There's a Sexism Problem in the Modern Witchcraft Community

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The public image of witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism is of a tradition that embraces women and places them at their centers. After all, the stereotypical image of a witch is of a woman: brewing potions, riding away on her broomstick or simply being punished for the crime of refusing to live the way men thought she should. 

It's no surprise, then, that witchcraft has primarily attracted women, both in the religious and aesthetic sense. Many sects of Wicca promote goddess worship, equality between the sexes and the sacredness of the female form. That's still the case with modern forms of witchcraft today. In her new book Witches of America, Alex Mar writes about Dianic Wicca, a type of Wiccan tradition that focuses on women, their power and their energy. "Its rituals may be separatist, but the movement is not anti-men — it's simply not about men," Mar writes.

But something happens to men when something isn't about them. Used to being put at the center of the conversation they, for lack of a better term, freak out. Witchcraft may be a woman-centric lifestyle, but it still exists in a man-centric world — which means that sexism is, of course, an issue.

The men of witchcraft: Last month Christian Day, an author and occult store owner who describes himself as "The World's Best Known Warlock," was ordered by a judge to stay away from witch Lori Sforza, who had accused Day of harassment. Sforza said Day had been leaving her curse-filled voicemails and writing malicious posts about her on social media. In an interview outside the courthouse, Day said it was an issue of free speech

While it's unclear whether Day's actions were influenced specifically by a wider hatred of women, both online and IRL, women are often subjected to this sort of harassment on the Internet. And given that 70% of online stalking victims are women, it's hard to argue that gender doesn't have something to do with it.

Christian Day, the Salem warlock accused of harassing witch Lori Sforza. Source: Boston Globe/Getty Images
Christian Day, the Salem warlock accused of harassing witch Lori Sforza.  Boston Globe/Getty Images

Though the popular image of a witch is a woman, men have been important players in its history and practice. Gerald Gardner, known as the "father of witchcraft," is credited with basically creating the modern Wiccan movement, and many other men have spearheaded different movements within the community. 

At the center of most Wiccan and witch traditions, however, is the balance between masculine and feminine energies, as well as acceptance of the power of women. "To reclaim the word 'witch' is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful; as men, to know the feminine in the divine," wrote Starhawk, an activist and neo-pagan.

The role of men in witchcraft largely depends on the specific tradition. "Modern witchcraft seems to be more centered on women as leaders and teachers as well as practitioners than other forms of neo-Paganism," Tarin Towers, a witch who practices the Reclaiming Tradition sect of witchcraft, told Mic

The Reclaiming Tradition, "a community of women and men working to unify spirit and politics," places women at the center of the practice and focuses on social justice. However, Towers said, "there seem to be a lot more men in other neopagan [the umbrella under which Wicca falls] traditions, who call themselves Druids, Egyptian reconstructionists, devotees of the Norse pantheon and occultists who are super into Aleister Crowley."

For this reason, low-level misogyny can still be a problem in these circles, in largely the same unconscious ways it exists in the rest of society. 

Source: Mic/Getty Images
Source: Mic/Getty Images

"Sometimes in group settings the only man in the room will dominate the conversation until he's gently asked to step back. And Paganism is certainly not exempt from men with perceived social status using that status to sleep with women," Towers said. "This is more douchey than it is abusive in most cases, but it's still a problem even if the man in question is totally committed to the ethics of the tradition otherwise."

Sarah Durham Wilson, who writes about witchcraft at DoItGirl.com, told Mic she occasionally gets men who are like a "wolf in sheep's clothing" in her classes. "A man comes into the community soft and then he bites when he's not given the attention he demands. . . Maybe it's like that guy who goes to yoga to pick women up." But for the most part, these men still respect the equal authority of women.

When men flex their powers: Rare but vocal are the men in witchcraft who see the traditions that focus on women as inherently unequal (basically, these men are the MRAs of the witch world). On one Reddit thread, men openly worry about being accepted into female-led covens.

"You are right that men often get overshadowed by the feminists and in some covens are not treated as equals," writes one user. 

In other threads, there is more open hostility. "My problem with feminism is Wicca boils down to some assuming 'female = in fucking charge,'" writes user "WhiterastaJ." "In the local community one staunch feminist always cries loudly about how men can't understand female mysteries (menstruation, pregnancy, etc) but when the idea of male mysteries [i.e. inherently masculine experiences that may have spiritual intrigue] arises she pshaws the very idea."

In a video titled "Grow grow grow Your Penis the Rise of Male Witchcraft," one male witch took to YouTube to rant about the "oppression of the Penis" in witchcraft. "We were told we need to let the dianics [members of the female-centric Dianic Wicca tradition] have their thing, because it'll create some sort of balance between the male dominated religions in the world," he said. 

But instead, he said the male mysteries are not properly understood or appreciated in witchcraft. "Part of the male mystery is strife, warfare and death. We got crafts with only goddesses, with only women, where men were seen as lower. Where only a goddess was called and never a god, and we tolerated this."

Towers believes these sorts of reactions come from men finding themselves in a situation where they are no longer the majority.  "Men are often the minority in a gathering of witches, and straight men are often a further minority within the men present. I imagine men feel challenged or even threatened by this circumstance."

"Men often get overshadowed by the feminists and in some covens are not treated as equals."

Changing the gender binary in witchcraft: Part of what fuels these divides is language that keeps the masculine and feminine separate. In witchcraft, masculine and feminine energies are seen as opposing forces. Masculine is hard, while feminine is soft. Masculine is war, while feminine is love. 

For Wilson, the power of witchcraft is in encouraging the predominantly "masculine" world to get more in touch with the feminine. "I think we're all starved for the feminine. To finally turn and face what lurks in our own shadow and heal it, to slow down, to go in, to hear our own soul," she told Mic

However, this language divide also comes from a cultural understanding of men and women as fixed entities with inherent qualities. There's a gender essentialist quality to traditional witchcraft, which a new generation of witches are bristling against. 

Some sects of witchcraft and Wicca, especially those that center around a goddess, are "working on what it means to be a goddess-based tradition for people who are transgender, especially genderqueer people who don't identify as either male or female," says Towers. These groups are challenging the gender binary and the idea of what it means to be a biological woman, and seeing what that means in a religion that considers "female" divine. 

Source: Mic/Getty Images
Source: Mic/Getty Images

Misogyny outside of witchcraft. Though there are male witches who want to fight against the centering of women, most men understand that witchcraft is one of the few traditions that places women at the practice's center. What can be worse is the misogyny that comes from identifying as a female witch in mainstream society. 

"Just calling yourself a witch can be placing a target on your back in some contexts," said Towers, who has had Twitter trolls try to use her identity against her, using "witch" as an insult and telling her to "go cast a spell." 

No spiritual practice is free of the context from the world it exists in, and the world we live in is still run by men. So it makes sense that even in the female-dominated community of witchcraft, men might take offense to being shunted to the sidelines. Wilson said she understands why some male witches would feel that way.

"We are all, men and women, victims of the patriarchal paradigm, and we have endless ages of male dominance and ego separation and the culture of objectifying & subordinating women deeply engrained in our consciousness," she told Mic

Misogyny playing out in witchcraft is just a symptom of these deeper societal issues, but men being attracted to a movement that empowers women is a sign that things can change, that many male witches are comfortable being equal to women. 

On another Reddit forum, a male witch complained about the cultural assumption that witches are always women. 

"We are not being excluded," wrote another male witch. "You might be being marginalized, but not to a fraction of the extent that the women witches are being marginalized. You want to work on the problem, be sure to work on the whole problem."