Over on Pagan Activist blog, I just posted about Sex, Ethics, and Paganism, talking about what it is to be sex positive, and what isn’t sex positive. I ended up with way more than I could fit into one blog post, so I wanted to call out some of the specific techniques that Pagans (specifically, group leaders and teachers) sometimes use that get people wrapped up in sexually nonconsensual situations.
This isn’t just about Pagan community, either–this happens in all sorts of subcultures and small groups where people are afraid to speak up once they realize they’ve been abused. It gets tricky, because these situations sometimes can feel consensual at the time. Let’s first address the overall scenario: what is an abusive coven or group dynamic?
I’ve heard covens and groups who were pressuring adults into having sex. And I’ve heard of coven leaders who set up situations where they were having sex with minors. It’s pretty sick. Just to be clear–illegal activity should be reported to the police. Gather what evidence you can, and go to the police. What allows this behavior to propagate is that minority religions are afraid this will make us “look bad.”
You know what’s bad? Child abuse. You know what’s bad? Rape. So let’s start there.
(I say this with the caveat that you need to have the facts straight. This isn’t something you go to the police with when you have “heard” someone’s doing this. You need facts, the police need evidence. Rape is, sadly, very difficult to prove. Sometimes it takes multiple victims before a case can be made. It’s also important that you’re not doing this based on gossip, hearsay, and sour grapes on your part, or someone else’s. Bringing police or legal action as a Pagan power play is…heinous, ridiculous, and insufferable, and exemplifies some of the major difficulties Pagan groups have in making any traction at organizing structures that sustain for longer than a few years.)
Let’s assume we’re dealing with a genuinely abusive dynamic:
What does that look like? In the case of minors, here’s the slow slide into hell. It’s called grooming. A friendly coven leader creates a coven where minors can join. These minors aren’t allowed to be Pagan by their parents, so they’re doing this in secret. The coven leader supports this activity, tells them they are being strong by standing up for their religious rights. And then, the coven leader brings out some booze one night after the class. Some of the kids get a little tipsy. Let’s say that the kids in the group are age 13-15.
A few sessions later, there’s usually booze, and now there’s drugs too. The coven leader has positioned themselves as “the really cool adult.” The coven leader begins to suggest that these teenagers shouldn’t be held back by the dominant culture’s constraints on what’s moral, that it’s ok for people to hook up while they are there in safe space. So after ritual, things start turning into make out parties. Eventually, a number of the teens are having sex with each other, at the nudging and approval of the group leader.
The leader then singles out one or two of the teenagers and begins flirting with them, telling them how grown up they are, how pretty/sexy they are. Maybe buys them some gifts, like sexy attire. Then starts having sex with them. The sexual attention of the group leader then becomes a prize to be fought over, and the whole group begins trying to outdo one another to get sexual attention from the group leader, thusly ensuring their control over the group.
Think it can’t happen? Guess again. I have some friends who lead a coven who encountered a coven leader JUST LIKE THIS.
Adult Grooming and Consent
The adult process of being groomed by an abuser is often the same slow slide. It’s lots of giving an inch, and another inch. It usually involves lots of things that might seem like they were your idea…but they really weren’t. Here’s another situation. You join a coven. You’re brand new, wet behind the ears. You start attending classes, you’re inspired by your new spirituality but you’re overwhelmed by how much you don’t know. The coven leader sets up an intense power dynamic with both praise and shame. They are lauded by the other students as the supreme authority on the topic. They are powerful and magnetic. You really are awed by how much they know. You want them to like you, because deep down you are a people-pleaser. The people-pleasers in the group vye for the group leader’s approval.
Eventually this becomes a parent/child dynamic. Women with “daddy issues” are easy marks, as is anyone who has poor self esteem, anyone who is desperate for approval, desperate to be seen/loved/valued. Women who have the “I need to be a good girl/get approval” cultural baggage are especially vulnerable to this, but people of any gender can have that baggage.
Eventually the hot/cold dynamic of shaming, “No, that’s wrong! That’s not how you balance your chakras!” and praising, “Good, that’s an excellent spellworking!” does its work. Eventually, the leader uses praising in a more personal way. “You’re really special, you have an amazing aura, you are going to be really powerful some day.” Pause….”I’d be happy to teach you the inner mysteries, except…”
“Except there’s some things we’d need to do. That kind of initiation and magical work is very sexual, and I’m not sure you’re ready for that.”
“I’m ready! I’m definitely ready.”
Does this sound like a bad after-school special? Well, probably. I’m oversimplifying a process of grooming that can take days or months. But what’s important to understand is that this kind of abuse–most abuse–comes in inches. Nobody starts out being ok with getting thrown down the stairs. Nobody says, “Yeah, I’m ok with getting verbally, emotionally, and then physically abused.” It happens inch by inch, giving in just a little, and a little more.
Nobody just agrees to go have sex with the coven leader. It’s when the victim’s whole sense of self identity hinges on the approval of the coven leader that it happens, in some situations.
Here’s what makes it worse, on some levels. That coven leader may not be all bad. They’re also doing good things, teaching people, building community, running events. They may genuinely want to build a vital group. And when it finally comes out that they’ve been doing this, people will get up in arms because XYZ couldn’t possibly have done that, they are a good person, they’ve done all these good things.
It’s called cognitive dissonance. We (humans) have a hard time believing that someone could do ABC good things, but also do DEF bad things. In my Pagan Activist blog, I offer an example of a noted editor for Scientific American who was found to be sexually harassing writers. Learning to hold paradox is a useful tool. I can absolutely hold space for someone who has done all sorts of amazing good work, but, who has sexual compulsions (or who’s a kleptomaniac, or an alcoholic, or whatever). It doesn’t mean they are a categorically bad person.
However, if they can’t get help, they may not be appropriate as a group leader. It depends quite a bit on the nature of their unethical behavior; how compulsive is it, is the behavior illegal, are they willing to get help, etc.
Grooming, Seduction, and Hypnosis Techniques
When discussing this on my Facebook wall, one person asked, “But I heard that hypnosis can’t make you do anything you don’t want to?”
That’s…sort of true.
But what hypnosis techniques, and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) can do is make you think that something was your idea in the first place. The above examples demonstrate that. NLP can be used (and is usually taught) as a method to help people with personal transformation. NLP and hypnotherapy are both used for things like helping people quit smoking, or quit other behaviors holding them back from being who they want to be.
However, it’s also taught to people in sales to get people to buy more stuff. And there’s also a whole category of NLP taught to help people get more sex.
NLP is like any tool; it’s not bad in and of itself, but it can be (and is) abused. Basic advertising uses hypnosis, trance, and NLP techniques. If you’ve ever looked at a billboard ad for fast food, and then found you were craving that food, that’s basic trance technique. Humans are ridiculously easy to manipulate.
Generally, no, hypnosis can’t make you do anything against your will. But smooth trance technique can be used to get people to consider doing things they ordinarily wouldn’t. You are being coerced and manipulated into thinking that it was your idea.
For my part, whether or not the technique is working the fact that a Pagan leader trained in NLP, (like my ex partner who was using it to get people into bed), is pretty unethical. He used to explain to me some of the NLP tricks that are taught to learn how to seduce people.
At the time, I just thought we were talking about human psychology, since he’d read more books on NLP than I had. My training in hypnosis, NLP, and trance techniques was more hands-on through facilitating rituals for personal transformation. Later, I came to realize that he was actually using these techniques to cheat on me with students…and, he was even using these techniques on me.
Some typical NLP tricks to get someone into bed usually include heavy compliments. It’s actually the same grooming techniques I mention above. What they’re trying to do is get you to associate positive emotions with them, as well as seek approval from them. They’ll also ask questions to get your mind going. Like, “What’s the last time you felt just really amazing, really sexy?” because, our subconscious mind is going to “go there” whether or not your conscious mind wants to.
It’s like if I said, “Don’t think about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.” Guess what you’re thinking about right now?
I can honestly say that I’ve never used NLP for specific sexual seduction, nor have I read any books with that as the focus. Thusly, I can’t really speak to many of the specific language techniques that are being used. But basically, it’s trying to engage a positive emotional association with the seducer, trying to get them to feel sexy, trying to get them to seek approval from the seducer, and manipulate the person into thinking that sex with the seducer was their idea all along.
This is where the sex positive concept of “enthusiastic consent” comes in. There’s consent…which is more, you kind of feel like you’re being pressured to have sex, but you go along with it for various reasons. And then there’s enthusiastic consent, which is energetically different.
I’ve had sex where, I’m not sure why I had sex. I said yes. Or at least, I didn’t say no…but I didn’t really want to be there. I felt pressure to have sex. If I didn’t have sex, he’d cheat on me, so I really should put out, right? If I didn’t have sex, I’d lose his approval.
Hopefully you can see the difference. And this is why the word rape is so very challenging. I can say I’ve had sex I didn’t really enthusiastically consent to, but I can’t honestly say I was ever raped. But…it’s kind of a mess of spaghetti in my head when I think about it some of the experiences I’ve had. I’ve had sex when I really didn’t want to because I felt pressured.
Dangers of Forced Seduction and Hypnotherapy
And that is why using NLP, hypnotherapy, or other trancework/grooming techniques to get sex swiftly dives into the unethical. If someone thinks back on the sex and things, geez, I didn’t really want to do that…or feels used…that’s not what most people would call healthy sexuality.
And yes, there was consent in the form of, someone said yes. Or at least, didn’t say no. But why did they say yes? Why did someone feel like they had to have sex with that shiny Pagan teacher or ritualist or coven leader?
Typically, the folks who are out there doing things like this are targeting the most vulnerable person in the room. I know that in NLP for seduction workshops, they teach how to identify a target just like a con man. They’re looking for the youngest person in the room, or the most shy, or the most nervous. They’re looking for someone with poor self esteem, poor self image, most of the time. Hubris and arrogance and other characteristics can provide a master manipulator with a way in too.
Many of the coven leaders and teachers who are doing this aren’t necessarily doing it intentionally. In fact, that’s the insidiousness of the cycle of abuse. They learn how to do this because they, too, were abused. It becomes instinctive. It’s rarer that they actually go out of their way to learn how to do this, but it does happen.
Folks who do take NLP for seduction classes certainly don’t think of themselves as abusers. They’re just trying to get laid.
Trance Techniques for Good or Bad?
I use NLP, hypnotherapy, and other trance techniques in ritual to get people singing and dancing, to help them connect to the divine, to help them move past what no longer serves. These techniques can be used for good. But they are most commonly found in advertising to manipulate you into buying a cheeseburger or couch, or by salesman trying to sell you a car that’s more expensive than you need.
Or, sadly, by a group leader who probably has massive self confidence issues and a bucketful of self loathing, and probably one of several potential personality disorders. Likely who is trying to meet their need for intimacy and love and connection by having sex with people. But, the only way they know to get sex is to pressure people who are emotionally more vulnerable than they are.
I often joke and say, “I promise only to use my powers for good.” But I’m actually serious with that commitment. The path to hell is paved in good intentions, and absolute power can corrupt absolutely.
Those of us who hold a position of power and authority within a community owe it to our community members to be ethical. I have the power to get a whole room full of people singing, dancing, crying, having catharsis. And so I have a whole host of ethics about what it’s ok for me to do, and not ok. For instance, it’s not ok for me to date people who I meet in context of them coming to a ritual or to a class. I go into that more on my post on Pagan Activist blog.
What Do We Do?
These kinds of abusive dynamics aren’t ok. Grooming people for abuse is not ok. Pressuring people into sex is not ok. If this is happening to you, please reach out to someone. Leave the group. Leave the situation. If you see a coven engaging in this behavior and don’t know what to do to keep your group from blowing up, send me a message. I can’t promise a clean, easy way out, but I’ll do my best.
Behavior like this is not always intentional. Some leaders engaging in this behavior can get help. Most won’t, sadly, and then we as a community need to look at, what do we do with group leaders engaging in behavior like this?
If it’s not illegal (such as sleeping with a coven member who’s of age) but, it’s squicky, what do we do? Leaders don’t need to be perfect. Gods know I’ve made my own mistakes.
But what do we do when there are real, clear abuses of power and position that have grievously and consistently harmed members of our community? There’s no Pagan court, no Pope. Sometimes, all you have is Facebook–and that, as we know, turns into a complete mess as a vehicle for a trial of someone’s character.
Tricky questions, and no good answers, but I hope that this gives you a place to start understanding how it happens.