Book Review: Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kristen J. Sollée
I’ll admit it, I picked up this book because of the title. But beyond being provocative, the ways in which Sollée illuminates the connections between witchcraft, feminism, and sex within Witches, Sluts, Feminists are powerful and incredibly enlightening. I found this book to be an intriguing mix of things I knew, things I didn’t know, and things I knew but never thought to draw together.
Witches, Sluts, Feminists is a slim tome, split into even slimmer sections, and the bite-sized pieces allowed me to stop and start, picking up the book in between tasks as I needed to, though in truth once I started I hardly wanted to put the book down, and I only did because the realities of not being able to read for a living were pushing through. This book is unmistakably political — there are chapters about reproductive rights, the political witch, as well as an entire chapter about Hilary Clinton — but it is also historical. There is discussion about the evolution of the witch through time, both in terms of the historical treatment of women, particularly with regard to sexual behaviour, and in terms of the history of the witch in art, particularly “wanton woodcuts,” going along with a major theme in the text of how witches and women were sexualized by men.
I think it is worth mentioning at this point that this book does a very good job of explaining at the beginning of the text why the focus of the text is for the most part on women and witchcraft:
Although many men and those on the masculine spectrum identify as witches and have historically been accused of witchcraft, this book specifically looks at the indivisible links between the witch, femininity, and womanhood—which includes trans women and anyone on the feminine spectrum—and the persecution women have faced as a result of their perceived connection with witchcraft. Witches, Sluts, Feminists thus explores the witch as an identity forced upon women, as an identity taken up freely by feminine individuals, and as an embodiment of those who practice witchcraft—an umbrella term for a variety of occult practices.
I make sure to keep this disclaimer intact because there are many points throughout the text where things do get very heavy in talking about the feminine gender, so it’s important to remember that the discussion is about only certain aspects of witchcraft and the experience. That said, I did appreciate the last two sections of the text, which were “What Is a Witch? Survey” and “Interview with a Witch,” where Sollée included quotes from a wide swath of people asking them in the first their definition of a witch, and in the second various questions about their path and their practice. The wide variety of answers and perspectives was eye-opening and provided an interesting lens with which to view the rest of the book and also witchcraft as a series of practices.
I found Witches, Sluts, Feminists to also be a thought-provoking critique of capitalism, and the ethics of representation versus appropriation, particularly with regard to how people from under-resourced backgrounds may lack access to nuanced or fully accurate information about witchcraft, feminism, and sex and so while representation via flawed media and products produced via mainstream capitalism are not ideal, they are a gateway, and Witches, Sluts, Feminists has some powerful things to say about that gateway and the limitations and advantages to it.
Another delightful aspect of Witches, Sluts, Feminists was the illustrations throughout, created by Coz Conover. Always related to the subject at hand, they are each of them quirky, beautiful, and (in most cases) just a little bit sexy. They’re in grayscale, so they don’t have to be on a different quality paper, which is nice because it provides uninterrupted reading. That they flow neatly with the text is also nice because sometimes unnecessary images can be really disruptive, but I didn’t find that I had that problem at all with Conover’s illustrations.
Some other sections of the book I enjoyed were, well, all of them, but I particularly enjoyed how Sollée dived into the ways that witches have been represented across media, both as creators and as characters with regard to the sections about music and witchcraft on screen. That the representation of the witch was more favorable when there were women directing and creating them is no surprise, but the narrative as Sollée digs into is much more detailed than any review I could give.
I would also be remiss to not mention that Witches, Sluts, Feminists is very much centered on sex positivity, so there are two excellent chapters titled “The Spell of Seduction: Sex Work & the Sacred Whore” and “Queering the Witch: Porn, Pleasure & Representation” that are I think the most spiritual chapter and the chapter most filled with activism respectively out of the entire book.
As a person of color I also appreciated the intersectional nature of this investigation of the witch, and the way that particular attention was paid to the narrative of Tituba, and her legacy. (For those of you who are unaware, Tituba was a slave and one of the three originally accused of witchcraft at the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials, and she and the trials each get a chapter in this book.)
It’s an unfortunate fact that some people won’t give Witches, Sluts, Feminists a chance because the subject matter remains annoyingly taboo, especially with the rather shocking title — I’ll admit that I myself was a little hesitant to have it on a blog at first — but I think that this book covers many fascinating intersectional topics and it got me excited in a way that I hadn’t been in a while, which is why I ultimately decided to include it in my review roster anyway, and this book is definitely one that I highly recommend.