Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul published

Bad news first: Crossing the River has been delayed slightly, because the publisher had to deal with another anthology first. We’re shooting for January now.

Good news: The anthology Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul, edited by Tara Masery Miller, has been published by Immanion Press, and it includes two of my pieces, “Speak for Yourself: The problem of victim-blaming by magical practitioners,” and “Sick or Well: False Dichotomy.”

Here’s the opening of “Speak for Yourself:”

Blaming people with disabilities for their conditions happens all too often. Some common metaphysical interpretations of disability and disease – as indicative of a person’s power, purity, or lack thereof, or as signs of past wrongdoings that are being worked out – carry tremendous potential to hurt people already facing difficult circumstances. Although some tout these understandings as empowering, even narratives intended to be helpful can easily degenerate into victim-blaming. To counteract these destructive potentials, I suggest that anyone who uses these potentially problematic approaches be very careful not to impose it on anyone else; if you are going to use these interpretations, speak for yourself.

Cuccinelli v All Acts of Love And Pleasure

My religion encourages oral sex.

Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.

Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?

Cuccinelli for Governor: Because oral sex sucks!
Image courtesy of the blogger’s partner (in crime, apparently). If you copy, please link back.

Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.

This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.

The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.

Cuccinelli basically says that the law won’t be used to prosecute adults doing what they want. But there’s no reason to believe him. That’s exactly what the law says, and in the law, you live and die (or convict and set free) based on what the law actually, very specifically, says. What kind of prosecutor argues that on the one hand, he desperately must have a law that criminalizes a wide range of behavior, but then promises that on the other hand he won’t prosecute what the law says, even when that’s what he’s actually doing? Not to mention, what kind of fiscal conservative says that it’s vitally important to spend precious government time and money to defend laws that have already been declared unconstitutional?

The homophobic kind, that’s who.

From Think Progress:

In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.

In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.

This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.

His culture-warrior stance runs a lot deeper than just oral sex. He’s been using his current office to move heaven and earth to restrict reproductive health rights in Virginia. In addition, his running running mate is one EW Jackson, a Christian pastor, whose aggressively anti-non-Christian attitudes and comments have been covered quite seriously at the Wild Hunt and with an appropriately large dash of sarcasm at Wonkette.

And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.

Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)

The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.

In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.

I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.

Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.

Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:

People – consent – love – and pleasure

If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.

PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.

ETA: Think Progress also gives an example of a sheriff’s department in Louisiana enforcing a similar “anti-sodomy” statute which is equally unconstitutional and hence unenforceable. This proves that “unenforceable” does not prevent officers from arresting and detaining people. I don’t know the details of how arrest records work, but they may be different from court records. Certainly the news often reports that people were arrested on offenses in the past, and job applications may ask if the applicant has been arrested, not just about convictions. I hope I don’t have to spell out all the implications.

Empathetic imagination

I have a backlog of things I want to blog about. There’s a good reason for this: I’ve moved into the active writing phase of working on my dissertation. For the next year, give or take, other writing comes second, so I may be quieter than usual hereabouts. On the other hand, today there’s a number of things that I think are loosely related that I want to write about, so here goes:

It’s moving to hear about a politician who learns first-hand what it’s like to struggle through a certain situation, and gains empathy in the process. That’s a touching story, but it shouldn’t be a necessary one. We should be doing this kind of work, of putting ourselves in the position of those we’re thinking about and dealing with, on a regular basis. Among other things, we don’t have time for everybody to learn this first-hand.

Other politicians are seriously lacking in this empathy. They can talk about their distress when their “people are literally freezing in the winter and they’re without food and they’re without shelter and they’re without clothing,” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but why haven’t they been worrying about these very same bad things happening to people every day? Those others must be, in some indefinable way, not theirs. It makes me want to ask the old Christian Sunday school question: Who is your neighbor?

This is not just the lack of something, it’s also a necessary precondition to hatred. Here are two separate examples of conservative Christians who are associated in various ways with hate groups denying not only the value of empathetic imagination, but the very possibility of it: First, homophobes are incapable of imagining that someone who is straight would want to support rights for QUILTBAG folks, and second, an argument that assumes only parents and children are capable of caring for each other across generations.

Actually, I’m not anti-social for refusing to have children because I’m capable of caring about people – both older than me and younger than me – who are not my family. That’s how Social Security, and Medicare, and Medicaid, and a whole host of other things work.

I don’t care whether you call it the Golden Rule or the Rule of Three or the Law of Return or what, but the hard work of extending that kind of empathetic imagination is at the heart of how I do ethics. It’s sad to see the hypocrisy exposed in a politician who is suddenly shocked, shocked, to discover that his party doesn’t care about people who are having a hard time. It’s more revealing to notice people denying that this empathetic imagination can exist at all.

When you hear someone say that, look out – because they most certainly will not be willing to extend it to you if you once step out of their little box of “people like me.”

QUILTBAG chilled

We’ve all heard that the Old Testament calls homosexuality an “abomination,” right? It’s the homophobes’ favorite clobber verse. One of the best responses to this is to point out that this comes in the midst of a long list of other things which were also forbidden under the laws established in Leviticus, notably the dietary restrictions of Judaism. If you actually study the material, it emerges that there are two kinds of restrictions against “forbidden” things being distinguished: one is sort of like civil law, while the other is a religious objection. Things that are religiously disallowed are described with the word translated by King James’ merry band of religious demagogues as “abomination.”

One of the strongest arguments that liberal Christians use is that since the dietary laws of ancient Judaism are no longer observed by contemporary Christians, perhaps some of those other religio-cultural restrictions ought to be reconsidered, too. Conservative Christians have been arguing against this in various ways for a long time. But now there’s a new argument I’ve never heard before:


Yup, somebody actually went there, wrote articles of incorporation, and elected himself Mayor of There.

Via Right Wing Watch, you can hear a conservative Christian arguing that refrigeration is what makes it not a sin to eat shellfish et al. anymore.

You see, conservative Christians like to argue that 1. their God is way cool because he gave his followers religious laws that were actually secretly hygiene regulations to protect them against food poisoning and 2. their certainty about why these things were demanded by their God is what allows them to split those two categories of civil and religious law into three categories: civil law, religious law that we don’t have to follow, and religious law that it is our God-given duty to impose on all our fellow citizens by any means necessary.

This is the first time I’ve heard that argument flipped around in this particular way, though. It’s probably part of the continuing struggle of these folks to find secular justifications for their religious positions. (See also: so-called intelligent design, etc.) Just for giggles, let’s follow it to its (pseudo) logical conclusion: if you could invent something that would make being queer no longer a health risk, would these Christians then say being queer was a-okay?

Never in a million years. (Until, of course, the next time that their position changes and they decide that they’ve always been at war with Eastasia, I mean, supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s ideals and against contraception.)

I’m writing about this not just because it’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but because it highlights a really evil form of hypocrisy that homophobes engage in. Homophobes and hate-peddlers create social conditions that make it hazardous to be queer and then use that as evidence that they were right all along. They do this all the time and in some really despicable ways.

Aside from all the other things that caused social scientists to shred it into conveniently toilet-paper-sized pieces, that’s something else that’s wrong with the Regnerus study. Even if it had been a well-designed study, if it found that kids raised in QUILTBAG households had adverse outcomes, that wouldn’t be some kind of truth handed down from a mountain. It would be a reflection of our current social and cultural milieu. If we denigrate certain people, maybe that makes their lives – and their kids’ lives – harder, don’t you think? And maybe if we start treating these folks like full human beings with equal civil rights, things will get better…

So actually, there is a way to “refrigerate” being queer, to turn it from something potentially hazardous to your health into just another part of daily life: stop the lying homophobes from continuing to denigrate their fellow human beings.

It’s not QUILTBAG folks who need to chill out. It’s the haters.

Ethical ‘love spells’

Since we’ve discussed why stereotypical “love spells” are unethical and almost always a reflection of rape culture, I want to mention two kinds of spells that address the desire for a relationship in ethical ways.

One good approach might be called the wide-field love spell. Someone who wrote to me put it very well when zie said: “I asked the universe to bring me MY love, the life-altering love I was supposed to find, rather than identifying anyone in particular.” That particular spell worked smashingly well for hir, and I’ve heard other similar accounts.

It should be fairly clear that this kind of spell isn’t treating someone else as an object of manipulation. There are lots of ways to do this spell; most of the differences depend on how specific you are about what you want that person to be like. Some people advocate more specificity, possibly right down to physical details, while others place their trust in the universe and/or deities about some or all of the fine points. (See also: “And her hair shall be what colour it please God!“) I think there’s some interesting discussion to be had about why some people prefer one approach over another that gets down to how and why we think magic works, or why we use it the way we do, but either way, it’s ethical by my lights.

Yes, you can use the “specificity” approach to try to get around the uncertainty. But if you say, “Dear Universe, please bring me My One Troo Luv, whoever that might be. I want him to be somebody in my second-period algebra class who has dreamy green eyes and plays soccer and is named Travis, or somebody just like him, for the good of all and harm to none, so mote it be!” then you are missing the point of not manipulating people. Also, the universe will laugh at you and Travis’ identical twin brother who is a real dork will follow you around for the rest of tenth grade. I’m just sayin’.

Another way that we avoid ethical concerns is that instead of casting a spell on someone else, we find a way to cast something else for a similar intent on ourselves. In the area of relationships, this usually amounts to casting a spell on oneself to make oneself more lovable and/or attractive. Notice that this has the same effect of widening the field, removing the issue of manipulating an individual.

There are also plenty of ways this can go wrong, of course. You can try magic to make yourself more attractive – and I have a strong suspicion that an eyeliner pencil or a makeup brush would work just fine as a magic wand – but if you fall into the trap of superficial thinking, you may be disappointed with the results. It might attract a superficial response, or it might attract a response from someone you can’t stand for other reasons. If instead of concentrating on appearance you work to make yourself more lovable, that’s a laudable goal and possibly will help you address some of your own internal issues but no guarantee of a satisfying relationship.

These approaches both involve a lot more uncertainty than the stereotypical “love spell.” That’s not an accident. Treating other people ethically involves not trying to control every detail of every occurrence, because to treat others ethically we have to recognize that they are full human beings in their own right, with their own histories, feelings, thoughts, goals, and motivations. This is about a lot more than free will: it’s about treating someone as a person, rather than objectifying them into a thing to be controlled. Being open to the unexpected, including even pain and loss, is what makes the joy and wonder of a real relationship possible in the first place. That’s the real magic of love.

Questions about love spells and ethics

Someone emailed me with questions related to my recent writing about the ethics of love spells. They indicated that they emailed me because I don’t allow anonymous comments, but when I replied by email, the reply failed. I’m posting their questions (anonymously) and my response here instead.

OK, so what about spells that make someone who’s in love with you go away?  Those also interfere with a specific someone’s free will but are considered moral by a lot of the same people who consider love spells too coercive.

For starters, this can’t be rape because there’s no sexual contact.

This is another place where I think that “no interfering with free will” is an unintelligible ethical precept. If we’re affecting others, we’re interacting with and possibly curtailing their free will. The people who actually propose this standard don’t usually adhere to it; it’s shorthand for something deeper, and in the case of love spells, I think one of the deeper reasons that certain kinds of love spells are wrong is the way they are part of rape culture, which is why I think it’s important to talk about that openly and clearly, not fall back on a shorthand that actually obfuscates.

Try applying the standard that I suggested as one evaluation tool among many: would equivalent action in the real world be legal and/or ethical? For most ways of doing this spell, the answer is a resounding yes; take the example of a restraining order. If you shape your work to carry an intent like “leave me alone” (rather than “do not contact me,” because negative phrasings are often ineffective), what you’re doing is ethical by my standards.

It can be structured as a reactive boundary; if the person doesn’t approach you (physically or with communication), nothing happens. If they do, they get rebuffed. If you believe in/abide by the Rule of Three (or Law of Return or some similar precept) be sure to fine-tune what you see getting “bounced back” at them as the least harmful way of doing things: “go away,” leaving off the “you bastard!” blast of anger.

On the other hand, if you have an intent like “so-and-so will lose hir job with our employer so that I don’t have to be in contact with hir anymore,” you get into more iffy territory. What would the mundane world equivalent be? Well, if you’re going to go to your employer with a complaint of sexual harassment, I would definitely do magic in support of that. On the other hand, if it’s a personal relationship outside the workplace that went wrong, a whisper campaign to have the person lose all respect and be hounded out is definitely not ethical. The corresponding action in the real world may or may not be legal, but I think the fact that most of us wouldn’t want it to happen to us combined with hazy legality is a good enough indicator that it’s unacceptable.

But what if what you’re saying is true, and you just want everyone to know so-and-so really is a bastard? Well, you could do a “sunlight” spell, one with the intent that the truth of their actions be revealed, but these kinds of things are tricky. What’s the mundane world equivalent: taking out ads on the sides of buses declaring so-and-so a bastard? Writing a scathing blog post? Those actions are extremely difficult to manage, often bouncing back on the writer in very ugly ways even if they’re saying nothing but the truth. Making the statement is generally legal, and I would agree that these spells are generally ethical (not always), but a spell for this is at least as tricky to handle as the mundane action, and usually much more difficult to pull off without crossing ethical boundaries – see below about intent getting mixed up.

Also, what about spells to make someone love you who already wants you sexually, but doesn’t want a relationship?  Are those considered rape by your standard?  They’re not forcing someone into sex (that’s already freely given) but into, well, love.

The last question you ask is a harder one.

No, those wouldn’t be rape, if the sexual contact is freely consented to. On the other hand, if Person A is having sex with Person B, and A wants (more of) a relationship but B doesn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that A may be consenting to the sex in hopes of building a relationship, or with an ulterior motive, or simply to satisfy the desire to interact with B even in the absence of any other kind of relationship. None of those are, in and of themselves, rape, but they are fertile ground for all kinds of terrible relationship problems, even for a “solely” sexual relationship. The idea of doing a spell to create a romantic relationship on top of that foundation fills me with dread. There are so many ways it could go wrong – especially if it succeeds.

The relationship starts, and A decides B really wasn’t ready, or the relationship is a bad idea. The relationship starts, and B is madly, soppily in love, until it drives A nuts.  The relationship starts, and A realizes the sex wasn’t all that great, it was the idea of not being able to have more that was the driving interest. And even the best case is suspect: it works, they get married, live together for 15 years and raise two kids, with A wondering all the while if B’s love is really real or just the result of the spell.

And how would you feel if you found out you had been the target of such a spell? If it were me, it would run the risk of destroying a relationship. He doesn’t feel like he can attract me on his own, so he had to compel me using magic? Not cool.

To return to my earlier rule of thumb, this is a case where it’s very hard to imagine a specific mundane world equivalent. That always makes me suspicious of such spells. It would be possible to structure it with a specific mundane equivalent in mind: a spell equivalent of your mutual best friend telling your desired partner that the two of you would be really great together, for example. But in my experience, what’s actually going to drive the spell is your desire for a relationship, not your burning desire to plant the seed of the idea and accept rejection peacefully, so it’s extremely likely that what you’ll actually do, magically, is raise and send energy for having-a-relationship purposes.

If you can’t hold the specific intent without something else springing up mentally or emotionally, then you can’t do magic for that purpose alone. Can we harness other kinds of emotions towards a specifically visualized end? Yes. Being honest, can most of us really totally repurpose the intention of something that’s as personal and deeply powerful as desire? Not very well.

Overall, this is a case where I think that while it might or might not be ethical, it’s such a bad idea even in the best scenarios that it is a very foolish thing to do.

Further thoughts

Follow-ups to a couple of recent posts, plus other assorted thoughts.


Salon explains why the answer is not more guns:

But perhaps the biggest problem is the philosophy underpinning notions to arm more people. Goddard of the Brady campaign said it best in an interview: “The idea behind concealed carry is a kind of ‘defend yourself and your family and fuck everybody else’ mentality.”

… “America is not going to shoot our way out of the gun violence problem, and that’s what these people are calling for. And I think that’s dangerous and I think that will lead to more of us being killed by bullets,” Goddard said.

Read the whole thing. Seriously. I quoted the philosophical points, but this is one of the best evidence-dense debunkings of pro-gun bullshit that I’ve seen lately. If you’re going to argue for gun control, you need this information. Another article responds in similar detail to why the NRA’s plan for putting (more) armed guards in schools is a terrible idea.

For a more historical perspective, read Tony Horowitz on the similarities between the NRA’s idea of maximum guns and the proponents of expanding slavery.

In short, the NRA has become a neo-Confederate movement that sees Federals as foes, and that stokes the paranoia of its followers by claiming, as LaPierre did this year, that Obama’s re-election marks “the end of our freedom forever.” That’s more or less what Fire-Eaters said about Lincoln in 1860.

The argument about gun rights in this country has a much longer, more twisted history than most people are aware of. It also cannot be separated from the history of race – I had no idea about the Black Panthers’ aggressive use of gun rights (and the NRA’s calls for gun control in response). It looks to me as if the idea of “gun rights” has shifted from its historical roots in a way very similar to the transformation of Republicans from the party of Lincoln to the party of angry white men, mostly southern.

And on that note, Goblinbooks says something like what I said about how defending oneself against tyranny with household guns is nonsense, but does so much more stylishly.

Love spells:

I don’t think I said this clearly enough last time, but the reason that I’m so concerned about when love spells become rape is not just the magical implications, it’s the practical actions that we take as a result of the way we think. When we in the magical community fail to call out certain kinds of manipulative magic as part of rape culture, we’re enabling not just the thinking, not just the magic, but the actions.

If we say, loudly and clearly and repeatedly – because it’ll take a lot of repetition – that thinking of someone else as an object for your manipulation into bed is rape culture, we’re working to eliminate the so-called gray area where a lot of opportunity rapists operate.

If we leave wiggle room for people to think these kinds of spells are not rape, then that same kind of thinking is going to be used to justify totally mundane actions that lead to rape. If you’ve already done the spell to get her into your bed, why not offer her one more cup of wine after Beltane? What’s to stop you from seeing her stumbling, mumbling, not-really-consent as the manifestation of your magical prowess? Or maybe offering her a ride home, and then taking her to your house, or letting yourself in her place, and, well, encouraging her a little bit….that’s just taking action in accordance with your spell, right?

No. That’s rape. The magical actions and the mundane actions are products of the same thinking, and one will encourage the other. We have to discourage both.

This is very similar to the situation I encountered when trying to explain to people why things like DC 40 and other Christian Dominionist “prayer efforts” are dangerous. Even if you don’t believe in magic, these kinds of actions that specialize in raising emotional energy and directing it towards a purpose have tangible, physical manifestations. People vote based on Christian Dominionist thinking and actions. People rape based on rape culture. The thinking and the doing are both important, and if we’re going to change things, we have to work on both.

Why the s0-called fiscal cliff is a feminist issue:

Women get lower pay all their lives. Then they tend to live longer. When we’re talking about further impoverishing our nation’s seniors, we’re disproportionately talking about women. Talk to your political representatives and tell them to push back against the chained CPI and raising the Medicare eligibility age, which would actually cost more. Tell them to raise the cap on Social Security taxes (that is, tax income over $110,000 for Social Security) and solve this puppy without putting more people, and more women, into poverty.

Science, climate change, and cash:

If you’re younger than 27, you’ve never experienced a colder-than-average month. Never.

Therefore any memories you have that you’re using to judge how much our weather is shifting over time are themselves already skewed.

This enables people like the Kochs to make gut-based appeals that cover for their lack of solid science. I haven’t read the whole report there yet, but I have been following a few other stories about how the Kochs and their cronies are so very deeply invested in convincing us, by hook or by crook, that we should keep making them rich and making our world hotter.

Notice the similar dependence on appeals to uninformed instinct between the Kochs’ denial of climate change and the NRA’s denial of gun violence. Our memories make it easier to disbelieve that the climate is changing, because our memories themselves are shaped by that changing climate. Our instincts tell us that we’d be better off if we were armed, because our instincts are shaped by the culture of violence, complete with magically perfect good guys who, as far as evidence can find, don’t actually exist in real life.

Life is messy, and complicated, and understanding it takes real work. But that understanding can be the first step to change. Won’t you try with me, as the light begins to return in this new year, to take those first steps, to change?

When love spells become rape

As I mentioned in the last post, there were many things that speakers said at Between the Worlds that I was glad to hear people saying, actively, in the Pagan/magical community. There was one glaring omission:

“Love spells” as most people think of them are a magical form of rape.

The panel on operative magic did discuss love spells. Everyone shared the basic assumption that “love spells” as popularly conceived – the kind of spell that Dick does so that Jane will love him and want to have sex with him – are not okay. Different speakers mentioned different perspectives on why these are ethically and practically not acceptable. People talked about how there is a more general kind of “love spell” which is ethical and acceptable – a spell to make oneself more lovable or to draw love in general into one’s life.

Everyone agrees that trying to magically coerce a particular person is NEVER okay – because it’s coercion. I was disappointed that none of the speakers said the obvious: that this coercion is never okay because coerced sex is rape.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki came closest when she repeated the oft-stated concern that this is “interfering with someone else’s free will” and went on to more colorfully describe that there are other ways to try to create a relationship with someone. But no one used the “r word.”

I think it’s vitally important that people who do magic and are feminists say this loudly and clearly: magic to get sex with a person is not okay because it’s rape. This goes beyond concerns about “free will,” a rather nebulous concept. This is about consent, and consent is what separates sex from rape.

In the wake of other examples of supporting rape culture, this is especially important to me. There is a big, bright, bold, clear line here. There is no room for “I did a spell to get Jane to love me, and I said ‘for the highest good for all!’ so it’s clearly a good thing!” There is no room for “She likes me, she just won’t go all the way, so I’m just doing a spell to help us along…” There is no room for “I know better than she does what she wants.” Those are rape culture in magic, plain and simple.

I know people want these kinds of spells. One of the speakers on that panel sells candles, and she pointed out that a “Become more lovable” candle – the ethical second-cousin to the kind of “love spell” that is really magical rape – didn’t sell at all. People don’t want to be more lovable. They want the person they want, and they want her (usually her) now.

That’s why this is rape. That’s why this conversation matters even if you would never do a spell like this. When we don’t call this out, we make space for rape culture. You know what rape culture produces? Rape.

The idea that someone else can be treated as an object of your will – whether in magic or not – is at heart the idea behind rape. Sex is something that people do willingly together. Rape is not.

I’m a big fan of Isaac Bonewits’ rule-of-thumb for magical ethics, which basically asks whether it would be against the law for you to do the mundane equivalent of whatever your spell is for. If you were doing a spell to have an honest debt repaid, the equivalent would be taking your debtor to small-claims court: totally legal. If you were doing a spell to have someone die, the equivalent would be murder: definitely not legal.

So if you’re doing a spell to get someone to have sex with you – and don’t bullshit me, most “love spells” are going to be judged a success based on whether or not you’re in bed with the person, not by a passionate but celibate exchange of letters for twenty years – then the mundane equivalent is coercing her to have sex with you. Rape.

In any sense, mundane or magical, the message is the same: Don’t rape.

Edited to add: I wrote more about why this matters in a potpourri post a few days later, but that post was such a mish-mash that I want to append this here as well:

I don’t think I said this clearly enough last time, but the reason that I’m so concerned about when love spells become rape is not just the magical implications, it’s the practical actions that we take as a result of the way we think. When we in the magical community fail to call out certain kinds of manipulative magic as part of rape culture, we’re enabling not just the thinking, not just the magic, but the actions.

If we say, loudly and clearly and repeatedly – because it’ll take a lot of repetition – that thinking of someone else as an object for your manipulation into bed is rape culture, we’re working to eliminate the so-called gray area where a lot of opportunity rapists operate.

If we leave wiggle room for people to think these kinds of spells are not rape, then that same kind of thinking is going to be used to justify totally mundane actions that lead to rape. If you’ve already done the spell to get her into your bed, why not offer her one more cup of wine after Beltane? What’s to stop you from seeing her stumbling, mumbling, not-really-consent as the manifestation of your magical prowess? Or maybe offering her a ride home, and then taking her to your house, or letting yourself in her place, and, well, encouraging her a little bit….that’s just taking action in accordance with your spell, right?

No. That’s rape. The magical actions and the mundane actions are products of the same thinking, and one will encourage the other. We have to discourage both.

This is very similar to the situation I encountered when trying to explain to people why things like DC 40 and other Christian Dominionist “prayer efforts” are dangerous. Even if you don’t believe in magic, these kinds of actions that specialize in raising emotional energy and directing it towards a purpose have tangible, physical manifestations. People vote based on Christian Dominionist thinking and actions. People rape based on rape culture. The thinking and the doing are both important, and if we’re going to change things, we have to work on both.

John Michael Greer and the Raspberry Jam Principle of Magic

One of my favorite things about Between the Worlds was hearing respected teachers and practitioners saying things that I think we need to have more discussion of in the Pagan community. Some of that was on the issue of eclecticism and working with varied sources, which I wrote about from another perspective at Pagan Square recently. But probably my favorite was John Michael Greer‘s exposition of the Raspberry Jam Principle of Magic:

It is impossible to spread raspberry jam on bread without getting some on your fingers. … Similarly, you can’t raise and direct an intention at somebody else without it getting on you in the process.

-Paraphrased from John Michael Greer at the plenary panel on operative magic’s risks, rewards, and limitations

This is a wonderful way of putting things. Greer has neatly constructed a memorable, visceral metaphor for a simple fact that underlies much of magical ethics and informs any wise magical practice.

This is what makes magical ethics not just a good ethical idea but a fundamentally practical matter. You don’t need to wait for a Law of Return or some form of karma to kick in; if you are working with an intent to harm others, you’re going to get hurt in the process.

Practical applications of ethics are more complicated than this, of course, but none of them can neglect this basic fact.

Sandy the Snurricane

I wrote this post as the winds and the snow began. The angle that my building makes with another high-rise forms an interesting vortex such that precipitation will actually rise. Yes, DC really is weird: here, it snows up. There is also standing water on US 1 with waves in it being driven by the winds.

I want to use this moment to point out something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’m currently ambivalent about the extent to which magic can change or affect the material, physical world. (I am most certainly agnostic about the means by which it does so, as I find many of the explanations which justify it to be precisely as bad as the obnoxious New Atheists mock them for being.) At the same time, I’ve done magic which, by my standards, worked. Including weather work. I didn’t get a chance to do preparatory work before Sandy as I’ve done before, but I’ll be doing more tonight.

Anyone who has had much exposure to the New Apostolic Reformation and associated/similar kinds of Christians will have seen their claims to have worked what I would classify as magic. They describe it as prayer, and we can debate the interpenetration of those categories, but they say they make changes in the world. Many of their claims are clearly ridiculous, and the sources that follow them tend to report these claims as further proof of the NAR’s detachment from Planet Reality.

Of course, this is also something that causes a lot of mainstream thinking to dismiss all magic as “woo” and hence to think Paganism is entirely ridiculous. But I don’t think all of this is entirely “woo,” so let’s stipulate the possibility that the NAR, like other kinds of magic, can affect the “real” world. (Thank you, Hecate, for teaching me that it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more.)

And given the context of this storm, if Jesus wants to help out moderating its impact, I’d gratefully take his help.

So I was asking myself why it bothers me so deeply when I see Cindy Jacobs asking her prayer intercessors to “rebuke” the storm. After all, I think my magic can make a difference, so maybe hers can too, and I’d be stupid to refuse help, right?

I think I found the answer in another headline from today: Hurricane Sandy is God’s Vengeance for (insert that Christian’s personal hobbyhorse – QUILTBAG rights, abortion, etc). Again, if you’ve been around these kinds of Christians much, you’ve seen these kinds of condemnatory headlines. In fact, they’re much, much more common than calls to ask their god to help potential problems that are developing.

Worst of all, they almost never show any sort of compassion for the people who are killed, hurt, or otherwise impacted by these disasters and tragedies. It’s the most despicable kind of appropriating others’ pain in order to “lesson” the rest of us about moral decay.

This isn’t just a failure of theodicy. It demonstrates a worldview with a propensity for bullying, a propensity learned directly from their twisted, malignant vision of deity. Even when they do issue calls to try to importune their god for help, I cannot escape seeing an implicit threat. “If you don’t do what we want, I mean, what HE wants, we might not be able to hold him back next time,” this cycle of pin-the-blame-on-the-sinner says to me.

Of course, it’s also a failure of theodicy. This is another aspect of the same incoherence that crops up when people try to square the circle of an omnipotent, omniscient god which doesn’t intend the rape but does very strongly intend the pregnancy that follows from it. There are coherent theological responses to this; I respect Christians who are willing to grapple with this with eyes open to the realities of the world they are trying to discuss, and some of them are fairly successful at it. But many aren’t, and too many of those are closer than we realize to the abhorrent, bullying view that makes my skin crawl even when they say they’re working for (my) good. This is all one worldview, and if you don’t think it’s a problem, you’re not paying attention.

But we can’t let our attention – or our intention – be occupied by that alone.

And now, having faced that little piece of my shadow (thank you, Samhain, thank you, people who have helped me do shadow work recently), I am going to sit with this amazing, awe-full and awful storm. I am going to reach out in love, with responsibility, and with my fear – of the storm, of the people who scare me and open old wounds, of the uncertain future that this storm makes all-too-apparent – with all of those, and work. For myself, for others, for the world, for all of us. Together. Here. Now.

There are birds taking flight off the roof of a building nearby. The clouds are so low that their wild flight in the face of the wind disappears almost immediately. I want to try that: what kind of flight would be possible in this unique storm that we could never think of in “normal” times? What kind of magic can ride in its wings?

What are you doing tonight?

Updated after the storm: We were safe and sound; although there were risks of flooding, none affected us. (Key safety tip: knowing when the full moon is and how it affects the tides is practical, real-world knowledge!)

My thoughts and prayers went out to those who were hurt by the storm.