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03 December, 2009

Polyamory seems to thrive at the intersection of several subcultures. I do mean polyamory, specifically: the celebration of non-monogamous love and, often, fidelity, as opposed to the more sex-based side of nonmonogamy (like swinging, sometimes set up against poly in the dark twin role). Poly is tied in pretty thoroughly with geek culture, and there's also an association with modern Paganism, enough so that there's a Livejournal community devoted to the intersection of bisexuals, polyamourists, Pagans and geeks with about 1500 members. And they have a guild.

I'm curious: why would modern Paganism correlate with an interest in polyamory? The geek connection seems normal to me, probably just because I am a geek. Geekiness kind of makes sense: the engineer contingent likes to take things apart and see how they work, while the analytic demographic (hi, me!) is always questioning rules and social structures. We also love science fiction and fantasy; in other words, we're familiar with changing the premises. SciFi is especially known for playing with hypothetical social & sexual relationship structures. People who like to use their minds as playthings are just generally more likely to question and to enjoy novel solutions, so it's no surprise that openness to social change might correlate with those who care about intellect. If anyone's going to try it, it'll be the geeks. But why does today's Pagan culture start to overlap with polyamory?

If one is Pagan in this country (that's the U.S.A., in case you're just tuning in), that also bespeaks a willingness to step out of the expected lines and open a different kind of social discourse. By the capital P in "Pagan", let me be clear, I mean to denote not the category of polytheistic religion in general but the specific, modern trend toward nature-based spiritual practices (often syncretically self-sculpted) of which Wicca is the exemplar. So, they have that much in common with my intuitive sense of why poly folk are often geeky. But is a willingness to seek novel social arrangements the only thing linking these two groups? If you're surprised to hear me claim "no", you probably haven't read many essays. I've got a theory. And yes, it does involve bunnies.

The theory in question is "Terror Management Theory". A professor introduced me to it this semester with a paper called "I Am NOT An Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust, and the Denial of Human Creatureliness", by one Goldenberg & company. TMT1 is a larger topic than I care to deal with in full, but the critical element is that it regards our fear of death. Mortality salience comes into play as things around us remind us of death; when we have death on our minds, humans change their behavior in predictable directions, typically doing things like retreating to the trenches of one's own culture, especially religion. It's often a subtle effect. It comes into play with little events like seeing roadkill or grand ones like the country's political shift following the World Trade Center attack of 2001. The theory was inspired by the observation that when faced with the thought of death, people were more likely to espouse transcendent beliefs - a belief in one's immortal soul, for instance. The effect is tied closely with religion and spiritual beliefs, but it extends to many cultural elements, especially on the conservative side of things.

The gist of this specific paper is its evidence regarding disgust responses to animals and their relationship to mortality salience. The authors claim (and neatly support through experiment) that when humans are disgusted by animals, or by acting against culture - acting "like an animal" - the reason it disgusts us is that it reminds us of our own animal bodies, the very things that doom us, ultimately, to death.

Behavior that isn't condoned by one's mother culture can fall into that category. When humans act like animals, it upsets many of us. The participants in these particular experiments, when reminded of their own oncoming deaths, were less forgiving than the control group was of an essay arguing for a materialist, evolutionary account of humanity and more accepting of an essay praising humans as special, unique, above animals (and I use "animals" in opposition to "humans" purposefully). The U.S. is home to pretty solid trends toward both materialism and Christianity, each of which are vulnerable to animal-triggered disgust. Animals can remind Christians of our dying human bodies, the thought of which (as in the research inspiring TMT) sends them back to the comforting thought of the immortal soul and the meaningful nature of all life in the context of a loving creator. For materialists, the situation is even more distressing, as we have no such reassurance. We atheists have similar retreats, though. I know I, for one, still use the Godspell soundtrack as comfort music.

So, what the fuck does this have to do with today's putative topic? Funny you should ask! Unlike the prevailing opinion of animals in the U.S., which puts them both practically and symbolically in roles that are starkly divided from humans and clearly place them below us (or on our plates), a Pagan view of the world holds all natural things in the category of the sacred. Modern Paganism, to quote one website created as a waystation for individuals interested but without local resources, is a "nature-centered spirituality"; animals, along with everything else in the world, are part of a transcendent system of meaning. "It may not seem like a spiritual exercise," writes the site's author, "but every time you do something to help animals, or for that matter any part of our environment, you are engaging in a spiritual action." If the natural is conceived of as a sacred category, then actions seen as in keeping with nature can acquire a sense of sacredness. And, hey, is there anything more natural than fucking like animals?

Not exactly bunnies, but you get the idea.

It's important, though, that polyamory isn't just about getting your end off. In poly culture, there's an emphasis on multiple loving relationships. Nature red in tooth and claw might happily hop from one person to another, but a transcendent, sacred account of nature tends to emphasize sublime beauty and the perfection of the natural. As a casual example, take this page made by a Pagan circle in Leeds; they quote many people who've spoken on the beauty of nature but none who speak of predation or starvation. The dangerous elements of nature could be held as sacred and have been, by other groups, but they are not the centrally emphasized element here. Instead, the chosen emphasis is on beauty, playfulness, and the universal - or rather undifferentiated - availability of a worldly joy in that which surrounds us. Polyamorists, similarly, sometimes chose to draw a sharp line between poly and swinging: the one concerned with intimacy and love, the other concerned with physical satisfaction. At other times, poly folk acknowledge the indistinct line separating the two, but - what a shock - usually follow that acknowledgement with a restatement of polyamory's interest in "real intimacy" (and note that when I went searching for an example, the one I found was from a group of Christian polyamorists). That is, the discussion of swingers tends to lead polyamorists to reiterate the system of meaning and values that motivates their behavior. I think I see a touch of TMT at work here, don't you? I'm aware of exceptions, such as this little essay, but take note of its date: 1995. As far as the history of "polyamory" goes, that's awfully early; the definition was still taking shape. Make of that what you will.

This is more or less what ran through my head when I learned about terror management theory. Finally, I had figured out one reason polyamory and Paganism have overlapping appeal! If the natural, as today's Paganism creates the category, is sacred, and sex is natural, then it's not as large a leap to consider sharing that sacred sexuality with more than one other human animal. Animals and animal-like behavior (and let's face it, sex is not the most flatteringly cultured activity) have been reframed in the Pagan worldview: instead of reminders of our own death, they're reminders of our own natural sacredness. Pagan nonmonogamy is like a little prayer circle. It's true, this is no great empirical work - consider it a theory paper - but it seems to make a kind of sense, and I hope I've described terror management theory sufficiently for it to seem sensible to you, too. It also leaves me with a fonder attitude toward modern Paganism than I used to have. And, if nothing else, the dangers exposed by terror management theory are worth keeping in mind. Don't let death play the peer pressure game with you. Our bodies are the best toys out there; so what if they'll kill us? We might as well enjoy them first!

Now to figure out whether I'll send this essay to that professor. Probably not.

1Which looks temptingly like TMNT, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".

1 comment:

  1. Spiritual sexuality is quite explicit in Wicca in some cases, I understand.