cover art for Pagan Consent Culture


I have a little something different for you today. Rather than reflecting on the world-as-is, which is in both stasis and rapid flux right now, I woke this morning with a desire to look back. Specifically, I wanted to share a short section from the chapter I wrote back in 2014 for the volume of collected essays Pagan Consent Culture. The book is extremely diverse in style and viewpoint, and carefully edited by By Christine Hoff Kraemer & Yvonne Aburrow. It’s still available in diverse formats here. Genres of writing that straddle the boundaries between scholarly analysis and personal reflection, and that speak to a wide audience, are much on my mind at the moment, as friends and I launch

A year ago, we were complaining about the lack of jobs, the inaccessibility of conferences, and the lack of understanding of our research. We had the distinct impression that many academics saw this as a minor and inescapable matter of inequal access involving a few early-career academics who studied ‘niche’ interests. This week those niche interests are suddenly of great interest to our various publishers. This week an lean and simple online conference that put together is gathering significant interest. I can’t help but feel that maybe significant and unexpected changes are ahead – like many of us might need to find ways of working that are leaner, more cost-effective, and more flexible. These are difficult and exhausting times to be building new worlds in, but we may not have a choice.

Some things however, are becoming clearer than ever. In the middle of a pandemic, the whole idea of touch, of contact, of connection, is more in my mind than ever. I returned to these words, then, today, to see how much they still hold true…

“Each individual, however we define personhood, has the absolute right to explore, set and communicate autonomous boundaries between themselves and the world. And as each individual, and their ecology, is constantly evolving together, they also have the absolute right to change and move those boundaries in ways that are confusing[1], illogical and capricious. ‘No’ always means ‘no’, it is not invalidated by a previous ‘yes’. Consent is not a legal piece of evidence, standing for all time; it is a process. Does ‘no’ still mean ‘no’ when uttered by a child, or when it is a clear but non-verbal response? Does the right to refuse stand even when its meaning is clear, but the person is other-than-human? Can an animal refuse consent to its treatment? Can a tree? How about a river? Where does consent end?

In contemplating[2] consent, we learn to negotiate not just connection but the dynamic flows of inter-personal and intra-personal; human and other-than-human power. Where our boundaries are weaker than we would like, we support ourselves and others in learning how to say no. We examine the many ways in which we all suffer and we all commit[3] acts of aggression. We discover the ways in which we can find the courage to heal and evolve together. Consent is not a shield we use to protect those who might be broken from those who break them. With care and self-awareness; with strength and forgiveness, it can be an endlessly rewarding process in which we learn from both sides to evolve our own relationships to power, reverence and abuse. This evolution takes place within our more-than-human body, and within the body of society, and also in the bodies of tribe and planet and ecosystem. We turn away from the temptation to separate light from dark. We refuse to banish every abusive impulse and act as something done by others in the name of evil. We do not claim absolute purity for ourselves. We face our shadows and we evolve. We end cycles of abuse wherever we can. We heal however we can. When we do so, we embody the warriors among our ancestors.

Consent. Context. Contact. In our natural world, edges and boundaries are the most fertile and productive of places. Between field and woodland, sea and shore, and even pavement and wall, diversity thrives and life proliferates. In the pause between desire and fulfilment we can find oceans of self-reflection in which we learn more about what we are truly reaching for. We can remake consent itself, ritualising the very moment of connection. We can make eye contact that honours both the sacred autonomy of the self that asks, and the self that responds. We can make reverent our relationship to the space we leave for either side to engage or withdraw. There is a depth of anticipation in consent as a spiritual practice that recalls us to the miracle of all life; of all connection. And all it takes is a single moment of mutual awareness. All it asks is empathy: the intention to feel together before we come together.

It will, as likely as not, be an imperfect, flawed experience. We will continue, in our enthusiasm, confusion and even fatigue to make assumptions about who we can hug, and how to hold hands, and who wants to see us naked. In our mundane life, in our gatherings and our solitary moments alike, we will get it wrong. Worst of all, there may be people waiting to take advantage of our assumptions to abusive ends. When this happens, may our policies and practices, our culture and our community[4], be there to catch and hold; and help us heal and learn from these mistakes. And may none of us be too badly scarred in the process, for too many of us have been hurt already.”

[1] that which is mingled to the point of being indistinguishable

[2] that which is near to the temple

[3] that which sends or puts together

[4] the many or all that shares together

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