Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

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.

Calling things what they are: firing an employee who was harassed

You read that right. In a recent Iowa case, a dentist fired an employee because she was so attractive that he and his wife were uncomfortable. Several sites have covered this as the “firing attractive employee” case, and that’s bad enough. But when you get into the details, it seems there’s something they overlooked:

But sometime in 2009, he also began exchanging text messages with Nelson. Most of these were work-related and harmless, according to testimony. But others were more suggestive, including one in which Knight asked Nelson how often she had an orgasm. She never answered the text.

In late 2009, Knight’s wife found out about the text exchanges and demanded her husband terminate the dental assistant because “she was a big threat to our marriage.”

That looks like sexual harassment to me. I don’t know what the legal nuances are, and I’m not saying she should have sued him, but when a boss starts asking me about my orgasms, that’s inappropriate. So let’s call this what it is: first he sexually harassed her, then he fired her for his bad behavior.

The court ruled that the dentist wasn’t discriminating against her as a woman when he fired her, so it was legal. Apparently he was only discriminating against her as an attractive woman, and that’s a-okay. That’s awful. But the way that others are reporting on this story while neglecting what makes it really reprehensible just goes to show how we still don’t take sexual harassment seriously.

Authors you want to love, but can’t

I’ve been reading more Dion Fortune as part of my research. She’s an intriguing author. I want to like her work, I really do. But I can’t.

There’s not a whole lot of magical fiction, and she writes it pretty well. If you really get into the text, she can carry you along in the spirit of a ritual, which is often the point of magical fiction, and is certainly the point of hers. So I want to like it, because it’s good at one of the major things it sets out to do. But I can’t.

It’s not the Christianity; in fact, most of the ritual work in her novels is so thoroughly little-p pagan that it has been shamelessly mined by Pagans since, well, there were big-p Pagans. It’s not even the sexism, although that gave me a pretty hard ride in the latest work I read, The Winged Bull. Admittedly, it is the bad guy who says that a particular woman needs “a sheiking” – meaning abduction and rape – but it is the good guys who talk about how if that woman objects to them manhandling her (for her own good, of course) they will simply spank her in public. That’s hard enough, but they don’t actually do it, so I can sort of tolerate it.

What I can’t tolerate is when she tells me – in the voice of that female character, no less – that “there is no blessing on a marriage when you close the gates of life permanently against incoming souls.” (322-3)

This weird bit seems like a line from her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage wandered over onto another page and another book entirely, and she decided to wedge it in where it doesn’t really fit. I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons – and maybe I’ll think about them, on another day – about why in English society at the time she couldn’t get away from including this last soupcon of morality when concluding a novel. But today, I couldn’t get over her telling me that my own marriage is a sham, or immoral, or at least “unblessed” in some way. And while I certainly don’t need her approval, her insistence on including that last ruler-smack of disapprobrium definitely keeps me from giving her too much of my own approval in return.

What about you? Are there writers (teachers, speakers) that you want to love, but just can’t?

At Forging Futures: Choice and the Goddess

Over at Forging Futures, I’ve written about why I think honoring the feminine divine means that we must trust women to make their own choices about their bodies – especially the choice to have an abortion.

Given the juxtaposition of this piece with the previous one, I want to point out a few things about my political speech, since I am often political.

First of all, what I’m doing is very different from the kind of pulpit politicking that is being pushed by the Religious Right which I so strongly disdain. Yes, I’m ordained as a priestess by a 501(c)3 tax-exempt religious organization. But none of my online speech is as a leader for that organization, nor is it funded with the support of those tax-exempt dollars. These are my personal views and my personal speech. I defend even the most conservative Christian pastor’s identical right to his views and his speech, when he’s not using his tax-exempt organization to push them.

Second, for all that I often discuss how my religion guides my life, my ideas, and my choices – including my political choices – I am also determinedly in support of secular government. Whatever ways of understanding I use to arrive at my conclusions, when I advocate a policy approach that will affect other people, I always, always, always have a purely secular justification for it.

Respecting women’s bodily autonomy and giving them the right to make their own health care decisions should be an obvious conclusion when considering the situation from a secular point of view, and it’s on that basis that I want to see policies enacted. The fact that I also have strong religious reasons for supporting this position is relevant to me, and is something that I discuss as part of exploring how to live out my values in the world, but it is not the defense I offer for putting something into law.

These are the kinds of distinctions that make the difference between religious people who are engaged in politics and would-be theocrats. Respecting them is part of keeping our pluralist democracy functioning.

The Vagina Creed

 

This is my vagina. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My vagina is part of my life. I must have consent for it as I must have consent for my life.
My vagina and I know that what counts in the war on women is not the children we bear, the bills we pass, or the petitions we sign. It is the rights we defend. We will defend our rights…
My vagina is part of my humanity, even as I am, because it is part of my life. I will learn its vulnerabilities, its orgasms, its organs, its clit, and its climax. I will care for my vagina and enjoy it, even as I care for and enjoy myself. 
To all that is divine, I swear this creed. My vagina and myself are survivors of patriarchy. We are the hope of equality.
So mote it be, until there is no hate, only love!

Tam Lin: a reunderstanding of desire

If you haven’t heard the Tricky Pixie recording of Tam Lin, go do that. I’ll wait. Really. (Eventually I’ll even edit in the right link, promise.)

Tam Lin is a story and a song that can be told many ways. For me, it might be a revolutionary reunderstanding and reclaiming of desire. I reclaim sexual desire of multitudinous forms even in the face of societal disapproval:

She’s come to the roses growing wild

she’s pulled a single one

when a wild young man appears

and cries ‘O, lady, let alone!

‘How dare you pull my roses out,

How dare you break my tree!

How dare you run in these green woods

Without asking leave of me?’

Says Janet fair ‘this wood’s my own

My father gave it me

And I can pluck myself a rose

Without asking leave of thee.’

This is my new motto: “I can pluck myself a rose / without asking leave of thee.”

QUILTBAG people ought to be able to pluck their roses without asking leave of the state, or, quite frankly, anyone. And if I want to use contraception, or have an abortion, I shouldn’t need to go begging leave. Roses and thorns will sort themselves out without any mortal pretending to superior authority apportioning them. I promise.

Reality’s funny that way, and really, the only way to be in a free relationship with reality is to honestly acknowledge and claim things like desire and love and the many other manifestations of the driving force of the universe.

There might even be a Christian idea hidden inside there. If our bodies are what God the Father gives us – and I don’t subscribe to that notion, but let’s just theorize – then “this wood’s my own, my Father gave it me…” might have tremendous theological resonance. Even if you want to replace “wood” with “hortus conclusus” or something similarly medieval…the conclusion is radically modern in terms of indivIdual rights, even for women, over their own bodies.

Whether you call it authenticity, or desire, or love, or any of its other myriad names, I think that some of the most beautiful pieces of art emerge from explorations of this theme. And if you want to cut off or limit the loving working-out of this moving force of nature, then you are the one who is unnatural, and you are the one driving yourself towards death, and you are the one who simply cannot stop and smell the roses, in your own garden or any other.

For that, I pity you.

More proxy Mormon rites: Jefferson and Hemings?

Trigger Warning: Rape

Like proxy baptisms, Mormons also perform proxy “sealings” – what most people would call a wedding or handfasting. It turns out that plenty of historical figures have had this rite performed for them, including Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.

An article at Slate points out

The nature of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has been one of considerable historical debate. Could love actually pass between the most influential man in America and a mixed-race slave he owned? Could Hemings genuinely consent to Jefferson’s sexual advances? Could she really say no? Because slaves were denied control over their bodies, what went on between Hemings and Jefferson—and, of course, countless other slave masters and slaves in antebellum America—is rightly regarded by most as abusive. Perhaps on rare occasions these sexual acts involved true mutual intimacy; but because of the inherent power dynamic, today we’d consider this sex forced. We’d call it rape.

Sealing a slave master to his slave is at least as troubling as the baptism of Holocaust victims, the practice of which the LDS Church has officially condemned.

I’ve been raped by an intimate partner. I’ve been through the murky confluence of consent and coercion, not as badly as a slave, obviously, but badly enough that I can say this is reprehensible. Consent belongs to each person, and each person alone. This isn’t just like rape apology, this is rape apology.

And I’ve heard the explanations: this is an act of love, it’s not binding unless the souls involved want it to be so, etc, etc, etc. To which Joanna Brooks has a pretty good reply:

But one element that has consistently gone missing from conversations I’ve witnessed in LDS circles is the acknowledgment that other religious traditions also have theological views of memory, the afterlife, and the connection between the dead and the living. From these non-Mormon perspectives, Mormon posthumous rites appear as a presumptuous claim on humanity’s dead.

The Slate article also has an example of a proxy baptism rite that I would have no problem with: two young Mormon men died before being baptised, so they were baptized posthumously by proxy. Fine; we have good evidence that this was what they wanted while they were alive. I’m glad it was a healing experience for the families involved.

But no one, NO ONE, gets to tell me who I’m linked to for all eternity. When done that way, it’s not an act of love. There is no way that Mormons can in good conscience refuse to acknowledge that others have different views of the afterlife and that acting as though they have a lock on both metaphysics and sexual consent is disrespectful to everyone who disagrees – dead and alive.

I stand with Sandra Fluke

Add Janet Mefferd to the (apparently long) list of people who think I should die. She thinks I should “pay for” having sex. Well, I have paid, and it wasn’t cheap. But the alternative was death.

Reproductive health care isn’t about sex – it’s health care. And for entirely too many women, like me, it’s absolutely essential health care.

I’m not even going to try to express my wordless howl of rage at Limbaugh. Fred and others already said it better than I could anyway.

So, in short: I stand with Sandra Fluke.

Feelings in a marriage should include fear?

As the reproductive health care battleground becomes criss-crossed with trenches of advancing legislation, I have been remembering a conversation about the Catholic position on birth control that I had in my undergrad days.

I was Christian, back then, and although not Catholic, I had heard and appreciated several homilies by the priest for the Catholic student group. For a course in interfaith dialogue, I decided to have a conversation with the priest about birth control; I knew even then that pregnancy would be extremely risky for me, so I took the matter rather personally.

The priest was able to defuse my nascent anger and fear by implying that Catholic women in situations like mine might be able to get a note signed by the Pope to make birth control okay, or something like that. And then he made an argument that I found strangely moving: he said that the marriage relationship is a very special one, and that “we just don’t know” what kind of changes birth control might create in that relationship, or how it would change the feelings between a man and his wife.

Which goes to show that a celibate man and a not-yet-sexually-active young woman can seriously contemplate arguments about reproductive health care that a woman who actually faces these issues would simply laugh at. From my current position, I do laugh, although it’s tinged with despair, because now I can answer that priest’s hypothetical.

You want to know the feeling that is preserved by not using birth control? Fear.

For a woman who doesn’t want to become pregnant, not using birth control means that sex is inextricably bound up with fear: fear of becoming pregnant, fear of what that might mean, whether it is a danger to her own life or the threat of sliding deeper into poverty with one more mouth that she can’t feed. Fear that surrounds sex, and that, as a result, is in some way also attached to her husband.

These days, I think that priest told me more truth than he meant to. Deep down, the Catholic church, like other forced-birthers, wants to use fear and childbearing to control women. That’s the kind of oh-so-precious relationship they want to protect: one where women are either safely controlled within the confines of marriage and childbearing, or forced to the margins of society as unmarried outcasts.

I won’t stand for it. And I certainly won’t lay down and let it happen. So I hunker down in the trenches and try to use my fear to feed the flame of anger, to keep my courage warm.