On a recent Friday night at the DoubleTree hotel near the San Jose airport, nearly a hundred Pagan BDSM enthusiasts gathered in a conference room. In the middle of the room sat a small table adorned with a brightly colored cloth and several floggers of varying sizes.
Chairs lined the outer edge of the room, and when those quickly filled up, people sat, reclined, and outright laid on the floor of the hotel’s aggressively autumn-themed carpet. This was the Sacred BDSM workshop at PantheaCon, the largest Pagan convention on the West Coast, which includes numerous non-traditional spiritual traditions that fall under the Pagan umbrella.
Though the San Jose DoubleTree may strike you as the least witchy locale imaginable, it was anything but on this long weekend in February, when thousands gathered to meet, learn, network, conduct rituals and play. Age range and attire at the Sacred BDSM workshop ran the gamut, from teens to retirees, from tie-dye to military, mesh bodices, combat boots, utilikilts, flowing skirts and hair dyed every shade of the rainbow.
Dressed in a floor-length black gown and bondage collar, Linda Spencer, the workshop’s presenter, opened with a discussion of safe BDSM practices and consent, then largely let attendees steer the discussion, which was respectful, but not without its funny moments. One white-haired gentleman in jeans and a button-down asked Spencer if she needed any volunteers, and if so, said he would like to offer himself. A young woman spoke about how discovering BDSM helped her recover from sexual trauma, and several sex workers discussed the Pagan archetype of the “sacred whore,” and championed the concept of sex work as a form of spiritual practice.
“We welcome sexuality as yet another experience not to be ashamed of.” — Linda Spencer
BDSM actually has a storied history within Paganism. Both BDSM and Paganism, in varied forms, have been around for eons. But as a movement, Paganism came to the public consciousness in the 1950s, mainly through one charismatic and somewhat controversial British man, Gerald Gardner, the godfather of Traditional Wicca. Gardnerian Wicca often employed mild BDSM techniques in rituals—scourging (flogging), skyclad (public nudity) and bondage. Another leading British figure, Aleister Crowley, leader of the occult fraternal order Ordo Templi Orientis, hosted magic experiments and drug-fueled sex parties, which were much sensationalized in the tabloids of the day.
There are people who view Paganism’s sex rituals and sexual initiations—like Gardner’s Great Rite, which can involve nudity, scourging and semi-public heterosexual intercourse—as questionable and potentially resulting in abuses of power. As such, consent and ethics in Pagan communities are heavily discussed, not merely in relation to BDSM but more broadly—this year’s PantheaCon also offered workshops like “Creating Culture of Consent: Sacred Sexuality.” Generally, Paganism is more sex-positive compared to most mainstream religions, with its welcoming attitudes about sexual diversity, inclusion and the belief that magic is inherently sexual. As Spencer, the workshop leader, put it, “We welcome sexuality as yet another experience not to be ashamed of.”
“Kink also does something that many Pagans value: It lets you go on a journey.” — Dr. Carol Queen
When looking back at her former life as a sex worker, Dr. Carol Queen—a sexologist, Pagan and author of several books, including The Sex and Pleasure Book with Shar Rednour—said that the concept of sacred kink has been significant to her. “Modern Goddess spirituality,” a spiritual practice that takes the feminine as its higher power, “makes the argument that some sex workers of yore were priestesses who ‘showed the face of the Goddess’ to men for money,” she said. This evolved into the “sacred whore” archetype, which holds that sex, including sex for money, can take the form of spiritual enlightenment.
Queen also noted that while kinksters and Pagans don’t always overlap, they do have much in common. “Both groups might understand themselves as building an alternative community outside of mainstream norms,” she said. “Kink also does something that many Pagans value: It lets you go on a journey.”
For Spencer, this journey is both a cathartic and spiritual and occurs “at the insistence of pain” with her partner, which she likens to aspects of certain Native American rituals, such as a vision quest. “I don’t know necessarily that he views it like that, but he does seem to feel moved to make me have emotional experiences … I am in control of so many things in my day to day life that my need to let go and have someone else take control, even if it is for a little while, is extremely freeing for me.”
Spencer stresses that play with her partner is always loving and attentive, and progresses from gentle spanking or caning to more intense acts, as she moves through a range of emotions. “First, I’ll start happy and giddy. I will move into a type of defiance, usually laughing while I squirm. I then move into a process of experiencing the pain and trying to be in the moment, always voicing my likes and dislikes at what he is doing,” she says. “Next, I tend to move into a very quiet acceptance of what is happening … At some point, I completely lose all composure.” For the two, these acts are ritualistic and intense: “These experiences are transformative, if we both allow them to be, and it is beautiful.”
“Sacred sex and sacred kink do something very crucial for many people: They give a kind of spiritual permission for erotic desire and practice.” — Dr. Carol Queen
Panels on BDSM/sacred kink are increasingly common at Pagan festivals and conferences, and this is likely due in part to a broader acceptance of BDSM in the mainstream. Until just a few years ago, kinky sex was considered a mental illness. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association removed BDSM from its newest edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The new definitions meant that consenting adults were no longer pathologized for engaging in sexual behaviors outside the mainstream.
“BDSM and kink are definitely having a moment, for sure,” Queen said, “sacred sex and sacred kink do something very crucial for many people: They give a kind of spiritual permission for erotic desire and practice. This is so important for people whose religious background gives them the opposite.”
It makes sense that those drawn to BDSM might also be drawn to the inclusivity and progressivism that Paganism is known for. “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” says the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess, a ritual poem by Doreen Valiente, which has become a standard in many modern Pagan groups. The Wiccan Rede, a kind of 10 Commandments for Wicca, reads: “An it harm none, do as thou wilt,” surely a mantra that would be equally applicable to consensual BDSM practices.
Pagans also tend to be more accepting of same-sex relationships, body positivity, polyamory, transgender rights and other expressions of gender and sexuality that are sometimes marginalized. Accordingly, sexual minorities of all stripes have ﬂocked to the movement. This isn’t to say that Pagan communities are without their share of homophobia, sexism or transphobia, but diversity and inclusion are what many Pagans strive for. In a 2011 PantheaCon controversy, for instance, transwomen were purportedly excluded from a women-only ritual. This led to a formal talk about gender discrimination at the Con as well as months of discussions and blog posts.
Many scholars suggest that feminist and queer Pagans helped usher in a broader acceptance within the community. With the rise of queer- and feminist-identified strands of Paganism, practitioners started to adopt queer and transgender deities and to reexamine BDSM practices, which had been around since the beginning of the movement (as in the Great Rite, for instance). Some of these practices had remained in the metaphorical broom closet due to stigma.
With increased tolerance related to gender and sexual diversity, BDSM has also started to be legitimized as not only a potentially safe and healthy outlet for sexual expression but also a tool for healing and religious transformation. “Many of the people who discover and embrace Paganism are … wounded from anti-sex—especially anti-sexual diversity—religious structures,” said Queen.
“Paganism and the community they find within it become very healing and significant because sex is so honored within Pagan thought.”