battles. I’d really like to see more content on equality across the board. Personally, I’ve come to see most “pride” events as separatism, that just exacerbate in many ways the very problems the events were originally designed to alleviate. When “pride” becomes an excuse for deliberately offensive behavior (as in many gay pride parades over the past couple of decades), it only makes the division between “us” and “them” greater. Human beings are human beings, and no one should have to qualify their humanity with “gay” or “black” or “female” or “transgender,” et al, in order to prove themselves either worthy or different (depending on who’s viewing).

      I’m painfully aware that, unfortunately, awareness must be raised before society can adjust to the plethora of individual “types” (sorry for the overuse of quote marks, but) of people that exist. But when we begin to use our own anger at our mistreatment as a reason to get in people’s faces in a way that intimidates them, we are only adding to the problem. I might have to write an article on this myself, because there really isn’t room here to explain properly what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to squelch anyone’s voice — I just would really like to make all those qualifiers irrelevant.

  2. Cat Vincent says:

    Excellent. Thank you for saying this so clearly and passionately. I’ve seen the dynamic you describe too often in occult groups of all flavours – it needs to be called out.

  3. Renee says:

    Wow. I am a long-time feminist who has only recently discovered magick (although upon discovery it seems I’ve actually been practicing all along.) I have been studying magick for nearly a year now under the guidance of a male teacher. The experiences you spoke of are familiar to me. My teacher was a good one, a man who has practiced and studied throughout his lifetime, and I was blessed to have his guidance. However, I felt all along that there were lessons I could teach him as well. He refused to hear me.

    And now I am left at a crossroads of sorts, having found awe and inspiration in the pursuit of magick yet with absolutely nobody in my life with whom I can share it. My initiation was planned, and now it seems I will conduct it on my own.

    Today, after studying Isis and sacred geometry, I googled “feminism and magick” and discovered this very page. If anybody out there would be so kind as to tell me how to become connected to a larger community of people who share my commitment to both of these studies, I would be very grateful.

    • Sheta Kaey says:

      What type of magick were you studying? Was it Wicca? There are many traditions of Wicca-oriented witchcraft that embrace feminism. Dianic, Strega are but two. If you give us a little more to go on as to what you’re looking for, we might be able to help point the way.

      • Renee says:

        Thank you for your reply, Sheta Kaey! I am not sure how to categorize the type of magick I am studying, as my studies are so new. When it comes right down to it, I am simply seeking the truth.

        I have studied Wicca, spellcraft, chaos magick, and the theories of Levi and Crowley. Today I went to a waterfall and a tree and spent the day reading “The Anatomy of the Body of God.” My head is reeling from it. As mentioned before, I have a special appreciation for Isis, although my understanding of her significance may differ from others’. I have so much to say and nobody to say it to. I live in Maine, and doubt there are like-minded people in my immediate vicinity… how else can I join the conversation?

        • Sheta Kaey says:

          That’s an eclectic mix, for sure. What were you going to be initiated into?

          • Renee says:

            Now there’s good question… ;) The initiation was to be in the hands of my teacher, and he described it to me as a commitment to my higher self, to a lifelong pursuit of spiritual truth. I have no formal group (covan?) in mind, but I do intend to complete the initiation without him now that we have parted company. My ideas about how to do this continue to take shape the more I read. In some ways, this is all very personal for me, and will be better on my own. On the other hand, this work has become very lonely, and I am eager to find other people who share my interest in magick.

            • Sheta Kaey says:

              What you’re describing is called a self-dedication. Can I ask what books most intrigue you or draw you toward their messages?

              The internet is a good place to find magick workers, but unfortunately it’s also a good place to meet arrogant know-it-alls. :) Are you looking for groups to interact with (online or in person), or for more of a one-on-one type of interaction?

              • Renee says:

                Books: I began with the 21 Lessons of Merlin, and then read some of Scott Cunningham’s work. All of this was good for introducing me to the symbolism and basic ideas, but I wanted to move more toward theory, so I began reading Levi and Crowley. I am fascinated by universal truths, if you will… those ideas that seem to cross cultures and manifest in their own way in various religious and spiritual discourse from all over the world and throughout all of history. I have been meaning to read Jung’s work on the collective unconscious, but have yet to do so.

                As far as informing my own practice, I have found techniques of natural magick to be the most helpful. Having employed techniques involving the elements of nature, I have experiences amazing results in matters of profound importance in my life. I have read only one work by a female author, Spellcraft by Arin Murphy-Hiscock, and her instruction has guided me to some of the specifics I am planning for my self-dedication. I did order Women’s Voices in Magick and can’t wait to read it! I am, at present, trying to understand the Tree of Life and how it was developed.

                As for what I’m looking for, I’d have to say all of the above. I did join the yahoo group as Leni recommended… I’d love to meet some people with whom I can share my discoveries without them looking at me like I am crazy. :) One-to-one interaction would be welcome, as that is what I enjoyed during the first months of my study with a personal teacher. I am open to what is next, whatever it may be.

                Thank you for all of these questions, Sheta!

                • Sheta Kaey says:

                  Hi Renee,

                  I’d be happy to chat with you sometime if you use Yahoo IM. Just add me as shetakaey. :)

                  Levi and Crowley are a big step beyond 21 Lessons, which is reportedly shite, and Scott Cunningham (who isn’t bad, for all that). I’m not familiar with Spellcraft. The Tree of Life and Qabala in general are fascinating subjects that will inform everything that follows, no matter what it is.

                  I think I’d enjoy chatting with you, if you would like to. I’ll be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks but might have spare time at odd moments. I’m getting ready to go out of town for a convention and have a lot to do. But add me and maybe we’ll both be on at the same time at some point!

  4. Renee says:

    So apparently there is at least a small group of female voices out there talking about how sexism manifests in the discourse of magick, and how male and female magicians relate. My comment didn’t contribute much to the discussion, but was more a plea to figure out how to join these voices, even just as a listener for now.

    It just seems so absurd to me that women’s voices should be dismissed, on any subject matter, but especially in magick and spirituality. Women’s voices should be the authority on both subjects, in my opinion. Men have a lot to learn from women. I wish they would stop resisting it.

  5. Vivienne Grainger says:

    I have seldom seen so poignant and pertinent a description of the sex pagans feel “free” to have. It seems to me like nothing more than the Playboy ethos brought to life, with, of course, everyone wearing pentacles. Time we looked that baby in the eye, and decided to throw it out.

  6. Mike Colly says:

    Thanks for the sharing, keep it up. There are many traditions of Wicca-oriented witchcraft that embrace feminism. Dianic, Strega are but two. If you give us a little more to go on as to what you’re looking for, we might be able to help point the way. You do good job.
    Mike Colly recently posted..Learn forex liveMy Profile

  7. […] latest issue of Rending the Veil features an essay by Leni Hester titled “Further Thoughts After the Women’s Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010.” In it, Hester discusses her experiences and those of her fellow […]

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