Sex, Gender, and Magic 1/n+1


I was already drafting this in my head as a response to a reddit thread—particularly this comment—when one of the bloggers I follow decided to wade into the subject.  It’s something I’ve talked about before from time to time, but usually only in reference to Wicca.  There is a great deal of gender essentialism and heterosexism in the occult community, and the privileged apologia that tends to accumulate when someone calls bullshit makes me fucking furious.

Now, let’s look at the two OPs, first: a woman asking for people to share their experiences of gender difference in different forms of occultism, and gay man exploring the possibility of a huge oversight in the (human understanding of) Hermetic Law.  The first got a few genuinely thoughtful answers, but the response to both (overwhelming in the one case, so far singular in the other) amounts to “how dare you ask that fucking question?”

That response infuriates me.  It drives home the fact that, just as the neo-Pagan community is rife with mainline American anti-intellectualism (a rant for another time, but just look at popular responses to Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon), the occult community as a whole is permeated by outdated and debunked ideologies of sex, gender, and sexuality.

1 – Sex, Gender, Culture

Next, let’s get one thing laid out right from the start: sex and gender are not the same thing.  Sex is biological, a manifestation of genetic code and possibly some environmental factors.  Gender is socially constructed.

Graham and Megan attempt to reinforce their ge...
Graham and Megan attempt to reinforce their gender roles through performing traditional female tasks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a whole, the human species is sexually dimorphic—that is to say, there are male and female bodies with complimentary reproductive roles.  But let’s not let that apparently clear reality seduce us into reductionist thinking.  There are also intersexed people of countless varieties—some of whom are fertile, some of whom aren’t—and all the legit science points out that the differences among women and men are far greater than the “average” difference between women and men.

Gender roles do not come naturally to people of a particular sex: we are trained in their performance from birth.  Anthropologists and historians (when they’re not buying into anachronisms that support their personal bigotries) have clearly established that gender roles differ radically across times and spaces.  Hell, just look within America (or wherever you’re from; I know I have an international readership, but I haven’t lived enough places to speak of anywhere else) and across the last hundred years: the gender roles of our generation are different from those of our grandparents or our great-grandparents; further clear differences can be observed regionally—cf. the South versus the Paciffic Northwest.  Further: if gender roles were biologically determined, then no one would ever be uncomfortable with them and we would not have a social crisis in America revolving on the redefinition of masculinity and femininity and their relationship to eachother.  It would be physically impossible to vary from those roles, and they would be homogenous across time and geography.

Saying “social gender roles” have no part in spirituality/magic—like the commenters linked above—is essentially the same as saying that psychology has no part in spirituality/magic.  It is literally an argument that cultural context plays no part in magic.  It’s also an argument I most frequently encounter when it’s being deployed by (male) magicians when someone (usually a woman, though  often a queer) suggests that occult communities might not be immune from the sexism of society at large.  If you really believe that the context of your daily life has no bearing on your magic, then you’re probably what’s colloquially referred to as an armchair magician.

If you believe that psychology and cultural context play no part in magic, answer me this: why has nearly every generation needed to “reinvent the wheel”?  Why are we not all—every goddman one of us—working from the Greek Magical Papyri?  Wanna say that got lost (a fair argument), how about Agrippa?  Or, more to the point, why were contemporaneous magicians in Hellas, Persia, and China all doing radically different things?

Finally, in case the above thought-exercises failed to convince you, take a look at Phil Hine’s recent post, where he delves into the origin of the very idea of two sexes.  For further reading, check out his series of posts unpacking the 19th Century ideologies and “science” which lie at the heart of many “modern” occult ideas: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven.  I point to Phil Hine rather than, say, Kate Bornstein, because his research is more targeted to the occult community, and because of his credibility within that community.

2 – As Above, So Below

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people—as Polyphanes’ commenter—like to deploy a what appears to be a reductionist version of the Law of Correspondences.  The argument, to the best of my ability to follow it, seems to go like this: 1) Humanity is made in the image of God; 2) God (Kether) is divided into Male and Female (Chokma, Binah); therefore, 3) humanity is divided into Male and Female, whose roles and nature suspiciously conform to 19th Century pseudo-science (see above) and/or their own personal sexist constructions.

I find this argument infuriating.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the full text of the Law of Correspondences go: “Whatever is above is like that which is below, and whatever is below is like that which is above”?  As Above, So Below; As Below, So Above.

Now, I realize that as someone who utterly rejects a hermetic top-down construction of reality in favor of a fractal construction, my understanding of the meaning of that Law is radically different from many.  But bear with me for a moment.  We can observe the material world much more closely and accurately than we can observe the immaterial.  Given how often we’re wrong about the material world, don’t you think we should be a little more careful about the assertions we make regarding the immaterial?  Particularly in terms of projecting our own (or worse yet, our great-grandparents’) social constructions onto the larger world of spirit?

Intermission – Conclusion of Rant 1/n+1

Of course, I realize that no amount of ranting on my part—or even reasoned arguments—will dissuade people from using religion and spirituality as a bludgeon with which to enforce their heterosexism and gender essentialism.  I even recognize that, from a particular point of view, I’m using my spiritual experience to bludgeon them with my radical queer feminism.  But my magic –which is every bit as queer as I am—works, and that pretty much proves that the hardline arguments are false.

Remember, folks: “Magic works in practice but not in theory.”

Further posts in this series—probably to be posted over the summer—will, hopefully, be penned in a less “frothy” frame of mind, and thicker with citations to both respected academic works and some of the primary GD/hermetic/ceremonial sources. They will not, however, be a whit less critical of the unexamined privilege which permeates so much of the discourse.

To conclude this first part of what will ultimately be a career-spanning screaming rant monograph, let’s come full circle and answer the posters whose commenters drove me to write this now instead of slowly over the course of months.

To femagician of reddit: as a (ostensibly) male-identified practitioner, it has been my observation that the world of the GD/ceremonial magic is largely, as one commenter puts it, “a sausage fest”.  I have known one or two lady ceremonialists in person, and follow the blogs of a few, but the majority of female-identified practitioners I’ve known do tend toward witchcraft of one kind or another.  I think that the reason for this, rather than being rooted in Wicca/witchcraft’s identification with the divine feminine (which also draws a good number of “manly” individuals), can be seen clearly in the hostile, hateful, cock-waving territorialism displayed by the majority of the men who answered your question.  It’s sure as fuck a lot of what kept me away for so long, and the largest obstacle to my keeping with it.

To Polyphanes: I’ve never read the Kybalion, so I can’t speak to it beyond what you reprinted and paraphrased in your post.  If the construction it employs is useful to you, roll with it.  But keep in mind that it is a construction: an out dated one and one which is inherently hostile to your existence as a gay man.  You know as well as I do what the Victorians thought of us “inverts”.  It is also a construction which absolutely cannot process transfolks or genderqueers.  Where in the Law of Gender (even with the Law of Rhythm) is there a place for me?  A “cross-dressing”, bisexual, male-bodied shamanic witch and magician who takes “female” form (involuntarily) about 30% of the time I descend to the Underworld?  Again, I haven’t read the Kybalion, but I suspect that the answer is “nowhere”, which means that not only is the Law of Gender NOT universal, but it flatly contradicts with the Law of Correspondences.  Because if I exist here in the material, Powers as genderfucked as I am must also exist both Above and Below.