Looking at the Evidence: Addressing Interpersonal Violence in Pagan Communities

In 2019, Macha’s Justice offered a survey for pagan/polytheist/faith-adjacent survivors of domestic violence (DV) to offer information on their experiences. The survey focused on how their experience of DV impacted their faith and how their faith communities responded.

Based on feedback and the trends identified from the original survey, an updated 2020 version is now available for pagan survivors of interpersonal violence to contribute to an evidence-based understanding of violence within our faith communities. You can find the new survey here. If you’d like to share your story, in your own words, you may do so over here.

What follows is a breakdown (and some large images) of the 2019 survey data along with an analysis of:

  1. The ways in which pagan community failed survivors
  2. The ways in which pagan community supported survivors
  3. Areas of focus to more effectively address the occurrence of interpersonal violence within our faith communities

This information is also offered as a more in-depth presentation on Teachable, “The Spirit’s in the Details 2019.”

Limitations

Before we get into the specifics, it’s useful to name some of the limitations of this research. Without going into the standard pros and cons of self-reported surveys in statistical research, this specific survey’s limitations include:

A small sample population. While this is, to my knowledge, the first research of its kind, a sample population of 72 for a loosely affiliated collection of faiths which span the globe and number at least in the hundreds of thousands is not statistically significant for drawing trends with reliable accuracy.

Non-representative demographics. As you’ll see in the data below, the majority of respondents are white and American. This may be due to a few things: the survey was primarily promoted on only a few social media sites, namely Facebook and Tumblr, each of which have their own majority demographics; the fact that the majority of self-identified neopagans are themselves white and middle-class (Berger, Leach and Shaffer 2003), and although this survey endeavors to be more inclusive, implicit biases in the survey and/or external social factors may be at play; or it may be a combination of those two things, or due to other conditions which I simply don’t have the data to recognize.

However, all that said, this still provides a starting point for looking at more organized, intentional ways of addressing interpersonal violence on a broader scale in our faith communities. By having a pool of survivor feedback, as well, it helps remove the burden for community change from the back of a single survivor and allows us all to carry a fair portion of the responsibility.

Demographics

Age Distribution

1 - age[Image description: a pie chart in which there’s a relatively even distribution of ages, with the largest category being people aged 23-30 (31.9%) and the lowest being people aged 51-65.]

Location & Race/Ethnicity

2 - location, race[Image description: a breakdown of people’s locations and their self-reported racial/ethnic identities. The vast majority of respondents live in the USA, with Canada in distant second place. The majority of respondents are white, with minor distribution through additional racial/ethnic identities.]

Gender Identity & Romantic/Sexual Orientations

3 - gender, sexuality

[Image description: a breakdown of respondents’ genders and romantic/sexual orientations. Almost half are women (this includes all women), about a third are nonbinary or otherwise gender-nonconforming, and ten percent are men, with some distribution through additional genders. Over half of respondents are bi/pansexual, about one-fifth are straight, and the rest are distributed through various other queer orientations.]

Primary Faith Practice4 - practice

[Image description: a pie chart with different categories of faith practices represented. The two largest are “polytheism” and “paganism, Wicca, or Neo-Wicca.” African Traditional Religions/Afro-Diasporic Religions, Indigenous religions, nontheistic magical practices, and general animism are collectively in the minority.]

The Role of Faith5 - faith as factor

[Image description: a pie chart for ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘I’m not sure’ as response to the statement of whether their pagan, polytheist, or magical beliefs were a factor in the abuse someone experienced. Responses are about 47% for ‘no,’ 38% for ‘yes,’ and 15% for ‘I’m not sure.’]

In summary: the respondents were predominantly white, American, ranging in age mostly from late teens to late forties, queer, and majority femme, nonbinary, and/or genderqueer. The majority have some kind of specifically pagan or polytheistic faith.

Analysis

The survey allowed survivors to write, in their own words, about the ways in which their faith communities failed and/or succeeded in supporting them around the violence they experienced and their healing process. Based on that testimony, some common trends appeared.

Common ways in which pagan community failed to support survivors:

  • Abuse of power and trust: clergy and community leaders misusing their position to…
    • gain power and control over the community as a whole for personal gain
    • threaten a survivor’s reputation or social standing within the community for speaking out
    • intentionally fostering conflict between survivor and supportive people
    • hide the harm they’ve caused to others
  • Victim-blaming
    • The community rallying behind the person who caused harm, ostracizing the survivor
    • Misusing spiritual concepts, e.g. telling a survivor they will always carry the energetic mark of their abuser, using the Law of Attraction to rationalize why someone must have invited their own pain
  • Discrimination
    • Transphobic and other queerphobic behavior, e.g. trying to ‘heal’ someone of being trans
    • Equating poverty to a lack of faith or spiritual dedication
  • Sexual predation
    • Misuse of polyamorous principles to justify cheating, manipulation, and exploitation, especially of newer, younger, and/or femme community members
    • Misuse of faith for the same as above, e.g. “saying ‘no’ to sex with me means you still have internalized Christian values and you’re a bad pagan”
    • Sexual harassment and/or assault during ritual
    • Coercion of sexual acts in exchange for spiritual education

In short, we see:

  • Active collusion with the person or people causing harm by the community
  • Passive collusion by community through a lack of action or accountability
  • Religious gatekeeping and elitism, especially based on overlapping vulnerabilities (poverty, queer identity, etc)
  • Leaders’ entitlement to others’ service, support, power; exploitation for personal gain

Common ways in which pagan community successfully supported survivors:

  • Feeling heard by community members and leaders
  • Being treated with respect, regardless of personal identity (e.g. being trans, a sex worker, low-income, etc)
  • Having their right to privacy around their abuse be respected
  • Being supported in self-determination, i.e. being allowed to set their own goals and decide what their own healing process will look like
  • Inclusivity (lack of judgment, accessibility needs taken seriously, etc)

Note that one of the most fundamental differences between the failures section and the successes section is the role of power. In the first, we see leaders and would-be support people who are imposing their own opinions, judgments, and even needs on the survivor, whereas in the latter we see instances of mutual respect, dignity, and self-determination.

This isn’t an accident. The fundamental cause of interpersonal violence, whether we’re looking at domestic violence or sexual assault or other forms, is power and control – that is, one party gains and maintains a dynamic of power inequity over another person. What makes a support person or service provider effective in their role is the understanding that even a well-meaning person can accidentally buy into the same power inequity, effectively replacing the abusive person and continuing the cycle of the survivor’s disempowerment. This is often a retraumatizing experience.

Dear Pagan Community: Next Steps

So how do we turn this information into actionable steps?

The survey also collected feedback on what survivors found to be the most useful skills in the people who supported their healing process, and some clear trends also appeared here:

  • Knowledge of abuse, trauma, and mental health
    • A solid, practical foundation in understanding trauma, PTSD, and C-PTSD, and what appropriate trauma-informed care looks like
    • Understanding the dynamics of abuse/interpersonal violence
  • Peer support skills
    • How to hold space for someone without trying to fix or rescue
    • Active listening
  • Specific spiritual skillsets: cleansing, divination, cord-cutting, energy work

This helps us identify some of the most useful goals: expanding people’s knowledge and understanding of what violence looks like, its impact, and what spiritual skillsets are immediately relevant for a lot of survivors.

It’s been my observation that people have a tendency to focus more on the secular skillsets (e.g. peer support skills) or the spiritual skillsets (e.g. cleansing, uncrossings) at the cost of the other. The reality is, however, as demonstrated by the variety of testimony from survey respondents, that the ideal approach for individual and community support is a holistic combination of those things. Being a reiki healer or master of runes doesn’t automatically make you a safe support person; on the other hand, forgetting to meet a survivor in their place of personal faith means leaving out a large part of their potential healing resources.

Areas for Community Focus

There are a lot of ways someone can choose to apply the information described above into practical planning. There’s no one correct way to do this, and I strongly encourage community leaders and members alike to use this information in the ways that are most effective for the needs of their specific faith community. If you’d like to see quotations* from survivor responses from the survey that provided this data, you can do so through the Teachable link near the beginning of this post. (Note: if cost is a barrier, please contact me through the email address below and I’m happy to work out an alternative without judgment. This info is important.)

*Only responses that came with an explicit release of information are quoted. Any redaction of personally identifying details in those quotations are marked by brackets.

For myself, I chose to pull out four areas of focus for communities to address and lessen interpersonal violence:

  1. Preventative education for everyone.
    Education on what violence looks like and what healthier alternatives are. It’s not enough to say ‘violence isn’t allowed’ if there isn’t a shared understanding of what constitutes violence and what it proactively looks like to behave otherwise. Having language around power, control, and violence makes it easier to recognize and name for what it is (and what it isn’t).
  2. Community policy implementation.
    Clarity and communication of what is and isn’t considered acceptable community norms. Different communities have different expectations on behavior, speech, and participation, and being open from the very beginning on what those look like make it easier to screen newcomers and enforce expectations when violence does occur. These expectations should be clear and applicable for people at any level of authority, even the most charismatic of leaders.
  3. Trauma-informed leadership and service training.
    How to appropriately support someone who was harmed when violence occurs and avoid retraumatization or vicarious trauma. Someone who holds influence or power within the community – or over an individual client – has a responsibility to learn how to use that power with integrity and conscientiousness (whether or not they ever intended to have that power in the first place!).
  4. Healthy accountability processes.
    How to encourage change in the person who causes harm to lessen the likelihood of it reoccurring, especially in cases where exiling the person from the community may be undesirable or even impossible.

Lessening interpersonal violence will take a multi-part approach because the causes behind interpersonal violence and the ways in which it impacts people are also multi-part. When violence occurs, it involves not only the person who caused harm and the person who experienced harm, but also the community: what community factors were in place that may have contributed to the violence occurring at all? How does the community respond to the violence itself as well the person who caused it and the person who experienced it? What happens if the violence reoccurs?

This may seem overwhelming, but it’s doable! And more than that, it’s necessary if we want to see our faith communities grow into their best version of themselves. No community is perfect, but we have a responsibility to ourselves, each other, and to our gods and spirits to work towards better, safer community, or what some folks might call  right relationship.

Fortunately, there are people and organizations who are doing this work and can provide insight, education, and resources for folks just starting to wade into these waters. Stay tuned for posts breaking down these areas of focus into action plans and resource highlights!

Other Ways to Be Involved

  • Share this post with members and leaders in your faith community as a way to contribute to, or even begin, the conversation of community safety
  • Share the updated 2020 survey far and wide to help us gain a larger, more accurate snapshot of the current state of affairs
  • Share Macha’s Justice with others, including its Teachable
  • Don’t hesitate to participate with us on Facebook if you happen to be there!


Written by Marjorie Ní Chobhthaigh
24 March 2020

Questions? Contact us at machasjustice@gmail.com.

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