Sex, Kids, and the Witch’s Bible

In mid-20th-century America, the public face of anthropology was Margaret Mead (1901–1978). As her Wikipedia biography states, “Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution.”

Her distinctive cape and long walking stick became part of her public persona, which as we now crassly say, “helped to build her brand.”

Her best-known book was Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. Forty years later, paperback copies of it were everywhere, in every literate household, it seemed. Even my mother had a copy, although she would have rejected Mead’s approving description of teenaged Samoans happily slipping onto each other’s sleeping mats in the middle of the night. When I tried to read it as a teenager (having no background in anthropology then), my reaction not surprisingly was, “I wish I lived in Samoa.”

After Mead’s death, some anthropologists stated that she had been conned, that teenaged Samoan girls had filled their twenty-something American visitor’s notebooks with their fantasies, and that their society was by no means as free and easy about premarital sex as Mead reported. The arguments continue.

What popular culture (except my mother) took away from the book was simpler: It is more healthy for teens to have sex than not.

Utopian sexual ideas were in the air, as they have been at other times. Many other times. Consider the 19th century, for example: the Oneida Community with its doctrine of “complex marriage” or Joseph Smith’s re-invention of polygamy for himself and his inner circle of LDS followers.

In Complex Marriage, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to obtain each other’s consent through a third person or persons. Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous.

Similar and new ideas both popped up in the 20th century. Your high school reading assignments might have included Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931),  but I doubt that they would have included his utopian sex-and-spirituality-and-entheogens novel, Island (1962). It was popular on college campuses nevertheless, published the same year as another popular novel about sexuality, The Harrad Experiment.1)Harvard + Radcliffe, get it? I could go on and on with examples, but this is just a blog post.

Colleges and universities were dropping the old rules about curfews for women’s dorms, etc. — even the whole idea of gender-separate dorms. As a student in the 1970s, I saw the walls falling faster than I ever would have imagined.2)Now we see colleges become “parents” once more, keeping students safe from “scary” ideas and separating them into race and gender categories all over again.

Not just marriage needed redesigning — see Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Stranger in a Strange Land(1961)3)Heinlein was surprised and amused by the Church of All World’s attempt to recreate the novel’s “nests,” complete with polyamory in some cases. — but young people did not have to wait for marriage to have sex —not that all of them ever had.

In very few years, we went from trying to constrain teen sex to trying to find ways to make it better — up until about 1969, unmarried women and girls of any age found it hard to get birth control pills or IUDs,  but the pendulum swung quickly.

Intellectuals kept a drumbeat in favor of youthful sexuality: consider Jerry Farber’s The Student as Nigger (1970) or  anarchist philosopher/psychotherapist Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960), both of which touched on “sexual repression.”

All this is prelude to some thoughts about the reaction to Gavin Frost’s death at the beginning of the week. His and Yvonne’s Facebook page — and their daughter’s — were filled with condolences and fond memories.

At The Wild Hunt, however,  the trolls came crawling out from under the furniture.4)There was one whom I had not seen for a while, and I had hoped she was banned. Nope.

Someone whose soul must still be in middle school starts out, “From what I’ve heard the guy was a creep.”  Yes, it’s the Great Dildo Controversy that refuses to die, even though some of the most outraged virtue warriors probably were not yet born when it occurred, let alone they have never met the Frosts.

People who do know them are likely to respond as did Peg Aloi on Patheos: “I’ve known Gavin and Yvonne for many years, and have always enjoyed their joie de vivre, intelligent conversation and gentle good will toward others. ”

In one version of the humorously named Witch’s Bible —probably a dig both at the Christian version and Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible (1969) they suggested that to ease a girl’s first experience of penetrative sex, the parents beforehand should, if necessary, help her to stretch the hymen artificially.

This was another “what if?” idea, like Heinlein’s “line marriage.” Their daughter, Jo, who was a young girl at the time, has insisted vociferously that it was never proposed for her.

Part of their whole approach to teaching was to toss out ideas and say, “Try this and tell us how it goes.” If it was a good one, it would go into later lessons. If not, no.

Unfortunately for their timing, the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a pendulum swing the other way, so that we are now a point where it is considered “dangerous” if kids walk to school, or ride in the front seat of the family car before they reach age 16, or are exposed to controversial ideas in college.5)But at least today’s kids are being given something to rebel against, I suppose.

So now we get Pagan mob mentality, all based on “I knew someone who talked to someone who said she knew someone who was molested by someone who had read one of the Frosts’ books.” With evidence like that, how could a lynch mob go wrong?

To quote Jo Frost on her Facebook page,

Yes, my father wrote and said controversial things that challenged you and your beliefs. . . . Armchair histrionics does not equal “warrior”– what does it say for your legacy that you stood on the shoulders of giants only to tear at them? Go get your own legacy and get the h up and do actual good works.

And, the horror, they were accused of running a “monotheistic sex cult” by one of these faceless social-media critics, which merely goes to show that (a) the writer does not know the difference between monotheism and Neoplatonic monism and should stay out of theological discussions,6)No, the Frosts were not “hard polytheists” but considered all deities to be shaped by human imagination while  (b) “sex cult” is a meaningless term, unless you do not wish to think that sex and spirituality can overlap, in which case you have ruled out much of contemporary Paganism. Pedophilia was never part of the picture.

At the very least, some critics are guilty of “presentism,” using today’s standards to condemn something that was less outrageous in the past,7)At least in the countercultural circles where most Pagans dwelt at the time. And granted, although he was a gentleman in person, Gavin was a stubborn Scorpio who would never apologize to anonymous critics and bullies on social media.

Jo Frost was right, you don’t make yourself a better Pagan by passing on malicious gossip about the dead. It’s ill-mannered, and sometimes it can even be bad magic. If you cannot be bothered to read the original texts — and to read them in the context of their era — then your argument is built on sand.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Harvard + Radcliffe, get it?
2. Now we see colleges become “parents” once more, keeping students safe from “scary” ideas and separating them into race and gender categories all over again.
3. Heinlein was surprised and amused by the Church of All World’s attempt to recreate the novel’s “nests,” complete with polyamory in some cases.
4. There was one whom I had not seen for a while, and I had hoped she was banned. Nope.
5. But at least today’s kids are being given something to rebel against, I suppose.
6. No, the Frosts were not “hard polytheists” but considered all deities to be shaped by human imagination
7. At least in the countercultural circles where most Pagans dwelt at the time.

13 Comments

  1. Christine Kraemer says:

    Sorry, Chas, but I have to disagree. The reason there are generational differences in how we perceive sexuality between minors (especially younger adolescents and children) and adults, as well as incestuous sexual relations, is because of the *therapeutic evidence* that has accrued around these issues. We understand now — much better than we did in the 1970s — that more often than not such experiences are traumatic for the younger person and have lasting negative effects. Realizing this may have led to the overprotective backlash of which you speak, but even if today’s sexual attitudes are unhealthy, 1970s attitudes about sexuality were unhealthy in other ways.

    I suggest you dip into some of the therapeutic literature about sexual abuse and incest to better understand why, based on changes in our clinical knowledge about trauma (changes that have at this point made their way out of journals and into textbooks and general audience books on psychology), the Frosts would have done better to simply excise that chapter from their book. You defend it on the grounds that you believe no harm came of it, but do you honestly think it has done anyone any good?

    I’m disappointed that older Pagans and scholars have been so reluctant to listen to those of us from younger generations on this issue. I can assure you that we are just as intelligent and thoughtful as you were at our age, and our perspective is not irrational or motivated by malice — rather, it’s based on a different body of knowledge and experience than you have. I truly wish more older Pagans were interested in trying to understand why our movement is experiencing such a gaping generational divide, but that understanding cannot come from a position of contempt.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      They did excise it, did they not? But I am not here to talk about therapeutic evidence, I am here merely to suggest that the book be read in the context of the times.

      Perhaps the fact that they never actually did what they wrote about indicates that they had some doubts or that they were were speculating, proposing a “thought experiment,” so to speak. I can’t say.

      I can say that when I was around them the most — in the late 1870s and ealry 1980s — they did not wish to be anyone’s therapists. In fact, they could be quite acerbic about those students who wanted the Wise and All-knowing Frosts to sort out their life problems. Instead, they were more likely to say something like, “We have given you tools and techniques. Use them!” Unless, of course, they knew you quite well.

      • Medeina Ragana says:

        Typo in the last paragraph, first line after the dash which says “in the late 1870s…” I’m sure you meant the late 1970s, unless, of course, you’re more than 100 years old and were around in the 1870s. 🙂

      • Christine Kraemer says:

        My understanding is that when the book was last republished, it still contained the chapter with all the original language, but with a disclaimer that the practices described should not be used with minors; and that the Frosts defended the chapter’s inclusion in recent decades (1990s/2000s). I think the material could have been rewritten to be clearly about adults, because the language about “the child” to refer to the candidate is confusing, and there are also references to the recent start of puberty in the candidate; or the chapter could have been removed entirely; or once republished, the Frosts could have clarified elsewhere that the material was historical/experimental ONLY and that sexual acts between adults and minors or between parents and their children are not acceptable in their tradition. To my knowledge they did not do so.

        Given what we now know — and have for decades now — about the pervasiveness of child and adolescent sexual abuse and its terrible consequences for the survivors, I find this irresponsible for anyone claiming a position of leadership. To be a leader is to seek influence over others. One should not have to be a therapist to be concerned for others’ welfare when one is in a position of influence.

        I would say for me, it is a minimal requirement for a spiritual leader that they not appear to advocate for sexual acts that are illegal and known to be damaging. Additionally, I expect that spiritual leaders will be able to admit that they are wrong. It seems to me that the Frosts had ample opportunity to say “That was a really terrible idea, please throw that part out.” I am very disappointed that they haven’t, and I fervently wish that their friends would help them now by acknowledging both their contributions AND that some of their experiments were mistakes that they should repudiate.

        To draw a quick analogy: imagine if, at a time when arsenic was in use medicinally, a prominent Pagan had written a book recommending its ingestion magically. Suppose that it became clear that, based on the instructions in the book, it was easy to take a dose that could be poisonous. Suppose there was no evidence that anyone had followed the book’s instructions, or that people would *necessarily* be poisoned by it. Given a better understanding of arsenic, wouldn’t we expect the authors of the book to tell their followers, “Please don’t use that part after all, we know better now that it is dangerous?”

        I imagine, in such a case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But from where I stand, as a 37-year-old Pagan who is deeply committed to sexual liberation, the analogy works pretty well. I see some of my mentors and elders defending someone who described practices that, from my background, are obviously as foolish and potentially harmful as taking an unspecified dose of arsenic.

        If you are wondering why this issue is getting such strong reactions, perhaps that perspective will help.

        For me, this issue is also important because Pagans are still quite sexually transgressive when compared to mainstream culture. We open ourselves up to danger when we don’t clearly differentiate consensual but weird sex between competent adults from sex between minors and adults or incest. Those acts are now illegal for good, solid, evidence-based reasons, not simply because of cultural prejudice. (Some age of consent laws give reasonable wiggle room for adults and minors who are close in age.)

        Speaking as a parent, I need leaders of all kinds in Paganism to be very, very clear about what consent is and what the law is about sex involving minors and why. People are quick to call Child Protective Services these days, and I know of cases where child custody battles involving a Pagan parent were affected by the existence of Pagan writings that were NOT clear about proper sexual behavior toward minors. Courts care very little about whether or not people are acting on such writing; they care about the potential for abuse. Given the overreactive state of affairs we find ourselves in right now, I think defending irresponsible and dated writings like the Frosts’ chapter could endanger Pagans’ parental rights (and frankly, when we end up in court, our religion already endangers us; we don’t need to add fuel to the fire). If the ideas were a mistake, let’s call them a mistake without equivocation.

    • Thank you, Helix. I wanted to respond to this, but could not find the words.

  2. Robert Mathieen says:

    I’m older than Chas, Christine, but younger than Gavin. To my eyes, one of the greatest generational changes between my generation (the Silent) and the current ones has been the notion that it might be possible and even desirable for a child to grow up untraumatized, or hope to be healed from the after-effects of traumas. It seems to me that this change in attitude happened during the Boomer generation.

    The unspoken assumptions that I grew up with, back in the day, were (a) that life is absolute hell, that it constantly harms and cripples everyone, children and adults alike, and that in the end will kill almost all of us before our natural time. Also, (b) that you are owned, body and soul, by your family, by your culture, and by the authorities of your nation, and you had no right to autonomy, or to maintain absolute boundaries around your body and your inner self against unwelcome intrusion. If you fight agains this, you will probably be destroyed. And (c), that the only acceptable response to all this is to ignore your own crippling injuries as much as you can, do as much as you can of the work before you despite all the pain from your injuries, and when all this gets too much, curl up and die without making a fuss. Healers, it was supposed, could not do very much that would be really effective for pain or crippling injuries, and only fools would seek their services in such cases.

    My mother’s mother died of breast cancer in 1935. She died at home, without any effective pain medicine. For the last month of her life, she screamed in agony around the clock, except for the few hours when she lapsed into unconsciousness from sheer exhaustion. Her mother and her two grown daughters, who took what amateurish care of her they could, were premanently damaged — crippled, even — by that month of horror and agony. But they pushed on, as well as they could, once grandma had died and her agony had ended. That was just what one did, and who were they to expect a life free of such horror? No one else, so far as I ever heard, expected anything of the sort in their own lives.

    In this context, what Gavin wrote must have seemed to him a trivial detail, and I suppose he found the later objections against it as traumatic almost incomprehensible, as they would have been any adult in the world in which I grew up.

    Historical perspectives like this seem to me always to be very important in judging cases like Gavin’s.

    Chas’s point about Margaret Mead and her like is also very well taken. One of the things that I first noticed about the early Boomers, as they hit adolescence, was how very certain a good fraction of them were that all society’s ills were due to sexual repression, and that the best cure for those ills was for everyone to have as much sex–bad as well as good–as possible, as often as possible, and with as many partners as possible–and to start having sex as young as possible, too. This idea was in the air, at least in Berkeley (where I grew up) in the late ’50s and early ’60s, though very far from being held by everyone.

  3. Pitch313 says:

    I don’t want child abuse. Equally, I don’t want thought police.

    I did not come of age in Samoa. But I did, after reading Margaret Mead’s book, imagine that I did. That imagining, and some academic delving into a Mead-ly version of Samoa, was probably at the edges of some cultural and moral envelope. But it did not involve wrong doing.

    There does not appear to be any evidence that the Frosts did anything, even if they imagined and wrote down and published something transgressive.

    Honestly, trying to come to grips with this (and plenty of other) circumstance makes my chronic cognitive dissonance flare up. I can’t stop thinking and imagining. But I can’t stop trying to do the right thing and accomplishing positive outcomes.

  4. Angiportus says:

    All right, I haven’t seen the recent editions–I stumbled upon the one from the 70’s a while back, and was really squicked out–by the parts you mention, and by some racist or race-essentialist nonsense as well.
    In my mid teens I was thinking ahead and [like some others no doubt] did some things to/for myself that sounded like some of the stuff they describe. I’m not sorry, for these might well have prevented injury if I had gone on to be sexually active. I grew up into an asexual so it was moot…but the thought of having either parent do those things to me, or anyone else doing them, is repulsive.
    Not having the Frosts’ latest edition in hand, I will trust [and thank] Christine for now, and will leave it at that.

  5. Chas Clifton says:

    I tend to see this whole kerfuffle as another data point in the struggle over childhood – defining it, setting its boundaries.

    If you have not read Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood, a key text in the whole “invention of childhood” discussion, this blog post summarizes the argument.

    Basically, in the West we went from seeing children as not-yet-human beings who needed to be formed into (at least in educated circles) seeing them as innocent sages, priests of nature, “trailing clouds of glory” as the poet Wordsworth wrote.

    Childhoold used to end in the mid-teens at the latest. Girls got married, boys were working to establish themselves so that they could be married by age 20.

    Then the concept of the “teenager” emerged in the 1950s (as was well noted at the time), with separate clothing styles, music styles, slang, and spending power.

    Of course the “teenager” was a sexual being, yet unlike their grandparents, they were told to delay marriage and childrearing until at least their very late teens, maybe longer.

    Some argued that the whole concept of the “teenager,” along with extended education through grade 12 and maybe university, was designed to slow down the movement of these young Baby Boomers into the workforce so that they did not compete for jobs so soon and drive down wages.

    But sex . . . . what to do about that? Adolescent sexuality was a big topic in the 1950s-1970s. Virginity? Contraception? Homosexuality? All such topics were now in the public arena in a way that they had not been before. Should children be prepared for premarital sexual experience, and if so, how?

    Contemporary Pagans were — and still are — totally part of their culture at the time. The 1960s and 1970s may seem a bit sex-obsessed in retrospect, but that’s the way it was, and I see the Frosts’ writings as partaking of that culture.

    Now we have the Gen X parents being criticized for being over-protective, for not letting kids out the door without a helmet and forbidding them to go to the park without adult supervision. But that’s another topic. 🙂

  6. NeoWayland says:

    Thank you Chas for writing about this.

    You reminded me of a couple of things I had not thought of for my own take.

  7. Rummah says:

    I remember finding one of their books in one of the many funky occult stores which were around back in the 80’s. I can’t remember the title, but it was a basic introduction to witchcraft. Yes, I was seriously weirded-out by the “preparation of the virgin” part. I wish I could remember more, but it has been 30 plus years.
    Didn’t they get a lot of flack for advertising in the back of wrestling magazines. I can remember seeing those “Amaze Your Friends!” ads and thinking WTF? In know some pagan friends of mine really didn’t like those ads. Again, its been years, so the details have faded in my grey matter.
    Sorry to hear about his passing. It sounds like you had good memories of the man.

    • Don’t know about wrestling magazines——I never looked at one. They did advertise in FATE magazine, I believe. All kinds of esoteric schools did. It was the only national magazine for people interested in psychic stuff, ghosts, reincarnation, UFOs, and all manner of “woo.”