A few months ago, my local larger Pagan/Wiccan community had a #MeToo incident. A woman who I had seen and spoken to at events disclosed that she had been both abused and sexually harassed at events as a girl and young woman, by multiple men, over several years. She had grown up as a child in this particular community, and also participated as a young woman. I knew her as a gifted artisan and herbalist.
I believe her. I believe her not only because I know that women seldom lie about these things, but because I know the men in question. As an formidable adult gay woman, few of the men involved would mess with me, but I’d observed enough in their words and deeds to know that they were the kind who would harass an attractive young woman in this way. One elderly man, a fixture of a mixed party pagan festival I attended, openly bragged to me about tucking money into the bra of a young teenage girl, and on my first visit to this festival, cornered me and harangued me for almost an hour on the evils of feminist traditions of witchcraft. I only tolerated this because of, let’s face it, the female conditioning he was exploiting, and also because I was new and he appeared to be an organizer, something I later learned he was not.
Another of the men was outed to me as an abuser, years earlier, when I was told by multiple women that as the high priest of a coven, he would recruit young inexperienced women and and promote them to high priestess of the coven (which should be a role based in experience and skill) with an ‘initiation’ that required them to have sex with him. This man was later outed and ousted from the community for sexual misconduct worse than these practices.
As a gay non-drinker and non-drug user, I had little interest in the typcially heterocentric Pagan environments I characterize as “Party Pagan” – all costumes, mead, hallucinogens and wild dancing around the fire. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good wild dance around the fire, but that’s not all I need. It is in one of these spaces where my aquaintance, a valued member of the community, who had drifted away for reasons that have recently become clear, came as a child into her neo-Pagan practice. It is here where she was repeatedly harassed and attacked by men who took the honouring of sacred sexuality and sacred ritual nudity as license to harass and hurt women.
It doesn’t have to be that way – Safe Pagan Spaces
My own Wiccan practice began as a young woman of 19. Like many maidens do in a tradition honouring women and sacred sexuality, I also received a lot of admiring attention. However, unlike my acquaintance, the Wiccan environments I came out in were built by and for women. I felt empowered to be at home in my body, to express my sexuality and power fully, to speak my mind, and to step forward into priestess roles.
Most of the events I attended had a small number of men, but they were generally partners of women who were also attending, or so outnumbered that they were both popular with the hetero ladies and on their best behaviour. The theology at that time in these groups acknowledged male deities, but centred the Goddess in all things, and this kept the environment centred on women as well. The women were big, powerful and badass.
Men who embraced this theology were good humans and I met my male best friend that way. I was used to Neo-Pagan men being solid, good-egg, helpful pro-feminst guys, and believed that Wiccan and Neo-Pagan men were mostly like that. I truly believed that no-one would dare insult the gods and risk their wrath by violating someone within sacred space. I experienced no unwanted or intrusive sexual attention from men or women. I remember attending only one sex-balanced Wiccan event during this time, and was amazed at all the men there. To their credit, many were the good eggs I’d expected.
It was only in recent years that I’ve explored the broader Pagan community, and have come across spaces like the one my acquaintance was abused in. Coming from a good grounding in safe Pagan spaces, it took me awhile to realize that not all Wiccan and neo-Pagan spaces were as safe.
How to choose safer Neo-Pagan and Wiccan spaces
I’ve come to realize that neo-Pagan men are as likely to offend against women and children as men anywhere else, and so the standard need for self-protection and vigilance in protecting sacred spaces and communities from rape culture is needed. While not all Pagan men are predators, and many are pro-feminist allies, enough are toxic that women are as at risk in Neo-pagan environments as they would be in any other co-ed space.
If visiting Pagan environments as a young woman or in the care of children, I’d recommend choosing festivals and camps that are low substance or substance free (such as Reclaiming Tradition ones), or which are specifically focussed on either families with children or women’s mysteries or are women and Goddess centred with a smaller proportion of men. There are also gay male oriented festivals, some of which welcome all genders, that might also be a good fit.