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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

Declaring that all acts of love and pleasure are the rituals of the Goddess, contemporary Pagans widely affirm the sacredness of the body and of sexuality. Much of this belief stems from the erotic theology that entered Paganism through British Wicca, in which celebrants use symbolic or literal sexual ritual to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe. Pagans tend to be relatively accepting of same-sex relationships, BDSM, polyamory, transgender, and other expressions of gender and sexuality that are marginalized by mainstream society. Accordingly, sexual minorities have flocked to the movement and have begun to articulate a distinctively queer Pagan spirituality. Pagans continue to struggle with essentialist notions of gender, however, which has caused conflicts around how and whether to include transgender individuals in single-gender groups. Additionally, in some more politically conservative Pagan traditions, gender transgression continues to draw homophobic harassment. Although sexuality and gender are central theological concerns for many Pagans, more scholarship that moves beyond descriptive approaches is needed, as are more scholarly treatments of the alternative sexualities that garner so much attention in Pagan circles. Christian and Jewish feminist theologians have already found Paganism to be a valuable dialogue partner; as queer theologies increasingly challenge mainstream religions’ notions of gender and sexuality, Paganism has much to add to the discussion.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

Contemporary Paganism is a rapidly growing new religious movement. Though it boasts an estimated 1.2 million contemporary Pagans in the United States alone (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008; Pitzl-Waters 2008), Paganism’s impact resonates beyond its practitioners. According to a Barnes and Noble memo, the Pagan book buying audience in the United States is 10 million (Lewis 2007, p. 19), suggesting that members of other religions and the “spiritual but not religious” are actively seeking out Pagan ideas. Further, feminist Paganism and Goddess spirituality have been significant dialogue partners for feminist movements within mainstream Christianity and Judaism. Particularly for those who are concerned with the environment, women’s empowerment, and GLBT rights, contemporary Paganism offers a compelling religious perspective.

Pagans are an extremely diverse group in terms of belief and practice, however, and many Pagans actively resist efforts to define the term “Pagan,” feeling that such definitions are inherently at odds with their individualistic and highly personal spirituality. Others point out that blanket definitions often overemphasize the dominance of Wicca, a highly influential Pagan tradition that originated in Britain, and its eclectic derivatives. Significant communities in contemporary Paganism include Asatru and Heathenry (Northern European Paganism), Druidry, feminist Goddess worship, non-Wiccan traditions of religious witchcraft, and reconstructionists (who attempt to accurately recreate the practices of ancient religions, such as those of Greece and Egypt). Despite this diversity, however, certain attitudes, beliefs, and practices appear frequently among Pagans. These include a belief that the divine is immanent in the world and that nature, the body, and human sexuality are sacred; the practice of honoring multiple deities, sometimes as separate beings, and sometimes as archetypes or aspects of a Goddess and/or a God; religious pluralism; trust in personal experience as a source of divine knowledge; and ritual practices that may be celebratory, or may be directed at creating extraordinary changes in the physical world (such as healings) (Kraemer 2011b).

Gender and sexuality are central theological issues for many contemporary Pagans; in fact, many Pagans came to the movement due to issues with gender or sexuality in the religions of their birth or in the wider culture (Aburrow 2009, p. 147; Tosh and Keenan 2003, p. 299; Wilcox 2003, pp. 344–6). Feminist scholars have praised contemporary Paganism for offering images and practices that empower women both as individuals and as community leaders. Paganism has also developed a reputation for radical sex- and body-positivity (Pike 2006, pp. 137–8); in fact, Nancy Ramsey Keenan and Tanya Tosh (2003) see the sacralization of the human body as a unique feature that distinguishes contemporary Paganism from New Age and other new religious movements (p. 297). Accordingly, contemporary Pagans have been progressive in affirming women and GLBT people as clergy, blessing same-sex and multiple-partner relationships, and acknowledging the legitimacy of BDSM as both a potentially healthy erotic activity and a tool for ecstatic religious practice (Hunter 2004, pp. 65, 119, 147).

Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

The treatment of gender and sexuality in Pagan studies scholarship has reflected developments around these issues in contemporary Paganism itself. Initial gender essentialist and heteronormative assumptions have been challenged by the increasing visibility of the GLBT community. The British Traditional Wicca of the 1950s and 1960s saw masculine and feminine energies as wholly distinct from each other, yet complementary. Although masculinity and femininity were to be valued equally, priestesses and priests were cast into rigidly gendered, heteronormative roles. In the Wiccan ritual of the Great Rite, a priestess would embody the energy of the receptive, nurturing lunar Goddess while a priest would take on the role of the active, vital solar God. By inserting a blade into a cup, or by engaging in heterosexual intercourse (usually in private), celebrants would enact a primal, erotic union of active and receptive forces that mirrored and participated in the ongoing creation of the universe (Urban 2006, pp. 172–80; Wagar 2009, par. 30–50; Bogdan 2009, pp. 100–3). This sexual polarity was seen as essential for worship and for performing “magic,” a ritual practice intended to create positive changes in consciousness and in the physical world. As an expression of both freedom and sensuality, most Wiccan rituals were performed skyclad, or ritually nude.

Both Hugh B. Urban (2006) and Henrik Bogdan (2009) examine the origins of the Great Rite in the writings of Aleister Crowley, an early twentieth-century occultist whose theological influence on the contemporary Pagan revival has been profound. They situate Crowley and Gerald Gardner, the publicizer (and probably the founder) of what is now known as British Traditional Wicca, within a long tradition of liberatory sexual magic in the Western esoteric (or mystery) tradition, with additional influences from Eastern Tantric practices. Connecting the practice of sexual magic with political, religious, and spiritual liberation movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Urban (2006) argues that practitioners’ beliefs paralleled the work of psychologists Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. Sexuality was conceptualized as revealing the essence of human nature, while eroticism was identified with life force itself; the transgression of sexual taboos was thought to release an ecstatic power that would radically transform society (Urban 2006, pp. 7, 9). Bogdan (2009) delves specifically into Crowley’s work with the occult fraternal order, the Ordo Templis Orientis, and he draws parallels between Crowley’s Gnostic Mass and the Wiccan Great Rite. Both rituals seek union between the divine masculine and the divine feminine as represented by a priest and priestess, but Gardner emphasized that the purpose of the Great Rite was physical and spiritual fertility; he connected the practice to an agricultural liturgical year in a way that Crowley did not (Bogdan 2009, pp. 99–100).

Joanne Pearson’s discussion of the Great Rite and Wiccan ritual in Wicca and the Christian Heritage (2007) voices skepticism about the genuine transgressiveness of these practices, however. She sees Wicca as

attempt[ing] to invoke an aura of danger and perversity whilst still embracing accepted norms of appropriate sexual behavior […] However, for all this vaunted disruption, S/M concepts in particular have been largely abstracted into symbolic forms which strongly deny the “inappropriate” sexuality embedded in Wiccan initiation rituals. (Pearson 2007, p. 92)

Despite her assertion that most Wiccans’ use of mild BDSM practices in ritual ultimately reinforce rather than challenge social norms, however, Pearson agrees with Tosh and Keenan that Wicca’s sacralization of the body is genuinely radical. This sacralization has been a major focus of American Wicca and its offshoots (Pike 2006).

When Wicca came to the United States, it absorbed influences from the counterculture and the feminist movement. Women, as well as gays and lesbians, were drawn to the religion’s affirmation of the body and gave birth to covens that discarded British Wicca’s heteronormativity (Aburrow 2009; Tosh and Keenan 2003). Influenced by the writings of C. G. Jung, many Pagans of the 1970s and 1980s came to understand the Goddess and the God as energies that exist within each individual. The notion of binary sexual polarity remained, but it no longer necessarily required heterosexual behavior on the part of participants. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pagan theologians such as Starhawk began to discard the notion of polarity entirely, preferring instead to speak of “the erotic” (Kraemer 2011a, 2012). For Starhawk, the creative energy of the universe does not move between any two poles, but instead is a complex dance among many beings and forces.1 Today many contemporary Pagans see themselves as actively subverting gender roles in the service of sexual freedom (Tosh and Keenan 2003, p. 299). Explicitly queer theological formulations work to decenter heteronormative ideologies and create space for alternative sexualities to equally embody the sacred (Aburrow 2009).

In the 2000s, queer-identified strands of Paganism began to make their voices heard more widely (Urban 2006, p. 189). The term “queer” was embraced as a blanket term for GLBT people and their allies, as well as sexual minorities of other kinds (for instance, BDSM practitioners, celibates, etc.) (Aburrow 2009). Queer Pagans also challenged the gender essentialism remaining in the sexual polarity still practiced (though less prescriptively than before) by some Wiccans (Neitz 2000, p. 382) and in feminist Paganism, which had a tendency to equate feminine divinity and its associated positive qualities solely with the bodies of biological women. Pagans began to explore the possibility of queer and transgender deity (Aburrow 2009, p. 151; Urban 2006, p. 189), and BDSM practices that had been present in mid-twentieth century Wicca, but had been discarded by many feminist Pagans, began to gain greater acceptance and visibility within the Pagan community (Davy 2007, pp. 10, 192).

Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

As with all new fields of inquiry, Pagan studies scholarship began its examination of gender and sexuality in contemporary Paganism descriptively. In more recent studies, scholars have shifted from simply describing gender-essentialist practices in historical or social context—or praising their effects, as many feminist theorists did—to problematizing and critiquing those lingering threads within Paganism. Since the mid-1990s, Pagan studies scholars who deal with gender almost universally cite Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity, which understands gender as being constituted through complex social behaviors (Butler 1999, 2004). With a few exceptions, however, gender has been approached with more analytical sophistication than sexuality, where scholars still tend to default to description. Following the theories of Michel Foucault (1990 (1978)), the notion that sexuality, or better, sexualities are also constituted by culture and its power dynamics is nevertheless nearly a given in scholarship that attempts to theorize Pagan sexual practices. This formulation of sexuality runs counter to the universalizing thrust of mid-twentieth-century British Wicca, but it resonates with the proliferation of sexualities celebrated by queer Pagans of the present day.

Pre-Butlerian scholars’ initial examinations of gender in Paganism focus not on theorizing gender as a category, but rather on using theological, ethnographic, and anthropological modes of study to investigate how Paganism reimagines standard gender roles.2 Theologian Carol Christ’s frequently anthologized essay “Why Women Need the Goddess” (1979) argues that female images of divinity are necessary for women to affirm the acceptability and holiness of their full sexual identities. According to Christ, Goddess worship is empowering to women and promotes the equality of the sexes by sacralizing the traditionally devalued female body and the character traits associated with women. This perspective continues as a dominant thread in the work of women’s studies scholars such as Wendy Griffin, whose sociological and anthropological studies (1995, 2000a; Foltz and Griffin 1996) show how feminist Dianic (women-only) covens use Goddess myth and ritual to form community, approach difficult life transitions, and challenge patriarchal conceptions of power, authority, social relations, and sexuality. Griffin’s edited volume Daughters of the Goddess (2000b) brings together the voices of scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners in an international and interdisciplinary examination of contemporary Goddess worship. Highlights of this volume include “The Roots of Feminist Spirituality” (2000b) by Cynthia Eller, who celebrates the influence of the feminist movement in moderating the hierarchical nature of mid-twentieth-century Wicca and reducing contemporary Paganism’s emphasis on gender duality or polarity. In her own contribution, Griffin (2000a) describes the Goddess movement’s successful subversion of dualistic and gendered narratives about the body and argues that representations of femininity within feminist Goddess communities “construct a ‘New Narrative’ of women’s strength, grace, sacrality, and power” (Oboler 2010, p. 161, referring to Griffin 2000a, p. 85).

Interestingly, however, in this collection there is little analysis of the role of sexuality in the Goddess movement, except to describe how Goddess worship celebrates sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) as an integrated part of human life. Further, little to no attention is given to the differing experiences of heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian women. Although Eller in particular argues that feminist spirituality can challenge gender essentialist attitudes and holds up Starhawk as one feminist Pagan writer who does so (Eller 2000b, pp. 26, 38–9), several essays also speak of “women’s mysteries,” asserting a universality to women’s experiences that transcends race, class, and sexual orientation. Although some scholars included in Daughters of the Goddess reject patriarchal notions of womanhood as culturally constructed, they do so while leaving unchallenged the claims of practitioners (such as Ruth Rhiannon Barrett and Vajra Ma, both contributors to the volume) that feminist notions of womanhood represent newly recovered divine truth. This trend continues even more pointedly in Kristy S. Coleman’s Re-riting Woman (2009), which uncritically affirms its subjects’ gender essentialist theology. Coleman’s interest is in how Dianic practitioners empower themselves through ritual, not with the political implications of the universalizing notion of “Woman.”

Some feminist scholars, however, deal with the gender essentialism of Goddess feminists and Pagans more critically. In Enchanted Feminism (2002), Jone Salomonsen divides her feminist Pagan subjects into three categories: sexual equality feminists, sexual polarity feminists, and sexual difference feminists (p. 216). In her view, sexual equality feminists treat gender as purely socially constructed, while sexual polarity feminists see gender as biologically based. Sexual difference feminists take a moderating view, seeing gender involving both biological and social aspects. Like Griffin and Coleman, Salomonsen investigates how practitioners ritualize gender, but her ethnography also problematizes what the feminist witches in her study mean when they speak of “women” and “men.” She concludes that gender essentialism is used as a “strategic device” to create women-only groups and spaces that benefit the participants psychologically and spiritually (Salomonsen 2002, p. 244). However, gender essentialist models also put the community in danger of ranking the feminine over the masculine and imposing undesirable new hierarchies.

In The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000a), Cynthia Eller attacks underlying essentialist threads in feminist Goddess worshippers’ narratives of pacifistic, Neolithic Goddess-worshipping societies. Eller argues that some forms of Goddess feminism simply give positive value to traditionally feminine roles and characteristics; they do not question whether these characteristics are inherent in all women. Although celebrating traditionally feminine traits can create positive social change, such a theology also threatens to define “unfeminine” women negatively and discourage women from taking on traditionally masculine roles (Eller 2000a, p. 7). Further, such prehistoric narratives may encourage hatred of men and masculinity as the destroyers of Goddess culture and obscure the ways in which the traits that feminists value are shared by both women and men (Eller 2000a, p. 65–7). Eller’s argument is overstated at times, and scholars such as theologian Constance Wise have affirmed Eller’s historical and philosophical analysis while suggesting that when not interpreted literally, narratives of matriarchal prehistory give practitioners hope for a more peaceful, more egalitarian society (Kraemer 2009; Wise 2008, p. 48). In Hidden Circles in the Web (2008), Wise offers her own challenge to both patriarchal and feminist gender essentialism. Drawing on process thought in a way that resonates with Butlerian performativity, she describes gender as emerging from a series of life events rather than being based on an unchanging substance (whether physical or spiritual). From her perspective, gender is embedded not just in society, but in history. A process approach to gender emphasizes its ever-evolving nature and opens the way to social change.

Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

Other scholars have observed how religious practice can lead some Pagans to consciously confront difficult questions about the nature of gender, while at other times they slide back into strangely conventional gender roles. For instance, Mary Jo Neitz (1995) comments that despite Pagans’ conscious attempts to value and empower women, when sexual abuse does take place in Pagan communities, it is almost always still a case of men in positions of power abusing young women (pp. 231–3).3 Attempts to shift and change gender roles have not been able to overcome this widespread pattern in Western culture. Conventional gender imagery also lingers in communities of sexual minorities. Urban (2006) comments on the peculiar persistence of conservative, essentialist gender stereotypes in gay, lesbian, and queer-identified Pagan traditions. He observes the central role that the Great Goddess (associated with menstruation, nature, and the moon) continues to play in lesbian groups, while gay covens continue to honor Pan and gods of the hunt as symbols of tribal unity (Urban 2006, p. 189).

These traditional gender roles are even more dominant in more politically conservative Pagan traditions such as Heathenry. In Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic (2002), Jenny Blain describes the gender issues surrounding Heathen practitioners of seiđr, an oracular form of shamanic practice traditionally considered to be “women’s magic” (p. 90). The seiđworker, it is thought, must be receptive to the spirits, and in Northern European cultures, receptivity (especially sexual receptivity) is a trait of the feminine. In the Icelandic sagas, the practice of seiđr by men—even patriarchs like the god Odinn—threatens to render them ergi, a negative state with connotations of emasculation and weakness (Blain 2002, pp. 60, 115). Among contemporary Heathens, the practice of seiđr by men sometimes draws homophobic harassment from others in the community, and it may be considered evidence of homosexuality (Blain 2002, p. 122). Interestingly, when applied to women in ancient texts, ergi can also convey sexual promiscuity or forwardness, suggesting that the word generally connotes transgression of standard gender roles (Blain 2002, p. 124). Blain associates gender transgression in a shamanic context with having a “third gender” or “queer” status that, in traditional cultures, may be seen as bringing one closer to the spirit world (2002, Blain and Wallis 2000). For some practitioners, this association is the foundation for religious and magical practice. Prominent Northern Tradition practitioner Raven Kaldera, for example, has created a community of queer and transgendered practitioners who celebrate gender transgression as sacred service to the gods (Goodwin 2009, forthcoming). Whether conservative or progressive, Heathens and other practicing Northern European Pagans approach magic as an inherently gendered activity.

Gender fluidity is celebrated in some Pagan communities, but in others it has created controversies around inclusion and exclusion. John A. Stover (2008) describes gender-based controversies in the loosely Pagan-identified gay male group known as the Radical Faeries, who have been holding gatherings around the United States and Canada since the late 1970s. Originally a spiritual haven for gay men who understood themselves as third-gendered, Radical Faerie gatherings grew to include gay men who saw being “Faerie” as a transgressive, liminal state that included persons other than gay men. Later Faeries labeled this state as being “queer-gendered” or genderqueer and began to bring female-bodied friends who they felt held this energy to Faerie gatherings (Stover 2008, pp. 40, 43). These actions caused a split in the community between those who wanted Faerie space to be gay male space (and asserted that gay male sexuality is inborn), and those who felt that Faerie gatherings should be inclusively queer spaces. The queer-identified Faerie gatherings have since grown to outnumber the gay male-exclusive gatherings. Stover considers both groups to be essentialist: using their own terminology to reflect their emphasis on male-bodied sexuality, he calls the exclusivists faggot essentialists, while he refers to the queer-inclusive Faeries as spiritual essentialists (due to their assertion that queerness is an inborn but non-sex-linked trait) (Stover 2008, p. 33). Stover also reports a troubling development at a gathering in 2005, where a faggot-only group questioned the inclusion of an effeminate gay man due to his lack of masculinity. In order to maintain gay male-only boundaries, Stover reports, some Faeries have been moved to discredit and exclude the men originally defined as central to the movement (third-gendered gay men) (Stover 2008, p. 50).

Elsewhere, the increasing visibility of transgendered men and women in Pagan communities has caused friction around women-only gatherings. At the 2011 PantheaCon conference in San Jose, California, transwomen were (perhaps inadvertently) excluded from a Dianic women-only ritual (Kraemer 2010, p. 278). The event sparked a formal discussion of gender discrimination at the conference and months of heated blog posts. Dianics defended the importance of biological women-only space while queer-identified and transgender Pagans criticized essentializing Dianic rhetoric around menstruation and childbearing. Some protestors claimed that transwomen should be included in women-only rituals due to having female souls or female energy (either inborn or created by hormone therapy) (Oboler 2010, p. 179); others more pragmatically saw PantheaCon as a public, community event to which exclusive gatherings were destructive (Kraemer 2010, pp. 278–9). In a few cases, Dianic women leveled transphobic accusations against the excluded participants, arguing that transwomen were trying to use their “male” privilege to destroy female-only space (Kraemer 2010, pp. 277–8). Transgender activists countered that though the nature of transgender oppression is different from that of cisgendered women (biological females presenting as women), they are a severely persecuted class; the physical safety of transpeople is at risk daily due to the commonality of hate crimes against them (Kraemer 2010, pp. 277–9). Not all Pagan transpeople are seeking inclusion in single-gender communities, however. As both Hugh Urban and Yvonne Aburrow describe, queer and transgender Pagans are beginning to articulate a distinctively queer spirituality, particularly by seeking out half-forgotten queer, androgynous, and transgender deities from ancient pantheons and from the Western mystery tradition (Aburrow 2009, p. 147–8; Urban 2006, p. 189). Regina Oboler (2010) places these conflicts about transgender issues more generally in ongoing Pagan negotiations around gender essentialism. She suggests that opposition to patriarchy is only the beginning of the process of subverting gender norms, and that Paganism is actively in the process of envisioning a gender egalitarian culture and retheorizing the nature of gender (p. 182).

Queering Pagan Sexuality

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

As Mary Jo Neitz (2000) points out, it is impossible to speak meaningfully of gender without also speaking of sexuality. She examines a development at an annual Denver-area festival called the Dragonfest: the practice of women wearing satyr’s horns. The Dragonfest is attended by many Wiccan practitioners, and in Wiccan iconography, horns are associated with the masculine Horned God, a phallic deity of fertility (Neitz 2000, p. 384). When Neitz attended the Dragonfest in 1987, horned men were in evidence, but no horned women; in 1996, the horns were a common adornment on both women and men (Neitz 2000, p. 371). In interviews, Pagan women at the festival spoke of the way their Paganism allowed them and their male partners to subvert traditional gender norms and have more freedom in social roles. However, when asked directly about sexual relations, many of the women still made heteronormative assumptions: they spoke of women as identifying with the receptive earth Goddess and men identifying with the active Horned God (Neitz 2000, p. 382). Yet their practice belies this simple, dualistic system. Neitz sees the wearing of the horns as a way that women laid claim to the virile sexuality associated with the Horned God; at one point in the festival, the words of a group song were spontaneously changed from “men with horns” to “women with horns,” signaling the deliberateness with which women claimed a traditionally male role (Neitz 2000, p. 386). She concludes that although these Pagans were continuing to use traditional Western gender stereotypes, they were placing them in the context of an imagined prepatriarchal heterosexuality, where women and children were not owned by powerful males. From this starting point, they were able to leap to what Neitz calls a radical “postpatriarchal heterosexuality,” one that “evades the hetero-homo binary” (Neitz 2000, p. 388).4 At the same time, Neitz observed a greatly increased gay, lesbian, and transgender presence at the festival, with a wider variety of gender-bending costumes than in past years and several transsexuals in key organizational positions (Neitz 2000, p. 378). She concludes that despite the continuing dominance of heterosexual imagery among Pagans (and particularly Wiccans), the horned women and men in skirts suggest that Pagan practice as observed at the Dragonfest actively supports gender and sexual fluidity: there, one need not be simply male or female, homosexual or straight (Neitz 2000, p. 389).

Of the scholarship glossed above, Tosh and Keenan (2003) give the most succinct treatment of contemporary Pagan sexuality in its historical context, although they generalize heavily from Wiccan and Wiccan-influenced groups. Yvonne Aburrow (2009), however, charts the likely future for scholarship on Paganism and sexuality. Based on studies of GLBT Christians and several different contemporary Pagan groups, Aburrow makes an argument that queer spiritualities have separate discourses within the mainstream of their host religions. She defines “queer” as “radically resistant to normativity,” suggesting that queer spirituality is not limited to GLBT persons (and, in fact, that gay or lesbian spirituality can sometimes be pointedly un-queer in an attempt to codify beliefs and practices) (Aburrow 2009, p. 156). Aburrow also observes that despite Paganism’s status as a minority religion, Pagans sometimes maintain cultural norms around gender and sexuality that create a marginalized class of people even within the group (Aburrow 2009, p. 147). Throughout, however, Aburrow puts Pagan theology and practice on a level playing ground with progressive Christianity. She documents how members of each religion use different strategies to articulate a shared queer spirituality, one with elements that appear in both religious subcultures. Aburrow ultimately argues that both Christianity and Paganism have an inherently queer element that has been suppressed (in the case of Christianity) or ignored (in the case of Paganism). She sees sexual and gender transgression and androgyny as central to the history of Wicca, although these elements are often de-emphasized in contemporary Wiccan and other Pagan practice (Aburrow 2009, p. 156).

As of 2003, 28.3% of the American Pagan community self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual – a percentage far higher than the population at large (Berger et al. 2003, p. 28). Aburrow’s move to position contemporary Paganism as a worthy dialogue partner for progressive Christianity, particularly when it comes to theologies of gender and sexuality, does much to acknowledge the importance of Paganism within the GLBT community, and it also draws attentions to a key area in which Pagan studies can contribute to dialogues about religion and sexuality. The significance of queer spirituality in contemporary Paganism today cannot be overstated.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

Although gender and sexuality are central theological issues for many contemporary Pagan traditions, scholars are only beginning to move from mere description to critical treatments of their role in the movement. Further, although issues such as transgender, ethical nonmonogamy, multiple partner relationships, skyclad ritual, and BDSM are frequent topics of discussion among Pagan practitioners, for the most part they appear only as sidebars in analyses of Pagan spirituality.5 Among BDSM practitioners and those in multiple partner relationships, however, contemporary Paganism is the religion of choice (Hutchins 2006; Kolesar 2010), and workshops and panels on polyamory (ethical nonmonogamy) and BDSM practice are increasingly common at Pagan festivals and conferences (Hutchins 2006, p. 341). The entry of serious BDSM practitioners into Paganism, as opposed to the symbolic use of mild BDSM techniques by British Traditional Wiccans (as Pearson (2005, 2007) discusses), has yet to receive significant scholarly attention.

Further, Pagan studies scholarship on gender has focused almost entirely on women. Although there have been some treatments of gay men’s spirituality in Paganism (Aburrow 2009; Adler 2006, pp. 355–71; Stover 2008), examinations of heterosexual masculinity in Paganism have mostly occurred in the context of redefining women’s roles.6 Contemporary Pagan concepts of masculinity have been influenced by the mythopoetic men’s movement, which engages the concept of tribalism and notions of manhood inspired by hunter-gatherer societies (Kimmel 1995). Like the leaders of the men’s movement, many male Pagan practitioners see themselves as actively redefining masculinity, and their attitudes toward feminism are mixed. The Druid Isaac Bonewits, for example, embraces his own identity as a feminist and states that for young Pagans, “feminism is part of the woodwork”—so integrated into contemporary Pagan culture as to be invisible (2005, p. 166). However, Bonewits also criticizes the tendency of some “victimized” Pagan women to reproduce their trauma through the abuse of Pagan men, whether by inappropriately accusing them of sexism, asserting that their gender makes them incapable of “real magic,” or assuming that a feminist community is properly run as a female dictatorship (pp. 165–6). Wiccan A. J. Drew takes this accusation a step further by claiming that, when Paganism focuses on feminist Goddess worship rather than giving equal honor to the Goddess and the God, “men are spiritually and magickally castrated” (2001, p. 58). Such sentiments suggest that despite the stated intent of many Pagans to subvert traditional gender roles, Pagan communities largely lack the language to speak about power dynamics without perpetuating gender stereotypes. The continuing attachment of many Pagans to Jungian concepts of gender leads some Pagan men to experience the loss of traditional gender roles as disempowering rather than freeing. Further, despite Bonewits’ assertion that Paganism has fully integrated feminist values, the authority of Pagan women is sometimes perceived as a threat to men’s autonomy and ability to self-define. Neitz (2000) suggests, however, that although images of gender in Paganism can appear heteronormative and typical of Western culture, there are subtle differences in Pagan constructions of masculinity that may develop into a workable alternative vision of what it means to be male (p. 388). Pagan masculinity is being redefined by both heterosexual and queer Pagans working together in community, and scholars approaching the subject should be sensitive to the way this context shifts a superficially normative discourse.

The study of contemporary Paganism has much to offer students of gender and queer studies. As controversies over sexuality and gender roles continue to rage in American politics and around the world, scholars should bring sophisticated theoretical tools and a critical eye to a religious movement that is both rapidly growing and preferentially attracting sexual dissidents.

Footnotes

Short Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited

Christine Hoff Kraemer is an instructor in the Department of Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary, a contemporary Pagan seminary offering distance education for professional Pagan ministry and scholarship. She holds a PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University, where her dissertation focused on sexual minorities and religion in contemporary American literature and film. Recently, Christine co-edited Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels with A. David Lewis (Continuum, 2010). She has research interests in religion and sexuality, religion and popular culture, and body theology.

Works Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Pagan Gender and Sexuality in Historical Context
  5. Feminist Approaches to Gender in Paganism and Goddess Worship
  6. Conventional and Transgressive Gender Roles in Pagan Traditions
  7. Queering Pagan Sexuality
  8. Conclusion
  9. Short Biography
  10. Works Cited
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