Sex! Witches!!! Nudity!!!!! And yes, ethics….

Got your attention, eh? 

OK, so this blog is pretty public and it’s not exactly hard to find me on the internet. Plus I’m a University lecturer with a need to maintain a certain level of decorum (although I don’t name my employers here and they are not associated with these views.) Plus, my daughters read this blog. So, probably not as exciting as the headline implies as it turns out.

But surely it must be possible to discuss topics like sex and religion meaningfully without resorting either to bland euphemisms, crude smut or explicit pornography. Let’s see shall we? The title of this blog comes from my very favourite line of pagan liturgy,  quoted for example by Janet and Stewart Farrar in Eight Sabbats for Witches (page 43 of Phoenix/Robert Hale edition, 1981):

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

I love these words. To me (and I’m not alone) they are the most important words in modern paganism and the reason for my specific adherence to initiatory Wicca. And yet Wicca’s easy comfort with ritual nudity (beautifully called “working skyclad”), its honest interest in raising and working with intense, interpersonal (and sometimes erotic) energy and the free, uninhibited and sometimes unconventional lifestyles adopted in Wicca cause two problems.

One was once a big one but is thankfully becoming less frequent. It’s less than a generation ago that witches and other pagans were being gleefully outed by the News of the World and other esteemed organs. Our relative freedom made us (or rather, those brave folks blazing a trail between the 1950s and 1990s) a sitting target. Prurient interest, Dennis Wheatley style speculation and mock-up graphics of nubile young witches (female, obviously…) with their conical breasts heaving as they struggle to balance on top of a rickety altar. More seriously, children being taken into care after rumours blossom into ‘facts’ and scared communities and under-informed social workers react with knee-jerk reflexes to the possibility that somebody, somewhere, might be mixing sex with religion… Fortunately this is less common now, although the price has been a certain watering down of the way we present ourselves. “No no, sexual initiation is never demanded of a new initiate”. Perfectly correct. But also “No no, the Great Rite in true (ritual sex including full sexual intercourse to orgasm) is only ever performed in private between existing couples after the rest of the coven have left the temple….” Well, er, what can I say? Personal experience may suggest to me that this isn’t true, but worldy wisdom suggests that it’s safer to assert that it is….. But the dangers to established Wiccans who are big enough and experienced enough to look after themselves is one thing.

Sex and the seeker

Another thing altogether is how we in Wicca and the wider modern pagan movement balance honesty and openness with our duty of care and protection towards those seeking out the path. Seekers come in all shapes and sizes (forgive me if you are reading this, you are one, and you don’t recognise yourself here!) Some are teen witches drawn by Buffy or the writings of certain glossy popularisers whom I won’t name. Some may be disillusioned refugees from other religions, looking for somewhere with less hierarchy and more intimate personal connections. Some may be fleeing abuse or desperately trying to find a place to belong. What’s the right way and the right moment to discuss intimacy, sex, nudity, ritual and relationships?

Too much information, eeeew!

On the one hand it’s easy to over-emphasise the sex stuff. In reality someone joining a pub-moot and coming along to open rituals or house moots is unlikely ever to see so much as an exposed nipple, never mind be invited to strip off for the Goddess. Talking about sex (even only to the extent of trotting out laudable ground rules) to the newcomer is raising awareness to an inappropriate level. “If sex isn’t all around, why are you giving me all these ground rules when we’ve just met?”

Too little, too late…

On the other hand if sex and magic are important to us why be coy, misleading or indirect? And what do we do when, as occasionally happens, somebody does try to take advantage of innocence, vulnerability or ignorance? Or just blunders in with unwarranted assumptions and needs putting right?

Pagan ethics 101

Just two pieces of text will do, I think. One is the “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals…” quote above. The other is the equally oft-quoted text going back to the abbey of Thelema: “If it harm none, do what you will” or in the original “Do what thou wilt shall be all of the law.” (From which the all-important rider is often omitted: “Love is the Law, Love under Will.”)

This is not a green light to get your rocks off. Do what you will doesn’t mean “Do whatever you like”. It means “discern your Will carefully, understand your own goals and destination and consider the effect on others if you undertake this journey.” The love and the pleasure cannot only be on one side; what if your act of pleasure causes another person pain – is that the will of the Goddess?

Some non-pagans (and some seeking the path) assume that the relatively radical, free-thinking, liberal tendency to be seen in paganism means that anything goes, without thought or inhibition. Not so. Yes, that tendency is there but along with it goes deep reflection and considered action. This is not the free love of the late 1960s – a love which the subsequent threat of HIV/AIDS, STDs, pregnancy and inherent sexism meant was in fact far from free.

So here are what I assert to be some facts, and seeing as this is my blog I can say what I like. Then there will come some opinions, because I’m an opinionated kind of bloke. Then some instructions which you are free to take or leave as you will, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Just the facts…

Generic pagan groups and meetings, even in private, are never going to involve sex or nudity. On the other hand initiatory Wicca in the traditional British coven-based sense usually is going to involve nudity. That’s not usually optional and if you aren’t willing to trust your coven mates that far Wicca is probably not for you. There will be the possibility of the enactment of ritual sex, either symbolically or actually, once you are in a coven and have reached a certain level of training. But this is a possibility, it will be discussed well in advance, it is NEVER compulsory and will likely only be raised after a months and months (or even years) of working together. Anyone who meets you for the first time and opens the conversation with an invitation to join their sex-magick group, or an offer of a sexual initiation is at best a fantasist and at worse a potential predator. One caveat: summer camping festivals are a major part of modern pagan life and it’s quite likely that there may be some ‘clothing optional’ parts of these. This isn’t really a function of modern paganism so much as a function of the festival vibe but don’t be surprised if at the glare of sunlight reflected from pasty flesh!

British pagans are probably more likely than the average Briton to be at least tolerant of if not actively involved in non-traditional behaviour vis-a-vis sex and relationships. Straight, monogamous, binary (dichotomous male/female) behaviour is not the only option and you will see more polyamorous individuals, couples and groups and more people comfortable with being on a continuum, whether between gay and straight, male and female or whatever other binary split you care to name. Don’t mistake this for having no rules or ethics. The polyamorous triad you meet is not necessarily open for new business and has probably made a firm commitment to be faithful to one another within their group. Fellas, the bisexual woman you meet is not going to jump into bed with you and your girlfriend at the pop of the cork in a bottle of cheap cava. The witch camp you sign up for is not going to end up as a cheap remake of Eyes Wide Shut.

Just my opinion

The focus on nudity is a red herring; it’s not that important. And it’s the most important thing of all. Standing naked in a  circle with seven naked others as I regularly do (or with dozens of naked others as I occasionally do) is only odd the first time. After that, the odd thing is to be clothed. That’s why naturism, that other great British institution (which shares a lot of roots with Wicca) can be so profoundly unsexy. The nakedness is not about sex and it doesn’t lead to instant uncontrollable erections in the men (indeed the problem is more likely to be how to get and keep one when it’s needed rather than how to stop or deflate an unwanted one.)

On the other hand the fact that we can stand naked together is a deeply significant act of trust. It’s the psychological exposure rather than the physical nudity which is the challenge, and the latter helps pave the way for the former. Plus, it is only when naked that we can truly see one another in all our beauty. Being skyclad in the circle is not about voyeurism, but that doesn’t mean one can’t take pleasure in looking. I love to watch the candlelight play on the faces, breasts, bellies and bums in all their glorious diversity None of my coven is under 40 and some of us are of pensionable age but in my eyes everything I see is beautiful and I drink it in.

And yes, eventually for most Wiccans there will be ritual enactment of sex although what’s important is the commitment, emotion and the psychological/spiritual connection between participants. When it works well this level of intimacy and connection is achieved regardless of whether the dagger that fits the sheath in a literal or a metaphorical way. The gross mechanics are not important and the key connection is between spirits and not bodies (although those can join too, and that can be beautiful.)

Just don’t…. 

  • Don’t come into paganism looking for easily obtainable, commitment free, no questions asked sex. It is no more available here than anywhere else in society (in fact probably less available than the average.)
  • Straight men, don’t assume every woman is a potential partner. The average pagan woman is amply provided with stores of feist and self-determination and is apt to make her own mind up about you, thanks very much. Oh, and while we’re talking to the straight guys – not every gay pagan man is after your tail. It’s OK to kiss him as you pass cakes and wine round, it doesn’t mean you’re making a lifetime commitment.
  • Seekers – you’re almost never going to be harassed, taken advantage of or threatened. You’re probably safer here than out in the rest of the world because most of us take this ethics thing really seriously. If you do come across someone telling you that they can get you into a coven but the route is via a sexual initiation, say a firm ‘thanks but no thanks’. Then please tell the organiser of the pubmoot, or your local Pagan Federation organiser so they can be alerted to this person.
  • Sex magicians – don’t use open meetings which welcome newcomers and seekers to recruit from. You run the danger of being seen as a fantasist at best, a pest and and a threat at worst. Don’t be surprised or offended if your approaches are rebuffed and you are asked to stop. Or, be surprised and offended but just stop.
  • Singles, don’t assume that everyone in an open or polyamorous relationship is fair game. They might be available but make no general assumptions and approach people with respect, honesty and care. Actually that goes for anyone approaching anyone.
  • Don’t assume that your own definition of acts of love and pleasure is shared by others. While paganism is a generally inclusive place there are still traces of historical homophobia. Trans people are probably more accepted in pagan circles than in society in general but that is still a work in progress.
  • Do remember that Love is the Law, Love under Will. Remember compassion, honour, humility and reverence are four of the eight cardinal virtues. Your beauty, strength, power and mirth are nothing without them.

Caveat lector. This has been written by a monogamous, straight, white Wiccan priest in his fifties. Please comment and if I’ve unwittingly said something out of line or offensive I will do my honest best to edit this blog to reduce or remove the offence. That goes for Wiccan family who may feel I’ve said too much, sex magicians who think I’m being over-critical, seekers who think I’m scaremongering or my family who are going “urrgggghhhh dad!” if they have read this far. I hope to revise this blog for an article in Pagan Dawn so any comments to that and are very welcome.


So, you want to do a PhD?

(Warning: the following contains large amounts of personal opinion masquerading as facts, liberal quantities of prejudice and a highly judgemental tone. Please prepare yourself for disagreeing with every word.)

Why would you do that to yourself?

No, seriously, you really need to answer that question. Why do you want a PhD at all? OK, I’ll give you the right answer straight away and then explain why I think the others are wrong. The right answer is that you want train in a new profession, that of the academic researcher. You want to spend at least a proportion of the rest of your life earning a living by undertaking research – even if you spend the rest of it as a teacher, a clinician or as another profession. A PhD is a professional training, just as medical training qualifies you to be a doctor or driving training qualifies you to drive. They train and license you for an activity you intend to undertake. If you don’t want to be a professional academic researcher – don’t do a PhD. At least, don’t approach me to be your supervisor.

The wrong answers include:

  • I have my Bachelor’s degree and my Masters, this is next. No, it’s not. Education from the age of 5 to 21 in the UK may now be an escalator that seamlessly takes you up towards some distant height. Up to 21 you can be forgiven for mindlessly allowing the machine to transport you onwards. But a PhD is not part of your general education and preparing for life ahead. It’s a professional training you go through after you have selected a particular career, not a way of postponing that decision.
  • It’s a way of capping off my professional career. If you work as a therapist or other health professional you may have gone through various steps of pre- and post-registration training. You are aware that some (high status) professions get called ‘Dr’ as soon as they qualify. Others have this as a badge of honour for a few senior members. Some professions have few or no people with a PhD and scarcity equals value, right? No, a PhD is not the end point and pinnacle of an old career, it’s the basic entry point for a new one. Your excellence and experience as a clinician do not necessarily ready you for a research career – in fact they might have ossified your thinking and attitudes to the point that a PhD is impossible.
  • I want to increase my earning capacity/get a promotion in my current job. Bwahahahahahaha!!!!
  • I want to prove that [insert intervention of choice here] is effective. You don’t need to do a PhD. You already know that your intervention is effective and no evidence that you might turn up to the contrary is going to persuade you. You need a course in marketing or public relations instead.

OK you’ve convinced me your motives are pure. What next?

You need a research area and a research question. Many people confuse the two. “My research question is around the practice of cranio-sacral ear-candling.” No, that’s your area or topic. A question has a question mark on the end of it and ideally needs a word with the letter W in it somewhere. Who? Why? When? How much? Where? If your topic is as given, your research question could be any of:

  • How effective is cranio-sacral ear candling in improving symptoms of the common cold?
  • How do patients experience  cranio-sacral ear candling and how could it be made more acceptable?
  • Who elects to undertake  cranio-sacral ear candling and why?
  • Is  cranio-sacral ear candling superior to a tinfoil hat in preventing bad dreams?

Do YOU really want to answer this question?

Some people bring the question they think they ought to ask, or that will attract the funding, or that others will think is worthwhile. Bugger that. You must choose a question that you passionately want to know the answer to. Sooner or later if you do a PhD you will have a long, dark night of the soul where you wonder why the hell you ever started this. Having a question you are really committed to will make the night shorter and lighter. Answering someone else’s question may make the night endless.

Is your question capable of a surprise answer?

The best question to ask is one that you genuinely don’t know the answer to and ideally have no preferred answer to. If you love swimming with dolphins you’ll have a lot invested in a question like “Does swimming with dolphins improve the human immune system?” You can do your best to stay neutral on this one, but a better question would be one where you don’t care about the answer one way or the other, such as “What are the effects of swimming with dolphins and how long do they persist.”

We found a question before we discussed a method? Congratulations!

Some people roll up already knowing the method they want to use. “I’d like to do a set of interviews to establish the effectiveness of this diagnostic test” or “I want to survey 1,000 medical students to understand their experience of medical training.” The general methodology and the precise method (don’t get these confused, please!) are selected on the basis of the kind of question you want to answer. Don’t bring your preferred method in search of a relevant question to answer.

Can I do this PhD part-time over the next six years while carrying on my full time job and bringing up a family?


Hang on, is that all you have to say on the matter?

OK, sorry I was flippant – but the answer is the same. A PhD is meant to equate to three years of full time work. You just can’t do enough work, collect enough data and write enough material in less time. And squeezing it in round a full time job and/or childcare responsibilities is a recipe for failing in all areas and/or mental/family breakdown. I have supervised PhDs (usually by inheriting them from colleagues) that have taken 6 or 7 years or more in this fashion but I’ve never yet supervised one to a successful completion. You really need a supportive employer and/or partner and/or to be young (or old), free of responsibilities and able to live on very little. Ideally, a Fellowship from somewhere like the NIHR would be ideal for health professionals in the UK. These are very competitive but give you full salary support for the full three years at your existing grade. People get them (I got one and I’m supervising someone else who got one) so don’t write it off. Easier to get are University studentships such as these from my own University. Most universities offer them and they come onstream in about November with closing dates from January to April for an October start. Studentships pay your fees and give you a stipend of about £14,000 a year for three years. Hardly a king’s ransom but if you can survive on it or have other support, better than nothing. Register with and select the PhD studentships button to get details of these in your email. But if you haven’t thought about the reality and practicality of how you will do three years’ full time work, you’d better consider it now.

Do I need a Masters degree?

Not necessarily. I didn’t have one when I started my PhD but I had published research from my OT training, and my BSc, and from clinical practice. That was enough to persuade the department and the funders that I had the potential. If all you have is your undergraduate degree and/or professional training that’s probably not enough. You need to do some research or ideally get a research training via a Masters degree. Not all MSc or MA degrees are research-heavy. A good route is the NIHR Clinical Academic Training route but all universities will offer some kind of research Masters teaching; my department’s version is here.

OK, enough sarcasm. Where can I get some advice that’s actually helpful?

How to get a PhD is the classic book. Buy it, read it (especially the chapter called How not to get a PhD) and then read it again every semester. And if all the above hasn’t put you off me completely, then by all means contact me too. I promise I am nicer in the flesh or on the phone than I am in print.

Back to the moors

ImageAbout fifty years ago I used to spend family holidays in the North Yorkshire Moors, travelling from home in Middlesbrough for days out at Roseberry Topping or summer holiday weeks in Rosedale. My uncle had a cottage there; he worked in what was still known as Dorman Long – the steelworks that prefabricated the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The place names are etched into my memory – Thorgill (where the cottage was); Fryup, Goathland, Blakey. The crosses that sat out on the moors to guide travellers – Fat Betty, Ralph Cross. Above all the view from the top of Chimney Bank – the old chimney itself that used to power the winding machinery of the ironstone mines, and away across the valley the three golf balls of Fylingdales early warning station, looking out east for signs of mutually assured destruction.

ImageLast week we put the dogs in foster care for a week and headed off to Glaisdale in the north east of the Moors. It was a wonderful, cold, rainy, sunny, cloudy, windy and occasionally snowy week. On the last night I couldn’t sleep properly and woke in the darkness, dozing and waking with odd repetitive thoughts going through my head which crystallised to the notion that I would start a blog. I drafted whole pages in my mind between sleep and waking. It would cover my professional life teaching and researching psychology, my personal life including my pagan path of Wicca, I’m fairly sure I also drafted an erudite and witty review of something – maybe the film Gravity which we saw before we came away. I had so much to say and somehow between finally drifting off to sleep and waking this morning it has all slipped away.

Driving back today, the golf balls have gone, as has the chimney, like my grandiose plans for a blog that will go viral and take over the intarwebz. But the herring-bone marks on the limestone of the cottages are still there, as are the mysterious paved trods forming a network all over the northern moors, and the Roman road still marching across Wheeldale. Maybe if I don’t try too hard something will come back to me in weeks ahead?