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Paganism and Sexuality

By John Richards

Originally published at Beltane 1999

Challenging question - what do I mean by that? Merely to ask if pagans a whole really view any differently from the rest of the population. Here of course I mean the population as a whole and not merely the moral minority that is the Christian church. Paganism itself is such a diverse animal that it is difficult to imagine its entire composite agreeing on anything. If "pagan sexuality" exists, it should have to mean something; be definable as different to anybody else's. How could this be so? Quite notoriously, we are individuals and find any orthodox doctrine within the wider movement anathema to us. If, for example, one pagan is a vegetarian in the worthy tradition of care for other animals we share the planet with, another pagan is a voracious carnivore who hunts rabbits with his dog in the tradition of Diana, or even Mabon. I'm not slating veggies here - I'm saying that nothing is compulsory.

The food analogy can be taken further. Food and sex have always had a certain symbiotic relationship in any culture. Anyone who recalls the ravishing scene in Fielding's Tom Jones could attest to that. This historically has always been a carnivorous activity, viz Procul Harum, that much forgotten band: "tonight we sleep on silken sheets, we drink fine wine and eat red meat" - a problem perhaps for pagans of a veggie nature, though not necessarily so. Although it's true that Dionysus was never known to include vegiburgers on the menu at his orgiastic love-feasts, the Olympians themselves were more fond of ambrosia, (which we assume to be vegan friendly) and this less predatory symbolism never seemed to have affected their sexual prowess in the least.

In shaping our sexual behaviour, psychologists would take of effects of nature and nurture, ie, what we were born with and what we were made. This may be as simple as the desire, at a certain age, to scratch an itch, then the rest is made up of culture, although of course this is hotly debated. The cultural influence given, though, does not always result in your behaviour being conformative to the orthodoxy of your upbringing. Often, very often, the reverse. We do not want to behave as our parents do and do not want to share all of the same values, though we may choose to keep some of them. These values that we select for ourselves about our sexual behaviour often have much the same of the same reasoning behind them as our sense of pagan spirituality - in fact for many there is no line drawn between the two.

You may be familiar with a series of somewhat surreal adverts circulating selling us a popular brand of stout. These involve telling us that a surprisingly high proportion of girls with a convent education then go on to become strippers. Obviously for the girls concerned this may be largely a financial activity and not a sexual one, but the attitudes present that lead them to that wage earning potential are obviously affected by their nature. The sense of Christian morality that lies dormant but present in much of society was force-fed to these girls to such an extent that they became immune to it, and therefore psychologically capable of erotic dancing without any misgivings or moral "guilt" afflicting others.

I am not saying that we should all become strippers. I am neither saying that all strippers are pagans. Clearly not. But the sense of liberty to act in that way if you choose to is something that I hope we would share. This should be a unifying thing. Whether we might apply Crowley's "Do what you wilt shall be the whole of the Law" or the wiccan "An it harm none do what thou wilt" , in either case we are free to do most things except judge. Also in either case, we are forced to do nothing! There is no orthodox view imposed from on high, there is no such thing as a pagan episcopacy.

Associated with paganism since the movement began has been the tabloid gossip of bizarre sexual practice. This has served to put off many and draw in as many to paganism in general. One dear lady, after being invited to an earth mysteries circle in London, replied: "I won't have to take my clothes off, will I?" Of course there are ritual practices in paganism, particularly wicca, where you do take your clothes off. Here, though, there is a long established difference between nudity and sexuality. Sexual energy may be present, with a male/female Godhead it would be most surprising if it were not. Sex is kept as something private between two partners in any coven I have had any contact with. Always to these are to be added the ego-centric exceptions which crop up from time to time and manage to exploit and abuse genuine seekers-after-truth who come their way. Obviously these do nothing to ingratiate paganism with the general public.

Perhaps more light-heartedly is the occasional spontaneous occurrence that does happen and can be joked about. A little gossip perhaps. Once upon a time there was a woman I will call friend A. Friend A went to an Imbolc ritual where everybody lit a pretty candle and she read a poem and it was very nice. There was some wine, and there were some cakes and that was very nice. It got late, she said goodbye and ran off to catch her train. She missed it. That wasn't very nice. She had to walk all the way back to the party and ask if she could stay the night. When she got back lots of people were dancing with no clothes on in front of a wooden statue of Pan that resembled a large vibrator with horns on. In fact they weren't just dancing. It wasn't compulsory, so I understand, but she joined in anyway. Friend A thought it was very nice and had a lovely time. She later remarked to her friend that what you read in the News of the World is sometimes, believe it or not, based on truth.

Within the pagan movement itself there is always debate, to use a polite term, on most topics. Sex happens to be a fairly contentious one - particularly, unfortunately, gay sex and homosexuality in general. Many readers will be familiar with publications such as Hoblink existing purely for gay and bi-sexual pagans, together with a rather amphibious Scottish person involved with it. The other side of the coin is those of a traditional outlook who maintain that man should "ape" nature. A simple statement, without any "received text" or commandment that "the birds and the bees just don't do that" and that perhaps the cycle of birth/rebirth would not continue if they did. A criticism perhaps is what creature you should mimic in your sexual activity. Would the Child Support Agency be out of pocket if women bit the heads off men following copulation in order to copy a mantis?

Prominent amongst the traditionalists might be Maxine Sanders. I'm putting a few words in her mouth here, but you might see what I mean. In an interview a few years ago I attended she was asked (by a gay pagan) if she was pro-gay. She replied, somewhat enigmatically like a politician, "I am anti anti-gay". Surely, this would seem to be enough. But do two negatives equal a positive? The language and delivery seemed smooth, articulate, almost prepared. Didn't she leave herself room to think that "despite herself being prepared to defend against the wider ravages of a judgmental press, gays are liberated enough and need no more"?

Can we condemn her for thinking that? No, not really; she is hardly championing a right wing cause with drawn sword, merely defending her right to private thoughts which she does not seek to impose. In broad terms the pagan politics of sex should allow for a Maxine Sanders, even if she herself proclaims herself not to be a pagan - though she is a witch. The stance here is that of Voltaire - I disagree with what you say but will defend your right to say it. To a certain point anyway.

Pagan sexuality is admittedly a broad church, if I may use the term. Diverse as the world itself, perhaps more so. The London fetish scene I happen to know has a large pagan contingent, also perhaps does a Women's Institute in the highlands of Scotland. Neither are any less pagan, but perhaps there is an understanding of something between the two. Some of the same influences in their nature were common to both to make them pagan in the first place and such things affect along with everything else their behaviour in the bedroom. In either case there is no Episcopal orthodox pagan view on what you should do with your sexual partner, or even partners. The Law, as ever under will, is love. Lust, however, is not excluded.