My post on May 23rd 2011 titled “Invoking Consent” raised some good issues and led to some insightful conversations, both here, and on a number of other blogs and journals throughout the web. Taking the feedback I have received into consideration, I have made a number of changes to the initial piece. Some things were clarified, others removed, and a decent chunk of new material included. Rather than simply editing the original essay, I have chosen to post post the changes as “Invoking Consent 2.0”
Invoking Consent 2.0
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 a cultural hallmark. Ours is a spiritual community where it is accepted practice to force intimate contact on another person. The fact that this can be emotionally and physically harmful is dismissed when it is raised, which is rarely.
I have been a victim of this practice, as has my spouse. 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.
What I am talking about here is being the target of energy work and magic that 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 excuses the violation of another individual’s being.
There are a great many people in the world who would consider this a non-issue. People who would say “I don’t believe in all that woo-woo stuff.” What I would ask to the people who engage in these practices without proper consent is: do you believe what you are doing?
We cannot 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 benefits of energy and healing magic. However, while insulin injections can be vital to staying alive for a diabetic, walking up to a friend and plunging a syringe of it into their side would be dangerous, and undeniably constitute assault. In my mind, that is little different than what happens when an energy worker or magical healer walks up to someone and starts working on them without discussion.
When a massage therapist decided to do energy work during a session to “cure” my shamanism, that was a violation.
When an acquaintance pushed Reiki into my chest during a friendly hug, that was a violation.
When I was waiting on a cancer diagnosis that fortunately never came, the barrage unsolicited “healing energy” sent by strangers and Facebook friends was a violation.
When an energy healer decided to “fix” a transgender client of a colleague of mine, that was a horrific violation.
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 have theories about the origin of some of these behaviors and their place in the pagan community.
It is tempting to believe that the people committing these violations have not fully committed to the idea of energy and magic, and hence, do not accept the idea that it could cause harm. Over time I have come to believe that this is the case for some people, but I do not think it applies to the majority. Similarly, there are people who cannot believe themselves or their energy modality to be capable of causing distress. If it is inconceivable that one’s actions could have negative consequences, it becomes easy to rationalize violating another person “for their own good.”
This perspective is actually reinforced in more than one energy healing modality. I have spoken to a number of practitioners who steadfastly assert that their healing methods cannot have negative results. My own practices are eclectic, and it is in the nature of the Vreschtik to stand somewhat outside of community, which has put us in a position to view many different practices from a relatively objective perspective. I have witnessed, and personally experienced, that these modalities are capable of causing harm, a fact which their practitioners insist I, and everyone else who would make this argument, must be in error about.
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, and the stigma being reject can carry 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 recently 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. At the same time, we also need to establish that consent to physical contact does not inherently equal consent to energetic or magical contact. In my own mind, my willingness to hug someone does not give them permission to work magic on me during said hug, yet I suspect that to them it did.
As a fellow member of my Clan pointed out recently, pagan rhetoric and teaching is full of language of “connection,” yet rarely addresses issues of boundaries and when “connecting” is a terrible idea. In his words “Sometimes the trees really just need their space thank you very much.” His fundamental point was that we cannot expect people who are told from the beginning of their journey into this wold to “open” themselves and energetically connect to nature, the gods, and each other, to know how and when to draw appropriate boundaries.
Another point that has been raised recently in discussions over this issue is one of confronting the spiritual and mental baggage of people’s milk religions. Although this is slowly changing, we are fundamental a demographic made up of converts. Several friends and colleagues have pointed out that “sending energy” without discussion or consent has become the pagan version of “I’ll pray for you.” There is a hesitancy in the pagan demographic towards prayer, likely because of associations with one’s childhood experiences. The problem with “sending healing energy” is that while for some this has become cultural code for something nearly indistinguishable from prayer, for others it can mean working focused energy or magic that may not be appropriate or welcome.
Finally, we need to be willing to use language to provide context. Doubtless there are going to be those who read this piece and take umbrage at the use of the word “violation.” However, that is the sentiment all too often expressed by people who have had energy work or magic inflicted on them without consent. If that perspective makes you uncomfortable, it may be time to take a hard look at yourself and your practices.
Perhaps you see yourself reflected in this discussion. 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. That you engage in these problematic practices does not mean that you are a bad person, or even a bad healer. However, it is harmful to take away another person’s ability to consent, even if the energy/magic you provide does them good.
I will not deny that there are rare circumstances where one of us may be called upon in an emergency that does not have time or room for consent. In those situations I would encourage our healers to follow similar standards of care to those of an emergency trauma ward. Seek consent from the subject if at all possible, from someone who is empowered to give consent if they are fully incapacitated, and failing the availability of all of those, do the minimum possible to get them into a place to give consent.
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 and disregard.