Gender Politics for Pagans

I do not think that 2000 odd years of monotheism has done a great deal for human relationships. No doubt there were plenty of issues with the pre-Christians as well, but society in the west owes a lot to the Judeo-Christian traditions, and what they have taught us about love, relationships, gender and sex hasn’t been any kind of helpful. When sex is sin, a culture of guilt, shame, and silence follows. You can’t talk about it, or educate people, or deal with problems. Monotheism frowns upon same sex relationship, discourages contraception (some branches more vehemently than others, some are grasping that unlimited growth is not clever) and you can forget anything group based or casual. You aren’t supposed to do adultery or divorce either.

The trouble is that for a great many people marrying one person of the opposite gender and only getting to have sex with them for the purposes of bearing children, for as long as you both shall live, isn’t the answer.

Anyone who has so much as peeked at paganism will know that it is a sex-positive spirituality, embracing all the honourable permutations of human sexuality. An it harm none, do what you will. Anything consenting between adults is fair enough. We honour sex as sacred, and we favour responsible attitudes to human fertility.

But we still have to contend with the cultural legacy of 2000 years of monotheistic patriarchy and gender politics. I think one of the things that draws so many women towards paganism is that we have Goddesses. There are Gods too, there is balance, there is no absolute male authority. There is no suggestion that the female body is sinful, secondary, corrupt or otherwise unacceptable.

I’ve encountered men, and heard stories of others, for whom the notion of masculine gender identity, is rooted very much in the idea of being the one in charge, physically powerful, financially and politically dominant. Men who detest the rise of women in the workplace, and resent feminine power of any kind. They see women earning as a threat to masculine identity. Their power is based solely on the idea that they should have it and that society has appeared to approve of this for some time. I think that’s why they get so angry about feminists, because they are in fact very threatened. When your power is derived from a flimsy social construct, it’s very fragile indeed. Once people stop going along with it, your power has gone.

Power should be derived from what you can do. Status, influence and importance should not be about what you happen to have in your trousers, but should be earned through skill, determination, creativity, genius, dedication or some other pagan virtue. When your power is based on that which you do, not the accident of your birth, the scope for having it taken from you is much reduced. Yes, you may have to compete with others, if your nature is competitive, but there should be no rights without responsibility, and what we do should be the only measure that counts.

As pagans, we stand as equals in circle. There’s no formal hierarchy, no pews to sit in while authority talks down from the front. There’s no requirement for anyone to mediate between us and our deities. People come to paganism in part because they are tired of patriarchal, authoritarian religions that have no place for them.

The kind of dominant male we’ve aspired to in western culture does not, I think, do much for most men either. The alpha male, tall, strong, muscular, lantern jawed, rugged – not everyone is born to look that way. The alpha male is cold and distant too, he can’t show tenderness or vulnerability, he can’t drop his defences, and he certainly can’t let a woman get the better of him. He has to be top male and he has to fight for dominance there, too. Of course, only one man can be top of any social group, which means the majority can never attain the ideal. I’m not quite sure where he comes from. He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus.

Oddly enough, your modern pagan man probably does look more like Jesus (jokes about beards and sandals aside) than the ideal of the alpha male our Christian-derived culture has come up with. Strength tempered by compassion. Courage that manifests as a willingness to sacrifice, not a desire to take. Respect for women.

Paganism teaches us to see the divine in each other. There is a touch of Goddess power in every woman. There is spark of Godhood in every man. We are equal, but different – each human being unique. Gender is one part of that, but we honour our complexity and diversity. Now we just need to persuade everyone that empowering one person does not mean taking power away from someone else.