In Defense of Pagan Polyamory
Recently, I got my first piece of angry mail about polyamory issues. One chapter in my book "Handfastings and Wedding Rituals" contains a ceremony for a polyamorous group wedding. A woman wrote me indignantly, saying that by including such a ritual I was giving Paganism a bad name, and smearing its reputation in the eyes of all those conservative people that apparently we ought to be impressing. She also contended that there were "studies that proved" that nonmonogamy does not work. I don't have permission to reprint her letter, but I can and will reprint my response here. (This was written in 2004.)
I'm writing in response to your mail about our "Handfasting and Wedding Rituals" book. I've often been disappointed when I wrote to an author and then never heard from them, so we have a policy of always writing back to those who take the time and effort to write. I am impressed by the honesty and passion in your letter, and I will attempt to answer with equal honesty and passion.
Your letter is actually incredibly timely. I am in the process of negotiating the publishing of a book called "Tribe of Hearts: Pagan Polyamory", on the growing phenomenon of polyamory in the Pagan movement. Assuming that it gets published - which looks pretty good at the moment - it will answer the questions that you raise in your letter. However, I'll try to address them now for you.
First, there is the issue of how we look to the greater demographic. I have an entire chapter in my book that addresses this, with opinions from both sides. Here's mine: I've been a queer activist for many years now, and a Pagan activist as well. This is a question that the queer community has been dealing with for some time: who do we dump in order to "look better" to right-wing fundamentalists? After years of angry (and justified) infighting, the queer community is finally coming to the realization that we can never dump enough "fringe groups" to look good to them. The fact that we are queer at all damns us. The Pagan demographic will, similarly, have to come to this decision. The fact that we are a sex-positive, queer-positive religion means that we will never have their blessing, polyamorists or no.
That doesn't mean that all hope is lost, though. In Massachusetts, the state where I live, gay marriage was just legalized. I have faith that it will be a long, slow tumble across the country over the next few years. It's just a matter of time. The first stone has fallen, and the rest will follow. My point is that Massachusetts has one of the most inclusive queer movements in the country - we don't turn away the leatherfolk, the transsexuals, the drag kings and queens, the polyfolk in order to look respectable - and we won. We won. That says that it's possible to win without sacrificing any of your children at the gate.
Why did we win? By being inclusive, we got the sheer numbers to do so. We cannot convert most of the enemy....but we can outnumber them by gaining like-minded allies. By like-minded, I mean groups who are also pro-diversity, and who do not make rules about who their allied groups can have as members. Because that's one of the deepest tenets of Paganism.....that diversity is sacred, a truth that we can see reflected in Nature. By gaining allies who believe similarly, we gain the numbers to win. By not sacrificing our more controversial members, we show those allies - and the Gods who watch us and our cause - that we are not merely paying lip service to that ideal.
I just came back from Detroit, where I was a guest speaker for an interfaith conference. I was one of the only two Pagan presenters. I went there thinking that I would be surrounded by unfriendly people who would not accept anything about me. I was wrong. There were people of all faiths there who were learning to see diversity as sacred, and while my path was not theirs, they could see the value in having many paths. I'd like to think that we Pagans would know better than to fall into the homogenization trap.
The polyamorous demographic in the Pagan community is rising dramatically. Over the last ten years it has expanded more than tenfold. So it isn't a matter of me writing a ritual for a handful of fringe people any more. It's a matter of dealing with an exponentially expanding percentage of the Pagan demographic, a percentage that is increasingly demanding acceptance and will not go away. Most Pagan festivals are now holding workshops for polyamorous Pagans, and they all fill up with people. Pagan churches such as Asphodel and the Church of All Worlds have recognized liturgy for polyamorous marriages. It's one of the new hot-button topics in the Pagan demographic....because it's cropping up everywhere.
That isn't happening because I wrote a ritual and stuck it in a book. Actually, the fast growth of Pagan polyamory is why I decided that "Tribe of Hearts" had to be written. We polyfolk have very few good role models, especially spiritual ones, to help us do what so many tell us can't be done. However, we know it can be done, and done well, because we're doing it.
Which leads me to your second point. I'm not sure where you're getting your information, but there have been no widespread scientifically valid academic or medical studies done of the modern polyamory movement. None. There are some books floating around from the 1970's, filled with anecdotes by mental health professionals, but these are not studies, not by the actual scientific sense of the word - meaning a large, varied demographic interviewed with standardized questions over time. The anecdotes by the book-writing shrinks all interviewed folks who had been in failed "group marriages", which is kind of like trying to prove that marriage itself is an unhealthy institution by only studying recently divorced people. Anecdotes do not a study make.
Of course, the reason for this is that the polyamory movement - and by "polyamory" I specifically mean the kind of open, radically honest, negotiated-and-boundaried model of relationships currently espoused by the poly movement - is a recent development. There simply weren't enough people out of the closet to do a study on until recently. I'd like to see such a study done, actually, if it could be done with reasonable scientific accuracy. I did go looking for this material when I wrote "Tribe of Hearts", only to find that it was largely mythical.
For the record, I am actively polyamorous and I have been so for my entire sex life, starting at age 15. (I'm now 38.) I live with my wife of 12 years and my boyfriend of 3 years. This lifestyle is certainly a lot of work; it requires a huge amount of honesty, processing, working on trust, and talking about emotions. That's not something that most people want to do. Fine; polyamory isn't for most people. If monogamous marriage is "elementary", this is "grad school" relationship. If you have severe trust issues, you shouldn't be doing it. But I can honestly say that I am far healthier being polyamorous than I could ever be practicing monogamy. I mean, just the idea of having to give up one or the other of my long-term lovers is horrifying to me. Who would I choose? How would I decide? That's like saying that you can only love one of your children, so you have to give up all the others for adoption. Imagine being forced into that situation and you can perhaps understand how it feels every time someone comes down on me for my own polyamorous marriage.
In writing "Tribe of Hearts", I interviewed a whole lot of polyamorous people, in various combinations of gender, sexual preference, and numbers. Most of them didn't seem the least bit unhealthy. I realize that this, too, is anecdotal, but I never claimed to be a doctor. Certainly there are screwed-up people practicing polyamory, but there are screwed-up people practicing monogamy as well, and I didn't see the percentage as any higher. Certainly there are people who do it wrong, or badly.....but considering that we're trying to work out a healthy model with few to no role models and the rest of the community telling us that we're sick and wrong, I think we're doing pretty well just to keep hanging in there and trying. And hey, with the divorce rate of (supposedly) monogamous marriages in this country at 50%, well, apparently those folks aren't all doing it right either.
Again, the queer community already went through this issue, back when they had few to no healthy role models for what a loving, committed same-sex relationship ought to look like. Older gay men and lesbians who were struggling back when I was in grade school tell me how they would go in for couples' counseling and the counselor would tell them that their sick lifestyle would never allow them to be happy together, and that the healthiest thing they could do was to break up and become straight. Every time a gay couple did break up, it was used as anecdotal evidence to "prove" that gay relationships were all unhealthy, by public speakers and writers who were filled with fear and had an axe to grind. I submit that the polyamory movement is in the place now where the gay community was thirty years ago.
But don't take my word for it. If you were a straight person whose only contact with gay people was a few TV shows, and you felt that their lifestyle was unhealthy (and perhaps had religious reservations about it) I'd urge you to contact and speak with GLBT people, especially ones in your own faith, and meet with them and talk to them. I'd encourage you to get to know them, to put a human face on an abstract idea, to see them as human beings practicing a valid option which simply isn't your own. I challenge you to do the same with Pagan polyamorists. Find some. Talk to them, face to face if possible. Find out for yourself whether they appear any more unhealthy than any other random person. Humanize the abstract. Talk to ones engaged in long-term relationships, not just people who "tried it once in the past and it didn't work out for them". It won't be that difficult; there are more and more of us every day.
I'll end with a clip from my book; quotes from two disparate people in two different group marriages in different parts of the country. They were all asked, as part of my surveys, how polyamory and Paganism interact, ethically and spiritually. I can't send you all the wonderful answers, but here's a couple of them.
Giovanni from Florida enthuses: "Diversity! It's all about diversity! In our faith, as opposed to many other people's beliefs, diversity is not only good, it's sacred. This is a nature religion....and look at nature! Many, many different kinds of relationships bonding, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups. Mating differences within species as well as between species. As a scientist, I can't pretend that I'm not part of that big diverse biological community. The bonobos to whom we are most closely related - who but for five per cent of their genes would be us - have polyamorous group relations that use group sex to soothe communal tension. I'm not saying that the natural thing is for us all to act like bonobos, but that if we really believe that nature is sacred, and worth looking to for our philosophy of life, then we must admit that there are many diverse ways for human beings to form love bonds. To do otherwise would be to set us apart from the natural order of things, and as a Pagan and a scientist, I can't do that."
Judie from Wisconsin had a more heartfelt appeal: "As a pagan, I am both a polytheist and a pantheist. I am also a Goddess-worshiper. That means that I love and worship many goddesses, while still understanding that everyone and everything comes from the same source, the universal womb of Love and Life. In dealing with my lovers, I use the example of the Goddess from whose womb all things spring. She loves all her creations equally, and unconditionally. I'm only one woman, but I can still strive for that kind of love, if only between three other people. If she can love all of Creation equally, I can love three wives equally."
She speaks eloquently of the links between her pagan faith and her practice of polyamory: "On the other side, I am not dedicated to one goddess alone. Sometimes I revere Artemis, with her independence and dedication; sometimes I revere Demeter, who nurtures with passion; sometimes I revere Brigid, who is all fire and creativity. They are all worthy of my attention. And in my daily life, I love Anatolia, who is unswerving in her loyalty to her marriage, her daughter, and her politics; Sondra who is quiet and reflective and can guess what her wives are thinking when they weep, and Brenna who sings and plays the fiddle and sewed frogs on my jean pockets. Their bodies are the altars at which I worship them, just as I would light a candle first for Artemis and then for Demeter without worrying about whether I am being faithful. Monotheism and monogamy; both are too limiting for me to learn to love fully in the best way for me."
In hopes of better understanding all around,
--Raven Kaldera, 2004