Monogamous Polytheism: More Common Than You’d Think

So, it seems that the PPP is at it again, with giving voice to some of the more ill-informed and ridiculous ideas swirling around the pagan community. This time, it’s how Polytheism and Polyamoury are just somehow a natural combination.

I’ve said dozens of times before, even on this blog, that I have little issue with polyamoury, on paper. As an ideological concept of romanti-sexual relationships, there are some really well-written pieces explaining it and how, in theory, it could work for just about anyone. In theory. The reality is, when even Oberon Zell-Ravenheart has said, in a video interview (so you can see [if you can see, that is] the words literally coming from his mouth) that he thinks that serial monogamy might just be the human default, that’s saying something about how polyamoury is no more a universal truth than, say, the belief of “All are One”.

…and yet Patheos Pagan gives voice to the belief that monogamy goes against our nature. One of the most influential voices in both the polyamourous and pagan communities has said that he believes that serial monogamy is just as natural an orientation for relationships as polyamoury, but hey, Melissa Hill is going to get one of the most widely-read platforms in the pagan community to tell us all that monogamy is against nature.

First off, monogamy is not “against nature”. Contrary to what many writers on polyamoury have said (especially the earlier writings), many non-human species form lifetime bonds with only a single partner, and only a handful of these have shown any evidence that any offspring are sired by a male unmated to the female. Even then, non-human animals seem to have a better understanding than we do that “sex ≠ love.” Polytheists seem to understand better than most people than non-humans can, and do, feel great affections toward others, even something that we as humans would understand as “love” — yet still, many polytheists have a problem with anthropomorphising non-humans and attaching our social connections of love and sex into animal sex.

As a lifelong cat person, and one who’s actually read extensively about their behaviours and biology, let me tell you, sex is not the most enjoyable experience for the female cat, cos the male’s penis is barbed, and tears her up on withdrawl (this does serve a reproductive function, and at the very least, discourages the female from mating again before his sperm can fertilise her ovum). Cats don’t have sex for fun or other social purposes, like humans, dolphins, and bonobos do. Cats fuck to breed. They may bond very closely with another and seem to have a very loving relationship with other cats (contrary to common belief among arimal rights sorts, the house-cat is actually much closer to its wild Matriarch species than the domestic dog is to the wolf, and even without human intervention [such as feeding] will form complex social colonies, where these relationships have also been observed), but fucking, for a cat, is very utilitarian, in nature.

Love ≠ Sex

Furthermore, polygamy, as has been practised by certain groups (usually monotheist, though there are certainly others that to this), are not the same as a “poly” person’s group marriage. These are examples of often political and social alliances formed, a display of power and status (in Islam, the Q’ran states that a man can take as many wives as he can support, emotionally and financially — tell me how that’s not going to be turned into treating women as a status symbol, and I’ll give you a cookie), and generally less about “love” than they are about increasing the potential for a “legitimate heir”, which is basically big fancy talk for a son who will get the lion’s share of inheritance. It’s basic intellectual dishonesty to even point to the soap opera of marriages, divorces, concubines (legitimate affairs), illegitimate affairs, and hetarae of Greco-Roman Antiquity as if it’s somehow legitimate evidence that “polyamoury works” or is somehow “more natural” than monogamy; sex is not love, nor is love sex, and if bonobos have been observes having clearly consensual sex with each-other as conflict resolution, to form alliances, and just blow off some steam, why the need to constantly frame human sexual relationships as being only a display of loving affections?

Love in Greco-Roman antiquity was seldom recorded, all things considered, while it was generally accepted that sex was just as much (if not more so) about power, status, and basic biological needs, as it was about affections. Just because Hypothetical Upper-Class Theban was noted to have put his weiner in a dozen or so people of various genders didn’t necessarily mean that he was in love with all, or any of them.

The practise of “stoning women for adultery” isn’t about love or enforcing monogamy — after all, in Ms Hill’s example of attributing this to Islam in the Middle East, polygamy is common, when it’s one man and multiple women. This is also a culture that, in spite of their “holy book” asserting the autonomy of women in several passages (but don’t take my word for it, get yourself a copy here, I did, just to see what all the fuss was about in late 2001) has retained a stance that women are chattal, and exerting a patriarchal blame on the woman in not just adultery, but also in rape.

Love ≠ Sex

Speaking of, the crime of rape has only a short history of being about sexual autonomy. In English, it shares a root with “robbery”, and as recently as the mid-Victorian, “rape” could include situations of legitimate love and consensual sex, but the kids eloped, and so the young man had “raped” her arranged betrothed (or her parents) of the girl’s dowry.

The history of the word “rape” has more to do with treating women as property than it does with consent or sexual autonomy.

So why do polyamourists, more than most of my fellow serial monogamists (at least in my experiences) seem to have the poorest understanding of how love and sex are not one-in-the-same?

This is not something that I can answer, to be frank — but even in Zell’s defense of serial monogamy, he phrases it in sesxualised terminology, with “but they just can’t get it up for that other person any-more”, suggesting that this is a widespread issue in that community (or at least as observed by his outsider), if even one of the most respected and prominent names in that community can’t help but sexualise love in polyamoury.

Sex is not love.

Sex can be very loving, but it can also be violent, or it can just be a thing to do when there’s nothing good on the telly. Sex and violence can be consensual, or it can be the modern definition of rape. No matter how you slice it, sex is not love; sex is hat happens when two animals do things with their genitals that make squishy noises, and it can be as good or as bad, as loving or as hateful, as those engaging in it intend or even just perceive it to be.

It perplexes me how many polyamourists, especially in the polytheist community, will regard many kinds of deities, and concede to the existence of many kinds of relationships (hopefully one doesn’t have the same kind of relationship with one’s mother as one does with one’s sexual partner/s — it can put your eyes out!), but will be unaware that they are conflating romantic love and sex / sexual attraction as two things inexplicably linked, an ideal that many apparently don’t question of themselves.

Now, I haven’t always had the greatest understanding of the asexual community (and as much as some may protest the notion, yeah, sometimes there can be an underlying medical reason for a low or non-existent sex drive — other times, yeah, it’s just a thing that happens, and either way, as long as people are happy and there is no threat to one’s being, then it’s all good), if anything, I’m closer to the hyper-sexual end of the spectrum, but ironically, it seems that a community of people identified by their lack of sexual attraction are somehow better able to understand this concept:

Love ≠ Sex

Sexual attraction is just that: You’re attracted to a person in a way that gets your junk all a-tingly.

Romantic love is something else: It’s a love born from an attraction that can idealise another person — sometimes in a mature way that helps both parties grow, sometimes in an immature or destructive way that breeds dysfunctionality.

This is how romantic love differs from sexual attraction.

And sexual attraction isn’t necessarily hand-in-hand with sex drive, which is arguably more basic and biological, though can be triggered in ways that have been socialised into a person.

“I think monogamy is the more difficult choice,” says Ms Hill in the comments — and maybe it is, for herself and many other polyamourists, but sor someone who’s a monogamist because it’s just what works for them and feels most natural, even though they are truly supportive of polyamoury in theory, it’s not a difficult choice, at all. For me, polyamoury would be the difficult choice!

Then there’s the fact that A LOT of “polyamoury for everyone!” sorts of posts floating around the blogosphere often fall victim to the Geek Social Fallacies of Sex. Seriously, trying to plod my way through The Ethical Slut (which i didn’t attempt until I was in my thirties, which might be saying something about the sorts it appeals most to — much like people who are able to read Ayn Rand with a straight face), which was long before I was shown this post, much of the fallacies listed went through my mind — especially the fact that, no, people generally cannot control their emotions with regards to sex.

Sex seems rational on paper. Explaining its processes can be painfully dull, without even trying, and when you get to my age, kinky stuff is only really exciting when you’re doing it, not thinking or reading or writing about it.

GSFS is also especially pervasive, at least from an outsider’s perspective, regarding the polyamoury community. As an outsider with a shit-ton of friends in that community (seriously, at one time the “bipolypagangeek” LiveJournal community had at least half my friends-list in their ranks), I think I can be a little more objective about a lot of things with regards to polyamoury cos I’m not personally attached to that identity.

The fact of the matter is, jealousy abounds in that community, but people make attempts (poorly) to suppress it in order to prove that there is no jealousy in polyamoury.

The fact of the matter is, there is no shortage of people using polyamoury as a last-ditch attempt to save a failing relationship by bringing in other people to either distract each-other or to buffer out the break-up and hopefully (though seldom successfully) make it easier on everyone.

The fact of the matter is, “polyamoury”, in spite of the “it’s NOT NOT NOT poly-fuckery!!” contingent (cos to some people, I guess it’s all just TWOO WUV!!!), really is just as much, if not more so, about sex as it is about love and romance.

The fact of the matter is, there is absolutely zero evidence that successful ideal polyamourous relationships are any less rare than successful ideal monogamous relationships — and not to mention that there isn’t even a consensus on what the “ideal relationship” for either model really is. For me, as a serial monogamist, even if i go into a relationship knowing it’s going to be short-term, if we both know that and still enjoy it for the time it lasts, then it’s successful, but others want only that “one true love” that lasts a lifetime, as in a fairytale, or the relationship is unsuccessful. Some polyamourists will only consider a Triad or Quad relationship, where three or four people each have a romance and/or sexual relationship with everyone else involved, a successful one, but others will be perfectly happy with a primary partner and two or three on the side.

Love and sex are not the easiest things to navigate, and what “works” or is “ideal” is just so subjective to individual experiences — and more than that, the socio-political history of love and sex make it pretty much impossible to make any kind of generalisations about what “works” on a large scale, and yet Patheos gives voice to one of the most ill-informed voices on love and sex and goes forward with publishing her article on love and sex while attempting to give it spiritual validity. Ms Hill’s article is just ridiculous when her casting of monogamists as being in the same play as the patriarchal oppressors who’d “stone women for adultery” (neglecting to acknowledge the same mentality is displayed in the pseudo-polyamoury corollary of the harem), and other broad-brush generalisations isn’t infuriating.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

3 thoughts on “Monogamous Polytheism: More Common Than You’d Think

  1. I’d distinguish between being monogamous (in relationship preference or current practice) and being a monogamist- Monogamy as One True Way. I think she is conflating the two. I’m bad at recognizing names & faces but then I realize- hey I know this woman! She’s an ADF priest, I met her in June at the Upper Midwest ADF retreat. Very cool lady, but I think she should stick with theology and ritual design, and not claim profound knowledge of how humans are inherently programmed to have this or that relationship structure. That some poly folk feel the need to come up with elaborate justifications (Read Sex at Dawn! OMG!) seems rather defensive, and reminds me of other dumb tactics, like the “we deserve human rights because we can’t help being gay/bi/lesbian!” nonsense. I think I will e-mail her about this.

    • I’m sure there are subjects where Ms Hill knows what she’s talking about, but she’s letting her idealism on this topic cloud up what could’ve been a pretty decent piece about her experiences that maybe draws some parallels between her relationship orientation and her spirituality while leaving some open questions.

      Like I said, I’ve nothing against polyamoury, cos where I sit, it’s a relationship orientation that, just like sexual orientation and gender identity, may fluctuate during one’s lifetime, but in some respects, is less in one’s control than some may want to think. Even suggesting, as she has, that everyone is somehow naturally polyamourous and us monogamous sorts only learn that from social conditioning is just as ridiculous as saying “everyone is bisexual, most just learn how to be hetero!” Sure, by strictest definitions of the Kinsey scale, K6 *experience* (100% homosexuality) is very rare, but experience [we’re assuming sexual assault doesn’t count] doesn’t necessarily reflect sexual attraction orientation.

      Similarly, yes, most people will have more than one sexual and/or romantic partner in their lifetime, but a lot of people just fall out of love with their previous partner(s), assuming they were even in love with them or even all that into them at all, to begin with! Again: Experience is not necessaruily reflective of relationship orientation.

      And seriously, is there something in the aDF bylaws about members needing to be poly-? It seems everyone i know with a membership, especially with a Grove association, is into the poly- scene, and those who aren’t either never fully join or stop going to aDF stuff really quickly or otherwise just lose interest in aDF membership.

  2. Well, at least 2 of our former Arch-Druids were/are quite vocal about polyamory (the late Isaac Bonewits & the still with us Skip Ellison) I recall Isaac tried to make the polyamory/polytheism connection argument as well, and Skip claimed that the ancient Celts practiced it which is definitely a stretch considering it’s a modern concept. I’ve heard various anecdotes of people joining Pagan groups that turned out to be de facto swingers groups and felt pressured into participating- if that’s more of a problem with ADF groves than other Pagan nooks and crannies, then I’m not aware. But if that’s something that’s going on, it won’t happen on my watch. Anyone who is having problems with ADF groves or leaders mistreating them can feel free to contact me. Wasn’t planning on going the clergy route but it might end up happening if no one else is around who is Getting It Right, LOL. Pagan leaders don’t have callings, we have draft notices.

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