Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kristen J. Sollée is a book with a solid premise at its core. It explores the history of women who have been (at times literally) demonized and persecuted, and draws parallels between the medieval and puritanical witch hunts; the women who in the early 20th century fought and were punished for suffrage and reproductive rights; and the present day slut-shaming and rape culture that modern women continue to contend with.
“During the witch trials, physical and emotional terrorism against women was indeed the norm. Although sexism was expressed differently in the early modern era, destructive male hegemony motivated by religious, political, and economic interests remains largely intact today.”
There are lots of really interesting facts in this book, and my favourite aspect of it was the way that it links history to the present day. The book relates the earliest examples of church-sanctioned treatises that blended feminized evil with erotica and lust, reflecting the male fear of/titillation by female sexuality. It then traces this all the way through history with examples of women being targeted because of their sexuality, their intelligence, their knowledge (especially of childbirth and fertility—midwives were particularly at risk); through to laws and legislation designed to limit reproductive and women’s rights; and finally to the growing number of women targeted and killed by misogynistic extremists and incels.
Sollée also points out a fact that I had not previously known—that it was only because of the witch trials in Europe that a woman’s testimony would come to be admissible in court. She quotes Anne Barstow, the author of Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts: “That European women first emerged into full legal adulthood as witches, that they were first accorded independent legal status in order to be prosecuted for witchcraft, indicates both their vulnerability and the level of antifeminism in modern European society.”
It is easy to see the truth in these connections—that what constitutes a witch is merely a woman who is independent, strong, intelligent, has sexual agency, and has no desire or need to live within an oppressive patriarchal structure. A woman who doesn’t need a man to grant her power was—and still is—seen as a threat, and must therefore be punished.
Unfortunately, the book also devotes many of its pages to discussions of modern practices of “witchcraft,” and that is where it lost me. I put the term in quotation marks, not because I don’t believe in or respect modern witches, but because some of the things that the book relates seem to me to be questionable.
I want to be clear right off the bat: I am not in any way opposed to women who want to practice witchcraft. I respect Wiccans and nature-based spiritual practices. I believe that The Satanic Temple (a nontheistic organization that uses its official status as a religion to enact political change) is doing good work in the world. But I also think there is a slippery slide from people who are consciously engaging with the world through these lenses, and people who are following a trend without really understanding it fully.
Witches have become a part of our cultural legacy. As women reclaim this image and role, oftentimes they are not honouring those who were tortured and persecuted in the name of the witch. Sollée notes in her book that you can walk into many a chain store selling trendy, mass-produced items and find tarot and oracle decks, incense and sage to burn, moon-and-star themed decor, crystals and elixirs and cleansing room sprays, and “witch adjacent” clothing.
Sollée notes the capitalist exploitation inherent here, but also says that these stores offer access to a subculture that may not be readily available otherwise. She does not acknowledge that there is a darker, more sinister side to these “trends.” That there are serious issues of cultural appropriation, environmental and ethical impacts, and rampant misinformation going on within the “witchy,” “spiritual,” and “wellness” communities.
Now, more than ever, I think that information literacy is of utmost importance, as we navigate a world that is increasingly bombarding us with content. Understanding that the gemstones used to make the sex toys that Sollée happily endorses were probably mined by child slaves is likely going to prevent you from enjoying their “sacredness.” Knowing that the commodification of white sage, in addition to harming Indigenous people, has led to overharvesting and shortages of the plant, might put a damper on your “witchy” vibes. Learning more about the artist who first illustrated the minor arcana tarot cards for the 1909 Rider-Waite deck, Pamela Colman-Smith (a woman of colour who was paid little money and no royalties, and subsequently struggled with poverty until her death), might give you something deeper to ponder than what “the universe” is telling you on this particular day.
Ironically, after pages of talk of energy and auras, cleansings and spells worked with emojis, Sollée does discuss the concept of misinformation. The context is witches organizing against Trump. She again draws parallels between the current digital realm rife with fake news and inflammatory misogyny and prejudice, and the original tracts from the fifteenth century that demonized the Other.
This parallel is certainly resonant—but I think it is important to recognize that misinformation can take many forms. It’s not restricted only to things that you personally don’t like. It’s as much of an untruth for the Goop website to tell you that a “planetary gong” is going to heal your “astrological wounds” as it is for Trump to tell you that he won the 2020 election. We cannot truly unveil the truth behind the lies unless we are willing to turn the lens towards ourselves as well.
If we want to fully reclaim the witch, let’s make sure that we are not ourselves ignorantly engaging in practices that harm others.