Most wiccans and pagans are coy about it. In a Christian dominated society, they have good reason. If not the central tenet, the Great Rite is certainly important in most systems of wicca. A belief system which centres around the possibility that sex is not only permissible, but important and sacred, is anathema to most Christians and to adherents of many other mainstream faiths.
So, just what is the Great Rite? Why is it important?
Most people know of The Great Rite from Gerald Gardner, whose publications in the late 1940s to early 1960s form much of the basis of modern wicca. Ritual sex, or a representation of sex, formed a core of his system: every sabbat rite contains the phrase "The Great Rite if possible, either in token or truly."
Earlier, in the 1890s, Charles Leland documented similar techniques in his "Aradia"
"And thus shall it be done: all shall sit down to the supper all naked, men and women, and the feast over, they shall dance, sing, make music, and then love in the darkness, with all the lights extinguished; for it is the Spirit of Diana who extinguishes them, and so they will dance and make music in her praise.
The idea of ritual sex, the Heiros Gamos or sacred marriage, is very old indeed: rituals were held in honour of Ishtar, Inanna and Diana. The ideas found their way, through tradition or scholarship, into Leland's Aradia and hence into the published work of Gardner. But, despite the latter's emphasis of The Great Rite, it may be worth noting a comment of Lois Bourne, one of his Priestesses, regarding the four-poster bed in the "witch's cottage" used by the group. "As far as I am aware, it was only ever used as a place for people to change."
The Great Rite,
"either in token or truly"
Wiccans celebrate the Great Rite in one of two ways.
Sometimes, the Priestess and her partner actually engage in physical sex after invoking the spirits of the Goddess and the God. Most of the time it is done by couples who either are married or are lovers. When the Great Rite is performed "truly", it is normal for the coven members to leave the circle and the room after the invocations. The couple have the opportunity to engage in sacred lovemaking - or not to do so if they so choose. Later, the other coven members return: what passed between the Priestess and her partner remains private.
The logistics of this are cumbersome and most often the Great Rite is performed in a circle with only the Priestess and her partner present, or after the rest of the coven have left. Purely from the point of view of the uninterrupted flow of a group ceremony, the Aradian idea of the spirit of Diana extinguishing the lights makes a good deal more sense.
More commonly, the Great Rite is performed "in token". (Since all Great Rites are symbolic, "token" in its proper sense is a pretty good term.) The Priestess holds the chalice filled with drink and symbolic of the womb, as she invokes the spirit of the Goddess. Her partner holds the blade (commonly known as the "athame"), symbol of the phallus, invoking the spirit of the God. After the invocations, the Priest dips the tip of the blade into the liquid within the chalice to represent the union of the Goddess and the God. Then the chalice is passed around for everyone to drink. As a symbol, the chalice is more important than its contents: it gives shape and meaning to what it contains.
Dion Fortune, amongst many others, recognised that, in fact, neither intercourse nor orgasm are necessary for sex magic. Her biographer, Alan Richardson, comments that "because intercourse did not occur, this did not mean that sexuality was absent from the workings". It is, however, undoubtedly true that at the beginning, sex magic is easier when orgasm is involved. It takes practice to hold the mind in such a way that the Great Rite "in token" actually works - but it can be done.
No person should ever be coerced into performing any sexual activity. In this, a coven or magical group is just like any other group. People abuse positions of power in the workplace and in other social groups, trading on fear and greed in order to coerce partners. Both the law of the land and social pressure provide checks and balances which should prevent this. Occasionally they do not. Equally, at parties, clubs and in other circumstances, a person may, without any deliberate coercion, willingly at the time perform an act which they will regret in the cold light of day.
I have never encountered a situation of sexual coercion within a coven: nor have I met anyone face to face who has told me of such a case. With gossip in the craft being the way it is, I would have expected to do so if more than a handful of individuals were involved. But, where humans and sex are involved there is probably no such concept as "Never". There are probably a few cases where a coven leader abuses their position in order to obtain sexual favours. Equally, a leader may condone abuse by allowing a coven member to perform an act which other members are fairly sure they would not consent to but for the atmosphere of being in the coven.
Many of the sometimes-derided "craft laws" and the system of probation periods are designed to allow new members to assess situations gradually. Together with the tradition that one must always ask to join a group rather than being recruited, the rules should prevent, and in my own experience always have prevented, abuses happening.
That, very occasionally, in a very few groups, they probably fail to do so, no more invalidates the entire system than the actions of a few priests render the Catholic Church worthless.
In 1953, Gerald Gardner said, of working together to achieve trance states:
"It hath been found that this practice doth often cause a fondness between aspirant and tutor, and 'tis a cause of better results if this be so. ... And it is for this reason that a man may only be taught by a woman and a woman by a man, and that man and man, and woman and woman, should never attempt these practices together. And may all the Curses of the Mighty Ones be on any who make the attempt."
However, the eastern systems, upon which both Gerald Gardner and Dion Fortune drew either directly or indirectly, place less emphasis on gender and even, on occasion, suggest that the differing rates of arousal for a male-female couple mean that it takes more practice to become attuned
Eluki Bes Sharzar, in about 1977, produced a neat pastiche of Gardner:
"It hath been found that two people sitting around with a bottle of Chianti discussing Atlantean Grandmothers will become fond of each other, if only because of the Stockholm Syndrome. Therefore let it be resolved that a human being shall be taught in the Kraft only by another human being, and screw the middle-class morality of the nineteen-fifties."
Gardner wrote, of nakedness in general and the Great Rite in particular:
To us it is natural, and if it aids the Great Work it is good. 'Tis true that a couple burning with a frenzy for knowledge may go straight to their goal, but the average couple have not this fire. We show them the way, our system of props and aids (i.e., magic ritual). A couple working with nothing but lust will never attain in any case; but a couple who love each other dearly should already be sleeping together, and the first frenzy of love will have passed, and their souls will already be in sympathy. If the first time or two they do stay a while to worship Aphrodite, 'tis only a day or two lost, and the intense pleasure they obtain only leads them again to the mysteries of Hermes, their souls more attuned to the great search. Once they have pierced the veil they will not look back. This rite may be used as the greatest of magics if it be done with both partners firmly fixing their minds on the object and not thinking of sex at all. That is, you must so firmly fix your mind on your object that sex and all else are naught.
Strong stuff for 1953, but it neatly sums up the position of both eastern and western practitioners and commentators. There are times when, deliberately or accidentally, ritual sex turns into "the mere gratification of fleshly lusts". Between consenting adults this should not be a problem. However, the best results are achieved - either "in token" or in actuality, when the act itself is subjugated to the achievement of specific objectives (other than the gratification part, that is). For a couple working together, this almost always means being within a committed and stable relationship.