Review of Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries, edited by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin (Mystic Productions Press. Scheduled publication date April 2nd).
From Anthony Rella
Note: This is a review of an advance copy provided to this writer by editor Lee Harrington. This writer has a social acquaintanceship with some of the included contributor and co-editor Tai Fenix Kulystin, as both once sat beside each other in a graduate school class and one day Kulystin observed this writer doodling and said, “Nice Unicursal Hexigram.” This writer is also a member of the same spiritual community as contributor Adrian Moran. It is difficult to be a queer writer interested in magick without some overlap, apparently.)
While the term “queer” has veered closer to being a mainstream catch-all for members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, it continues to retain all the layers of trauma, danger, and transgressive excitement layered into its historical uses. What is queer is that which could not fit into the norms prescribed to us, and thus needed to find its own space to grow: on the edges, in the cracks and corners wherein it could grow unfettered. Queerness exists for itself, and it is medicine that heals and brings wholeness to culture.
Thus queerness is elusive, evolving, pluralistic. So too is the collection of pieces gathered together by editors Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin in Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries. They have accomplished an impressive feat, publishing the voices and images produced by a wildly diverse and fascinating array of individuals along the axes of class, gender, race, ability, spiritual tradition, and more.
One significant theme threaded throughout the works is the queer magical power of embodiment. In the essay “Living with Attunement with Sensation Rather than Identity,” Z Griss offers a queer praxis in which the sensory body leads in anchoring and producing the self in all its emerging complexity. Rather than encasing our experiences in labels and identity scripts, Griss shows a productive arc in which the body teaches and reveals mysteries of the self. Yin Q’s “Blood, Body, Birth, and Emptiness: Queer Magic in my Life and Work” articulates power and possibility within stigmatized experiences around cutting and BDSM, transforming her experiences of cutting into “rituals that affirmed life, whereas in prior years, [she] had focused on the thrill of annihilation.” In “The Endlessly Unfolding Mirror: An Introduction to the Queer Sex Magic of Traditional Witchcraft,” Troll Huldren offers body acceptance and eroticizing the Abject as a path to magical power.
Another queer theme emerges as the multiplicity of identity and porousness of self. M.C. MoHagani Magnetek’s “thaMind-Sol Lady’s Revenge” tells of an experience of duality between the speaker and an alter-ego, in which both strive to seek effective strategies to maintain dignity in the face of transphobia. The Reverend Teri D. Ciacchi articulates an experience of self as multiplicity, using the pronoun “we” “to express my internal experience of being a collective
of beings, a multiverse of personas, an individual embedded in an ecological web of relatedness.” Ade Kola and Aaron Oberon in their respective essays explore the fluidity and multiplicity of identity through experiences of ritual possession, articulating ways in which deity contact becomes an unexpected site of queer transformations.
In an anthology of so many gifts, one of the highlights are the interviews of wolfie, who brings in the perspectives of First Nations queer elders Clyde Hall and Blackberri. wolfie’s “chapter 23: the plague years” speaks to their own history and experience of living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Kulystin and Harrington dedicate this anthology “to our queer ancestors and magical forebears,” and reverence for those who came before permeates the work, particularly in pieces such as Pavini Moray’s “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors.”
Tradition and authority are particularly charged topics in any tradition, and for queer folks who have been marginalized by ancestral traditions, we have needed multiple strategies to mine a healing and empowering spiritual practice for ourselves.
These writers show several paths forward—even if one does not adopt their practices and beliefs, one can see practices of queering existing traditions, of redefining and reinterpreting the past in a liberating way, such as Yvonne Aburrow’s “Inclusive Wicca Manifesto,” Ivo Dominguez Jr.’s “Redefining and Repurposing Polarity,” Steve Dee’s “The Queer Gods of Alchemy,” Sam ‘Eyrie’ Ward’s “The Maypole and the Labyrinth: Reimagining the Great Rite,” and Steve Kenson’s “The Queer Journey of the Wheel.”
Other writers reveal paths of blazing bold new trails, or taking pieces from multiple sources and quilting them into a queer-affirming path, such as in Jay Logan’s “Hunting Lions and Slaying Serpents: An Execration Rite,” Adrian Moran’s “The Magic of the Eight Queer Deities,” and Thista Minai’s “Sharing a Sacred Meal.”
It would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of potent art and sigil work provided by Inés Ixierda, Laura Tempest Zakroff, Adare, Papacon, and Cazemba Abena. These artists show images of magic beyond binary identity, the interstitial spaces of power.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.
A boy in eighth-grade math class walks over and says, “You sit like a woman. What are you, a woman?” We both know there’s no right answer.
When I was born, the obstetrician said I was male. So, growing up, that was the role expected of me. People told me I’d become a heterosexually-married adult man. I shouldn’t have long hair, wear dresses, or cry “like a sissy.”
At some point, though, that comprehensive set of expectations (that gender role) changed. By the time I hit adolescence, no one thought I’d marry a woman. Boys were supposed to like football and act tough, but nobody looked at me and thought I could ever do that. My classmates started calling me gay before I even knew what the word meant. More and more, people expected that I would behave different from my male peers.
Of course, their expectations carried a weight of moral condemnation. When they called me a “faggot,” they made it clear that it was a very bad thing to be. But, none of them seriously believed that someone who looked, moved, and sounded like me could be anything else. I was chastised and punished for filling it, but nevertheless “faggot” was the role I was pressured to fill.
Are gender and sexuality fundamentally personal identities, or are they imposed by a larger social system? How sharp is the line between them?
Walking down the hall in high school, it feels like every other word is “faggot.” An especially churchy classmate tells me that if I was a real Christian, I wouldn’t “want to be that way any more.”
In gym class, the coach sends the boys to one side of the room and the girls to the other to do different activities. No one looks surprised when I go with the girls.
On paper, US conservatism believes in a strict gender binary. You are male or female, birth to death. Men are naturally one way and women another. No one really falls in between. Men, of course, are naturally strong and unemotive. They sleep with women but socialize with each other.
And yet, people who embraced that ideology wholesale would meet me and assume that my friends were girls, that I was emotional and “sensitive,” that I’d defer to my male peers, and – perhaps most of all – that I was sexually available to men. But since they didn’t read me as cis female, why weren’t they bringing the usual male expectations?
When I had straight male friends, why did they expect me to be emotionally supportive and assume I had some special insight into “what women want?” They didn’t seek that from each other, and they’d have either laughed or gotten angry at anyone who asked it of them.
If their idea of gender was as binary as they believed it to be, why didn’t they place me into a male role?
Unfortunately, many women-particularly single women-are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and so they do not want to realise that they are housewives too…
We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us”.
Did those people believe in genders besides female and male?
With their ideas, they didn’t. With their actions, though, they did. After all, they created at least one gender role besides “man” and “woman” – I know because they assigned me to it! My social position was not authentically male. I was failed-male. In practice, my gender was “faggot.”
When they said “faggots aren’t real men,” that was an is, not an ought. “Faggot” is a socially-real gender category distinct from “male.” It is imposed (like all genders) by a social system beyond the control of any given individual. Gender, after all, is more than either individual identity or cultural beliefs. Each gender role corresponds to a particular place in the overall social division of labor.
To be given a feminized gender (like “woman” or “faggot”) means to be given feminized work: emotional, interpersonal, domestic, caregiving, and sexual. When you meet someone, they read a gender onto you. Practically speaking, that means they either expect you to take on those tasks or they expect others to take them on instead of you. There are, of course, plenty of signifiers that help people make that gender assignment (speech inflections, clothes, names, communication styles, inferred secondary sex characteristics, etc). But all that only makes up half of what a gender is – the rest is being expected to do specific kinds of work, and you can’t cleanly untangle the two halves. Being conventionally feminine means being expected to wear makeup, long hair, etc – but also to have a less aggressive conversation style, to step aside for men on the sidewalk, to be “nurturing,” and to sleep with men. On the ground, the division of labor and cultural norms are united. Each upholds the other.
I sit in a therapist’s office and talk about how since transitioning, I’ve felt less and less connection with any sort of sexuality and I don’t understand why. He tells me I just need to accept that I’m attracted to men – once I do that, he says, things will fall into place.
Radical feminism talks about “compulsory heterosexuality” – the idea that heterosexuality is more than a sexual preference some people happen to have. It’s a political institution built into the gender system itself, through which all women (including lesbians) are pressured to treat sex with men as inherent to womanhood. This approach to sexuality cares about the pleasure of men, but leaves non-male desires as (at best) an afterthought. Without it, feminized gender roles (woman and faggot alike) would bear little resemblance to their current forms.
I faced that imperative, just like my cis female peers. To be sure, people delivered it to me on different terms. Attraction to men was expected of me, but never treated as though it were positive. However, it was still part of the role I was assigned. Accepting my lesbianism still entailed a process of soul-searching to break through some deeply internalized messages; it tracked closely with the experiences of the cis lesbians I know.
Sexuality doesn’t neatly come apart from gender. Gender is an overarching system, a way of organizing certain types of work within class society’s overall division of labor. My socialization into a feminized role brought with it certain sexual expectations, just as it carried emotional and interpersonal ones.
Neither sexuality nor gender floats free, separate from each other or from the overall organization of society. They aren’t (just) individual identities, and they aren’t (just) cultural ideas. These roles exist physically: the interactions humans have with each other and with the world re-create them every day. If you ignore that context, you’ll misunderstand the relationship between them.
Cultural norms about gender receive institutional support from the government, businesses, religious congregations, etc. After all, gender is an efficient and elegant way to get some people to do certain kinds of work for free. Sure, some aspects of contemporary gender predate capitalism. However, this gender system is still capitalist to its essence. Why? Capitalism digested those older components and turned them into something qualitatively different (as the historical research of Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists shows).
Beliefs and practices aren’t merely ephemera. They aren’t fluff on top of an underlying economic reality. They’re part of economic reality because they’re part of how people carry out the daily work of existence. Their function within it is vital. Without them, it wouldn’t be easy to get anyone to do feminized work for free, but with them? People “spontaneously” enforce those roles on each other via social pressure, “common sense,” and violence. Why else do so many women punish each other for deviating from fundamentally-sexist norms?
Again, though, the ideas in people’s heads are only half the picture. The conservative Christians I grew up around believed wholeheartedly that only two genders existed. But when they couldn’t find a place in the male role for people like me, what did they do? They created another one for us (faggot). Did they call it a gender? Of course not, but ideology isn’t what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through what you do. And isn’t it telling that if you asked them about trans and nonbinary people, they’d say none of it was valid because “those people are just confused faggots?”
Nearly all liberals (and more than a few leftists) arrive at their politics by first noticing an instance of oppression, then deciding to oppose it. They hear conservatives condemn gays, for instance, and think, “We’ve got to stop that prejudice. Gay people deserve respect!” That’s an understandable approach – disrespect, bigotry, and microaggressions are right there for all to see. Shouldn’t they be gotten rid of?
But when you remember that ideas and beliefs are only half of what’s going on, doesn’t something almost sinister emerge? We can remove the outward signs of oppression. But does that mean it’s gone, or just that it’s harder to see?
When you look at someone’s face, it doesn’t take its shape from the skin on the surface. It takes it from the bone underneath. If outright bigotry is the visible skin, the division of labor and the need to enforce it are the bone. Had I grown up in a liberal area rather than a conservative one, the people around me would have believed that women should be considered equal to men and that LGBT people deserved acceptance and respect. Those categories would have been enforced more gently – but they still would have been enforced. Since capitalism’s division of labor would have remained, feminized work would still have gotten assigned to feminized roles.
They wouldn’t have called me “faggot,” but they would have called me “fabulous” – and at the end of the day, the role expectations are the same either way. Respect and inclusion would have been nicer makeup, but the face beneath would have been no different.
Radical politics should begin with the physical reality of class society and its division of labor.
But because these roles are unified with the class system, the goal can’t simply be greater respect. Imposing them politely is still imposing them. The surface manifestations are an important part of the phenomenon, but they aren’t all of it. And ultimately, radical politics must seek to abolish the entire thing.
And if radicals forget that, then sure, they might find ways to make society look less oppressive.
“Reading this may cause you to think “Oh, I see where they’re trying to get. They’re a trans person. It’s all over the media now. I’m well informed” and although you’re not mistaken (I am talking about misplaced gender roles and you could easily be right) this one specifically is not about trans identity. It’s about something that’s even less talked about and understood.”
From Nathan There
“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” – Patti Smit
Ever since I was a young child I felt something’s inherently different about me. I never felt I could fit this invisible but already established role I was supposed to fulfill. Humanity chose to shove people in these tight boxes so they can feel comfortable and experience the sensation of something recognizable (consequently safe). This can stretch to several categories of human conditions but here I’m talking about one in particular: the chart which people are obligated to follow when it comes to identity and gender. Reading this may cause you to think “Oh, I see where they’re trying to get. They’re a trans person. It’s all over the media now. I’m well informed” and although you’re not mistaken (I am talking about misplaced gender roles and you could easily be right) this one specifically is not about trans identity. It’s about something that’s even less talked about and understood. I’m talking about non-binary gender. Now, while you may think I will try and give you a crash course on the matter, even if I educate a bit here and there, this time I’ll tell you about something palpable.
When I was about seven, I had my first kiss. It wasn’t very glamorous, it wasn’t particularly memorable. It was a regular kiss between a seven year old child and a girl about the same age. It didn’t feel right or wrong, so I jumped to the next girl, then the next one until I was seventeen, never quite filling a void I could feel existed within me. At first, as taught by Brazilian culture, I assumed it was something to do with my sexual tastes. This is tricky, so I’ll elaborate: society burdens us with the assumptions and choices of our ancestors. If your society is structured to believe that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, you’re undoubtedly expected to abide by these rules. In this case, binary rules. So, if you’re a “boy” (Which specifically here means having a penis – assigned male at birth), and you like pink, then you’re a sissy at first. If you happen to identify as a female, the burden is not lifted, so you are still a sissy boy, with just further need of attention. If you’re a girl you’re not even entitled to have an opinion so let’s not get into male privileges just yet. So, back to my past – this void lead me to believe I was gay. And being a gay boy in the 90s was the most dreaded thing in Brazil. You’re not a capital letters MAN (Male) and you are not just unlucky to be born under the fragile gender (Female) – you’re choosing to misbehave, you’re choosing to go by the pink book. That’s just despicable, so you can imagine I was terrified.
At the age of seventeen, I kissed my first boys (Yes, two. That’s a story for another time), this way I could follow the role I understood I was obligated to follow: the gay one. That didn’t quite feel right either because it was crystal clear to me I was into girls too. I assumed I was bisexual and felt content with that even though I could feel there was something still uncanny about myself and I couldn’t quite grasp it. By that, I don’t mean bisexuality is something out of fairy tales. I just understood, later on, it does not apply to me.
Now fast forward to a few years later (Yes. I quoted Alanis Morissette. I’m entitled to have musical preferences). I started reading, debating, and I became an activist on the matter of human and animal rights, understanding that I should raise awareness to the issues I fought for. Then I came across a concept that literally changed my whole perspective on life and shaped the way I would understand myself from that point on. In an article about Judith Butler, I read the terms queer and gender performativity. At first, I couldn’t quite grasp it, but that is expected. My body and mind were always colonized, so I had to strip myself from the prefabs of past generations to actually understand what I was reading, and when I did… everything changed. It was a mirror. Not the hazy one I always saw my shapes and colours reflected on but a true mirror. I existed. It was the most freeing experience I have ever felt so far and I would understand more and more about myself and the restraints I put myself under all the years prior to that moment. I wasn’t bisexual because I had no gender to identify with nor needed to. That is an amazing feeling if you ask me.
After a few years of tweaking this and that on my understanding of my life and my relations with others, I understood that my sexual tastes are entitled to be fluid and that does not constrain me inside any “sexual orientation” category. So, if I decide to exclusively have sex with women from now on that can’t make me straight because I’m not a man, or lesbian because I’m not a woman. Consequently, if I choose otherwise, same idea applies but in reverse. OK? Ok. The thing is, there is such a thing as gender performativity. People still perceive me as a male, no matter what I say or do so I have implications on that matter. The fact that I am conformed under certain male performativities (eventual beard, no makeup, pants and tank tops, some normative male mannerisms and the fact that I view myself as a cisgender person) makes people question my gender. While this is reinforced by the media, the problem is further structural rather than individual. If the media allowed people like me to exist through narrative and storytelling, if the fact that we are non-binary was not treated as exotic or eccentric (in other words, sensationalist material), if through narrative we were given stories outside our identities or if non-binary people were cast to play non-binary characters, society would be acknowledging me. Making normative people’s inability to fit a person in a gender into jokes or belittling non-binary people’s experiences contributes to this invisibility, and therefore to a confusing and negative journey throughout life.
My experience led me into some conclusions – First, I understand that no theory or self-perception must ignore my “male” privileges. For this reason, I can’t pull the “non-binary card” to bend situations in which others can’t grasp non-binary concepts. Example: I’m not either man or woman, but I can’t go into the “lady’s room” under this premise. They’re not obligated to understand me as anything else other than a male performative person and a potential rapist. Male oppression. Not difficult to understand at all. Second, it’s my understanding that non-binary people are not oppressed. The LGBTQI+ community is oppressed. I’m not killed for being non-binary. I don’t lose my job for being non-binary. I don’t get raped, molested and abused for being non-binary. I don’t get beaten up or excluded or shunned or threatened in any way for being non-binary. I suffer all of the above because I fall under the category of LGBTQI+. This oppression is towards our community and engulfs all of us. That’s why I’m oppressed, not because I’m non-binary. And that’s actually a blessing. Although invisibility is a form of oppression, when people start talking about us, we’ll probably get there. Third, there is such a thing as non-binary invisibility. That is the reason why people don’t understand my gender (and why I must understand I enjoy male privileges) and it is also the reason why my gender is oppression free (To an extent. I only mean by that what I discussed in the second topic). Fourth, being non-binary is an innate sense within a person. It’s not a lifestyle choice, a trend or a phase. It’s something that resonates inside you and makes sense when you put the pieces together. In my case, I understand how gender roles are burdened upon people, I understand some people are gladly abiding by and fitting into those categories and I understand that they’re not inherently bad per se (its praxis is). I just can’t relate to the category. In most cases, other people’s perception of my
gender won’t be something that bothers me in any sense (sometimes even the opposite). Sometimes it will but not because I can relate to it, but because I understand their concept and/or can apply the experience of the concept negatively in my life. For instance, you can call me a sissy and I’ll enjoy it, but I can understand how belittling being called a “good girl” can be while being a bottom during sex, because of the way women are belittled (even in oppressed niches such as the LGBTQI+ community).
All in all, the subtleties between gender, gender identity and gender performativity must be understood and stressed enough before people can understand non-binary existences, maybe even fitting into one of the multiple categories this gender understanding comprehends. But that’s for another time.
Nathan is a musician from Brazil, a queer non-binary vegetarian person with interest in game design, tattooing, and combating social disparity issues.
The Pre-Sale for Anthony Rella’s Circling The Star is here.
Shay Woodall: “I’d like to take a moment to discuss sexuality and gender, particularly discourse from the cis gay and lesbian community.”
“I won’t date you if you’re trans, or a POC, or fat, or disabled, or neurodivergent. Sorry it’s just a preference”. How many of you have heard or seen this in your lives or on dating/hookup apps and sites?
In this first of three essays I’d like to take a moment to explore the landscape of power and desire by examining various strands of the kyriarchal matrix. This topic is very close to many trans people’s hearts because we, like so many of those on the margins of the acceptable, are often told that we are unlovable, that our bodies are perverse, and that our gender is merely a trick to ensnare cis folks and violate their consent. I hope this inspires some real self-reflection and brings all of us into deeper relationship with ourselves and others.
As always, the writing here reflects my own intersections and my best understanding of these topics at the moment. Thank you, as well as to all the comrades who gave feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.
I. Theorizing Sexuality and Gender
Before we can really delve into how we theorize sexuality we first need to define what it is. That might seem an easy thing to do, after all human sexuality is “simply” how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. Yet underneath this seeming truism lurks a complicated mess. Is sexuality something that we are (the identity model)? Is it something that we do (the behavior model)? Are we born with our sexuality as-is or is sexuality linked to social structures and culture (nature vs nurture)?
The overarching view of sexuality and gender in society is that there are only men and women and people can be attracted to only one or the other, possibly both, but always heterosexuality is normative[i]. This dominant paradigm of sexuality and gender is underpinned by the kyriarchal matrix. Patriarchy (particularly cissexism and heterosexism), white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism and more all weave together to weigh in on how we view ourselves and especially our capacity for relationships, sexual or otherwise. It informs who and what we find attractive, how we create and maintain relationships, and so much more. Let’s look at some, though hardly all, of these kyriarchal strands:
1. Patriarchy. Women are often granted sexuality only insofar as it lends itself to the “male gaze”[ii] and the desire of men. Women don’t have sexuality in our own right, instead our sexuality exists only for the consumption and commodification of men in heterosexual matrimony. Our sexuality is, in short, viewed and treated as property.
As a case study let’s look at the phenomenon of “frigid women” which came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century (though the idea is much older). Sigmund Freud came up with the idea that cis women first associate sexual pleasure with clitoral stimulation and later in life must transfer that to vaginal stimulation and if they don’t they suffer from “penis envy” (and thus masculinization). This idea would be developed by psychoanalysts and sexologists who would go on to depict a woman’s inability to sufficiently enjoy sex with their husbands as a sexual disorder that should be pathologized and treated. It’s also part of what motivates oppression against aspec folks now, given that their very existence disrupts the idea of sexuality as consumption.
2. Heterosexism. A couple of years ago there was a push from the cis gay and lesbian community to exclude the T (trans) from LGBT. Which is strange given that heterosexism, cissexism, and biological essentialism are all inextricably bound. The dominant model of gender and sex is binary, grouping people into two distinct largely opposite categories of “male/men/masculine” and “female/women/feminine”. Considering this view of gender and sex is binary only three possibilities for sexuality emerge: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. When the scope of gender and sex is widened however to include the full range of human diversity such a model becomes obsolete.
Another interesting point emerges from this as well because gender becomes framed through a heterosexist gaze. Take for example that gay men aren’t just oppressed for being attracted to other men, society treats gay men as *emasculated* (and thus not performing “masculinity” correctly). Lesbians are often treated and seen as “masculine” with corrective r*pe being used to “feminize” lesbians (thus lesbians aren’t performing “femininity” correctly). Sexuality through this lens becomes a performance of the “proper” gendered order and violence, often sexual in nature, becomes a tool for enforcing that order. Going further, sexuality as a performance of proper “gender” seeps its way into otherwise queer relationships by seeking to reproduce in part heterosexist logic (the butch/femme and top/bottom dichotomy in lesbian and gay communities).
The existence of trans and non-binary genders complicates the discourse arising from cis lesbian and gay communities. Those who police the boundaries of what is and isn’t “queer” (aka: gatekeepers) appropriate queerness to mean only certain ways of being against the normative order and not others. As Susan Stryker notes in the Transgender Studies Reader vol 1:
“Like recent feminism and feminist scholarship, queer politics and queer studies also remain invested, to a significant extent, in an underlying conceptual framework that is problematized by transgender phenomena. “Sexual object choice,” the very concept used to distinguish “hetero” from “homo” sexuality, loses coherence to the precise extent that the “sex” of the “object” is called into question, particularly in relation to the object’s “gender.” Queer studies, though putatively antiheteronormative, sometimes fails to acknowledge that same-sex object choice is not the only way to differ from heterosexist cultural norms, that transgender phenomena can also be antiheteronormative, or that transgender phenomena constitute an axis of difference that cannot be subsumed to an object-choice model of antiheteronormativity. As a result, queer studies sometimes perpetuates what might be called “homonormativity,” that is, a privileging of homosexual ways of differing from heterosocial norms, and an antipathy (or at least an unthinking blindness) toward other modes of queer difference.”
3. Capitalism. In Caliban and the Witch Silvia Federici argues that capitalism developed in response to peasant revolts in medieval Europe to curtail the growing popularity of communalism. Federici writes: “capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle—possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.
As part of this process gender became a “specification of class relations”. That is to say class is stratified by various hierarchies and gender was animated by capitalist logic to divide labor and wealth within the working class itself. Or as Federici summarizes:
“The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the New World, were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and ‘accumulated.’ This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of witches. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply the accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.”
Sexuality in light of this view and anti-capitalist critique can be seen as a further “specification of class relations”, one in which the reproductive capacity of those in relationship (and individually) are seen as paramount for the continued production of an exploited underclass. The capitalist logic here goes so far as to create laws regulating sexuality, from laws governing marriage to abortion to sex work and more.
4. White Supremacy. As we’ve seen from previous sections sexuality and sexual violence are animated in support of a system (or systems) of exploitation and oppression. When white supremacy and colonialism enters the conversation the violence of the system is compounded in soul crushing ways. Gender and sexuality are racialized and exist as much within the matrix of white supremacy as within patriarchy and capitalism.
With the advent of modern racism, race became enshrined as an essential characteristic and hierarchies of “humanness” thus justified the exploitation of racialized bodies, lands, and resources. The sexuality of people of color is often seen as inherently violent and/or uniquely promiscuous because of how race is produced in a modern context. Sexuality becomes a way to create and reinforce racial stratifications and hierarchies.
The sexuality of people of color is often reduced under a white gaze to one of hypersexualization or desexualition for white consumption. The jezebel stereotype for example relies on the idea that black women are inherently hypersexual and that Asian men are often seen as emasculated and unsexual. Or consider that Jewish women in the Shoah[iii] were forcibly sterilized and subjected to regular sexual violence. Sexuality for people of color is inherently racialized and through the logics of white supremacy considered inherently deviant and thus subject to surveillance and policing (whether through codified laws or through normative cultural values).
5. Animacy Hierarchies. In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, author Mel Y. Chen offers a poignant discussion of the concept of animacy. In a nutshell, animacy is a concept from linguistics that describes how “sentient” or “alive” a noun is. This concept however can be broadened past the realm of linguistics to the ways in which a given body is “invested” with humanness or animateness. Cognitive linguist Mutsumi Yamamato describes animacy as:
“The concept of “animacy” can be regarded as some kind of assumed cognitive scale extending from human through animal to inanimate. In addition to the life concept itself, concepts related to the life concept—such as locomotion, sentiency, etc.—can also be incorporated into the cognitive domain of “animacy.” …A common reflection of “animacy” in a language is a distinction between animate and inanimate, and analogically between human and non-human in some measure. However, animacy is not simply a matter of the semantic feature [+-alive], and its linguistic manifestation is somewhat complicated. Our cognition of animacy and the extent to which we invest a certain body (or body of entities) with humanness or animateness influence various levels of human language a great deal.”
Sexuality (along with gender, race, ability, etc.) reveals underlying schema about what is considered more “alive” more “human” and the agency thus granted to varying body’s sexuality. Consider that plants, in being lower in animacy hierarchies compared to animals and humans, have their sexuality discussed in largely mechanical terms devoid of the passion, the animateness, that we might discuss the sexuality of other beings. Likewise, human sexuality outside of the normative follows much the same pattern, with intersections and social positioning interacting to affect the animacy of a given body’s sexuality.
In many of the examples discussing sexuality so far, we’ve seen a hiearchialization set up between “normative” sexuality and “deviant” sexuality albeit through differing but intertwined system logics. Sexuality of the deviant is more attuned to a state of being “animal” than human, more “dead” than “alive”, and through the essentializing of identity these logics combine to frame deviant sexuality as static, and justifies exploitation and oppression on those grounds. The process of queering, breaking down binary and normative structures, can be seen as a returning of animacy to the body and the phenomenon of sexuality that body is engaged in.
II. Re-imagining Sexuality
In the previous section I teased out various threads that weave together to underpin our understanding of sexuality, yet these threads aren’t truly separate from each other. They weave in and out diverging at points only to link up later. The importance of intersectional critique is its ability to disrupt “ontological priorities”. That is intersectionality allows us to examine the complicated weaving of oppression and systems without positing any as a “first cause”, instead choosing to see these strands as reflexively[iv] informing each other.
Unfortunately, I’ve given a lot of critique but not so much in the way of solutions and that will hold true for the rest of this article. Given the complexity of sexuality and its centrality to the human condition there aren’t “one size fits all” solutions. But I do have some suggestions for directions we might travel to heal this:
1. Self Examination. Sexuality isn’t static because we aren’t static. We are constantly changing and growing and our sexuality does the same. Unfortunately, we and our sexualities didn’t develop in a vacuum devoid of wider social power systems. By critically examining our sexuality and “preferences”, we can weed out the bits of the oppressor buried deep inside and allow ourselves to really bloom.
2. Revolution. All solutions run up against a limit: the system we live under can’t be merely reformed. You can’t take oppression out of an inherently exploitative system. The system *must* be destroyed and we must dream new ways of living into existence.
3. Relationship Anarchy. Its common for our relationships to mirror in microcosm the macrocosm of oppressive structures that permeate our lives. Anarchism at its core is a rejection of hierarchical power structures and this applies in our personal relationships as much as it does to wider society. While a full and detailed account of relationship anarchy is beyond the scope of this article I’d like to point readers to a series of excellent essays addressing this topic: Focus on Relationships, Time, Touch, and Talk, Using the 3-Ts, and The Big Picture.
4. Radical Self Love. We often internalize the hierarchies of desire and the structures animating them. Whether we are trans, non-binary, intersex, cis, people of color, disabled, neurodivergent, fat, or anything else, we are lovable. Our bodies do not have to meet arbitrary standards to be worthy. When we fight body terrorism we engage in radical self love and, at the threat of being cliché, love can change the world.
In the end our liberation occurs in the liminal places, at the edges of the “acceptable”, in the cracks of the “whole”. Let’s dream a new world into being.
[i] Normativity is the process by which society raises some phenomenon as the “default” and assigns it a privileged status of “good”. By virtue of this process it creates a counter of deviance from the normative, labeling it “bad”, and punishing deviation from the norm.
[ii] The “male gaze”, “heteronormative gaze”, and others are subsets of “gaze theory” and here articulated in conversation with ideas first developed by Michael Foucault. The “gaze” is a relationship into which someone enters that limits perception of a given topic or person and thus what knowledge can be formed. Gazes are created by systems of power and surveillance and can be likened to a set of glasses that block out certain perspectives.
[iii] While Jewish identity in relation to white supremacy is much more complicated in a modern context, Jewish people were unequivocally racialized during the Shoah as non-white.
[iv] Reflexivity is the idea that cause and effect share a circular type relationship, that there is no “first cause”. In the opening to part I of this essay I raised the nature vs nurture debate around sexuality. The answer is that these are reflexive and its that idea which underpins this entire essay and its analysis.
Shay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.
Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life.
From Shay Woodall
CW: “me too”, Sexual Assault (SA)
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks watching the “me too” movement kick off on social media platforms. My Facebook feed has been filled with people sharing their stories with sexual assault (SA) and a lot of discourse critical of it. As a trans woman it’s been particularly difficult seeing how the language of many Me Too posts have unwittingly ignored trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks. And as a Jewish pagan, I think the topic of r*pe culture is particularly important when the pagan community so often doesn’t address abusers in our ranks. I recall an incident not long ago with a pagan community near me that did everything in their power to protect an abuser while gaslighting the victim, someone I care deeply about.
That dynamic isn’t an isolated incident either. Part of that problem has been a push from “mainstream” Pagans to turn our religion into something apolitical, but religion is inherently political. That our communities reflect the power dynamics of wider society, a microcosm of a macrocosm, is not a coincidence.
I’ve had time to reflect on this issue and a lot of the discourse and I want to take the time to give this the consideration it deserves in a way I hope embodies the compassion I have for my fellow survivors. This essay isn’t going to be an easy one, I know how traumatic this topic is, but sometimes to heal we must delve into the deep soil of our individual and collective traumas and dig out a space in which to plant a seed of healing. That’s the image through which I hope you read this and know that my solidarity is unyielding.
Please also know that this piece, like any of the things I write, is limited in understanding. All of our stories with SA are unique even as they are similar. I do not speak for other survivors, only for my experience. This is the beginning of a conversation and dialogue and I hope that to this thread which is my experience you add the thread of your own that together we can weave a tapestry.
I also want to thank all of the comrades who gave me feedback on earlier drafts of this and who sharpened my analysis of this issue. My gratitude on helping with this can not be understated.
I. Finding Roots
The “Me Too” movement began nearly a decade ago with activist Tarana Burke, a black woman. She is the program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, a group dedicated to empowering young women of color. She describes the story of its creation when she was a camp counselor. I don’t think I can tell her story more powerfully than she can so I direct you to this article.
When white women and NBWOC take the labor of black women without centering their unique experiences it is a disservice to them and to our ideals of social justice. Let us do better in raising up voices so often erased. Tarana Burke said this which I think really cuts to the heart of this:
“On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”
II. Digging in the Soil
There’s a branch of philosophy known as ontology that deals with the nature of “being.” Ontology tries to answer questions about “being,” what the world is made, what “exists.” To do that, ontology typically categorizes matter and often places some ontological category as being “primary” or “first.”In this way, ontological hierarchies create a system of values and “priorities.”
Take as an example how only certain experiences of SA are heard, that by existing lower in the ontological priorities, if at all, certain voices get erased. In society there exists a certain “ordering” of identities, a scale that places people and then assigns them varying degrees of agency. We could say that ontological hierarchies are very similar to animacy hierarchies, but that’s an article of its own. When we are applying intersectional critiques, at heart, we are putting forth a certain kind of ontology, or more accurately intersectional critiques seek to break down ontological hierarchies.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see what it looks like in action. We live bound under a capitalist super structure, what Marx described as the culture, institutions, political systems, rituals, state apparatus, etc and which he contrasted with what he called the “base.” or the ordering of and relationships made from the relations of production. Later critical theorists expanded this critique to point to the reflexive nature of the system, that base and superstructure are informed by and inform each other in a way that is inseparable. Seeing the role of ontological hierarchies play out in this superstructure under which we all live will hopefully be elucidating.
Capitalist ontological hierarchies situate the pursuit of wealth through wage labor as the default mode of being in the superstructure. In doing so the capitalist superstructure seeks several things. First, it normalizes the system by painting lack of ownership of the means of production as a default mode of economic and societal organization. Second it shifts the gaze of the working class off the wealthy so as to hide their accountability in the production of oppression. Finally it breaks down a unified class consciousness by subtly gaslighting the working class, having them believe that this system is the only one possible or even desirable.
A critique of hierarchy is central to the Anarchist model of social justice. We seek to break down to the deeper roots of oppression. Which is vital to breaking down r*pe culture and the endemic of sexual violence that haunts our world and so many of our lives. To make the link more explicit: kyriarchy (or the interlocking matrix of oppressive power structures like capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc) uses SA as a way of enforcing ontological hierarchies. Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life. Therefore, I want to examine how these ontological priorities impact these discussions and the consequences that result by layering together four intersections: misogyny, cissexism, ableism, and white supremacy.
1. Misogyny and Cissexism
Within the patriarchy that we live men are “normative”, their experiences the ones by which all others are judged. Yet “men” are not a homogenous group, there are cis men, trans men, nonbinary men, intersex men, white men, men of color, abled men, disabled men. Likewise, women are not a homogenous group and neither is humanity in general; each of us occupies a complex set of identities informed by our own phenomenological experiences. By homogenizing the experiences of SA victims we necessarily erase the uniqueness of each individual experience and begin to hide the forces that shape and are shaped by r*pe culture.
The model of gender that permeates patriarchy is a binary between “male/men” and “female/women”. Several ontological priorities flow from this with devastating consequences for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks (TNI). In the same way that misogyny centers men as being normative, cissexism centers cisness as normative. Many of the posts about me too have used cissexist and bioessentialist language (see here for more information on this) creating an ontological priority that decenters the most at-risk populations.
Take for example the ontological priority of cis women in many posts. By positioning, for example, trans women, as lacking some “essential” shared experience or quality with cis women it allows their priority to be weaponized as a way of erasing experiences deviating from the “norm.” SA itself is used to police gender and reinforce the structures that underpin the cishet patriarchy. Our queerness disrupts the ontological priorities of oppressive structures and SA becomes a way of forcing queer bodies back into the binary box.
Another insidious effect of this is that it drives a wedge through the heart of solidarity in this movement for social justice and community healing. When cis women, who are ontologically prioritized by cissexism, must make room for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks, there is pushback and we are accused of “attacking” women. In other words, we are accused of being agents of patriarchy who seek to decenter the role of misogyny and the violence cis women face instead of being viewed as active contributors to the deconstruction of patriarchy. This implication, embedded into the language of many posts, results in trans, nonbinary and intersex folks feeling as if it is not our place to share our experiences with SA. And worse, this can result in a lack of resources, access to spaces, etc which can be potentially devastating.
Ontological priorities also weave together a narrative of there being a “default” sexual assault experience. Neuro-typical folks are granted an additional amount of agency to define their experiences not afforded to neurodivergent folks. Austitic people, and autistic women, such as myself face the additional burden of being gaslit by ableist structures in society that can be internalized. By denying us full agency through the reduction of our ontological priority our experiences can be erased or dismissed. I’m not “really” a victim of SA, I’m just “cr*zy”. I don’t “really” know my own boundaries, I’m autistic. In short ontological priorities can be weaponized to gaslight victims and cause us to gaslight ourselves.
3. White Supremacy
This section will feature two modes of analysis of white supremacy. The first focusing on anti-semitism, the second widening the scope to white supremacy more broadly and the urgency of the anti-blackness and settler colonialism that underpins it.
I’d like to begin by saying I am hesitant to write this section because I understand just how deep anti-semitism runs in leftist circles; I choose to speak truth to power regardless here in the interest of healing. I bring up Weinstein’s Jewishness, not because it absolves him of guilt, but rather because his Jewishness, animated by white supremacy and anti-semitism, becomes a shield to absolve whiteness from accountability. To be clear, Weinstein, like myself is a white passing Jew and that matters just as much in this conversation as his Jewishness. Jewishness occupies a nebulous category, orienting and aligning itself either with or away from whiteness. It is only through a complex and individual set of circumstances that white passing Jews become oriented away from whiteness as is the case here. (This article might help put some of this in context and why I choose to bring this issue up.)
What popularized the me too movement was Harvey Weinstein’s SA of women being brought to light. For those of you unaware, Weinstein is a Jewish man, and this is important to note because it reveals an ontological priority scheme not about victims but about perpetrators of SA, a scheme that *hides* the scope of the problem.
At the same time there exists a double standard in how Weinstein, a Jewish man, is held to further account than white folks who commit the same harms. Where was accountability for Brock Turner or Donald Trump or the myriad of other white abusers? And underlying this is an ontological hierarchy that masks the systemic structures of who is held accountable. By refusing to wrestle with Weinstein’s Jewishness it hides the ways white supremacy permeates r*pre culture, erases POC victims and survivors, and helps protect white men from accountability of their own actions. The ontological priorities weaponized to hold only certain groups of men accountable for their actions, rather than holding all men accountable, and further all perpetrators of SA, furthers r*pe culture, not undermines it.
•Anti-blackness and Settler Colonialism
Before I begin it is vital to recognize that I am, in social justice parlance, stepping outside of my lane. My proximity to whiteness and the myriad ways I benefit from it necessarily limit the scope of my understanding and perspective and so this section is going to miss a *lot*. Despite my own uncomfortability in writing this I will not shy away from it either as to do so increases the burden placed on POC comrades, asking them yet again to bear the brunt of the labor in the dismantling of the system which they face the brunt of. With these limitations in mind I ask you read the following as a stepping stone and that we all recognize just how vital it is to center the voices of POC, particularly the work of black and indigenous femmes and women. The following is born from a conversation I had with Raven Raines, a black activist friend (and a lot is going to be lost in translation from their experiences to my own understanding).
Black women and femmes along with indigenous women and femmes face the greatest risk of sexual violence in r*pe culture. The security to be open with experiences of sexual assault, to seek justice and healing, is far less than for white or white passing folks. The confluence of anti-black stereotypes (for example that black folks are inherently more dangerous and violent) combined with the prison industrial complex serves to silence black and indigenous SA victims and survivors. More insidious yet is that male and white notions of black liberation see silence as a necessary condition of that very liberation.
That silence is also weaponized in unique ways against black women and femmes. SA becomes a tool of white supremacy to lessen the ontological status of black women and femmes by dehumanizing and “animalizing” their bodies. It becomes under the system of white supremacy an impossibility to r*pe black folks because they aren’t seen as human, as deserving or having bodily autonomy and consent.
In the words of Raven:
“Regardless of the white supremacist source of the Jezabel stereotype it is used to further insist that sexual abuse done to black women and femmes is both wanted and desired. To call it sexual abuse, when sexual availability is considered the very nature of black people, is seen as a joke in itself. A riotous one for those suffering under the brunt of mosogynoir”.
III. A Seed of Healing and Hope
So how might we move forward in a way that better captures the spirit me too was created in? We can use inclusive language for one, language that seeks to disrupt narratives of an “universal” SA experience. We can learn to see the sharing of these critiques and experiences as weaving the bonds of community in shared suffering. We can begin to make space for those whose voices get left behind. We can strive to lessen the material consequences faced by those placed at the bottom of ontological hierarchies. And most of all we can seek an ontological “parity” that breaks down the categorizations and priorities of the system. Breaking down, utterly destroying, the ontological hierarchies cuts to one of the core problems underpinning r*pe culture, and allows us to see all our multitude of experiences as “real”.
We can open these conversations in the spirit of communalizing trauma, where we build a culture that values consent at the deepest level and where we get real with our humanness. I think moving forward I’d like to build on that idea of a consent culture and how we can help cultivate it in ourselves and in our communities. It’s also important that as we share our traumas communally we do so in a way that gives power to victims and survivors of SA and in a way that doesn’t mask the systemic structures at play.
Different notes, different voices, different experiences joining together doesn’t have to form a cacophony, it can be a symphony if we put in the work.
PS: I’d also like to take an aside to point out one of the limitations of the me too movement. Not all SA victims and survivors are able to share their stories if they even want to. It’s important that even as we share in communal healing found in me too we don’t forget the very real forces that silence people’s stories. The onus is not on victims to share their story, the onus is on perpetrators of abuse to change their behavior and the r*pe culture they built.
It’s also important that we do not attempt to mask the power dynamics, racial, gender, etc, by using absolutely neutral language. Doing so only serves to mask the ways systemic issues are reflected in our personal experiences.
Shay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.
A FEW WEEKS AGO I was teaching Hesiod’s Theogony to my philosophy students. We were moving on to the Pre-Socratic philosophers next: being familiar with the mythopoetic worldview against which these early philosophers define themselves is necessary for really engaging with them. We were discussing the generations of the gods, and how Hesiod’s universe is one powered by erotic love and sex (in contrast to the god of Genesis who speaks the cosmos into existence). Hesiod’s gods reproduce the universe into existence. Not voice, thought, or meaning, but passion and bodily drive are the essence of reality for the Archaic Greeks.
When discussing the first gods, I discovered my students were having a very hard time understanding how we could seriously consider the earth, Gaia, and heaven, Ouranos, as living gods.
“Think about it,” I insisted, “when you stand on the earth it’s alive. Things are born from it, out of it. We feel its responsive living flesh as we garden, as we walk on its grassy skin. Some days, when the clouds are low and fog covers the landscape, you can feel how heaven leans down and nestles upon the earth, leaving the damp and the dew from which new things grow.
“Imagine, as in the story, if heaven refused to get back up, if it insisted upon laying upon earth (its mother and lover) without stopping. Imagine the sky closing in upon the landscape, with no space, no light, and no air into which new life could rise between heaven and earth. This is what Ouranos did to Gaia before she appealed to her unborn son Chronos, hidden within the caverns of her bowls, to turn against his father and force him to retreat by castrating him. Then alone was there space, the space that is our world, in which things could be born and grow beneath heaven and above the earth.”
“Ah,” they said, “it is a symbol and metaphor. That is why it is hard to understand.”
“No,” I insisted. “There is no metaphor here and no symbol. For the poet the earth is literally alive, a reproducing body, as is the sky. The living earth was the first goddess. It seemed such a simple and obvious idea, not creative but readily apparent in looking at the world. The earth lives. The earth gives birth. The earth is a body.”
I was struck by all the levels of conceptual resistance this simple image had to fight in my students, in contrast to the empirical obviousness with which it would have appeared to Hesiod and the people of his time.
To my students, the earth might contain living things, but it wasn’t alive, it wasn’t a body. It was a collection of resources and raw materials. It was food and fuel—not stomach, heart, and womb.
The earth couldn’t be a goddess, either, because gods and goddesses were transcendent, spiritual, and human-like. Were I to say that the earth had a spirit that could appear as a motherly woman they would immediately understand. But say the earth itself was a goddess, not some transcendent spirit that might appear or disappear and always look more or less like us, and the words just didn’t make sense any more. Gods were spirits and souls, not bodies. Gods were people, not mountains and forests and fields.
Think of the depictions of “mother earth” we are all no doubt familiar with and you get the idea of what my students wanted to think Hesiod meant. We even capture this sense in our insistent use of the word “of” in speaking of Pagan divinities. There are goddesses and gods of the sea, gods and goddesses of the sky, goddesses and gods of theearth. But not the goddess earth or the god heaven. They could make sense of Poseidon, but not Oceanus: one a god of the sea, the other the god ocean. They could work with Demeter but not Gaia: one a goddess of the earth and the other the goddess earth. They could make sense of Zeus, god of the sky, but not Ouranos, god that is heaven.
So too, the sex of the divinities must be metaphor, as must be that odd moment in Genesis when god was heard “walking in the cool of the garden.” Gods don’t walk, aren’t heard doing so, and don’t enjoy the cool of a shady garden. This is all because gods don’t have bodies.
“But they eat,” I wanted to say, “they have their own food called ‘ambrosia.'”
“Ah,” they might reply, “but it is a spiritual food.”
“But they bleed, there is a special term for their blood, the Greeks called it ‘ichor.’ Again, it is surely spiritual blood.”
There was a time when gods had bodies, and our world was the body of a goddess—a time when the cosmos was a kaleidoscopic orgy of copulating divine bodies.
Birth of the Bodiless
MOST OF HUMAN history and thought (certainly Western thought, but it is not limited to this) has a deep problem with bodies. We fear them, we hate them, we are embarrassed by them. When and where they are accepted they frequently need domesticating. They must be purified, beautified, cleansed, and elevated. But the most common trend is that they need to be transcended, rejected, dismissed, or destroyed. The soul, the mind, the self or non-self is what is important, not the fleshy sack it finds itself in, or mistakenly believes it finds itself in. This trend is found alike in philosophy, religion, science, and occultism. Each, in their own way, have served as an escape from the body. Behind this can always be found the nagging insistence: the Truth is not a body. Transcendent and spiritual, the Truth is the opposite of a body.
Despite the rejection of the body, its central importance has never been erased. Our politics for millennia has been a politics of bodies. Shaping and organizing bodies, placing them in ordered spaces, determining which bodies are in and what out, using bodies to manipulate, control, and destroy. This involves making some bodies unlivable, crafting cities where certain bodies have no space or cannot travel, crafting cages for other bodies.
Rejecting bodies, encouraging people to reject the body as a whole, is a strategy and method for controlling those bodies whether it takes the form of religious focus on asceticism and transcendence, or fascist purifications of the political body of “degeneracy.” Finally, of course, we have capitalism’s drive to turn the body into a machine as discussed so powerfully by Silvia Federici’s excellent essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body” and the second half of Rhyd Wildermuth’s recent talk “Witches in a Crumbling Empire,” both works that have heavily inspired this essay.
There are many fascinating paths along which the peoples of the world traveled from embodied gods and the world-as-body to rejecting the body and aiming for its destruction. It has amusingly been argued, for example, that Socrates’ ugliness—and the assumption in Classical Greece that body reflects soul—was a problem that Plato had to answer through a strengthening of the mind/body dualism. It is not the body that is virtuous, but the mind and soul. The body, argues Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, is a prison and nothing more. This idea would gain in importance in Neo-Platonism, the early Christianity it influenced, and many of the so-called Gnostic religions. It becomes the central spoke of most Western religion and mysticism alike.
Rejection of the body leads to all kinds of problems whether theological, metaphysical, or psychological. In this regard, the centrality that the monotheistic incarnation came to play in Christianity is ironically a solution to an invented problem. The rejection of the body and abstraction of god led to too great a tension to be maintained. Considering that god is so distant, transcendent, spiritual, infinite, what possible relationship can there be between it and us? Miraculously, divinity deigns to the ultimate sacrifice: the taking on of body. The entire thing can’t help but feel like something of a puppet play unless one has already come to deeply accept that being embodied is a disgusting horror. It is a solution to a problem invented in the first place.
Hesiod wouldn’t have known what to make of the incarnation. The gods are the ultimately embodied. This wasn’t because his thinking was more “primitive” but rather because he wasn’t suffering from an unnecessary dilemma. When it came to the challenge and danger of having a body, the Pagans were much more brave than those who would follow after.
When the Gods had Bodies
I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND the Norse myths, captured in the Poetic and Prose Eddas, intoxicating. Here is a vision of embodied divinity, and the earth as body, that is strikingly different from the Greek vision while sharing in its essential insight. The world as we know it comes from the body of the giant Ymir, with some of its earliest inhabitants growing from the giant’s armpits, or being licked out of blocks of ice. The world is built out of the body of Ymir after he is killed (there are similar renditions of Greek myth, in which key elements of the world and life are built out of an ancient dismembered divinity). If Hesiod’s is a story of sex, the Norse story is one of existence arising from flesh, entrails, guts, and bones. In either view, the world is body, but there is something rather important in wondering whether it is a living divinity or a cosmic undead corpse.
The Norse gods are consistently embodied. They drink and eat with gusto and fight with equal pleasure. It is easier, though I would claim mistaken, to see in Greek embodied divinity a metaphor for spiritual truths, than in the raucous escapades of the Norse gods. In either worldview, however, there are gradations and variations of embodiment that are worth discussing.
My earlier consideration of the difference between a goddess of the earth and the goddess who is the earth was not meant to imply that our use of the genitive in speaking of the Titans and Olympians is wrong. There are important differences between Demeter and Gaia, between Poseidon and Oceanus, between Zeus and Ouranos. The simplest distinction is also the most obvious: the generations of the gods grow more human over time particularly because of the form their embodiment takes. Gaia is the earth and looks like the earth, while Zeus looks like a man. A similar process happens in Norse mythology in the movement from the monstrous gargantuan Ymir, whose remains eventually go towards making up the world, to the much more human seeming Odin, Freyja, and Thor. Between the primordial divinities of cosmic scale and the ruling human-like divinities of the latest generation there is found a third group, those we might call the monstrous.
The fascinating thing about the embodied divinities of Pagan cultures is that they are not only the beautiful and the ugly, not only the perfected and horribly human, there is a vast category of the embodied Other of whom I have spoken before. Gaia, for example, gave birth to the three dreaded Hecatonchires who had a hundred arms and fifty heads. Amongst the generations before Zeus we also have Echidna, a beautiful nymph from the waist up and a horrifying snake from the waist down. There is also Typhon, born to Gaia after Zeus’ defeat of the Titans when she became enraged at the gods’ attack upon her children. Descriptions of Typhon are many and inconsistent, but he is often described as if he had the body of a man mounted by a hundred snake or dragon heads. In Norse mythology we have all the giants generally, but also the children of Loki: the massive Midgard serpent which grew so large it enwrapped the world, the terrible wolf Fenrir who was destined to kill Odin and devour the sun and moon, and Hel who appeared on one side as a young maiden and on the other as a rotting corpse of a dead maiden. We could multiply these examples endlessly, from Giants to Gorgons to Furies.
One thing we can learn from this juggling of bodily variation is that the Pagan worldview embraces the-body-in-contestation. I’ve argued previously that despite featuring divine monarchies, the Pagan worldview is not a solidly hierarchical or authoritarian one. Monotheistic religions depict a cosmos in which authority and absolute rule is written indelibly into the very structure of being. This tyranny is unalterable. Pagan mythologies, on the other hand, depict an entire cosmos in which order is always in contention and negotiation. Order and structure, like life growing from the earth in general, rises and falls through shifting and unexpected changes outside any control whether divine or human. Zeus’ reign is tentative, as indeed is the rule of the Olympians in general, and Odin knows he will die eventually and the entire world will change.
This essential instability and force of change at the heart of the Pagan cosmos is body, the bodily nature of reality. For the Greeks is was eros, or the bodily sexual drive. For Hesiod, eros was born along with the very first goddesses and gods and provokes their actions and the birth of each successive stage of reality. The cosmos for Pagans is living, is growing and changing, dying and being reborn. There is no more control on the parts of the gods than we have over our own aging and fragile bodies. But more than this, though the generally young ruling divinities certainly tend to be seen through the lens of supposedly perfect bodies, the divine world is populated by wild and unruly pluralities of bodies from the earth itself, through the monstrous and unusual, to the heights of human beauty. The embodied gods are as diverse and chaotically fertile as the divine desire-driven cosmic body itself.
There is a particularly potent message concerning the Pagan view of body in the status of Hephaestus. Hephaestus is the god of smiths and the crafts in general. He is also commonly the butt of jokes in Olympus because his body does not fit the “perfection” of the gods around him. He is partially lame. We are told how his wife, Aphrodite, cheats on him with Ares and one of the most chilling scenes in Homer’s Iliad concerns a conflict on Olympus in which the gods nearly come to blows until Hephaestus breaks the tension by limping around serving, and spilling, wine—thus provoking the other gods to laugh at him. Here is a hint of the horrors that privileged bodies can perform on those lacking this privilege. But the situation is rather more complex than this. Judging by place-names and confirmed temple locations, Hephaestus was one of the most important and popular gods for the Ancient Greeks. Zeus may be king, but lame Hephaestus was in many ways more central and beloved.
The body, whether that of the cosmos, the gods, humans, plants, or animals, is ultimately ungovernable. This is the message of the place of body in Pagan reality. Embodied desire and need, the motor of the unstoppable cosmic changes we might as well call fate, can at best be temporarily negotiated into an order. But it cannot be dominated, cannot be governed, cannot be stopped—at least not for long.
There is a reason power has always feared the body, and always attempted to crush it or convince us it is unimportant. The power to resist and change is a bodily power. Nowhere is this power more concentrated than in those bodies that society would seek to make unlivable: bodies not fitting into social standards of beauty, health, or capability, bodies with desires and drives rejected by social forces, bodies of the ‘wrong’ shape, size, or color, and ultimately the abject nature of all bodies in general. What society would make unlivable is really ungovernable in the very best and most promising sense.
The wealth and promise of Paganism is captured in the way it reintroduces us to the body: a body that we share with the earth and the gods, a cosmos unified in its bodily fragility and drive. It is this that dooms all tyranny and empire, this body, this world.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem.
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Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
I’ve been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was “on my list,” especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist icon.
I was not inspired to read it because of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Canada. I was finally inspired to read it because I am doing some science fiction related reading challenges; one to read new-to-me female authors, and the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was both on a list of award-winning speculative fiction by female authors, and a list of award-winning LGBTQ speculative fiction. You can find those lists at https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… and https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… respectively. Because I’m intending to read a lot of books this year, it was convenient for me that this book, which I meant to read someday anyway, was on both lists.
Let’s just establish, right off the bat, that I think this is an absolutely stunning book. I am glad I waited so long, because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to understand a lot of it until this point in my life. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s frustrating and disturbing. Atwood has made some statements about it that make me angry. Some of the things critics have said about it make me want to beat my head against a wall. It can be difficult to follow if you’re not used to the style, because it is written in a flow-of-consciousness perspective that changes back and forth between present and past tense. Some have criticized her for this but I’m sure it was deliberate. The epilogue of the book, a fictional history lecture, says that the story was found recorded over some secular music cassette tapes from the 1980s, usually after a few minutes of music have played. So when you read it, picture a woman about forty, maybe forty-five, telling a story in a tired voice that is sometimes deliberately neutral, sometimes choking back tears and other times choking back rage. Listen to her talk; don’t read it expecting standard writing conventions. Perhaps, if you’ve ever heard a woman telling her tale in an interview for the Shoah project, picture her voice sounding like that.
So, yes. Mixed feelings. On the other hand, I chewed through this book in two and a half very busy days, abandoning all my other reading projects after leafing through the first ten pages. I was riveted to the edge of my seat. Would the protagonist live? Would she die? The whole novel was like holding my breath, waiting for what comes next. If Atwood intended us to feel this way — waiting in desperate anxiety — because that was what the protagonist’s life was like, then she succeeded admirably. The suspense was downright torturous. Also, the message . . . the message . . . How subversive. How frightening. What a fantastic wake-up call in so many different ways, and not just in how it pertains to women.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in an alternate history in which declining birth rates in the mid-eighties, attributed to toxic chemicals, pollution, radiation and other ecological disasters, along with AIDS and a virulent strain of syphilis that caused infertility in most men exposed to it, fell to frightening levels. Women’s independence, the use of birth control, lesbianism and homosexuality, were seen as exacerbating this (and perhaps they did). People reacted with fear, as they often do in such situations, and a religious Christian fundamentalist cult rose to power, toppled the United States government, shot the President and most of the Congress, and formed the Republic of Gilead. They used a symbol and a militant ideology never seen before. And suddenly the lives of women drastically changed.
Because all money had become electronic and there was no paper money, they started by freezing the bank accounts of anyone with an F attached to it rather than an M, and they forced people to fire all women from their jobs. Women were denied the right to own property. Men and women who were in second marriages or extramarital relationships, or anyone who was gay or lesbian, were declared unpersons. Their children were taken from them because they were considered to be “unfit parents,” and women so classified with viable ovaries were forced through reeducation camps, with cattle prod wielding “Aunts,” to become Handmaidens; that is, broodmares to the rich and powerful. Women of the right status and religious background were assigned in arranged marriages as Wives to significant and powerful men; women who were no longer fertile but weren’t “undesirable” were assigned to be “Marthas” (maids,) “incorrigible” women were taken out of official existence to become “Jezebels” (sex slaves,) and those who were too old to do anything else or beyond “reformation” (accomplished through a combination of brainwashing and torture) were sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and radiation until they died. All of them were assigned different modes of dress to signify their role. Jezebels never went out in public and never left the brothels they’d been assigned to; Handmaids could only go out in pairs so that they could spy on each other and only to do specifically assigned tasks, wearing a red habit with winged wimples described as “blinders” so they couldn’t see out of the sides. All “vanities” such as immodest dress and makeup were banished and women were forbidden even the right to read. Conversely, men were denied the right to marry until they had proven themselves to the people in power, and were forbidden sex or even masturbation until that time also.
Lots to be discussed here. First of all, critics of the novel have tisked at how unlikely they feel this is to happen in the glorious United States of America. Except that I’ve seen many disturbing echoes of Atwood’s predictions in our society right now. How so many things are blamed on Islamic terrorism. How gradually freedoms and rights and privacy have been eroded in the name of “safety” and “security.” How we are gradually being railroaded into giving up paper money. The anti-abortionists, the censors in Britain. The backlash against LGBTQ rights; the “bathroom” laws. The systematic discrediting of feminism and of Planned Parenthood. Encouraging intolerance as a religious “right.” I won’t lie; you guys to the South of us are beginning to scare the shit out of me.
Some critics have said that they just don’t see all of this happening this quickly. But it has, and it is happening right now. The state of women in the Middle East, two generations ago, was comparable to that of women anywhere else in the world at that time. When the Soviet Union broke up much of Eastern Europe erupted into a seething hotbed of “ethnic cleansing.” In a mere five years in the late 1930s Germany transformed from a modern 20th century country to a totalitarian regime which is still causing shockwaves in our world culture. And in the Islamic State, right now, women are being given to jihadis as brides or sex slaves. I think of American “purity balls” and I shudder.
The story is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, and the choice was made to emphasize the United States’ history of Puritanism. The corporate media and the religious right have been building up our political climate for something like this since at least 1991. I am not a doomsayer; I don’t believe in end-of-the-world prophecies; but I am a student of history and if you don’t recognize the parallels and it doesn’t concern you, you’re being willfully blind.
In order for such a regime to exist, you must create a hierarchy of haves and have nots, and so Atwood establishes that hierarchy in vivid detail. The Unwomen of the Colonies were the bottom of the food chain, deprived even of a right to life and health. The Jezebels at least had the privilege of that; though of course they were deprived of the right to liberty and personhood and were required to service the men who came to them. The Handmaidens came next, who at least could live and go out in public, though of course they, too, were required to do what was commanded of them, perform sexually for men, and had severe restrictions on their behaviour, their speech, and even were denied the right to a name; being called “Of-” plus the first name of the Commander they belonged to. The Handmaiden of the tale was called “Offred”; we never learn her real name. The Marthas were not required to spread their legs on command but were menial servants. The Wives had to obey their husbands but otherwise were the mistresses of the household. Aunts held an in-between place in which they are given extra privileges; what those were weren’t defined, but they earned their extra privileges by disciplining the Handmaidens, as some Jewish people earned extra privileges in the death camps by disciplining their fellow Jews. And above all of them, the young men, who at least had the right to read and go where they wished; then the Guardians, who were the foot soldiers; then the Commanders who were effectively above the law; until they weren’t.
One cannot help but consider the issues of intersectionality of our own time. Our corporate masters give lip service to religious fundamentalism to whitewash their activities and control the populace through “moral instruction.” They tell women not to complain about the inequalities they are handed, because they could be transgendered. They tell white people in poverty not to complain because they could be black and thus subject to being shot in the street, even for being a twelve-year-old with a toy gun in an open carry state. That’s how they control us. And we really need to stop allowing it, because the elite, whoever they are, will keep pushing until we force them not to. This, ultimately, is the message behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the sad reminder that we must band together, and view an assault on the rights of any one of us as an assault on the right of all of us. Otherwise, who will be there to help when they come for you?
Atwood sometimes receives anti-feminist criticism because her male characters are two-dimensional (true) and because even Offred’s former husband Luke was suspect. When women were denied the right to own property, hold jobs and have money, he put his arms around her and said, “You know I’ll always take care of you.”
Perhaps he didn’t react the way we thought he should have. We might think that Luke should have immediately said, “Okay, let’s run for the border.” But lots of Jews stayed in Germany because they just couldn’t believe that what was happening was actually happening. No one would go that far . . . would they?
I also believe that Atwood’s purpose in having Luke react in this way was to point out how complicated gender dynamics are. Let’s be frank; in many ways, modern feminism is a brand new thing. For centuries men have owned all the property (actually, I believe property rights created the patriarchy) and all of their identity has been wrapped up in their net worth and how well they can take care of their families. Feminism, especially social feminism, challenges that. It causes us to question what it is that makes one a man. Even now, women will rarely marry a man who makes less money than she does, and if she chooses to, people keep telling her to ditch the bum. If we had true gender equality, what difference would it make?
I have said little about the writing in the wake of the politics and the message. On one hand, I must compliment Atwood on her brilliant, liquid prose. Every word chosen is there for a reason; every symbol means something (for instance, the Handmaidens wear red, which of course hearkens back to red light districts, the Scarlet Letter, and also menstrual blood; red in Western culture is the colour of sexuality and fertility, as well as of anger, passion, and blood). It’s truly a pleasure to read such a good writer.
On the other hand . . .
You may be a bit surprised, after my glowing explanation of the message and the politics, when I say that really, Atwood’s story isn’t all that original. Dystopian societies meant to highlight challenging modern political issues are nothing new in science fiction. Nothing new at all. “1984” should come immediately to mind. Remember, Big Brother is always watching (and keylogging your internet usage).
Which is why it makes me gnash my teeth in fury that Atwood had the audacity to claim that this story wasn’t science fiction. She actually said (in an interview included in the back of the edition I read) that “Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” But she was nominated for a Nebula and she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I shake my head in dismay. I’m sure Ms. Atwood knows perfectly well that what she’s talking about is only one sub-genre of science fiction, known as “space opera.” Let’s face it, the real reason she said that is that she was afraid that they would take away her magical “literary writer” card if she lowered herself to writing mere “genre fiction.” And why isn’t “literary” considered a genre? Snobbery and nonsense. Ursula K. LeGuin, easily her equal in this craft, responded to that “but isn’t this science fiction?” question with bold statements that she could see no reason why genre fiction should be considered less “literary.”
Science fiction fans get so tired of this. I am reminded of how everyone, including James Cameron, was soooo convinced that “Avatar” was so original, when basically he wrote “Dances With Wolves” with special effects and I’ve seen even his variation of it as least twice in popular sci-fi novels written in the 90s or earlier. I suppose if you’ve never read science fiction this might look original, but literary critics have a lot of gall claiming that it is if they sneer at my beloved “genre fiction.”
However, Brian Aldiss argued in his book “Billion Year Spree” that reading science fiction is generally a lot different from reading other forms of fiction. When someone is described as looking up at the green sun, we assume the sun is green, not that this is a metaphor for something else, and that it will be explained later. One thing that is clear is that Atwood is not writing to science fiction audiences. And that might be a good thing. I referred it to my mother, who has never understood my love of science fiction, in the hopes that it will help to bridge the gap.
And thus I, as many others have, found the epilogue annoying at best, and wish that Atwood had simply let the book end when it did. First of all, it didn’t wrap up any of the things that were left up in the air. Some things we will never know for sure. Second, I don’t feel it added anything at all that I didn’t already know. I did not feel that the nature of the Gilead Regime or who, exactly, some of the characters were required any further explanation than was already given. Fictional lectures to give perspective to science fiction stories have been tropes since Robert Lewis Stevenson first delved there in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
That epilogue has also annoyed feminist critics. But maybe that was the point. The (male) professor giving the lecture on “The Handmaid’s Tale” pooh-pooh’s Offred’s style and level of education. He remarks that it’s clear that Offred was an educated woman (“as educated as anyone can be in 20th century America”,) which the class chuckles at, and then he goes on to say that since she was so educated, how much more valuable this document would have been if there had been some information about the nature and structure of the powers-that-be in Gilead, if she had included dates, wars, important commanders, that kind of thing.
I say that maybe this was the point, however, because in the first place, it points out how quick we are to sneer at our ancestors, and how much more advanced we always believe ourselves to be, even when we’re not; and perhaps she was also critiquing how our white privilege and militant Anglo culture is always so much concerned with who is important rather than the suffering and experience of ordinary people. Is this a commentary on the way we teach academic history?
Despite my quibbles and its flaws, however, this suspenseful, subversive, emotional and beautifully-written novel is perhaps more relevant in our time than ever before. Everyone should read it at least once, and sit with the things that it forces us to think about. I am inspired once again to band together, defend the rights of the underdog, and seek out the company of other women.
We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.
We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave. How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”). What we should feed them. How we should decorate them. Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing. We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions. We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding. We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.
After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why. This is something that has puzzled me for many years. Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how? I mean, think about it. How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?) I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.
I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade. Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring. I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.
The men in my life were angered by this theory. They are feminists, and they are stepfathers. They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned. I didn’t give their anger much heed. I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege. I figured they would come around.
But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense. Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.
Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.
Patriarchy is all about class.
Expropriation and Estrangement
Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure. In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land. All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance. All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed. Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back. Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms. Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions. We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.
Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing. Universities developed. Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge. This particularly affected medicine. Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities. Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target. And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien. We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.
In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted. If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up. Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature. We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.
All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another. We are almost seeing the culmination of it now. We no longer know our neighbours. We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear. Most of us these days are raised by single mothers. We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers. As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse. Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.
I was excited! Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.
Of course, it started long before that. While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole. Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”
How I Stumbled on This
I was writing a science fiction novel. In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else. This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes. And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy. Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.
So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline. Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it. Technically the males inherited, but only through the females. Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance. Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.
Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women? You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch. But consider it. Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots. In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality. This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy. If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we? Especially not in the developing world. And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child? That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?
We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves. Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity? According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class. Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves? It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.
Also, we choose mates based on perceived status. It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies. Men with money are considered sexy. Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.
We feminists think we’re above that. After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support. But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do? Most of us won’t. We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work. Fortunately this is changing.
There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China. Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line. There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship. Men live with their female relatives. And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men. In other words, property equals power.
It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots. Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society. They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage. Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against? Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”
This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups. The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.
In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy. Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are. And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it. The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.
By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally. It would help us all to march in Ferguson. It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights. It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade. Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.
Why the Patriarchy is Doomed
Don’t worry; it can’t last forever. It was doomed from the invention of the Pill. When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.
But social sanctions will try. And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue. We must stop calling each other sluts. We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t. We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise. We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women). The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.
A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone. I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.
When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards. We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes. That day is coming. I believe it’s not far away.
Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).
This week I performed a trabajito in the form of sigil writing and spell casting to protect the protestors who, at the time of this writing, are dangling themselves across the St. John’s Bridge and floating in kayaks below it to stop the Shell icebreaker ship Fennica from leaving it’s port and heading to the Arctic to assist in drilling for oil.
Why did I do this? It’s because I feet obligated to be involved in the struggle to save our planet. Like I feel obligated as a person of color to march in Black Lives Matters protest. I use my education, my citizenship status, my economic privileges and my light-skin passing privileges to further various social justice causes. So why wouldn’t I use my craft?
Many people are abhorrent to getting involved in politics. This is true for pagan communities too. I don’t mean this as a call out but I know many pagans and witches who have remained silent on issues of white supremacy, racism and homophobia even when it comes from other pagan communities.
I am a witch, I am a person of color, and I am queer. I know what it feels like to be physically attacked, to be systemically oppressed, and to be silenced.
The adage rings true once again for me: the personal is political. I believe that not taking a stance actually sides with the oppressor, or the systems in place that oppress us. There is no neutral ground here. Desmond Tutu was right.
So for me, my witchcraft will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.
But what does that mean? What is intersectionality? It is a feminist sociological theory as defined first by American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality’s basic premise is that a person’s experience cannot be understood separately, each category and context must be examined together to see the interactions of different identities. Basically, intersectionality studies the intersections of forms or systems of oppression, domination and discrimination. It is a cornerstone of critical theories work.
So why is this important for pagans? Well, as a marginalized group of people we also exist along many other lines such as ability, national origin, class, sexual orientation, gender etc. Our experience as pagans intersects and is affected by our experience as other kinds of people as well. In some cases, we may reinforce dominant cultural norms within our own pagan circles.
What do we do with intersectional theory? How can we use it with our craft, within our communities? How can it help us? Well, here is how it can look. One of my first and foremost uses of intersectional theory is education. I think that through education we can create more just community. This includes not only educating others but educating ourselves too. Don’t know much about classism or ableism? Do some research. You may be surprised in the ways in which we can oppress others without this awareness! My favorite method of education is critical conversations, in which I engage my self and others in sometimes-uncomfortable dialogue about oppression, privilege and identity.
Direct action is also another way in which I use intersectionality in my life. I see my identities as an able-bodied witch as a boon to help further community justice. For me this has taken the shape of attending protests or marches and in my spiritual life through intentional ritual: I have utilized hexes to fight gentrification and created community circles to heal from the pain of systemic racism.
I think it’s important to acknowledge some of the current issues in pagan communities where intersectionality can help us.
One example is that of the Icelandic Ásatrú organization (Ásatrúarfélagið) being harassed via hate mail as well as their new temple being threatened with vandalism due to their support of LGBTQ people. This organization is acting from an intersectional center and should be lauded for their efforts.
Another current issue is the policing people of color in pagan sects like Heathenism and Wicca: many argue that these are European based religions as justification for being unwelcoming to people of color. I counter that argument because if White pagans can worship the Egyptian pantheon, become Voudoun oungans and mambos, or use Native American smudging practices, then why can’t pagans of color worship Freya or become a Wiccan high priestess?
This of course touches on the hotly debated subject of cultural appropriation in pagan communities. My take is, when in doubt (or if it definitively isn’t yours), don’t do it! For further reading I strongly suggest checking our Adrienne Keene’s blog Native Appropriations as well as the section on cultural appropriation in Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood and Brandy Williams.
Two other pesky plagues in our communities are nationalism and gender essentialism. Nationalism is a newer phenomenon to be sure, but it is against the spirit of paganism and community. It also perpetuates things like imperialism, militarism and Islamophobia. If you use Facebook, check out Druids United Against Islamaphobia, they are doing cool work in this area.
Gender essentialism is the belief that the cisgender dichotomy (male and female) is innate and that there are intrinsic differences between the two genders. In some witchcraft schools of thought, there must be a man as priest and a woman as priestess to conduct ritual. This implies only men may invoke gods and only women may invoke goddesses. I find this limiting and I think it does not honor the diversity of gender expression. I believe gender essentialism is contrary to the spirit of paganism as well: many of our beloved gods and goddesses embody both male and female aspects, are something in between, or perhaps nothing of the sort! It is also vital to remember that throughout history transgender, third gender, gender nonconforming and queer people have been deeply involved in sacred rites.
Nationalism and gender essentialism, like racism, homophobia and other oppressive systems, are contrary to a just world. So it is very important to critically examine and dismantle our participation in systems of oppression like nationalism and gender.
If there is anything I wish for you to take from this essay, it is this: we can utilize intersectionality to create more justice within our communities. We can educate others, organize against oppression, and create new communities and ways of being. There is plenty of room at the table for all the diversity of people that exist in the world. Our communities are vast, growing and beautiful.
We should dedicate ourselves to the cause of creating this affirming and kind justice. We can start right here, in our own circles. This is why intersectionality is important to witchcraft. Many of us have rights and redes to do no harm, so I leave with the question: What about systemic harm? Let’s do something about that!