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.