Presented at Poly Pride NYC, October 4, 2008, at the Blue Stockings Book Store
I have a 7-month-old kitten that loves to sneak outside. He has long gray fur and holds his super-fluffy tail straight up. Trapped inside the house he sleeps countless hours. I get worried. Being his mother/guardian I want him to have a full-rich life—to know his way around trees, insects, lizards and small birds. My mind is in a constant tizzy over his safety vs. his living a deep and amazing life. When I let him out I worry he’ll be hit by a car or captured by a coyote. I also worry that if I were to keep him captive for all of his months of kittenhood, he won’t know his way around other cats. His brain might stagnate…and his life will be dull and limited. The day before as I picked him up, he purred, licked my faced and sprouted a confident cat erection. Hmmm I wondered…is it time for this fluffy boy to be neutered or should I grant him a full life? Do I trust him to only have safe sex with equally sweet females who also are also bonded with an equally freethinking human guardian? What if one day his cat testosterone kicks up and he opts to become an alley cat and never return to our interspecies life of purring and hugging and licking?
Deciding to set your lover free into the wide world of polyamory also has its consequences—consequences so overwhelming that the vast majority of Americans simply say, “no.” In that biologically humans are a pair-bonding species, short-term monogamy can feel like the high road and the right road. And certainly romantic love brain chemistry conforms to this template and approach. In the attraction phase of romantic love our brains produce large amounts of dopamine causing us to feel intensely focused on one love, to feel jealous if our access to that love is threatened and anxious over the mutuality of it all. Poly people view this phase of romantic love with a wide-screened lens. They know that the sensations caused by their dopamine highs won’t last and that at best such a love will convert to the attachment phase, which is more relaxed, being supported by the brain chemicals vasopressin and oxytocin. These chemicals foster feelings of confidence that the now established relationship will continue. Once in the attachment phase poly people comfortably invite in new attractions and new loves. A shared belief is that the attraction phase, referred to in poly circles as NRE or new relationship energy is short-lived, fun, but nothing to personally take very seriously nor to feel threatened by in a partner.
Mainstream Americans put NRE on a pedestal and thus consider polyamory to be supremely foolhardy. It’s been noted by anthropological observers that American society’s attitudes towards romantic love are very adolescent (Rapaille, 2006, p. 33). As lovers Americans behave like teenagers. We take our crushes seriously and we measure our self worth by being able to demand the fidelity of our partners and the health of our relationships by the intensity of passion we’re able to co-generate.
Is polyamory’s wise attitude towards NRE enough to keep poly people safe? Unlikely, if under-the-skin, they embrace Western cultural values. Like me with my fluffy gray kitten, they ponder the balance between freedom, security and mutual happiness. I think that much of what poly people engage in to ensure home-life security is what might be called polyarmory (Byrd, 1998). Polyarmory practices can include veto rights over a partner engaging a (particular) new lover, the practice of safe sex (both viral and emotional) and the imposition of hierarchies (wherein only the home relationship is a primary relationship and all others are relegated to secondary and tertiary status). These practices can function as emotional and sexual chastity belts. While perhaps not as drastic as neutering a cat or locking a kitten inside, they can cramp our styles and suffocate our spirits. Nonetheless, many poly people are uneasy at the thought of loving their partners so unconditionally, that they’d be willing to set them free.
I’ve typically been drawn to super attractive/charismatic men with whom all I could possibly do is set them free and hope that what we’d generated together was as interesting to them as it was to me. Considering the quixotic odds of that, I contend that the real polyamory journey is being able to withstand aloneness. Rather than juggling one delectable offer after another, what polyamory really offers is a journey into the dark night of the soul. If one can actually stand up tall and proud to all of those “I’m not loved” demons, then they may truly emerge victorious from polyamory’s dark night of the soul journey.
Striking that manageable balance between freedom and commitment is tough. Some 30 years ago the members of the Kerista Commune of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury proposed the concept of compersion. It got its name from late-night play on a ouija board. Basically compersion is having loving empathy for one’s partner’s outside erotic and emotional adventures. Within the Kerista Community compersion may have felt manageable in that everyone was part of one big emotional, erotic and economic family. The Oneida community, which spawned a 150-person group marriage in mid-19 th century upstate New York, also embraced this concept. Here the very natural human drive to form pair bonds was banned as was partner dancing and post-coital overnight snuggling.
Over the last five years I’ve conducted research (including a doctoral dissertation) to better understand the components of compersion (Wolfe, 2003). Considering that the majority of subjects that I’ve studied engage polyamory as co-residential open-couples (as opposed to being freewheeling singles or part of an intimate network or group marriage), the practice of incorporating new loves can be very threatening. What might give a couple in an open-polyamorous relationship the sense of non-possessiveness that would cause them to embrace their partner’s extra-relationship exploration? Other than externals like having an equally engaging erotic life and/or weathering large demands imposed by work and parenting, for the most part it comes down to belief in the ideologies of polyamory and compersion. Those who were highly enculturated in the world of polyamory (reading books, joining e-lists and attending conferences) were most likely to contend that compersion was possible.
For open couples perhaps the biggest plus is the excitement of a new love in tandem with the security of a stable home life. This winning combo can produce the perfect brain chemistry blend: simultaneous access to both the attraction and attachment phases of romantic love. As for the dark night of the soul journey, most people would rather not bother. Just about everybody who is willing to divulge his or her honest truth, would rather be shared than share. At the end of the day, we all want to be the stars in our own soap operas rather than be watching late night TV alone in bed—even if we have full control over the volume and the remote.
When I did field research in East Africa I did not meet a single African woman who told me she’d had fantasies while growing up of living in a polygynous compound wherein she’d have to wait her turn to spend private time with her husband (Wolfe, 1998). Moreover, adjusting to sharing ones husband and family resources with a new co-wife is not easy. One woman who’d been in a monogamous relationship with her husband for ten years before another wife was added to her family, told me it took her two full years to adjust. In Africa the incentives to practice polygyny are largely economic. Men with large land holdings and many resources are regarded as attractive. Families, who want to ensure that their daughters and their grandchildren will have easier lives, negotiate to have their daughters marry these men. African men with limited resources but big dreams might hedge their bets by marrying several wives and hoping that these ladies will generate enough income to cause him to become prosperous.
In contrast, most of the poly people I’ve studied are well-educated professionals that form partnerships to better realize all who they are emotionally, sexually and artistically. Without financial incentives to buffer the discontent of sharing and waiting ones turn, their identities are not as partnered people, but rather as single self-sufficient satellites. One of the statistically significant correlates I found in one of my samples was that happy poly people do a lot of masturbation (Wolfe, 2003, p. 180; Internet version, p. 76). Rather than waiting for a busy beloved to visit, they take care of themselves! Other correlations I found were that Western males tend to be less jealous than Western females. And like African males, they, too, had more partners per year than the females. Moreover, they drew their partners in without financial incentives! Certainly no African woman worth her salt, would put up with such a thing!
This led me to consider that polyamory, especially, is an absolutely unique cultural invention. Certainly, humans have been known to invent all kinds of weird belief systems. In Papua New Guinea for example the Ettoro and Sambia tribes believe that pre-adolescent boys require the ingestion of semen (received by performing fellatio on an older male) to grow into a fully bearded, sexually functioning adult male (Herdt, 2006, p. 99). While a little adolescent fellatio is relatively harmless not all human cultural inventions are. Amongst the Enga peoples, also of Papua New Guinea, funerary practice required women to eat the brains of the deceased. Sadly some of these brains were diseased and caused the ingestors to fall ill with kuru, a nasty neurological disorder akin to mad cow disease (Gadjusek, 1973).
While practicing polyamory is unlikely to bring on premature death, for the unprepared, it can be pretty crazy making. Like life-long monogamy, polyamory goes completely against our biological wiring. It took me a long time to realize this. As a scientist with a poly agenda, I was forever using biological examples to argue that polyamory was natural. I’d point to the natural sexual dimorphism in our species wherein the male is on average larger than the female—not twice as large as in routinely polygynous gorillas, but larger! And then I’d note how human male testicles are relatively large—not as large as those of chimpanzees, but certainly large enough to generate the requisite fighter, blocker and egg-penetrator sperm to compete effectively in an inter-uterine sperm wars (Baker and Bellis, 1995). Despite all of my confirming biological evidence, what I failed to note was that the culture of polyamory is a true blue human invention—a cultural construction.
Likewise the Western style practice of homosexuality is also a cultural construction. While many world cultures allow for same sex erotic expression, our ideas of same sex romantic love and marriage are unique. Amongst the Fa’afafine of Samoa, the Travesti of Brazil and the Kathoey of Thailand, what is considered proper is for same sex but opposite gendered people to engage in sexual activity (Nanda, 2000). Thai Kathoey, better known as lady boys dress as women, live as women and form long-term partnerships with (heterosexual) men. It would be unheard of for two female-behaving Kathoey to have sex with each other. In Thailand as well as in Samoa, Brazil and many other parts of our world, it’s not the configuration of one’s genitals that determines the viability of a relationship, but how gender is expressed. For them if one partner is playing a female role, the other must play a male role.
What is absolutely unique about our contemporary gay culture is that we endorse pair-bonded love and in some states grant full marital rights to those not just of the same sex but also of the same gender. Placing a larger lens on this phenomenon, I would say that the reason we allow this is because our heterosexual pairings are no longer hetero-gendered. Amongst hetero professionals, two-career marriages are the norm. What was once the domain of the wife/mother is now shared or hired out. Today’s two-career professionals whether they are gay, straight, or bi can pay for housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, nannies and even gestational surrogates.
With gender being completely up for grabs in our Western society (most of our females routinely cross-dress and many consider it completely acceptable to partner with a younger man), it makes perfect sense that polyamory’s freeform approach to relationships would emerge. In a recent survey I conducted (Wolfe, 2008), my polyamorous respondents reported being 50% bisexual, 40% heterosexual and the remainder queer, trans or “other.” As for niggling issues like jealousy, the bi-crowd was the least bothered by a partner’s NRE-enhanced new sweetie—the one’s who reported being the most troubled were single heterosexuals and gay men. Considering our increasingly gender-flexible culture, it does make sense that those subscribing to the most rigid cultural practices like heterosexual monogamy and Western homosexuality would have the most difficulty practicing polyamory.
As for why polyamory is a very weird cultural construction, it’s because poly people seek to tell the truth—not just to their trusted friends but to their long time partners, their sizzling new lovers, subscribers to their internet blogs and live journals as well as pretty much everyone else who will listen. They seek to tell the truth even when it hurts. We humans, being members of the biggest-brained primate species, typically withhold information when it’s not to our advantage to share. And we’re supremely good liars. We consider plastic surgery and hair dye reasonable practices…and inflating the value of a house to secure a big mortgage loan that’s considered all-American!
While endeavoring to be truthful is perhaps the most significant hallmark of polyamory, it’s honestly not very human. When I asked my survey respondents whether they engaged in “don’t ask don’t tell” practices regarding reporting what they did with other lovers, even 8.6% of those I considered poly-enculturated said they did (Wolfe, 2008). Ultimately, I contend that all poly people seek to maintain the good things they have while (safely) accessing more love, sexual intimacy, and attention. Regarding truth telling, those who belong to subcultures that embrace transparency and value compersion, engage in these beliefs and practices as a means to retain all that they value. As for the most natural human mating pattern, that’s good old serial monogamy. Here we can wallow in dopamine-drenched new love, engage in heart-throbbing secret affairs and forever be on the look out for a true blue partner that just might make our lives fabulously good—at least for awhile. As for my fluffy gray kitten, he snuck outside again. No doubt he’s off on a kitten adventure—chasing grasshoppers and perhaps a bit of tussle time with the neighborhood cats. I imagine he’ll be back in a couple of hours. Considering his potent new erections, and my pattern of partnering with elusive males, it could be awhile.
Baker, R.R. and M.A. Bellis (1995) Human Sperm Competition. London: Chapman & Hall.
Byrd, D. (1998) Personal Conversation during the Loving More Conference. Berkeley, CA. August 9, 1998
Gadjusek , D.C. (1973). Kuru in the New Guinea Highlands. In Spillane JD (ed): Tropical Neurology. New York, Oxford University Press.
Herdt, G. (2006) The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea. Belmont, CA, Thomson Wadsworth.
Nanda, S. (2000) Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Rapaille, C. (2006). The Culture Code. New York, Broadway Books.
Wolfe, L. (1998) Adding a Co-Wife. Loving More Magazine #15 Fall 1998.
______. (2003) Jealousy and Transformation in Polyamorous Relationships. San Francisco , CA , Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. June 24, 2003.
______. (2008) “Polyamorous Behaviors of Non-Poly Identified Peoples” based on findings from “Multiple Partners Survey” conducted in March 2008. Presented as part of the Panel, “Current Research in Polyamory” to the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region Conference. San Diego, CA. April 11, 2008.