Editor’s Note: On June 3rd I posted a revised and updated version of this essay titled “Invoking Consent 2.0” I’d strongly encourage you to read and link to the newer version rather than this essay.
The pagan demographic has a consent problem.
There are no other circles I travel in where invasive, non-consensual interactions between people is not only rampant, but celebrated. Ours is a spiritual community where it is accepted practice to force intimate contact on another person, and the fact that this can be terribly emotionally and physically harmful is dismissed whenever it is raised.
I have been a victim of this practice. My spouse has likewise suffered. So too have one of my past and one of my current lovers. Friends, clients, and strangers have their own tales of harm caused by the warped standards of consent and boundaries found in pagan individuals, gatherings, and circles.
I am talking about being the target of energy work and magic, which is routinely forced on people without discussion or consent. The people who engage in this behavior often defend the practice with assertions of good intent. As if their intentions alone can atone for violating another individual’s being, all too often causing harm in the process.
There are going to be those of you reading this essay who say “I don’t believe in all that woo-woo shit” and that is perfectly fine with me. Notes From a Barking Shaman covers a wide variety of topics, and they can’t all appeal to everyone. However, there are many of you who practice some form of magic or energy work/healing, and to you I ask: do you believe in all this woo-woo shit?
We do not get to have it both ways. If our Work can help and heal, then it can also harm. Without water, life could not exist on our planet, but trying telling people in Northern Japan or the banks of the Mississippi River that water can do no harm because it is good. As a shaman, magician and healer, I would never dismiss the good that energy work can do. However, while insulin injections can be vital to staying alive for a diabetic, walking up to a friend and plunging a syringe full into their side would be dangerous, and undeniably constitute assault. When one decides to push Reiki or other forms of energy into another person without their conscious consent, that is exactly what is happening.
When a massage therapist decided to do energy work during a session to “cure” my shamanism, that was a violation.
It took weeks to repair the damage done.
When an acquaintance pushed Reiki into my chest during a friendly hug, that was a violation.
The energetic modifications made by my Lady cause an adverse reaction to that form of energy. I was made ill enough to require the skills of a healer familiar with the quirks of my energy system.
When I was waiting on a cancer diagnosis that fortunately never came, the unsolicited “healing energy” sent by strangers and Facebook friends was a violation.
It is widely known that general “healing” energy can make cancer worse. Energy healing of cancer is a specialized skill that few possess.
When an energy healer decided to “fix” a transgender client of a colleague of mine, that was a horrific violation.
One which nearly led to suicide and took the resources of a shaman skilled with the spiritual and energetic nature of gender to repair.
When non-consensual energy work is done on anyone with the capacity to consent, that is a violation.
The ends do not justify the means.
I wish I had a cogent explanation for this behavior and its place in the pagan community. It is tempting to choose to believe that the people committing these violations have not fully committed to the idea of energy and magic. Hence they do not accept the idea that it could cause harm. Perhaps this is the case for some people, but I do not believe that it is for the majority. Similarly, there are people who cannot believe themselves or their energy modality to be capable of causing harm. If it is inconceivable that one’s actions could have negative consequences, it becomes easier to rationalize violating another person as “for their own good.”
What I find unacceptable is the theory that the pagan demographic does not have not have strong cultural contexts of consent. From feminist roots to BDSM spirituality, there are innumerable threads, histories, and traditions in paganism that place a high or paramount emphasis on consent. Granted there are those like Konstantinos, who have publicly argued the value of non-consensual magic. I believe however, that those voices are drowned out by a chorus of disagreement.
What then, can be done to change this destructive pattern within pagan society? The first thing that must happen, is for the culture in many segments of the pagan demographic to shift, such that rejecting offered energy is not seen as an insult or slight. I believe that many people force energy onto others because they fear having their offer rejected, which can carry a stigma in pagan culture.
People also need to feel supported by their community in such a way that they can call out someone who engages in energetic violation, regardless of intent. I am a skilled magician, a shaman, and well respected in the pagan community. Yet when my right to be free from violation was transgressed, I did not feel I would be supported in saying anything to the transgressor. When I discussed the issue with a prominent member of that person’s community, I was told essentially “that’s just who they are.” If I was not comfortable engaging in the moment, and my concerns were later brushed aside, what hope does someone without my position in the community have of being able to speak up and be heard.
We need to stop drawing emotional distinctions between the physical body and the energy body. It is my fervent belief that the majority of people who frequently violate another’s energy body, would never do the same to their physical self.
Finally, we need to be willing to use language to provide context. Doubtless there are going to be people who read this piece who take umbrage at the use of the word “violation.” However, that is the word and sentiment all too often expressed by people who have had energy work or magic inflicted on them without consent. If that makes you uncomfortable, take a long look at yourself and your practices.
Perhaps you do not believe in all this energy/magic/woo stuff, in which case I thank you for reading through this essay, despite conflicts with your own worldview.
On the other hand, perhaps you see yourself and your own energetic and magical practices reflected here, and don’t like what you see. To you I say this: there is such a thing as benevolent harm. One does not need ill will to cause injury, or to violate another person’s rights. I do not believe you are a bad person, or even a bad healer. But it is harmful to take away another person’s ability to consent, even if the energy/magic you provide does them good.
I would never argue that the pagan demographic should abandon the healing traditions that form a vital part of our identity. I have faith that we can adapt our practices so that we treat each other with dignity and respect, rather than force.
14 thoughts on “Invoking Consent”
This might have roots in Christian culture, where it is highly common to pray for people without their consent and for their “own good.” I think many pagans see “sending energy” as their way of praying for someone they’d like to help, even if they have little knowledge as to what is going on or if the person wants that “help”.
Ironically, pagans tend to send energy much more than they pray or do any other type of devotional practice. Maybe if they prayed more, they’d fire off less energy?
It reminds me something Wiccan writer Phyllis Curott has said: you can’t blow your energetic wad into the universe and think it won’t have consequences.
I will come out of the energetic closet in two ways.
When I was taught the basics of energetic manipulation, I was told that intent “colored” the energy and gave it life. Where I think they went wrong was teaching that if you have good intent, your energy will have good outcomes. Now that I am an experienced energy worker, I know this is hooey. There is no energy that is so “good” that it is the perfect solution to everyone’s ills. I need to tailor the energy to the needs of the client, and I can only do that if I have discussed their situation with them, part of the reason I can do the sorts of things I can do is directly related to getting the consent of the client, It’s not just “can I give you some healing energy?” But “I think I can help you in this specific way by moving or altering your energy in this specific fashion.”
The other way I am coming out is that I have an energetic condition that is negatively affected by energy work, unless it is a very specific kind. Even the kind hearted comment of “sending healing energy!” Makes me shiver, because if the person really sends that energy (another rant for another day) I will inevitably have adverse physical effects. I know this from both energetic diagnosis from a trusted shaman, as well as years of suffering from a undiagnosed physical ailment that many, many pagans of various stripes have tried to heal, both with and without my permission.
I am facing the difficult decision on whether I can continue to attend pagan events, since so many attendees practice nonconsentual energy work with just a passing touch or hug, much less the ones who see me as disabled and feel the need to try to heal me without consulting with me first.
Per request I’ve copied my comment from another site below:
You’re wondering where this boundary issue comes from and I think you’ve hit on a couple of the sources and I would emphasize and add a few others:
1. You’re absolutely right that a significant chunk of it is done by people who don’t really think that what they’re doing has consequences or who believe that good intentions make everything ok.
2. Consider the messages that pagans are sent about energetic connections to non-human things. Paganism 101 books often inanely blather on about “connecting to the land”, “connecting with nature”, “connecting with the spirits” with very little said about how that can be a terrible idea. Sometimes the trees really just need their fucking space thank you very much. How can we expect people who are told over and over again in the beginning of their exploration to “open themselves” and increase their energetic connection to the land (and sometimes shudders the spirits) to realize that that shouldn’t apply to humans as well. Also this gets back to basic psychic hygiene. It’s ground, center, SHIELD dammit. Step three somehow gets missed far too often.
3. I also feel that an element is a reaction to the very different boundary issues one encounters in Abrahamic faiths (I’m primarily thinking of Puritan influenced cultures here) where there is often very little explicit energetic sharing between people and little intimacy encouraged. You have people who were raised in a culture where the conversations people could have with their bodies and their non-intellectual energies were very limited. So when you give them permission to increase the intimacy in their lives some inevitably go to the opposite extreme.
4. Another reason coming other religions is the compassionate desire to respond to (perceived) trauma. Some pagans I can think of would feel uncomfortable saying “I’ll pray for you” because that sounds too monotheistic so sending “healing energies” seems like an appropriate response. I do feel that the question “how do I, as an energy worker, healthily respond to an acquaintance who seems fucked up?” is a worthwhile one.
5. There’s also some vestigial new age and free love ideology in there somewhere
I think you’ve hit on an interesting idea about why pagans seem less inclined to prayer, as Anya noted. I hadn’t considered the “baggage” issue in coming from more mainstream faiths with regards to the language of “I’ll pray for you.”
The broader question of how people’s milk religions inform their experience and practice of paganism (including what brand of paganism they were raised for folk who grew up pagan) is a big one, and one which is rarely looked at from a balanced perspective.
I also think that if I had grown up in a faith/practice in which the only option available to me when someone was hurting was prayer, and then I came upon this tool that could help right now, I would probably be using it at every turn unless someone taught me exactly why I shouldn’t.
I agree with the main message of the article. I only do magic on myself, and rather than send energy, I usually send “best wishes,” specifically because I don’t believe in using energy on someone else’s behalf; that’s messing with free will and that’s why love spells go wrong. (as an example.) I do magic on myself, for myself, alone. I rarely do magic with my husband, never mind for him, and this is because it is a complicated task that requires the visualization to match for the energy to work.
What are your thoughts on magickal self-defense?
Word. Thank you for posting this.
Myself, as well as a good buddy of mine (especially him really) have been victim to this sort of behavior. We’ve both been seriously adversely affected by it.
I’d also argue that many neopagans not only respect energetic boundaries, but physical ones as well. Not easy for people like myself with wide berths of personal space–for various psychological or other spiritual/taboo reasons.
I think a big part of this is a profound lack of education on the nature and idea of energy. Until you are taught how it works and when its appropriate to use it, there is often not a great understanding of why it isn’t appropriate to give someone energy to try to ‘help’ them without asking.
Growing up, I had a basic, intuitive nature of how things could work, but it wasn’t until I formally studied massage, and particularly Shiatsu that I really groked it, and understood how or why energetic work could be inappropriate or harmful (At least, how it could be so within the system that I work in), and while I think Shiatsu and TCM are useful and just dandy, I also know what I do isn’t good for everyone, and that their consent is key. However, I was also wary of using energy on another person w/o a better grasp of it, so I didn’t. (I was also lucky enough to spend time around people much smarter and more versed than I was, so, there is that)
Oddly, consent is a really hard idea for many people to understand, and I saw this while I was in massage school (and you experienced this with the MT who started doing Reiki on you w/o asking) – people get all excited about how awesome things are, and just want to DO them, without really thinking things through. Not only is this unsafe, as you likely don’t have an in depth knowledge of whats going on with a person, but its also profoundly unethical and unprofessional. There was a huge difference in the approach between those new to energetic work (OMG SO GREAT LETS DO IT) and those who were extensively experienced (many of my teachers would ask very specifically about what they wanted to do, and were gracious if the answer was no, since they were aware that the rejection of their offer of work wasn’t a rejection of themselves).
Is there a way to fix it? I think getting people to learn more about energy and energetic work would be great, but it seems that, as in the rest of the world, people want an quick intro which they think means they can run off and do it all themselves.
New pagans especially get like this. (I’ve also noticed they can get quite physically touchy without consent, which is part of the reason I’ve tended to avoid pagan gatherings.)
Maybe its the excitement of finding something new, maybe its because everyone else around them is the same way and no one picks up on why it could be bad – this is the first post I’ve seen calling people out on it, and perhaps if people hear how deeply this affects others and how their actions can really be harmful, it’d be a good first step towards people learning to behave better.
Thanks for this great reminder. Would you allow me to feature and translate you for my French fellow pagans ? (on my blog)
Sure, I don’t see that as a problem. Please make sure to credit it to me and include a link to back to BarkingShaman.com. Glad you liked it.
It will be when I returned from my long break in mid August. But there wiil be your name (pseudonyme) and the link to the article.
Actually Wintersong Tashlin isn’t a pseudonym or pen name. While it isn’t entirely my legal name, it is the name I use in all aspects of my life. I wrote about names and naming here: http://barkingshaman.com/2011/06/19/names-make-our-world/
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