The 3rd Degree

Exploitation and Initiation

When I was 18 years old, a woman my mother’s age took my virginity in the name of religion. It was the culmination of months of ‘grooming,’ where I was fed a fantasy of power, responsibility, and sense of being the protagonist in a vast unfolding drama. Whatever misgivings I had going into the situation, and they certainly were there, they could not withstand the carrot/stick of power’s promise, and the threat of being cut off entirely from a world I wanted desperately to be a part of. To be a Witch and High Priest.

Let me back up a bit. I grew up socially awkward, but fundamentally normal, in Omaha, Nebraska. The Omaha I remember, from the 1970s and 1980s, was overwhelmingly Christian in its orientation. The Jewish family at the end of my Grandmother’s block were considered quite exotic by our standards, and we certainly had little notion of anything outside of the ambient cultural Judeo-Christianity that largely held sway. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I became intensely interested in pre-Christian mythology, devouring Edith Hamilton, Thomas Bulfinch, Robert Graves, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

Myths, for me, were exciting. They told of a world of romance, passion, extremes, and highly involved divine powers. Perhaps, as a victim of routine schoolyard bullying, this thought appealed to me the most, or maybe it was simply a yearning for a more visceral religious experience than the vacation Bible school classes my Grandmother would occasionally enroll me in. Still, I nominally considered myself a Christian because the myths weren’t real, and because there wasn’t any other option to be had.

All of this changed when I moved to Illinois at seventeen, to live with my father and, I hoped, to start a new life removed from everything that was Omaha. It was there that I was adopted by a circle of close friends, and where the fortuitous loan of a book about Wicca blew my mind. Suddenly, everything I knew was a lie. The old gods weren’t just phantasms latched onto by primitive ancient minds, and you didn’t just have to settle for the Christian party line. There was, I learned for the first time, a counter-current to what most everyone thought and felt about the numinous.

I suppose “zeal of the convert” is the best way to explain my early months as an aspiring Wiccan. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, built a giant altar in my bedroom, performed a dedication ceremony, went out and bought a large pewter pentacle to wear to show my allegiance, and was no doubt somewhat annoying to the friends who had introduced me to the faith. I even insisted on wearing a pouch of spiritually significant stones while having my appendix removed. This was all pre-Internet, so we were limited by the books we could find, the metaphysical stores within driving distance, and the elders who might be willing to give us instruction. That last resource, elders, were very hard to find, especially without the networking tools we have ready access to now.

When I look back at the young Pagan I was, I suppose “driven” was the word to describe my explorations. I was seeking a purpose; I wanted confirmation of my beliefs; and I wanted it all now. None of this is unusual for a teenager exploring their faith, but it does render one vulnerable to predators.

Working that summer at a local Renaissance Faire, where I met several other Pagans outside my small circle of friends for the first time, I was introduced to a woman who I thought would be the mentor I wanted — a woman who, she said, was an initiated High Priestess, and had recently broken off from her old High Priest (who she described as abusive, which may have been true), and who said she was open to training a replacement.

In retrospect, it all seems so foolish. I find it hard to write this narrative without interjecting my present self. Even now, the deluded haze I was in is raw in my memory. I ignored my friends. I broke up with a girl I was dating, because she dared call my relationship with the High Priestess “co-dependent.” I was utterly wrapped around the fingers of the Priestess, and perhaps worst of all, I was becoming imperious and haughty, sure that I was tapping into a well of power and knowledge beyond the understanding of my peers.

Then came the initiation.

A week before the ritual, the High Priestess told me: If I wanted a 3rd degree initiation from her (to the highest rank), I had two choices. Either I could perform the Great Rite “in True” — a sexual ritual — with her; otherwise, she would have to use all of her spiritual strength to intiate me without that aspect, but the effort would subsequently erase any memory she would have of me. Those were my choices: sexual initiation, or religious obliteration.

This choice was supposedly a message from the Goddess channeled directly through the Priestess. I believed her. By this point in our relations, channeled messages from the Goddess had become a more and more frequent means of control. I believed utterly in them. I believed it was the Goddess speaking whenever the Priestess’s eyes rolled back and she changed her voice and demeanor.

The initiation itself was anti-climatic. I crossed the threshold of my own sexuality in a tawdry, fumbling, mess of a pseudo-ritual. In my bedroom. In my Dad’s suburban condo. I remember clearly that she didn’t know the words of the ritual — for some reason that stuck out. Despite my youth and my nervousness at actually going through with this — my performance anxiety nearly derailed everything — I, at that moment, became a Wiccan High Priest (or so I hoped). “The Great Rite in True.” I believed the Priestess was quoting the Goddess when she said she felt the “pangs of love” as I spent myself.

After the initiatory ritual, I felt I had too much invested to back out now. What I went through was simply one unpleasant thing, one sacrifice, and it was certainly worth it for the spiritual destiny I had to fulfill, right? But then I got the word, literally (I thought) from On High: I would have to continually service my High Priestess sexually, in the name of our faith. My work was not done.

Fortunately, this happened on only one more occasion. I remember it very clearly, because she channelled the Goddess during “the Rite,” and afterwards, I asked Her: how long do I have to keep doing this?

The ending of this story is not that interesting. My best friend held an intervention, saying that I would lose her friendship should I continue down this road. Despite feeling honor-bound, I realized I had to break free, and did so. The High Priestess, rebuffed, haunted the edges of my life for awhile longer, then finally ran away from her own family, to live in an different town. I remember having what I suppose would be termed a panic attack, when I spotted her the next year at the Renaissance Faire. I begged my boss to move me to a different station. I never saw her again after that.

Years later, she contracted some illness and died. A friend of the current young man she was dating delivered to me a sketch book of mine, which the High Priestess had held on to, for all those years.

I really had nothing to say in response. The wide-eyed seeker was no more. I still sought knowledge, but my trust was a jaundiced thing for a long time. I scrapped my “initiations” and my prideful attitude, and started back down the road of my faith a changed young man.

Why did I stay a Pagan? A Witch? Partly because even then I understood that my abuser was not my faith. The core of my faith survived despite the emotional ordeal I went through. My innocence was gone, but not my sense of wonder at an enchanted world. That was enough to continue.

I like to think that, today, I am fully healed from these experiences. But that’s not entirely true. I had to quit a coven I thought about joining because the fact that they worked skyclad (naked) was immensely triggering. As a journalist in my religious community, writing about sexual predators in our midst has been, at times, difficult. Still, writing this down is a sign that I may finally have closure on this tale.

[I would just like to add that no established modern religious Witchcraft tradition, whether they are of a relatively modern lineage or one of the British traditions that emerged into the public eye in the 1950s, engages in sexual initiatory rites as a norm. Sexual rites in these contexts are undertaken rarely, and only with the full and informed consent of all participating. What happened to me is the result of one person abusing their position and authority for their own ends.

If you feel you might be in a position where your trust and religious oaths are being used in ways that are abusive, or exploitative, please get out as quickly as you can, seek the proper authorities, and talk to counsellors and advocates who are experienced in guiding individuals through the emotional and spiritual damage done.]