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Paganism and Pornography

By Mike Nichols

At times my political views seem to lead me into contradictions. Last month saw me writing a furious letter to “Penthouse” magazine concerning their misinformed story on Witchcraft. Within two weeks I was writing to the head of the “QuikTrip” Corporation protesting the removal of “Penthouse” from their stores. You’d think I would have been happy at a blow struck against a magazine that maligned my religion. Not so. At stake is the free expression of ideas. Misinformation and censorship are both threats to that freedom. Of the two, I judge censorship to be the greater threat. As long as publishing continues unimpeded, retraction of misinformation is possible. When publishing is censored, even that becomes impossible.

But Mike, you say, aren’t you a Pagan and a Witch. Certainly. And don’t most Witches consider themselves feminists? I know I do (if, by “feminist”, you mean one who believes in the equality of women and men). And aren’t most feminists opposed to pornography? Tricky. My own answer: not necessarily. And certainly NOT at the expense of the First Amendment. After my bout with “QuikTrip”, I started pondering how other Pagans viewed the pornography vs. censorship issue. My hunch is that, despite Pagan/feminist consensus on most issues, there would be a real split here. While most feminists may oppose pornography, I suspect that a surprising number of feminists who are also Pagans would support pornography, or at least one’s right to publish it. And one needn’t look far for the reasons.

Isaac Bonewits (author of Real Magic) once observed to me that at most Pagan households he’s stayed in, there is usually a stack of Playboys and Forums in the master bedroom. And they are enjoyed by both partners. I would have been surprised had it been otherwise. Sexuality is a crucial issue to Paganism. After all, in high contrast to the traditional Christian view of sexuality as inherently evil (original sin), Paganism espouses sexuality as inherently sacred, or sacramental. It is no coincidence that the sex act itself, in the context of Wicca, is called “the Great Rite”. There is ample evidence of a “Tantric” strain of practice within our native Western European religious traditions before it was suppressed by Christianity.

But Mike, you may say, surely you are confusing sexuality with pornography. Being opposed to pornography doesn’t mean you’re against sexuality, does it? It depends. Primarily it depends on who is allowed to define “pornography”. And from a Witch’s perspective, such thoughts can be chilling. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of Witchcraft and its persecution will remember how may Witches went to the pyre accused of sexual crimes. From the viewpoint of the medieval Church, any sexuality that was practiced outside of heterosexual marriage (and for the sole purpose of procreation) was pornographic (in the sense of being sexually offensive or obscene) and should be censored. Inquisitors routinely accepted confessions of Pagan sexual license as proof of demonic activity.

It was the Christians who eventually put a stop to the open marriages, group marriages and Taillteann marriages allowed by the Pagan Irish Brehon laws. It was the Puritans who declared the “pornographic” Maypoles illegal, along with seasonal frolics in the woods. It was the Christians who condemned young girls for their “painted faces” and insisted they keep their hair hidden and wear clothes that covered the entire body, even in hottest weather. It was the Puritans who believed that dancing was immoral, and music (other than church music) was indecent. In short, any activity which encouraged sexuality was viewed by them as “pornographic”, and must be censored.

When the people who define pornography are the Christian Fundamentalists, Witches are bound to get nervous. Fundamentalists may go far beyond the most ardent feminists in what they find “sexually offensive.” You don’t believe me? Have you had a chance to glance at Georgia’s new anti-sodomy law? It’s real. It’s on the books. And it’s there because sodomy (even between consensual adults!) falls outside the Christians’ narrow concept of “sex as God intended it”. I’ve got news: a lot of Pagan sexuality falls outside “sex as God intended it.” That is why, when I hear of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin marching arm in arm with Jerry Falwell in her anti-pornography campaign, all the alarm bells in my head go off at once!

Usually, I find myself in agreement with most feminist ideology; if other feminists are for it, then I’m for it. But another good litmus test of my politics is to switch on channel 50; if the Fundamentalists are for, then I’m against it. Dworkin’s anti-pornography campaign represents the first time these two barometers of my politics have collided. Obviously, I better look a little deeper and pay very close attention.

Andrea Dworkin, together with law professor Catherine MacKinnon, have authored several anti-pornography laws (similar to one just defeated by popular vote in the state of Maine) which would make it illegal for anyone to sell pornography. These laws have received widespread support from Right-wing anti-obscenity enthusiasts, such as Attorney General Edwin Meese, whose Commission on Pornography recently turned in a highly biased report to President Reagan. When Meese’s commission had called 54 witnesses to testify to the “evils” of pornography, and only four to defend it, editor Hugh Hefner accused the commission of “sexual McCarthyism”. Andrea Dworkin seems to believe that an alliance with such Christian Fundamentalists will serve women’s rights, not endanger them. But all my background as a feminist and as a Witch leads me to conclude just the opposite – just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton concluded long ago – that the institution of Christianity is more responsible than any other for the repression of women in our society. Dworkin’s stance, it seems to me, is a dangerous and unholy alliance.

So if Dworkin, MacKinnon, Falwell, and Meese are on the same side of the net, who is on the other side? That , too, tells a story. Naturally, Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione. But also: the ACLU, People for the American Way, the American Booksellers Association, and the American Library Association, to name a few. Interestingly, there are also some well-known feminists in the anti-Dworkin camp, like Kate Millett and Betty Friedan, who argue that if pornography is bad, censorship is worse. It is comforting to me as a Pagan to realize that even feminists are split on this one.

Only last week, the ABA announced its intent to join Playboy and the ACLU in bringing suit against the Meese Commission for sending a letter (on U.S. Department of Justice stationery) to convenience stores such as Seven-Eleven “alleging that your company is involved in the sale and distribution of pornography”. Significantly, the law suit is being directed by ACLU lawyer Barry Lynn – the same Barry Lynn who defended Witches and Pagans against the infamous Helms amendment only last fall. Well, you may say, naturally Mike Nichols is going to take their side; he’s an ex-librarian, a bookstore owner and publisher himself. Maybe so. But when the country’s publishers, bookstores and libraries are in trouble, then we are all in trouble. You have only to remember libraries like Alexandria and Caernarvon, destroyed by religious fanatics, and modern-day book burnings of “obscene” material, to get the point.

But Mike, you now protest, you have been using the word “pornography” in a very loose way. According to the dictionary, pornography is any material that is “sexually arousing”. And surely none would protest tasteful erotica; we only object to pornography that is negative, violent, degrades women, promotes child abuse, etc. First of all, I would point out that the good folk on Meese’s commission may not agree with you about what is “tasteful erotica”. Again, remember Georgia’s new law. Second, I would argue that there is still no study (aside from the highly dubious Meese Commission report) that connects pornography with violent sexual behavior. In fact, all the best evidence points in the other direction. Countries with the most permissive pornography laws (such as Sweden and Denmark) have the lowest proportional incidence of rape and other sexual crimes. And the recent books on convicted rapists, like The Rapist File and Men on Rape, have constantly shown a negative correlation between pornography and rape – these men actually read pornography far less than the average man. Indeed, psychological profiles show these men to be almost Puritanical in their sexual attitudes. They would very likely to be the first to applaud the Meese Commission report.

Or, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that pornography does influence behavior (a very unlikely supposition). If so, then surely all literature influences action. Consequently, we’d better seriously consider a ban on movies like “Rambo”, or any senselessly violent war movie.

But surely the Dworkin/MacKinnon laws focus on more specific problems than these examples would indicate. What, in fact, is Dworkin’s own definition of pornography? And would modern Pagans find objections to her definition? They’d better! Because some of Witchcraft’s most cherished images, myths, and symbols would fall under Dworkin’s labrys. The most recent issue of “Woman of Power” published an interview with Dworkin, which included the text of the revised Dworkin/MacKinnon anti-pornography law.

Pornography is the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following:

  • “Women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities;”

Last week, I was fortunate to attend Starhawk’s splendid slide presentation on the “The Rebirth of the Goddess”. As I sat in the audience watching slide after slide of Neolithic Goddess figures, I realized these were quintessential women-dehumanized-as-sexual-objects. The greatly exaggerated sexual organs, the arms and legs barely indicated, quite often without faces, and sometimes without heads, fit Dworkin’s definition perfectly. And yet to me, and I suspect to most other Pagans, these are sacred objects – symbols of the Great Goddess of the matriarchal period.

  • “Women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation;”

The single most common myth in modern Witchcraft must surely be the Descent of the Goddess into the Underworld. After being stripped of her jewels, she kneels naked and bound before the Lord of Death who scourges her (“tenderly”) with a whip. “And she cries out, ‘Now I know the pain which is one with love and pleasure.'”, according to one common text seen in Books of Shadows. A patriarchal subversion of the original myth? Perhaps. Who can say for sure? But one thing is quite sure: the myth, as it now stands, is sacred to many Pagans, both male and female, who see many mythic attributes and magical correlations within it, and who would greatly oppose its censorship.”

  • “Women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped;”

There is almost a contradiction of terms here: if one is enjoying the experience, it can hardly be called rape. Still, many Pagan myths, from Persephone to Creidddylad to Guenevere, center on scenes of rape, sexual abduction, coercion and/or seduction. And Pagans would hardly be well-served to have such myths censored, or stripped of their abundant sexual content. Rape itself is sometimes an allegory for the more violent forces of Nature, and Pagans can learn much from studying the old myths. I’m reminded of psychologist Bruno Bettleheim’s arguments as to why fairy tales for children should not be “cleaned up”. The violence in them is allegorical and absolutely requisite to the deep meaning of the tale.”

  • “Women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt;”

Many books on contemporary Witchcraft contain pictures of women being initiated into the Gardnerian tradition, who are naked and bound. Both the binding and the ritual nudity have specific magickal associations mithin modern Wicca, in part related to the myth cited above. The Eight of Swords in the Tarot deck would also become “pornographic” by this definition. And many Pagan creation myths speak of the Goddess, or her daughter, as being cut up or dismembered, her various body parts forming the fabric of our universe. Again, sacred images to the Pagan.”

  • “Women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility or display;”

Such ritual postures (or “asanas”) as the kneeling posture, the “God position” (a salute to the Death Lord), the “Goddess position” (arms and legs outstretched), the women-as-altar position (used in some traditions of the Craft), not to mention various Tantric exercises, could all be construed to fit this definition. Again, these postures are not exceptions, but are common to many traditions of the Craft today.”

  • “Women’s body parts – including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, buttocks – are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts;”

I couldn’t have devised a more precise description of a sheilana-gig had I tried! It is Ireland’s ancient symbol of the great Goddess: a huge distended vagina, held open by two small hands, with a head peeking over the top and two small feet at the bottom. And virtually every “yoni” symbol in the world also falls under this category. Again, a great portion of Starhawk’s brilliant slide collection of sacred vulvae would have to the classed as “pornographic” by this definition. Even feminist artist Judy Chicago’s brilliant work, “The Dinner Party”, would also be censored under this clause.”

  • “Women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals;”

Artificial phalli have a long and dignified history in the realm of magic. I don’t suppose I’d be giving away any women’s mysteries to mention that female Witches “rode” their broomsticks vertically more often that horizontally. The evidence of the many phallically-carved broomsticks, staffs, hobby-horses (“ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross”) and wands (many of them smeared with belladonna and other hallucinogenic drugs) bear mute witness to their use. I might also mention, as a minority viewpoint, the attention given to artificial phalli in Gavin and Yvonne Frost’s Church and School of Wicca. Whether or not one agrees with this usage, its place in traditional Witchcraft can hardly be contested. As for the animals, there are too many Pagan myths to recount wherein a god or goddess turns into a animal and mates with a human.”

  • “Women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.”

This last phrase is basically a summation of the Dworkin viewpoint, all of which I have answered in previous arguments. In an attempt to avoid accusations of sexism, this section concludes “The use of men, children or transsexuals in the place of women in (1) above is pornography for purposes of this law.” My arguments would apply equally to these categories as well.

One final point is that Pagan myth and literature is not the only sacred literature that contains sexual and/or “pornographic” material. So does virtually every other sacred literature in the world, including the Christian Bible! Although you may feel that I stretched a point or two to make my arguments fit the Dworkin ordinance, still I hope my general concerns carry conviction. And if the carefully worded definitions of the Dworkin/MacKinnon law conflict with Pagan sensibilities, just imagine what the broader, looser definitions of the Meese Commission would be like.

Thus, if it comes down to a choice between pornography and censorship (a distasteful choice to many), then I believe we are safer to support the rights of those who publish, sell, distribute, and enjoy pornography. If you don’t want to use it yourself, you don’t have to. Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that pornography should be an “exception” to the First Amendment. I disagree. To support censorship – even in this limited form – would be a fatal mistake for a minority religion that sees sexuality as sacred. Paganism remains the strongest antidote we have to the repressed sexual attitudes of our patriarchal Judeo-Christian society. We must not give up our right and our freedom to depict sexual energy in all its beautiful, myriad and diverse forms.

Brownmiller, Susan, “Against Our Will”, Bantam, 1976.
Dershowitz, Alan M., “A 20th Century Inquisition”, Penthouse,July 1986.
Goth, A.N., “Men Who Rape”, Plenum Publishing, 1979.
Green, Michelle, “The Shame of America”, People, June 30, 1986.
Hefner, Hugh M., “The Blacklist”, Playboy, July 1986.
McGrath, Peter, “New Themes and Old Taboos”, Newsweek, March 18, 1985.
Namuth, Tessa, et. al., “The War Against Pornography”, Newsweek, March 18, 1985.
Nobile, Philip & Nadler, Eric, “Ed Meese Gives Bad Commission”, Penthouse, July 1986.
Stoil, Julie-Maya, “Radical Visionary for Justice”, Woman of Power, Winter/Spring 1986.
Sussman, Les & Bordwell, Sally, “The Rapist File”, Chelsea House, 1981.
Various press releases from People For the American Way Monthly.

Mike Nichols has taught classes in Wicca for 20 years and was the first Wiccan representative on the Kansas City Interfaith Council. Nichols has been a featured speaker on National Public Radio, Blog Talk Radio, and the Eclectic Pagan podcast. He continues to write and teach extensively and guest lecture at Pagan festivals.

This informative guide discusses the history, myths, customs, lore, and traditions associated with the eight Pagan holidays. More than merely a listing of events for each holiday, this examination explains the origins and symbolism of the Sabbats and why they are celebrated. The literary quality of the essays, coupled with the comprehensive knowledge of folklore, has made this book an essential text.

Thanks to Mike Nichols for allowing the republiction of his wondeful work.

Mike Nichols’s website The Witches’ Sabbats

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