Sex, Freya and maybe a little bit about what Feminism is not.

So, I am a feminist. There, I have said it. It’s often a word that makes people squirm and for so many (lots of them very good) reasons. It’s a name, an ideology, I have identified with on some level or another for most of my adult life and feminist theory is now a subject I am lucky enough to teach my undergraduates. It is always an interesting challenge to pick apart their many preconceptions about what feminism is and very definitely is not. Yet, the word is also something that makes me profoundly uncomfortable sometimes and it is usually other feminists and my resultant association with them that is the reason for this, rather than society’s attitudes to feminism itself. After all, feminism has a bad name, it makes people uncomfortable because it challenges some of the very deeply entrenched behaviours and attitudes of society, which is why I love it. It also says some profoundly stupid, although usually well-meaning things at times, which is why I don’t. I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for sometime, but to do so probably means revealing things about my own nature that it often feels uncomfortable to share. There will always be judgement on a woman for not behaving as she should and that is as true within feminism as anywhere, it’s just that here we tend to be seen to be letting the side or the sisterhood down.

There was never a subject that feminism had more to say about than sex and of late, I have found myself reading some ‘interesting’, well-intentioned, but rather misguided articles and opinions which have sometimes downright disturbed me. As usual it’s often the fault of Facebook, where these things get shared with abandon without much more thought than it takes to click a button. But I am worried about the perpetuation of some of these ideas and the effects that they have on women, men and every gender and none in between. It is the (apparently) feminist ideas that tell me how as a woman, I (or indeed anyone) should or should not behave and express my sexuality, the school of thought that suggests that if you are male you are responsible for rape culture by default, the articles which turn women into victims by removing their personal responsibility and autonomy and imply to us, often without meaning to, that all men are dangerous sexual predators just waiting to do harm. It is the feminism that compounds and protects those very stereotypes that it set out to dismantle in the first place, that concerns me.

Because Feminism is really an umbrella term covering a collection of ideas and movements, I should probably start by defining feminism as I understand it. This is coloured very much, as a Heathen woman, an animist and my relationship with the Gods, particularly Freya, the goddess I am devoted to. For me, feminism is the understanding that all people should be equal, politically, economically, culturally, socially and sexually and that no person should be at a disadvantage in any of these things as a result of their gender. To experience disadvantage on the grounds of gender is to experience sexism. I also consider that freedom is an essential component of feminism believing that no one has the right to limit to the freedom of another where that person is acting with consent and within the law. This means that ultimate personal responsibility is also essential because freedom cannot work sustainably without a conscious understanding of how what we do, directly affects others. Freedom does not mean the freedom to abuse because that again, limits the freedom of another. When talking about feminism, I tend to steer clear of a definition based solely in gender, or describing it as being only about women or women’s rights. Sexism disadvantages all of humanity and ultimately all people would find advantage in liberation from it. However it is true that feminism found its roots in women’s emancipation and suffrage and much of the work of feminism today is still focussed upon women and their lived experiences, because it is women who are so often the most likely to experience disadvantage because of their gender.

If such terms mean anything to you at all, I would best describe myself as a sex-positive, third-wave feminist. This means that I consider sexual freedom to be absolutely essential and a source of women’s power, and I believe that modern feminism needs to reach for equality far beyond the entrenched gender stereotypes of the previous feminist waves. It also means holding the belief that we are now free to define feminism for ourselves as individuals. For me that does not get much more complicated than believing in freedom, equality, autonomy, respect and absolute personal responsibility. My feminism also believes that I don’t have to be defined by my gender, but as I take complete and utter, unbounded delight and joy in being a woman, I often chose to do just that.

As a Heathen woman I am devoted to the goddess Freya. This means that I consider my primary purpose is to serve her, to celebrate and manifest her in the human world in a way which is positive and I seek to learn her mysteries, journeying into the depths of her being and stories. For Freya, so many of those mysteries are about the very many ways of being a woman: Lover, Priestess, Seer, Healer, Witch, Wife, Whore and kick-ass-independent-take-no-shit Shield Maiden. For me she is the ultimate goddess of women’s freedom and agency and a guiding principle of my life is that of striving for my own freedom and the intention never to limit another’s as far as I am consciously able. This means examining my own demands, jealousies and insecurities within my relationships with others on a fairly constant basis. As an animist, it means doing it with the non human world too. Sexism is simply one means by which an individual’s freedom can be limited, but then so is racism, abuse, homophobia, and the manipulation of others to make them behave as we would wish, and the dreadful generalisations that seek to strip a person of their individuality and autonomy.

So why the lengthy preamble and why am I writing about this anyway? Well I suppose it comes back to having been ‘told’ a few things online very recently by supposed feminists, that as a feminist myself have made me concerned. I’d like to address a few of the things that have made me hopping mad over the past month or so and look at why, despite having been espoused by feminists, these views really have nothing to do with my understanding of it at all. Those things have included such crazy things as being told that my love of dressing up in corsets, high heels and other ‘girly’ paraphernalia is not helpful to my sisters because it panders to sexual stereotypes and makes other women feel they have to conform to that idea of sexy. What the hell? Seeking to limit another woman’s freedom of expression and telling her how she should dress is not feminism. Next, that sexual submissiveness, power games, and BDSM even within consensual adult relationships, are demeaning and abusive; ergo a large part of my sexual identity is just dirty and wrong and damaging to myself and others. Hmmm, how affirmingly sex-positive. To my mind curtailing another womans sexual freedom where she choses and consents is also, not feminism. But perhaps the most short-sighted and stupid thing I have read to date is that if you are a man, you are part of rape culture, whether you like it or not.

Now, this is the one I am going to look at in detail because not only is it ridiculous, it’s also really dangerous and damaging to all involved, feminist ideologies, the way that feminism is perceived in general and above all, men! I have no doubt that the chap who wrote this piece is an honourable well-meaning gent and it’s sad really that he’s the one on the end of my pointy stick, having put together such a coherent piece which has been widely shared. But really I have chosen it as just one example of this kind of thinking I have come across. Whilst the writer of this article does not claim to be feminist, the ideas it describes are clearly feminist ideology and so it is fair to offer feminist critique of it. The first and most obvious point is that in stating that all men are part of rape culture you commit the cardinal offense of defining a gender by something a person does or does not do. Third wave feminism rejects essentialist definitions of gender that rely on such generalisations believing that the individual, their experiences and their personhood are more defining characteristics than gender. Secondly, to define an entire gender in this way is to suggest that rape culture is a biological characteristic of maleness, if this is so, it is inherent and cannot be changed. Therefore, there is little point in making the recommendations the author goes onto present in order to help men counter rape culture. Because he’s already told you that whether you like it or not, you are it, you can’t help it, and you’d better get used to it. The whole thing is a nonsense, not to mention it compounds our ideas of a binary gender structure, it really only speaks to heterosexual gender normative ideals.

Whilst the argument is fairly easily dismantled, the biggest problem with it is that it is so alienating, particularly if it gives the impression that all feminists think this way. I feel alienated by it because I don’t hold men responsible for ‘rape culture’ (I actually hate that term and could argue with that too, but I simply havent the space here!). I’ll say it again, I do not hold individual decent men, responsible for ‘rape culture’ by virtue of their gender. Please guys, you don’t need to do that for my benefit, I would much rather judge a person for their actions and behaviour because I’m the kind of pagan who believes in honourable relationship. That doesn’t mean that you have permission not to be a decent and honourable human being, guys, it just means that the rape and abuse that happens in the world is not your personal fault. If I were to hold men responsible, as a woman, what would that mean? Well the exact same thing I complained of earlier, I turn women into desperate victims without agency, freedom or responsibility and I fall into the trap of perpetuating the belief that all men are dangerous sexual predators. Conversely, the implication that men are the only ones who can change ‘rape culture’ is to suggest again that women are always in need of the protection of the ‘good guys’ who have changed their behaviour, from the bad behaviour of the guys who haven’t.

My husband feels alienated by it too, as do most of the men I have spoken to about it. He rejects the idea completely that he is part of ‘rape culture’ and I completely agree with him. I reject the idea that the other respectful, wise, honourable men I know are. It makes him angry that he cannot offer an intelligent counter argument even. To do so opens him up to the accusation of being blind to the ‘rape culture’ of which he is supposedly a part, and is therefore in denial. He is sweet, respectful and kind, already does the things listed as countering ‘rape culture’ and yet still he is guilty as charged; a part of it. Apparently. It is emasculating because it takes his voice, it is dis-empowering because he feels vilified, and it compounds some of the ideas that he has grown up with that he should keep his sexuality safely hidden in a box because it is dangerous. Not only this, but simply blaming a gender for the problem simplifies things beyond belief and goes nowhere to addressing the other factors which are so much bigger: War, poverty, destructive ideologies, capitalism.

So what is my point at the end of all this, other than to express my concern and discomfort; perhaps nothing other than that. Perhaps it’s to wave my Shield-Maiden sword for all the good guys I know who don’t deserve that kind of crap. Perhaps it’s for all the women who fly in the face of sexual norms, playing at the edges of what even feminism finds acceptable, the submissives, the ones with dark and strange fantasies, the sluts, the daddy’s girls, the hedonists, the ones in heels and corsets, the ones who like power games, the ones who refuse to be told what to do, even by the sisterhood; the women like me. Perhaps it’s to give feminism a different voice.

Or perhaps it’s just for Freya, it usually is.

Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.