I’d like to start by saying how absolutely heartbreaking it is for me to write this.
I’m one of the folx who came to my understanding of paganism, magic, and religion BECAUSE of Isaac Bonewits. My whole pagan-story has been influenced by him, his opinions, and his work. I’m in ADF because I believed in his vision for religious pluralism (even though he’d likely never strung those two words together in his life), polytheology as a means to increase diversity appreciation (even though ADF hasn’t figured out that they’d serve the world better by doing that than what they’re doing now), and their clergy training program. I’ve told people I’m pagan because of Bonewits, and polytheist because of ADF. Needless to say, I’m pretty fucked-up about all the recent news regarding the founder of our mother-church, and their initial reactions to said news.
Much of my identity as a pagan was informed by Bonewits and his creation, ADF, and I can’t get the thought of “I’m having a freakin’ identity crisis!” out of my head.
I’m a broken pagan man.
Anyway, a few days after the story broke, Rev. Bee and I were sitting together at The Prairie Home with another of our sibling clerics. Consider that in addition to digesting this disgusting news, we just went through a day of our church’s biennial bylaws revision meeting, AND a previously scheduled class for polytheist dedicants… in short, we were all pretty raw, vulnerable, and emotionally battered, as the topic of Bonewits and his past came up a lot, influencing each part of our day-to-day over the last several days.
So, as we’re sitting in the living room lamenting and sharing our frustrations and heartbreak, the book “The Pagan Man” caught the attention of our clergy sibling, who then asked if I’d read the book before. I admitted that I hadn’t, and that it came to the library as a donation because the person giving it thought we’d like it because it was one of Bonewits’ works. We wondered together what he’d have to say about “being a man”.
I had to know.
I picked up the book, and turned to the index, as I was interested in what a prominent pagan man (it could be argued that Bonewits was THE pagan man for some time with regard to his influence and notoriety) had to say about being a man with regard to sex and sexuality. I quietly hoped there wasn’t anything in here that would do more damage. I hoped for something redeeming. I hoped to find some salve for my aching spirit.
My congregants have heard me say that “hope is the worst of all ills and ultimately, is for suckers”. With that being said…
… here are one sucker’s discoveries from Isaac Bonewits’ The Pagan Man (Citadel Press, Kensington Pub. Group, NY NY, 2005).
(Most of what is coming out of this originates from Chapter 11 - Pagan Men, Pagan Women, and Sex. This is by NO means to be a comprehensive review of this book. The little bit I write is all I could before having to put the book down. Also, I’m gonna be jumping around the book and not going from beginning to end.)
I discovered his telling pagan women, specifically, that they need to give pagan guys a chance because “... the war against sexism in Pagandom is over - you won. (169)” If winning means that they’ve had to suffer through his (or any “pagan man’s” for that matter) continued ass-grabbing, breast-fondling in exchange for book autographs, misogynist remarks, and deeply enculturated toxic masculinity, than I *guess* they won…?
I discovered his antiquated view of the -isms when he said, “But just as there are those who only believe only white folks can be racists, there are women who believe that only men can be sexist… (169)” Admitedly, as a culture, we’ve come to greater understanding of the power-dynamic in the -isms. I feel compelled to add that in 2005 I was introduced to the ideas of power and privilege with regard to the -isms, but I was attending a VERY liberal, private university at the time. Perhaps this speaks to pagan and polytheist leaders staying relevant and up-to-speed in their thought processes around these topics. The master’s cup is full, while the learner’s cup is empty.
I discovered what could, perhaps, be a subtle recognition of past wrongdoing (without any mention of reconciliation or acceptance of responsibility), “Between the alcohol and other mind-altering substances I was consuming at the time… I can’t remember much of my teens and twenties, yet I have a nagging suspicion that I did a few things that would make me cringe today. (172)” To perpetrators, one way of making things right is by pious engagement, with the intention of the right deeds of today will outweigh the misdeeds of yesterday. I can’t say for sure that’s what was happening here, but in light of the current state-of-the-union regarding Bonewits, one could experience these lines in that fashion. The problem with that solution is that it is selfish and one-sided, never allowing the victims to have the power to participate in justice and reconciliation. It’s an answer to bringing balance to a fucked-up past, but it’s not the best answer. Why not Excellence, indeed.
I discovered how uncomfortable and smarmy I felt when, “... respect for the immanent deities of others will tell you whether the sexual escapade you have in mind is appropriate or not. (173)” was what I could find regarding the idea of consent.
I discovered that, in his opinion, one didn’t even have to talk to the person one wants to have sex with to get consent. Just bypass them and talk straight to their Gods. “When you look into the eyes of someone you are thinking of having sex with, search for (their) immanent god or goddess. Make that connection and ask that deity if it’s okay with (Them) if you and (Their) incarnation have some fun together. (173).” Right about here was where I looked up from my reading and caught the eyes of Rev. Bee and our sister-priest… and we all had a look of disgust on our faces. Moving past the bile in my mouth, I continued reading to learn that “The god or goddess will tell you … whether or not you are connecting to an equal or exploiting someone who by age, experience, or current state of mental health, is not able to make that healthy connection. If the god or goddess in the person says, “Back off” just back off (173).” Oddly enough, Bonewits notes that his son, Arthur (who incidentally uses the word consent, and phrases his comment in a way that it’s the PEOPLE giving consent, not their “immanent deities”), has a fantastic idea of consent and boundaries. (173-174) His father; however, focuses on the whole immanent deity thing for the majority of his thoughts and opinions around sex and sexuality, although he says (maybe only once?) that both immanent deity AND the person were needed to give consent. Mixed messages? Maybe. Maybe I’m just in an in-between space where all of this is concerned, and am just confused AF. I don’t know, y’all… I guess the more I process, the more I’m discovering how much pain I’m experiencing from of all of this.
I discovered that on one page (174) he says that pagan men, “... should never force, browbeat, manipulate, trick or blackmail” when it comes to sex, and not six pages later, came across this sexist, manipulative gem.
“Oh, we still have puritanical people (usually female) in our communities, but if you stand up honestly for your principles they will usually back down. Most of them are abuse survivors and have good reason for being a bit paranoid. Convince them that you are being chivalrous and honorable and they will usually get out of your face.” Bonewits, 180
I discovered that Bonewits endorsed Gavin Frost, and although listing among Frost’s “controversies” his belief that young girls should be taught to use dildos before losing their virginity (58), Bonewits never spoke out against these practices… but he did name Frost as one of the “Founding Fathers” of pagan men.
I put the book down when I discovered in the “What do Pagans Believe” section the *belief* that “Children are born holy, since they have nothing between them and their indwelling (immanent?) deities. (8)” Maybe it was because I had just moments before read that direct communication with immanent deity was his idea of consent? Maybe it was because of the recent news regarding Bonewits and allegations of child rape, and other recent accounts of his advocacy of the legal age of consent being 13? Whatever the reason was, adding the immanent deity consent model PLUS holy children who are linked to their immanent deity… well, that’s where I shattered.
It was there that what was left of my religious innocence died. I’ll admit there wasn’t much left after my bachelors degree, but it was in my brokenness, in my feelings of let-down, in my anger at myself for feeling betrayed and foolish, in my being lost… it was in that complex moment that Clarity touched me.
It was in that moment of clarity that, I believe, I “leveled up” as a cisgender pagan man (whatever that means).
On the other side of every #MeToo is an #IDidItToo.
It’s not just about not engaging in negative and unhealthy things. It’s about ACTIVELY ENDING those things that infect our culture and society. It’s like the difference between “I’m not racist” and “I’m Anti-Racism”. One is just a person not engaging in shitty behavior while enjoying the inherent benefits given to them from the past. The other is not only not doing it, but calling it out when it appears, and working to put an end to the systems that perpetuate it.
… and that’s where Isaac failed,
… and my innocence died,
… and where I became more of a man than the day before.
I’ve told my congregants often that some of our Ancestors show us what to do, while others show us what not to do. Some show both, and some neither (thanks, paradox).
Perhaps what I’m experiencing is the violent shift of a religious-ancestor from the “what to do” category to the “what not to do” category?
Perhaps I’ll just cloister for a while and process this shit out of me with help from those who love me, and my own intestinal-fortitude. Yeah… that’s what I’ll do.
Thanks for listening (reading), y’all.
May our journey to clarity be upon smooth roads and across calm seas, and may we recognize how privileged we are when it is, and understand how soul-jarring it is when it’s not.