Out of the Shadows
On Neo-Pagan Sexual Ethics
by Oberon (was Otter) Zell, Founder and Primate, Church of All Worlds
I first wrote this article in 1967, when I was 24 years old, for Robert Rimmer's Harrad Letter newsletter. The original title was simply "Free Love." It was subsequently reprinted in The Pagan! (Vol. I, No. 1; Nov. 1, 1970), and again, under the title " Ero-Ethics: Neo-Pagan Sexual Morality" in Green Egg (Vol. ?, No. ?; Date ?, 197?). When Aidan told me he wanted to include it as a chapter of The New Polygamy(?), I took a look at it and realized how much has changed in the last 26 years! In so many ways this essay is really a product of its time, and what seemed very radical in "The Summer of Love" may seem positively passé in this age of AIDS, RU486, and the anti-choice movement. Indeed, I haven't even heard the phrase, "Free Love" in at least 15 years! I have updated as much as possible and interjected parenthetical comments where necessary, but please bear in mind the context in which I was originally writing. In the spirit of our Pagan "partnership society," I would especially like to acknowledge and extend my appreciation to my two life partners, Morning Glory and Diane Darling, who have contributed greatly to the updating and revisions of this essay, excising obsolete material and adding relevant new insights. (OZ, April 1, 1993).
Over the quarter-century I have been public as a Pagan, I have had to deal with only a few sorts of reactions from non-Pagans upon learning of my religious identification. For many years the most frequent question would run something like: "Do you believe in free love?" If I was in a capricious mood, I would reply to the effect of: "What, do you think it should be expensive?"
I have wondered about the concepts inherent in that phrase, "free love." It is nearly always used in a derogatory sense, as if anyone believing in it must be some vile pervert. But who would dare deny that "love" (affection, caring, concern, "that condition in which the other person's happiness is essential to your own," as Robert Heinlein proclaimed in Strange in a Strange Land 1) should ideally be "free" (unbound, voluntary, not enslaved, open to all, lavish)? I think the confusion of terms must be due to a semantic differential, for what most people seem to mean, pragmatically, by "free love" boils down to compulsory sex." This is quite a different matter. I am a devout believer in Love, and in Freedom. Freedom necessarily implies the right to say "no" as well as the right to say "yes." Unfortunately for the advancement of love in the world, some supposed proponents of "free love" use it as an excuse to put the make on everyone in sight. They seem to think that if another person affirms a belief in "free love," that person is obligated t o prove it by having sex with anyone who happens along. This I reject utterly. Coercion is the antithesis of freedom, in sex or in any other arena.
Love, and sex also, lose all value when they are not free, but compulsory. Then all we have is rape: the original sin. Three Points of the Triskelion Pagan ethics and morality are based on three premises: Immanent Divinity, the Wiccan Rede ("an ye harm none, do as thou wilt" an expression of responsible freedom), and "Nature is Good." The underlying pantheistic theology o f Paganism implies immanent divinity, expressed by the fundamental precept: "Thou Art God/dess." Because "Thou Art God/dess," each and every one of us, the only reasonable attitudes toward one another are: respect, reverence and love. We are all Gods and Goddesses and we are all Human.
We are divine and sacred beings, proud and glorious. So it is with responsible freedom. If we desire freedom for ourselves, we must also grant it for others. It has been truly said that "as long as one man (or woman) remains a slave, no man (or woman) I s truly free." But freedom is not merely a negative factor: not merely the absence of slavery. We are not talking about freedom from, but freedom for: freedom for growth; freedom for self-actualization, for joy, for love. Now, freedom implies responsibility. Obviously, people can only be held responsible for their actions if they are free to choose those actions in the first place. Conversely, when people deliberately choose one course of action over another, the responsibility for the consequences of that action is theirs alone to bear. The two are in direct correlation; the more you have of freedom, the more you have of responsibility, and vice versa.
The Wiccan Rede echoes the Hippocratic Oath, which begins "Firstly, do no harm," as well as the Pagan Hindu concept of Ahimsa: harmlessness. In all our actions, it must be our primary goal to help, to heal, and not to harm. While this is an ideal that ca n seldom be achieved in totality, it must remain foremost in our thoughts as we contemplate our path of conduct. A friend, Anna Korn, says that her father taught her that a statement made to another person should always fulfill at least two of the following three criteria: it must be kind, necessary and true. These guidelines may be applied to actions as well, including sexual behavior.
To say that "Nature is Good" is not to assert that Nature always operates in the best interests of humanity. We are, after all, only a small part of the picture. Rather, this is a commitment to deriving our values from Nature Herself, of which the two greatest ideals are Balance and Diversity. To this end, Pagans tend to agree with the Vulcan edict from Star Trek: "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." Or, in a more expanded form: "The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity, and in the myriad ways our differences combine to create beauty and meaning."2
Civilization has largely been a long journey away from Nature. Hence we have lost our balance and chosen monoculture (monotheism, monopoly, monogamy, monotony) over diversity. In reclaiming our natural sexuality, we must restore the balance between the sexes and enthusiastically promote diversity in sexual lifestyles and orientations, thus maximizing our evolutionary options.
"For behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals" (Doreen Valiente)3
The "new morality" of the '60s, the sexual freedom ethic, promised to be the healthiest movement since the settling of the Oneida community. Historically, only recently has such an innovation in basic interpersonal relations really been possible, since only in the past 30 years has birth control been so simple and convenient that responsible freedom in sex can be realized. The availability of efficient contraceptive techniques at last changes procreation in the sexual relationship to a choice rather than a chance.
Freedom in sexual love could never exist without this choice. Freedom arises from availability of choice. Hither arises responsibility for consequences: with control over them. Socially, responsible freedom can exist only when consequences can be limited in effect to the consenting actors themselves.
Paganism, as life-affirming Nature worship (in contrast to the death-orientation of ascetic monotheistic faiths) takes a positive and joyous attitude toward all of life and sensuality, including sex. Pagans regard sex not as humanity's greatest weakness, but as our greatest strength. Corollary to "Thou Art God/dess," sex is the supreme act of worshipin love, joy, reverence, passion, exultation and pure fun. We feel this way about all of our life experiences, and living itself: we rejoice in the sheer glory of being alive!
Children of a future age, Reading this indignant page, Know that in a former time, Love, sweet Love! was thought a crime! (Oscar Wilde)
Ascetic religions, in their anti-life orientation, have focused their most concentrated attack upon sexual joy. Free, happy, joyous, loving people do not feel wicked and sinful they laugh at death and hell, and feel no need for confession or salvation. Ascetic religions have no appeal for such people and have no power over them. For this and other reasons, throughout the ages Christians, Moslems, and even Buddhists have condemned, suppressed, tortured, murdered and defamed Pagans. The Church knew a rival when it saw one. Since sex can bring ecstasy to everyone, it was rightly recognized as the greatest single threat to the institutional churchmen, who taught that paradise could be reached only through them, and then by only a select few. So they made sex a sin, except under certain conditions (marriage, "missionary position," for procreation) and an onerous duty even so. The Christian-Puritan "law and order" was maintained by the familiar double standard which, in turn, was based on and arose from two things: patrilineal inheritance and male jealousy. In most tribal (i.e. Pagan) cultures, inheritance was matrilineal, with children inheriting their mother's name, family, and property. In such societies, the very concept "father" was often unknown, biologically as well as socially. (The missionaries ran into some real snags here, with the "our Father in heaven," and "Son of God" bits.) However, in patriarchal cultures, inheritance is patrilineal, with sons inheriting their father's name and legacy. Thus assurance of paternity was important, for a man wanted to be sure that he is indeed the father of his sons (never a problem for a woman, who knows perfectly well that she is the mother of her children.) Hence chastity belts, the premium on virginity at marriage, and the creation of a double standard. The second factor, male jealousy, arises out of the old Indo-European and Semitic idea that a woman is property owned by, respectively, her parents, her husband, and her sons, and she ("it") may not be "used" by anyone else. (The same attitude is found in most Eastern religions as well.) In the West, the idea that a woman is a human being in her own right was an Old European and Celtic notion, and has been revived only recently by feminists and humanistic psychologists (and, of course, the new Pagan revivalists). The revival is far from complete, and many of the old "I-it" relationships still exist again, a double standard. In addition to these two primary factors, Puritanism has inculcated the absurd notion that "nice" women don't enjoy sex. This has led to male sexual exploitation of women, not only as prostitutes, where there is at least a business arrangement, but also a s dating partners and wives. Naturally, when the woman is enjoying sex as much as the man, there can be no exploitation. "Nice" women drove Victorian men to professionals, as making love to a woman who does not enjoy it is hardly a pleasure, except for men who are very damaged emotionally.
"The times they are a-changin'" (Bob Dylan)
With liberated women more willing to experience sex in the context of meaningful, total relationships, men of today no longer need to seek out professionals in the droves their grandfathers did. That they are still doing so indicates a lack of trust between men and women and the failure of the institution of monogamy. In new, total relationships, herein women are treated as total persons, the effects of jealousy can be diminished. Once there were only two means of contraception available: "Vatican Roulette" and rubbers. Neither was quite satisfactory, as people who use the former often became known as "parents," and people who stopped to apply the latter tended to turn off their partners. (Now, of course, in this era of AIDS and other new and nasty--if not so lethal--STDs, we have had to learn to come to terms with condoms just as we've had to learn to wear our seat belts. I personally think this is a great thing, as the widespread adoption of condoms as an acceptable social practice allows us to enjoy sex with multiple partners while releasing women from having to bear the entire responsibility for birth-control, as the same little latex raincoats that protect against disease also prevent unwanted conception.) However, thanks to the progress of science, we have been blessed with "The Pill," diaphragms, intrauterine devices, subcutaneous capsules and vaginal foam, the latter of which has the distinct advantage of being available in any drug store without prescription. (At the time this article was written, "The Pill" was still in its honeymoon phase, and complications and side-effects that have caused many women to give it up had not yet become a major issue. Hence the perhaps overly optimistic tone of this paragraph.) Morning-after" pills, monthly pills, and male pills are in development, and will hopefully be readily available soon. Thus the total elimination of unwanted pregnancies is at last possible for everyone (except where still prohibited by religion, law or lack of technology). Responsible freedom in the sphere of sexuality has become attainable to all. (And then of course there is abortion. When this article was written, an abortion could only be obtained through the black market, a risky and often lethal procedure. Since "Roe vs. Wade" 20 years ago, however, effective and relatively safe medical abortions have been available for most women in this country. In contrast to many of the Christian churches' adamant opposition to termination of unwanted pregnancies, modern Pagans have been in the forefront of the movement to guarantee the full rights of reproductive choice for all women. The Church of All Worlds issued its first official "Encyclical" on this issue: "It is ecologically, psychologically, spiritually and politically indefensible to bring unwanted children into the world. We are pro-life, regarding the quality of life for all beings to be of utmost importance. The Church of All Worlds unconditionally supports the right of a woman to make her own decisions regarding her ability to responsibly raise a child. We declare and defend a woman's right to safe, effective birth control and to a timely abortion whenever she should deem it necessary. We work for the rights of women to maintain and expand their reproductive options."4)
"Thou shalt not..."
Well, so much for the historical and contemporary analysis. I am not trying merely to tear down the old system, but to build up a new. Paganism is a positive, not a negative. This is a difficult understanding for most people committed to the Judeo-Christian culture, for Christianity itself started as an anti-Pharisaic force and has continued to foster anti-Semitism. The whole Protestant movement, even its name, is anti-Catholicism. The schisms which begat the Protestant sects and denominations were all reactionary anti's. Islamic religion is even more so. The Mosaic Law was a collection of thou-shalt-not's." Much Christianity as promoted today is anti-sex, anti-joy, anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-life there is rarely a positive note in it. Nowhere do we find a "pro " element. This is reflected in our child rearing ("No!"), our legal system ("Stop!" "Don't!"), our domestic policies ("anti-poverty," "anti-crime," "anti-drugs"). We live in a society of taboos. Paganism is not anti-Christianity. Paganism is truly pro-life, pro-joy, pro-love, pro-human, pro-woman, pro-sex, and pro-all the rest of the spectrum of human potential.
Christianity (in common with Buddhism) tells us that life is to be endured in hopes of a better break after we die. Paganism teaches that life is to be celebrated. Ascetic religions are a negation; the new Paganism is a total affirmation. Given the above cultural heritage and bias, most people seem to feel almost intuitively that, just as religion is a "good thing," so is non-marital sex a "bad thing." Even most of those who indulge in it. In line with the life-affirming philosophy of Paganism, let us consider the alternatives...
"The Function of the Orgasm" (Wilhelm Reich)
The human female does not have an estrus cycle. Women are sexually responsive throughout the month. Although the sex act is performed thousands of times in the lives of most women, the average United States family has only two or three children. The average woman becomes fertile around 12 or 13 years of age, and continues so until menopause, in her early-fifties. This gives her 40 or so years as a potential baby factory. Gestation is nine months, give a month in between to recuperate, and she can have a baby every ten months. Be generous and allow her one set of twins, and the theoretical maximum number of offspring a woman can produce in her lifetime is on the order of forty.
In contrast, the domestic cat reaches reproductive age between 7 and 12 months and lives to 10-15 years. She comes in heat 4 or 5 times a year (mating only during these periods) for about 5 days. Gestation is 63-65 days, with nursing about 2 months. The average litter is 4. This means that a female cat with an active sex life of around 12 years can produce up to 144 kittens by mating a total of 36 times.
A woman can mate five times a day or more, every day of her fertile sex life of 40 years, or a total of 73,000 times in her life! And there is nothing to prevent her from continuing an active sex life long after she is no longer fertile. Consider this: maximum number of sex acts compared to maximum number of offspring cats, 36/144, or .25 to 1; humans, 73,000/40, or 1825 to 1. The point is that while sex among most animals is entirely procreational, sex among humans (and even some other animals, such as dolphins and bonobo chimps) serves procreation only incidentally, being primarily functional, biologically and psychologically, for pleasure and bonding, the Catholic Church's edicts to the contrary notwithstanding. Further arguments to this effect (pleasure vs. procreation) might be derived from the observation that pleasurable sexual variations (so-called "perversions") unrelated to procreation occur almost exclusively among primates and cetaceans.
(Regarding the aforementioned bonobos, or "pygmy chimpanzees," genetically our closest primate relatives, Frans de Wall, an ethologist at Emory University's Yerkes Primate Center, says that theirs is an "egalitarian society in which the females have considerable power over food and sex." "This balance of power, combined with the use of sex to reduce tension, makes the bonobo an extraordinarily peaceful animal, not at all human-like in this respect. Humans rape, chimp males fully and intimidate their sexual partners, but bonobos apparently know sex mainly as an expression of affection, reconciliation, pleasure, or a kind of social currency. . ." And while chimps and humans kill and make war, bonobos rarely even come to blows. When two unrelated groups meet in the wild and rival males posture aggressively, it's soon followed by --any guesses? --sexual contact between females and between males. Primatologists consider bonobos "the flower children of the primates."5 Or perhaps the Pagans?)
"The saddest sight of all is to see, far behind you, temptations you've resisted." (Robert Heinlein)6
What could be more absurd than to spend twenty years convincing a person of the utter abomination of an act, then expect competent and cheerful performance of that very act shortly after a few words are mumbled out of a book? If it were not so tragic the whole idea of premarital chastity would be preposterous! T he scars of the wedding night are often borne for life in the minds and hearts of women raised in this manner. In African and Middle Eastern cultures where women are genitally mutilated, they can never achieve either pleasure or trust at the hands of the men they are married to. This great burden of guilt and frustration is unfortunate in the extreme. Societies who stress premarital virginity in both sexes create men who are selfish and incompetent lovers and women who become frigid martyrs to male insensitivity. The loss of virginity is a delicate and far too often traumatic event in the lives of women, both inside and outside of marriage. Yet it can and should be a wonderful and magical initiatory experience where pleasure triumphs over pain, and Trust and Love are shared in an ecstatic bonding experience.
The key is that the woman must really desire sex and the man must be a tender, patient and competent lover. It is difficult for men or women to become skillful and receptive lovers when they are bombarded from birth with a "sex is dirty" message of social conditioning. I believe that premarital sex is a positive good, and I would recommend that two (or more) people should not marry until they have slept together, preferably often, and preferably with other partners. Trial marriages, which have become increasingly common, seem to me a perfect arrangement, allowing invaluable experience in a context of relative freedom and relaxation.
Unless or until there are children involved, the sexual arrangements and relationships of a cohabiting couple remain their own business and can be dissolved by mutual consent.
"Many beautiful friendships end in marriage."
Putting fetters on love is the surest way to destroy it. The point of John Hartford's lovely song, "Gentle on My Mind," is that he stays because he is free to go. Free love forges no chains. Anyway, there is no longer any social stigma attached to "living together." Nobody has to get married anymore. And in any case, premarital sex does accrue considerable added sophistication to the participants, which should render them less apt to rush into marriage on the basis of a purely physical relationship. I guess that will suffice for premarital chastity now for marital fidelity. I can ascertain no particular reason why this should continue to be imperative, once we outgrow the ideas of jealousy and sin. "Sin" is commonly defined as willful opposition to the will of God (as revealed by the Church) and has little meaning for those who do not believe in that God. This leaves jealousy. Over the years I have come to understand "jealousy" as neurotic anxiety based on fear of losing control over a partner one regards as a possession. Contrary to popular opinion, jealousy is not a desirable and healthy emotion concomitant with love. Jealousy is unhealthy, obsessive, and destructive, existing in inverse ratio to love. "Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes, that the greater the love, the greater the jealousy -in fact, they' re almost incompatible; one emotion hardly leaves room for the other. Both at once can produce unbearable turmoil."7
Now be it understood that in advocating open marriage and "free love," I am not here talking about "adultery" in its usual sense. I most certainly do not favor sneaky, clandestine, surreptitious, dishonest relationships. What I do favor is honest, mature, responsible sexual freedom and love among compatible people, with the mutual consent of everyone involved, --especially in the case of married couples. I can think of no reason why this should not be as long as all people concerned are happy and satisfied with the arrangement. (And indeed, I have the personal experience of a successful 20-year open marriage, ten years of which have been in an open triad, to support and validate the feasibility of such practice.)
There may even be more positive benefits to be derived from extramarital sex. For one, the variety of experiences would tend not only to relieve the potential boredom of monogamous monotony, but would also give everyone concerned more experience in pleasing members of the opposite sex, which could be utilized in their own marriage. In addition, the compliment of being desirable, particularly for a woman, can build her own self-confidence and give her that special little glow of being loved. (Indeed, I have had the pleasure of seeing a 44-year-old woman become radiant as a teenager through the special magic of a very precious and passionate extramarital relationship...)
If we are to grow and progress, "live long and prosper," we must rid ourselves of hate, ignorance, fear, suspicion, superstition and intolerance --the cancerous effects of ascetic faith and morality. We must learn to create and to give happiness, freedom , love and joy --and abolish guilt. We must learn to accept all our perceptions and experiences to conscious awareness, and to live by the dictates of our own judgment.
(Writing at the same time as I was composing this article, Marshall McLuhan seems uncannily prophetic, envisioning the very sorts of intimate tribal family structures that have become the hallmark of the evolving Neo-Pagan community, especially in the Church of All Worlds:)
As a conclusion, I append a series of excerpts on the ethics of sexual freedom from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, one of the most provocative and influential books of our time, and a prime initial inspiration for the real-life Church of All Worlds:
Epilogue (by Morning Glory Zell)
In the years since the Sexual Revolution in the '60s, we have seen the rise of both the Women's Movement and the Men's Movement. There has been a lot of loud debate over "what women want" and "what men wan." The simple idea of "Free Love" has gotten lost in the shuffle. To a person practicing a polyamorous Pagan lifestyle, "Free Love" is actually a very good response to that question.
Men have complained that women have asked for them to be more sensitive, then they have fled with assertive men. They have also complained that women have become so assertive that they have lost their sensitivity to men's need entirely. What is needed her e is a restoration of the old balance of prepatriarchal values inherent in the Old European partnership societies.
The missing ingredient that these societies had in abundance was healthy, joyful, reverent and ecstatic sexuality. Most women really want men to be: sensitive, caring, competent, erotic, assertive, courageous, tender and honest. Most men would like it if women were likewise. Men have for too long appropriated the competent, erotic, courageous and assertive qualities to themselves, leaving women to be the exclusive custodians of sensitive, caring and tender feelings. Neither sex were being very honest with the other.
If we are to achieve a society that truly practices "Free Love," then we must rebalance these values. Much of the '70s and '80s therapy movements have been about recovering the values that have been repressed by gender roles. But it does no good for men t o become sensitive by rejecting assertiveness --it only leads to more imbalance and snide jokes. It does just as much damage for women to embrace assertiveness while rejecting sensitivity --unless they really want to become like the selfish macho guys they claim to despise.
Men need to hold onto their assertiveness in balance with sensitivity as women need to hold onto their sensitivity in balance with their assertiveness. Both need to practice honesty in order to foster Trust. With Trust one can allow oneself to become emotionally vulnerable again. Emotional vulnerability is essential to the practice of Free Love at its deepest Tantric and most committed levels. Free Love is the opposite of casual sex. A balanced man both sensitive and assertive and a balanced woman both assertive and sensitive can learn to balance each other and then "the Battle of the Sexes" can truly become "the Dance of the Free Lovers."
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