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.

Remembering the Sun

I look up from the keyboard as the shaft of late afternoon sunlight slants through the window and hits the screen of my computer, blinding it. Irritated, with a teaching session to plan, an article to write and one of my mothers threatening to go into labour, I sigh and move across the sofa as far as the lead on my laptop will let me. It allows me about 10 minutes work before the ray of sunlight again moves across my vision. Annoyed now; “I don’t have time for this!”, I jump up to move chairs, pulling the lead out accidentally as I go. My laptop flicks off and I lose the last half hour’s worth of work. I slide onto the floor wondering whether to laugh or cry in frustration. “Slow down, Priestess”, She smiles, languid from the corner of the room, all amber gold hair and a dress as grey as the stormy sea, She smells of the world outside, that I have so far cocooned myself away from for the day; “there’s time… look”. She indicates out of the window and across the field where the lazy afternoon breeze rustles the grasses in the meadow, “no rush”. I frown, I am about to retort that I don’t have time for this either, but she jokingly blows the paper I was working on across the floor. ‘Ok, enough!’ I laugh, forgetting my need to be hassled and serious. I pick up my phone, pull on my boots and head out to the pond in the meadow below. By the time I reach the gate, the sun is warm on my skin and the breeze ruffles my hair, I wonder at how I could have found it an intrusion not five minutes before. 

Reading back over my last post on sacrifice, I realise just how limited a blog post is, and just how it is almost impossible to do a subject justice in what really just amounts to a short article, usually of around 1500 words or less. It is inevitable that at some point, the writer will have to identify what their readers will understand and what deserves more full an explanation, making the decision about what to leave out more than what to leave in. Sometimes we make the right assumptions and sometimes we make the wrong ones. Either way, we have to chose what is the most pertinent and relevant otherwise we end up writing a book.

Having read today’s latest posts on the Sacrifice discussion, I realised that for those who don’t know me or my craft well, discussing the idea that something can be ‘made sacred’ might seem like I have disappeared off on an unfortunate dualistic tangent. The idea that a being (I prefer the word ‘being’ to ‘thing’) can be designated sacred or even mundane in its nature is about as at odds with animist thinking as it’s possible to be unless of course we understand that this is entirely about our perspective rather than the actuality.

At the heart of Animism, lies the experience that the world, every tiny speck of it is animate, alive, to some extent conscious of itself. This is not the simplistic perspective that is often trotted out as animism, that ‘everything has spirit’ for this is dualistic in itself, it is a language which belies a belief in spirit on one hand and matter on the other as if the two can be separated. No, this is the understanding that matter cannot exist without the humming spirit of intention, that it is this intention in itself, which forms the skeleton upon which all matter is built. To the animist, everything is sacred because everything has purpose, a sense of self, an individual ‘ishness’, a wish to be, a value and a place in the world.

So working from this principle that all is sacred, how do I then come to the understanding that to sacrifice is the art, for I do believe it is that, of making sacred? Simply, that as humans, it is impossible to live in a state where we are experiencing all to be sacred all of the time. We bumble through life, consuming without thought, swearing at the idiot who cut us up on the motorway, stressed, irritated, hurt, afraid wounded. It is hard to acknowledge any of these things as sacred, let alone understand their purpose or hear their intention, their own stories, or why something behaves as it does. It is just too difficult unless we take the time to stop and listen, paying just one or two things our full attention for a while, meditate if you like, on the relationship. For me it is my relationship with something that allows me to understand it as sacred in a very real and tangible sense and not just a theoretical one. The more difficult a situation or thing, the more important that quiet and considered meditative attention becomes.

Take the sun, that’s an easy one. As I found today, it was easy to forget its sanctity, swept up in the moment of ‘too much to do and too little time’ it became an irritation preventing my work. I forgot how often I had danced in it, lay out and sunbathed in it, thanked it for growing the beans, waking the hedgerows and evaporating water off the sea to make rain. My Goddess, of course, reminds me to slow down and take a moment to remember, pushing me off and outside to find it and rekindle my relationship, to once again find its sanctity.

Sacrifice is the same, it is finding or remembering something’s value and worth to us. Or taking something that already means so very much and recognising it, and it’s intention, purpose, individuality as sacred. To the point where we understand we cannot own it. Yet the act of sacrifice is about more than that, intrinsic within it’s meaning is the act of giving up or letting it go. It is about saying to our gods, ‘this is so big and so important, I don’t want to ever forget how sacred it is, please help me remember’. Or ‘I love you so much, this is the biggest thing I have, please take it as a symbol of my devotion’. Devotion is not about imagining that the gods care for us, it’s about not minding and loving them anyway. If we let something go, return it to the keeping of the gods, we allow it to be itself, in its own intention and ‘ishness’ no longer hampered by our need or perceptions, but shared with the world to become what it will. This allows us to consciously and permanently make it sacred so that we don’t forget. We make a sacred vow which means that it cannot be taken back without consequence, there is no slipping out of sacred relationship.

Of course I cant sacrifice the Sun, but I could sacrifice suncream (not only made by big pharma, sold by large corporations, with the products of the oil industry – already a good reason) but in not protecting my skin from the sun, I am forced to remember its power. I cant ever take it for granted lest it burn me to a frazzle and with my red hair and fair skin, that’s fairly likely. 17 years ago, my vows not to eat meat began as a sacrifice, an offering to the power that is life. It was really hard and although I knew I needed to, I didn’t want to. Sacrificing meat was about remembering that all life is sacred and capable of suffering and choosing not to be a part of that wherever possible. I didn’t need it to live, so why take a life? It seemed pure selfishness. Now it is second nature, the sense of the cow or the sheep as a being, filled with life and purpose and sentience is utterly sacred to me. If I had simply made the decision to be vegetarian, I could take that back anytime I wanted, but the fact that it is a sacrifice to the gods, sacred, reminds me every day not only of why I choose not to eat meat but also of my devotion to my gods. Apologies to those uncomfortable by the vegetarian polemic, but it’s a good example of sacred vows and the sacrifices that often accompany them. For me it was about saying ‘no matter how busy or forgetful I am, I will always remember and have time for this.”

Ultimately, sacrifice, is about learning to live in a sacred way. Understanding that we cannot perceive the world as all sacred all of the time. But it is about placing the markers and sign posts along the way to help us remember, as often as possible, that it is.