Sex, Predatory Clergy, and Wicca
A very timely and important topic in our modern practice of Wicca is that of sex and consent. Speaking as a 3rd degree Traditional priestess of the Trad from which Kenny Klein emerged (see my article here), and living in Minnesota, USA where another High Priest from WiCom has recently been accused of bad handling of a required Great Rite in Actual (live sex act) for inclusion in an oathbound Tradition (which was not WiCom itself, to be clear), this subject is very important to me. It is even more important to me as I am a survivor of rape and sexualized violence through domestic abuse in my first marriage.
A few truly excellent articles have already been written on this subject in the fresh wake of the most recent WiCom event, and I do not wish to reinvent the wheel when others have done a fabulous job with this topic. However, I feel inclined to comment on the subject, as I have already established myself as a loudmouth Wiccan priestess. To fail to comment on such a large elephant in the room would be egregious. It is also important, in my opinion, to model constant conversation and inquiry into our own ethical practices for those whom we, as Wiccan teachers, teach, and in conversing, encourage other conversations in an ongoing attempt to ever improve that which we have been given by our predecessors.
I will now repeat myself as I always do, in that I want it made clear that I consider Traditional Wicca to be a thing of the late Victorian period. It is drenched with the conventions and “givens” of the time and place of its birth, which is the first and second quarter of the 20th century in England. This is the when and where from which our esteemed and quirky Gerald Gardner hails. If ever there were a quirky uncle story, this is it. What family is complete without the genius, creepy old guy who fascinates everyone and next to whom we do not want to sit at family dinner? Uncle Gerry is definitely that guy.
My favorite article to date on this subject is by Shauna Aura Knight, a well-known Pagan author and artist (and in my opinion, a very cool person in general), which can be read here. Ms. Knight covers all bases in her article, from consent culture to hetero-normative bias, to homophobia, transphobia, and reproductive body autonomy. The number of steaming piles of crap that this Pandora’s Box presents to us is seemingly almost never ending. This isn’t just one conversation, in fact. It’s many conversations.
For those who are new Wiccans or just interested in reading about Paganism but are unexposed to basics about Traditional Wicca, let me break some things down for you.
First, the original form of Wicca, Gardnerian Wicca, was and is a mystery Tradition that was/is oathbound and given in 3 degrees with specific elevation liturgies that do not have much variation in legitimately derived forms of Traditional Wicca to this day. That means that we have the original liturgies and each legit Tradition of Wicca still does stuff and uses words in liturgy that closely adhere to (yet often add to) the writings of Gardner which survive in plenty. It is also known pretty widely that both Gardner and his contemporary, yet much younger competitor, one Alex Sanders (father of Alexandrian Wicca, a very close rip off of Gardner’s work with a very suspect origination story, but no less suspect than Gardner’s origination story), used a sexual initiation rite in which heterosexual intercourse was engaged in as part of the ritual.
It is my well-educated understanding that, today in the USA, modern Traditional Wicca tends strongly toward the sympathetic magic of using the Chalice and the Athame to represent the Priestess and the Priest engaging in heterosexual intercourse, thereby rendering the Great Rite in Actual (or True Great Rite) all but a relic of the past. HOWEVER, this should also be stated: Some groups still do the Great Rite in Actual, and some groups have an optional Great Rite in Actual. My coven never even offers a Great Rite in Actual for first degree and does offer a voluntary and VERY RARE (as in it hasn’t happened yet) Great Rite in Actual for 3rd degree.
I think it is safe to say that many, if not most of us in the modern Craft would not be in it were a Great Rite in Actual REQUIRED for initiation. I certainly would not have been down for that sort of activity as a new postulant, even if single. The same can be said for the practice of worshiping SKYCLAD, or the use of ritual nudity. Many groups do not practice skyclad at all, and instead use ritual robes or street clothing in their rituals. Some groups, like my own, use skyclad ritual in specific instances, but tend toward the use of clothing in general, in ritual.
The Ethical Problems
When I was a young woman, I got hold of a book that led me to believe that I would have to have sex with the High Priest to be initiated into Wicca, and I therefore abandoned by interest in Wicca at that time. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties when I found a group who set me straight on how it wasn’t a requirement and I could initiate without such an act. That is when I began my studies in earnest. But even though I was able to be trained by a very ethical group (shout out to Ravenstar Coven), I found that certain things in the original form of the Craft, to which I became exposed as I went along in the Degrees, went against basic consent culture. These things are often symbolically “nodded to” in more modernized versions of the Craft liturgies and practices. I learned, for instance, that in the very early days of the Craft in America, it was even done that the postulant was “harvested” from things like metaphysical classes at book stores and generalized Pagan public classes and rituals, and was invited privately to a “special” event that other peers were not to be told of, as they were not specially selected. When the wide-eyed newbie got to the location, they were literally hoodwinked and initiated on the spot, and charged with vowing secrecy. This is every single kind of “Hella NO” scenario that we just simply do not do today. To initiate someone like that with a required Great Rite in Actual would literally be straight up rape, or at the very least, coercion. I had a real conversation with a High Priestess much older than myself, whose name a lot of people would know were I to spell it out here, in which she confirmed that this practice was, indeed, done in the USA in the 60’s and 70’s and possibly even later. In my own Tradition, we sometimes “surprise” the postulant, who has already requested elevation and been told that the elevation will happen, but doesn’t know it’s happening that day, as a “nod” to the old ways.
So how do we, the modern stewards of the Craft, ethically proceed when the bones of the religion we possess contain parts that can be easily be used to coerce or violate our students? Sure, we can use a symbolic Great Rite, and we do that. But there are other issues at stake here. I have had at least one student who had to forego even considering initiation because we, in my coven, do our initiations skyclad, and her husband was absolutely not OK with that. Is it ethically acceptable that we require our students to keep such information from their significant others? Some groups do this.
When we have oathbound information, how can we also have the element of surprise, which is such a big part of how Traditional Wicca is disseminated, without violating the consent of our students? I can think of several examples right off the top of my head in which the first and second degree “bare bones” liturgies that all legit Traditions of Wicca have, violate the “informed consent” of the postulant, requiring the person to engage in actions that he/she/they didn’t see coming and with which the person might have an ethical problem if told about beforehand. I’ve never seen a person stop their elevation and refuse to complete the required tasks, but then, that doesn’t mean that coercion wasn’t at least a possibility, because peer pressure is a very compelling thing. After all, EVERY PERSON at your elevation did the very same things, and they are all now staring at you intently, expecting the same of you, in order to become “one of THEM,” the elite, the possessors of Arcane Knowledge, swirling with the Mysts of Tyme and all that happy horseshit. Who is the lowly postulant to REFUSE the HONOR of becoming one of the few, the proud, the INITIATES and High Priests of the Craft of the Wicce? I mean, come on. The student worked their arse off to get to this place. They’re certainly not gonna wreck it now, are they? It’s something about which to think.
Homo-and Trans-phobia, and Body Autonomy
The above-mentioned issues don’t even touch on the hetero-normative bias that is inherent in Traditional Wicca, which, as I have said, comes directly out of the late Victorian period, when it was really thought that heterosexuality was the only “normal” way to do the sexy thing. We now know, of course, that this is hogwash. Can we really expect that our gay and bi and pan and ace students just accept that penis-in-vagina sex is the end all and be all of Divine Creation? Many of us in the modern Craft are saying NO to that. If a female bodied male (a trans man) comes to my coven and wants to be trained, I’m training that person as a Priest. But when it comes time to offer a Great Rite in Actual option, how would that even work? Is gay sex really less holy that straight sex, even given that straight P-in-V sex produces babies?
In Shauna Aura Knight’s article, linked above, she touches on the nitty gritty of the Great Rite in Actual, in which she asks questions like, in the Rite, whose orgasm signifies the end of the Rite? Is a Priest with erectile dysfunction then barred from Priesthood? Is a Priest or a Priestess who has a uterus expected not to use birth control during a Great Rite in Actual, because Wicca is a Fertility Cult? Is that person expected to carry a resulting pregnancy to term and care for the child? There are SOOOO many questions of ethical nature here. Should we really stipulate such things and risk losing highly talented and dedicated clergy because they do not consent to such wild requirements? My group doesn’t offer Great Rite in Actual for initiation, so we sidestep a lot of these problems, but there are still the issues of consent within other liturgical acts that exist in the first and second degree rites. I cannot speak freely of those here, but trust me, those who have undergone those rituals know the things of which I speak. Informed consent is not really practical in these situations. Does this mean that the Craft is, of itself, anti-consent? In some ways, this could be convincingly argued.
What Do We Do Now?
In my group, I choose, as the High Priestess, to disclose certain things in advance of rituals that I know contain actions and expectations that might require informed consent, to the degree that I can. I feel that this is in alignment with my personal morals and values. There ARE things that I do not divulge, however, for fear of wrecking the postulant’s experience of their elevation. This is a personal quandary that I face as a group leader. Each person who teaches must make these decisions, with the understanding that we can be held accountable for harming our students. The WiCom priest chose not to divulge a required Great Rite in Actual to his students before swearing them to secrecy. This was eventually a big problem for him. While we mostly choose not to judge those who choose to do sexual initiations as being “immoral” or “unethical,” as we are “sex positive” in Wicca, we MUST ask the hard questions of ourselves. To what degree are we, the stewards of mystery Traditions, required to modernize our practices to fit what we now understand as vital autonomy and consent issues? To what degree should we hold ourselves and our organizations responsible for aiding and shielding predatory behavior, as in the case of Kenny Klein and others like him?
Here are some suggestions to ponder, to discuss, and to consider. None of these are things that I think MUST be done, but I submit them to you for your consideration:
- Shall we include in our by-laws the definitions of things like “informed consent” and the line between holding true to oathbound teachings and coercion?
- Shall we have written contracts for students to sign, much like modern medical practices, which state that they have been given, have read, and have understood documents that disclose the use of oathbound behaviors and certain liturgical practices?
- Shall we, like my group does, augment our liturgical practices to include symbolic, instead of actual ritual acts that might violate consent in certain instances?
- Shall we offer non-heteronormative alternatives for non-heterosexual and differently gendered students?
- Shall we have pre-formed laws designed to deal with sexually inappropriate teachers (I think we should)?
- Shall we include in our teachings actual classes on consent culture (I think we should)?
- Should we revisit the “Olde Laws” concept of not ever involving the police or non-Craft authorities when a crime is committed in our covens (I think we should)?
These things are clearly a series of ongoing discussions. We MUST continually debate and discuss things like what constitutes sex positivity, and how do we incorporate consent culture into our practices. We MUST figure out ways that allow us to continue to practice without shielding, aiding, and supporting predatory priests and priestesses. We MUST be diligent in sussing out ways to create the Craft in a modern, respectful iteration that will continue to serve the future generations of Wiccans while not losing the writings and practices of the past, even if that means relegating them to symbolic formats in some cases.
This is the future of the Craft, and we are its stewards. No one ever said being a witch was going to be easy.
May the Gods Preserve the Craft