Invoking Consent 2.0

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.

8 thoughts on “Invoking Consent 2.0

  1. It’s interesting — many people have criticized the HPs who trained me because of her views on this matter: that directing energy towards an individual without their consent is assault, or even rape. While I think the use of energy isn’t always as straightforward as she would have it seem (i.e., when I’m cooking), I continue to believe that consent is a very important concept.

    I’ve got to say, though, that saying something like, “healing energy is here for you, should you desire it” can seem a lot more awkward a response to someone’s stated predicament than the more common, “sending healing energy your way.” With some people I’m very careful to use that earlier phrasing, but in other cases I’ll default to, e.g., “I’ll be keeping you in my thoughts” because I don’t feel comfortable bringing up consent that boldly. Is it prayer? No. Is it directing energy? Not quite … it’s more like thinking bright shiny thoughts/memories of the person, leaving that shiny there for them to take … or not. I don’t *think* it’s forcing it on them … but then again I’ve rarely said no to folks sending me energy, so have rarely been in the position of turning it away. It would be interesting to find out how that energy is actually received/perceived on the other end — if it is at all.

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  3. Well said, as I wrote in your previous version. Also–as I mentioned before, I’d say this also goes for physical/physiological consent also. I’ve been to too many pagan gatherings and events where people will come up and just think it’s perfectly alright to invade my personal space, give me a hug or otherwise touch me. Uhm. Don’t. Some people carry psychological traumas about being touched. Some people also have taboos about being touched. I happen to have both.

    I have had bad experiences with nonconsensual energywork. So has a close member of my own Clan–I’d even go as far as to say he’s experienced worse than me, and it shows.

    I notice there seems to be a lack of respect for others’ boundaries in favor of ego-stroking or self-gratification, which in itself is insidious and self-serving. People need to take a step back and realize that sometimes the best way to help a person is to leave them the hell(s) alone.

    • I agree, and I think that just like as a community we need to be more supportive of people declining energy work, we need to be WAY more supportive of people who don’t like to be touched. I have seen and experienced plenty of unwelcome hugging, which again is portrayed as part of our community norms.

      I have also had people who barely knew me (taking a class of mine doesn’t count) walk up behind me and start massaging my neck and shoulders. Because of my tics and chronic pain I’m often rubbing the back of my neck to relieve discomfort, which apparently is all the invitation some folk think they need. If I responding with anger or hostility to this touching, I am the one condemned as “overly negative.”

      And forget about if I’m feeling edgy or unsafe to start with, fail to tamp down years of self defense training, and respond with a swift elbow or worse.

      I have often wondered if people are more reluctant to engage in this behavior with folk who are female identified, since our society has clearer lines of appropriateness for public behavior towards women. I honestly don’t know, but it’s an intriguing question.

  4. I think it took this article for me to really ‘get’ what shielding and protection are really all about. (reading books makes you think everyone who’s pagan is witch-warring against you lol) and will definitely help me visualize my protection magic better.

    That being said, I think i mentioned before that other pagan peoples have taken liberties with my personal space, and I am not afraid to speak up and let them know that it’s an important part of continuing friendship that we observe the “no touching’ rule. Funny how the people (primarily men, mind you) who give surprise hugs on first meeting me, also seem to be the same men who felt that since I was pagan, i should have sex with them because they’re pagan and they’re looking for “ritual” sex. Asking politely was appropriate on their part, which they did do. But using my ‘paganity’ to continue to push the issue was too much, especially after I had told them I promised my significant other (now my husband) that I would not have sex with other people while being in a relationship with him. Being pagan, it was important for both of us to nail that down. And that was disrespected.

    Do I think they did magic against me because of it ? no. I do think that one male succeeded in hooking into my dreams. And even then, he could not sway me. Loyalty is something I hold so dear to my heart that it’s a non-issue when it comes to my marriage and my friendships.

    Perhaps someone with such terrible boundary structures should be left alone to travel their path in peaceful, meditative solitude. I have no problem telling others not to hug or touch me when I feel it is inappropriate. There are pagans out there with healthy boundaries, and there are others who are still learning what those are. This is where the protection magic really came into play very well for me; I would do the magic regularly, and when the situation arose, all it took was “no, thank you” to send the boundaryless people away. Worth every spell. 🙂

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  6. Absolutely marvellous – thank you. I’ve experienced this kind of violation personally, during a group ritual, and when I spoke about it to the ritual organisers, I was told that the person in question ‘didn’t mean any harm’ and that it was my responsibility to protect my own boundaries. In other words, if I was hurt, it was entirely my fault.

    That you’ve also articulated ways in this problem can be addressed is fantastic; thank you for providing a positive direction all of our community can explore.

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