Abuse Within Paganism – A Taboo Topic?

We must make those who think that Paganism tolerates abusive, controlling behaviour aware that they have no place within our traditions.

From Emma Kathryn

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If you are a member of the Pagan community (whatever that means to you – we’ll discuss community later), then you may well remember when a well know witch published a blog post that talked about the abuse she’d suffered from within the Pagan community. The post did cause a little bit of a stir. It made the snippets of the popular Pagan outlets, and aside from a few private blog posts from other Pagans and witches, not much more was said.

That woman was Sarah Anne Lawless, and you can read that particular blog post here.

Sarah’s story kind of touched a cord with me. You see, many years ago, a close family member of mine was herself in an abusive relationship, and I guess I saw a few similarities between Sarah and my family member. Both are strong, fierce women. Fiery and quick to speak their minds. I would hear people question why my family member would stay with the woman beater? She’s a strong woman, why did she put up with it? Why try to hide it? Maybe they like it, you would hear people say, even other women. And so when I saw those same things said or implied about Sarah, it made me realise, though I suppose I already knew it anyway, that this topic is one that spans all divides.

Curious to discover how things had turned out for her, I recently called Sarah, and we had a chat about what’s been done since first airing her experiences.

And the truth is, disappointingly little.

In fact, that wouldn’t be the worst of it. Not only has Sarah been all but shunned by those communities she thought she was a member of but her businesses have been attacked, with anonymous reports to various agencies about the products she makes and sells. The platforms which enable her to sell those items have also received anonymous reports and have even been suspended in some cases.

And all because she dared to highlight her instances of abuse within the Pagan community, by some of those within it.

I asked her what kind of reaction had she gotten from others, generally speaking. She replied:

“It’s been a bit of  a mixed bag. Some have been sympathetic. And from others, mostly men, I’ve either had complete denial or a misunderstanding.”

I also asked if other victims had reached out to her.

“Yeah, many have, sharing their stories with me. Only one other came forward to the police though, but here that’s not enough to carry forward an investigation. But I also get why others didn’t come forward. And who am I or anyone else to try to force these women to do something they don’t want to, especially after the trauma they’ve  already faced. If it helps them, sharing their stories with me, then that’s a good thing.”

And she’s been all but ignored by Pagan media outlets.

”I’ve been in touch with a couple of different places, but after initial contact, I haven’t really heard back from any of them.”

Indeed, here in the UK, it’s not been much of a story. It’s almost like there’s a wall of silence, or perhaps a wall of ignorance around the whole affair, and for me, this must lead us to question why.

IS THERE A PROBLEM? WHAT CAN WE DO?

So is there a problem with Paganism and how we respond to abuse claims? I think there is, and there certainly seems to have been in Sarah’s case.

I find the biggest problem is that Paganism seems to operate in its own atmosphere, away from the general rules we might ordinarily apply in real life. So, in the everyday world, if a woman, or anyone else for that matter, came forward with claims of abuse, those claims would be investigated. We would expect them to be.

I also think the fact that the word ‘community’ doesn’t really cover what it actually means to be a Pagan. The draw for many is the lack of uniformity, the freedom and independence to believe and worship however they see fit.

Take a moment to consider the many differing forms of Paganism, and then all the subsets and categories and regional differences and that’s without considering those who might be solitary or eclectic. When we consider Paganism in this way, it becomes understandable as to why defining a Pagan community becomes difficult. There is no one set of beliefs. There is no right or wrong way to worship.

And so if there is no community, how then can we begin to tackle the issue of abuse? By calling it out, whenever we witness it or are made aware of it. And from that call out, investigations must occur, and then the appropriate action taken. We must not close ranks, afraid that any truth may corrupt our beliefs. Instead we should root it out so it doesn’t corrupt or spoil the hard work and dedication that others have put in. We should expel it like the pestilence it is.

And abuse can be insidious. It can be incorporated into the very foundations of an order or tradition. There’s nothing stopping anyone from setting up any kind of group, and I really do cherish that freedom, but with it comes the responsiblity to call out and report abusers. If an abuser happens to be an elder or someone with a respected position within a tradition, this shouldn’t exclude them from any investigation or punishment if necessary. They should not be allowed to slip off the grid and start up elsewhere.

We should not excuse shitty behaviour because the one being a shit also happens to be some sort of leader, or someone with that kind of power, or has followers who look up to them. If anything, it is imperative that such types are called out and reported. We should call out fakelore where we see it, and let’s be honest, you come across it quite often in the Pagan sphere.

We also need our Pagan writers and journalists to not fear tackling such subjects. Of course there is that line, that is to not portray someone as guilty when they have not been convicted and all of that, but we must also tackle those stories and bring those issues to the fore. We need writers and journalists who are unbiased and tell the truth. We need publications to talk about these claims when they arise, and also about the issues that may arise because of them.

I will take a moment to just say a word or two about those accusations that are false, that are made out of malice and badness, that are untrue and told to inflict damage. As damaging as they may be, those false reports do not detract from the truth of most claims. Those who make those false claims should also be held to account, but then it all comes back to taking the time to investigate thoroughly all abuse claims.

We must make those who think that Paganism tolerates abusive, controlling behaviour aware that they have no place within our traditions. Doing so will only strengthen them. Doing nothing will lead to their fall.

We are witches and occultists and brujas and so much more. We have the power to make our crafts and traditions what we want them to be. Let them be places where abusers find no solace. Let’s do ourselves justice.


Emma Kathryn

epMy name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!

You can follow Emma on Facebook.

Valentine’s Game

I breathe easier knowing my grandfather died before the age of Trump. My grandfather, a fiercely opinionated man, believed in people’s power and populism. He was the first person to breathe the word “communism” in my presence — then, in the early nineties, still a dirty word. His relationship with populism and fascism was complicated. His own father had been a soldier in Mussolini’s army, but taken prisoner for most the war in North Africa and presumed dead, leaving my grandfather’s family without a source of income, broken, and ostracized in their small Italian village.

My grandfather was still a young child when Canadian soldiers liberated his village from Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. I still remember my grandfather’s smile at that particular memory — from that point in his life, he would forever associate Canada with hope. When he emigrated to North America, he became a factory worker. Like most men of his age, class, and cultural origin, he had a difficult time with contemporary liberal politics. Decades later, by the time 2008 was said and done, he often felt a strong need to express his dislike for Obama and Obama-style politics. But towards the end of his life, as sickness and age eroded his ability to track world politics — and wage interminable, circular political arguments at the dinner table — he did not have to watch the rise of Trump-style American fascism as his children and grandchildren watched him die. Small mercies.

I’m thinking of that on Valentine’s Day. I’m twenty-six, and I just watched my family blow up in my face.


 

I’ve been here before.

We were always a family split along linguistic and cultural lines — I often joked that my parents’ dinner table was a Babel where three or four languages could be heard simultaneously. Even if bits were lost in translation, nothing could stop the signal of this beautiful cacophony.

As is often the case, there’s only so much difference that blood and habit account for. Eventually, something cracks. We lost our ability to speak to each other.

It ends this time, as it did last time, with an email from my father. This one contains only two words: “Fuck you.”


We are not Americans, but American-style politics have become, in the past decade, our common frame of reference despite ourselves. My brother, the youngest sibling, often wears a baseball cap mimicking those red ones we saw on television at the American Republican National Convention. He calls himself the most feminist person of the family, as he uses racially and sexually charged language to provoke anyone at the dinner table into a confrontation. He is a master of pivot-and-redirect argumentation. He loves to personalize everything. The moment I begin talking about patriarchy, or racism, or oppression in terms larger than any one individual person, he reframes the conversation to be all about him, about whether or not we think he is a bad person, whether we think he is acting like a white supremacist, whether we love him enough despite his faults.

My brother also fully admits to be trolling us at the dinner table. It’s all a joke: the baseball-cap-wearing-redneck attitude, the role of devil’s advocate, even the yelling out of racial epithets to shock us.

Nonetheless, my parents are fiercely protective of his right to say whatever he wants. Every argument with him happens the exact same way. I have tried arguing with him at the dinner table and on Facebook. I have tried being calm, taking him aside one-on-one to detangle this web of entitlement and rage that keeps its iron grip on my brother and won’t let go.

I have also tried, as I did just this last Valentine’s Day after another disastrous family dinner, to walk away. To walk away from his provocations, from this game he plays where he tries to get me to call him out for racist or sexist behaviours in front of our parents. Because he knows that the moment I do that, it’s game over. My father will rise from his chair and begin to scream. My mother will defend her son, throwing daggers with her eyes. As my brother knows well, the bulk of that rage is directed towards me. It’s the fault of feminists that my brother behaves this way. It’s our fault, as women, that my brother channels his insecurity as the youngest in this way.

I reach out to my father later that evening to apologize, again, that dinner was ruined, again. The response is: “Fuck you.”

Reading the email, somehow I am still capable of stupefaction. I am struck with the memory of my grandfather in tears when I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure my father loved me, let alone even liked me.


The problem likely isn’t a lack of love. My father shunned me when I was twenty years old, and I usually describe the year after as the worst of my short life. My life was split into a before and an after; the edges of that divide reached into my family, as certain members of my family no longer spoke to me and others still did, braving my father’s chilly wrath.

My grandfather never stopped speaking to me.

It was through his efforts, my grandmother’s, and eventually my mother’s, that after a long, frosty year, I reached out again towards my father and accepted his help on his terms.

I was dating my nonbinary ex-partner at the time, a relationship that disturbed the delicate heteronormativity my family adhered to religiously. My ex was furious I was speaking with my father again: in fact, it nearly broke us up right then and there. They kept asking me how I could do this to myself after everything that had happened. After all the work we had done to make it to that point, my ex believed that I was cracking under the financial pressure of trying to cope with being in university full-time, working full-time, and being without my family’s financial help. They were truly, completely furious with me. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that so much of that anger was fear — fear for me, fear for my fragilized mental health, and even fear for them.

While my dire financial straits certainly were a factor that encouraged me to reconcile with my father, the truth is that that doesn’t even come close to the full reason. The simple truth is: I love my father. I love my father even when he calls me a whore. Even when he calls me a liar. Even when he screams at me. Even when he tells my brother to go commit suicide. Even when he tells me that my mental illness, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, weren’t real. Even when he tells me that no one would ever love someone as screwed up as me. Even when he has never once apologized for saying these things. I love him even when he tells me, so simply: “Fuck you.”


My grandfather, when he was a young immigrant factory worker, asked my grandmother to dance on a Valentine’s Day. It was the very first time they met: star-crossed love between young immigrants separated by language, continents and race. The Day of Love has always had a mythic quality in my family. Somehow, the story of my grandparents falling in love and beating every single odd before them seemed a story too pure for the shallow claws of commercial capitalism and the cynical Hallmark-card-narrative reaffirming heterosexual gender roles. The story of their first date was a story my grandfather and grandmother adored telling, over and over, long after we had already memorized all the details.

It would be on a Valentine’s Day, in another century, in another world, that the very same family my grandfather built, could be so easily torn apart.

I am not alone. I may be walking away, but I am not alone. I reach out to a friend of mine, who works in the United States and has recently been disowned, financially and in all other ways, by her family because she would not support Trump.

We admit to ourselves that we don’t know, exactly, how to cope with this. We spent a day crying or staring at a wall, and then we rolled up our sleeves and threw ourselves back into work. We try not to worry about the fact that our futures have become dimmer. We try not to think of family reunions and dinners that we will miss. We try not to think of the holidays and vacations we will not be invited to. Funerals, weddings, births we might miss. These memories with loved ones are fleeting and ephemeral — I think of my grandfather dying last year. I don’t even remember the last proper dinner I had with him, when he was still completely lucid and there.

We try not to wonder about these things, and instead try to come to terms with the fact that this has happened at all. The usual suspects: the ever-present accident of our birth and bodies and gender; our queerness; our unapologetic commitment to a feminism that isn’t bullshit; our generational status as entitled millennials with terrible job and housing prospects. In my family, I consider the part language and culture have to play, and think of God confounding Babel until all its people scattered, no longer able to connect with one another. Trauma manifests, poisonous and inescapable. Can it really be that simple, that we are estranged, denigrated, or refused for these reasons? How have Trump-style politics and violence arrived at our dinner table and infected our conversations? How is it so easy for love to be corrupted as it is?

There will be a before, and an after, now. My friend in the United States admits that, just like with my own family, the tension in her family ran high for years, and while the results were usually explosive and terrible, she’d always been able to avoid the finality of this kind of confrontation in the past. Somehow, a few weeks into President Trump’s presidency, a dam broke somewhere — she was unable to escape this outcome.

We wonder about the stresses of “unconditional love” on children and on parents, how it broke us as proverbial lines were drawn in the sand. These cracks in the earth that separate children from their parents, or siblings from each other, don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things. If a political agenda is being served by all this interpersonal chaos and violence, it will probably be for posterity to name and trace its contours, though I have my theories.

After Valentine’s Day, I call my oldest friend. She is, coincidentally, also estranged from her father. I ask her why it seems like the whole world has become a nightmare, and why it feels like it is going to only get worse. She says that she feels it too. She tries to cheer me up as an afterthought, reminding me: “Things always seem darkest before dawn.” The platitude is one we’ve exchanged before. It hangs awkwardly between us in the phone static, as we both take a second to steel ourselves.

The “Fuck you.” echoes, viscerally. When I open my emails I have to reign in the urge to close my computer in panic. I need to go back to work. I take in a deep breath, find my father’s email, and delete it from my inbox.


This was an anonymous contribution to Gods and Radicals. A complete list of Gods and Radicals publications can be found here.

Bystander Intervention

We teach bystander intervention in sexual assault and intimate partner violence prevention, but it is an important and useful tool in the prevention of many forms of personal violence.  As we see more emboldened public displays of racism, misogyny, and bigotry it is inevitable that one day you will be witness to an act of violence, whether that is bullying, a physical attack, or some other threat to a person’s safety.

This is a basic breakdown of reactive intervention techniques for bystander intervention, which you can use when you are in such a situation. Think about them, discuss them with your community, do some role playing. Be prepared to claim and wield your power for the protection of another.

Reactive intervention is designed to distract and interrupt the perpetrator and allow the victim time to respond and get to a safer place, or for the attacker to leave.

Basic techniques of reactive intervention are Direct, Distract, Delegate.

Direct: you intervene directly in the situation by inserting yourself into it, sometimes putting yourself between the victim and the perp, and addressing the perp directly by calling out their behavior. This is the most involved and potentially dangerous of the interventions, and you should be prepared for potential escalation and hatred being spewed at you too. But it is the most likely to allow the victim time to get away. Consider power dynamics carefully here; great option for those who carry privilege in the situation.

Distract: you intervene by distracting the perp with unrelated questions or comments. Ask for directions, ask about a game on the TV, somehow engage them in questions about something else going on around them. This is the second most involved of the interactions and does carry some potential for escalation.

Another technique is not to say anything, but make your presence known. Stand close to the victim. Stare at the perp. Let them know you are watching and present and may step in if it gets worse. This technique straddles the line of Distract and Direct.

Delegate: This technique gets other people involved. You may see something but not feel comfortable intervening by yourself. You can ask others around you to intervene with you. There is power in numbers and a group of people addressing a perp and making their presence known can shift a situation faster than anything else I’ve seen. This is a powerful option particularly for those who do not hold privilege in a situation or are not comfortable with confrontation (which is often due to an individual’s own trauma).

In the Delegate response, traditional BI suggests getting a police officer or other individual with systematically imbued power involved. In situations of violence of oppression I do not encourage this as a first reaction, as it may add to the victim’s trauma.

What techniques do/would you use? In what situations might you see these techniques be useful, or to fail?


Syren Nagakyrie

syrenSyren Nagakyrie is a Goddess-centered Polytheist Witch and Priestess, a feminist, herbalist, writer, and radical bridger of worlds. Her heart sings for the sea while her body yearns for the forest; her spirit is that of the Wandering Hermit. She also blogs at syrenofminds.wordpress.com


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It’s available as print or digital.

Want a copy?

Giving Power, Taking Power: Emotional Labor, Gender, and Abuse

“…give a portion of your power to women…”

– Roman prayer to Cybele

Her legs buckle and I know what to do.

I don’t just mean easing my client to the ground and checking for stroke. As I wait for the charge nurse, I focus on my smile. Other residents have visitors, after all; they’re liable to complain about a caregiver who lets it show that she’s had too little sleep for a 12-hour shift. Nursing resembles customer service, waitstaffing, and retail: most of the work does not involve the specific set of tasks listed in the job description. 80% of the time, nursing means presenting cheerfulness, politeness, deference, and a willingness to handle other people’s interpersonal tension no matter how they treat you.

And as I push through the minor crisis on the emotional momentum of my devotional prayer that morning, I wonder, “Why should my employer care about my facial expression as much as my ability to cushion this client’s fall?

Of course, it’s gender.

 

Two sociologists in particular have defined the ways we approach the connections between gender, emotions, and work. Emerging from the Second Wave of Western feminism in the 60s and 70s, Louise Kapp Howe wondered whether increased access to paid work had, in fact, much improved women’s lives. She found that women overwhelmingly got shunted into low-wage, majority-women, service-sector occupations; for these she coined the term “pink-collar” (as opposed to still-male-dominated blue- and white-collar jobs).

Later, Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart showed us what those pink-collar jobs disproportionately involve: she termed it emotional labor. Emotional labor is a waitress smiling and laughing even when a customer is rude. Emotional labor is a retail clerk greeting everyone who walks in with a smile, no matter how she actually feels. Emotional labor is a nurse aide acting pleasant even under deeply unpleasant conditions.

Emotional labor is the work of acting like you feel a certain way because the boss and customers demand it. And emotional labor, above all, is “women’s work.”

 

She tells me everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I know what to do.

This time it’s not a client, but a partner. Relationship abuse, though often not discussed, is as much a reality for LGBT people as for straights. By this point, she’d quite effectively isolated me with a move across the country, and I wouldn’t get away from her for several more months. So I smile, and I draw on whatever emotional strength I can find – from the Meter Theon, from myself, from the ability to do emotional labor on demand that women under patriarchy have to develop. The skill set here didn’t differ from the one I use at work. And in principle, it doesn’t differ from the work of listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead).

Women who’ve survived abuse often have people asking us why we put up with it, why we stayed even after it became “really” bad. There’s plenty of answers – lack of financial resources, absence of crucial support networks, nowhere to leave to – but I rarely hear the biggest reason of all. Satisfying other people’s desires without expecting reciprocation is what women do; under patriarchy, that’s what “women’s work” means.

Much of the emotional labor required of pink collar workers involves smiling and apologizing at people targeting you with abusive behaviors. Tell an angry, verbally-violent customer, “don’t talk to me like that. I deserve basic respect,” and you’ll likely get fired. Submitting to an abusive partner or family member involves precisely the same work, and it’s work forced on most of us by the power structure of capitalism. The requirements of paid pink-collar work reinforce abusive dynamics at home, while the emotional conditioning of unpaid abuse makes women better at putting up with it on the job.

Capitalism runs on the abuse of women.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

– Karl Marx

When faking happiness at work is more than my depressive brain can bear, I pray for strength and find that the Mother of the Gods answers. When tolerating my abuser without melting down became more than was possible, I also prayed for strength, and also found that the Mother answered. Sure, Marx may have opposed religion on principle. But I wouldn’t have lasted this long without the power my goddess gives me. Patriarchy is the system growing on women’s unpaid, unreciprocated work (emotional, domestic, and social). And like all exploitation, patriarchy harms its victims. Women are consistently more religious than men across many different traditions. This holds even truer for Paganism than for the Abrahamic religions Marx had in mind. We seek so much divine support because we can’t keep going without it.

Many of us are used to getting through on the strength our deities give us, and many of our deities are used to “giving a portion of power to women” because women need it. But part of our work as anticapitalists involves removing the need for religion to act as a stopgap for exploited, struggling people. We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.

“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”

– Shane Claiborne

In the left-wing subculture, certain roles and political strategies get glory. Everyone wants to admire the building occupier who stands firm when they get pepper sprayed, or the leader whose oratory whips a crowd of demonstrators into ecstasy, or the organizer who founded six organizations and sits on the steering committee for five more. And confrontation and “speaking truth to power” surely do take courage and express the righteous fury of the activist community; sometimes, they even get material results. But there’s more to revolution than challenging the old (including the often-unsung behind-the-scenes work that allows confrontation to occur. While this work is disproportionately done by women, the visible glory-winning roles still tend to go to men). You also need to build the new.

During the Indian independence struggle, Gandhi developed a theoretical distinction between an “obstructive program” and a “constructive program.” The former means challenging existing unjust systems and demanding they change (by whatever tactics one chooses; virtually everything activists in the US currently do falls into this category). The latter, however, means building something better now, so that when the old system falls, something will be ready to take its place. While we need both, Gandhi rightly prioritized the latter, saying:

“My real politics is constructive work.”

Patriarchy is about labor. Patriarchy is about exploitation. And without doing away with patriarchy, we won’t really be able to undo capitalism; like all structures of exploitation, they’re too mutually reinforcing to get rid of just one by itself. The type of work exploited through patriarchy is generally women’s unwaged and unnamed domestic and/or emotional labor (be it in a pink-collar job or just informally, between friends, families, and lovers). Until you start looking for it, it’s hard to notice; so is abuse, of course, and abuse exists on a spectrum with unreciprocated emotional work. We can’t get rid of abuse without getting rid of the entire spectrum. Our constructive program must involve men doing this labor for each other and doing it for women. Even our male revolutionaries need to start doing the dishes.

Otherwise, women won’t find our communities sharing power and support together. We’ll only have what strength our gods can give.


 

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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.