Polyfidelity and Paganism
by Frater X
Originally published at Beltane 1996
We live in asocieity where technological progress is more rapid and extensive than ever before, yet the moral codes which that society pretends to abide by are largely those of the Old Testament. The two-person monogamous relationship is held up as the canon of normality, but the reality is a morass of hypocrisy, lies and deceit, generated by the simple inability of the human animal to keep to the rules it has laid down for itself.
Clearly, there is something wrong. Either the mass of humanity is at fault (as the Christians would have us believe) or we are long overdue for a reassessment of our social and sexual mores. If we can look at ourselves clearly and without sentimental preconceptions, we may be able to suggest codes of conduct which will be saner, healthier and more realistic.
This is not to say that a general aspiration towards monogamy was always undesirable. Monogamy was once a useful tribal custom. If nothing else, one could have a better idea of who a child's father was. In oppressive climates, coupling up for survival makes sense, and indeed it seems that this is still a major incentive for pair-bonding. It is easier to make headway in the world when there are two of you to share the work; the stereotype of breadwinner man and housekeeper woman is efficient, if outdated. The standard pattern in a long-term relationship is for the two people concerned to move in together and make a go of it, though such arrangements have an increasing tendency not to last. I think it significant that in places where the less harsh environment means that day-to-day survival presents fewer problems (such as California) the sexual mores of the area are generally more relaxed. One does not feel the need to pair-bond for security's sake.
We must get away from the idea that there is something essentially right or sacred about monogamy. That notion has been imposed on us; we did not create it. More importantly, we must learn that we are not necessarily 'betrayed' or 'abandoned' if those we love take other partners. This will prove to be the hardest task; dealing with our emotional response to the turbulence of change.
The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell and his wife, recognising that jealousy was deplorable, attempted to practice non-monogamy; when his wife had a child by another man, Russell left her, realising that his capacity for tolerance was not as great as he had imagined it to be. This will be a typical problem for those of us who choose to challenge the established moral codes; there will always be the deep anxiety that our partners will reject us for others.
At the root of this is the tendency to define our own worth by the actions of other people. Monogamy provides us with a screen against the fear of being alone. More often than not, the relationships we enter into are prolonged long after the mutual attraction has worn off, simply because of this fear.
A contemporary Pagan is less likely to encounter these problems of self-worth. When you are surrounded by, and partake in, the holiness of the natural order, you do not so easily feel estranged or isolated. Pagans understand that there will always be times of bounty and times of want, in love as in everything else. Our roots run far deeper than those of the typical late 20th century bloke in the street, who cannot conceive of letting go of his television, let alone his unchallenged moral values.
If we are sufficiently well grounded, and sufficiently grown up, we may be able to take the first steps toward dismantling the old patterns of expected monogamy. This is where the crunch comes. It is one thing to fantasize about delicious Pagan freedom, dancing in the fire of love and all that marvellous stuff, but when you're alone at three in the morning staring at the ceiling unable to sleep because your other half is with someone else and you're not, your mood may be more Robert Johnson than Inkubus Sukkubus. These moments are the price we pay for freedom.
The support of a coven, working group or trusted mentor is useful, as it is very easy to kid yourself about what you will be able to handle. Nothing is worse for you or your partner(s) than a faked blasé attitude. If you can handle the emotions, good; if you can't, but you still want to go through with it, then lay them on someone who can help; even better if it is someone who has been down the same road.
And the emotions don't last forever. This is where the 'fidelity' part of Polyfidelity comes in. It means faith. Not faith in the Christian sense, where you make yourself believe in something in the absence of any evidence that it exists, but rather a trust in the integrity of other people and a refusal to lose your own integrity. Stick to your guns and you will come through.
When 'free love' ran rampant in the Sixties, it did so simply out of a sense that there were no rules any more. You could sleep around as much as you wanted, and if you did this within an ongoing relationship it was supposed to have an 'enriching' effect. This all went sour, of course. Since personal responsibility had been thrown out along with all other restrictions, it was a case of the blind leading the blind. Nobody knew where they stood any more; they just naively assumed that everything would somehow work itself out. This fiasco is still held up by monogamy advocates as evidence of 'why open relationships don't work'.
We know better now. Pagans are not without ethics, though they do not look to external authorities to provide or approve them. You find the same pattern time after time; a sense of responsibility to the earth, a personal honour code, a deep loyalty to friends and (Craft or blood) family. The old adage of 'an it harm none, do what you will' is applied by many of us; I don't follow it myself, and I certainly wouldn't want to disentangle the complex issue of whether upsetting someone emotionally is 'harm', particularly when the alternative is to be false to yourself.
The Pagan path is concerned with polyfidelity from the start, since we are (as a rule!) pantheistic and concerned with many worlds of action. Loyalty is the key to advancing in freedom - loyalty to ourselves, to our concepts of Deity, to our sisters and brothers, our philosophies and practices, and to our world. If that chain of loyalty is kept intact, there is scope to reap a massive amount of joy and delight.
I have burbled at length about the difficulties of putting polyfidelity into practice, but very little about the rewards. The first effect is often to bring you up sharply to the truth about your real sexual and emotional needs. Some people do turn out to be inherently monogamous (and these people have a refreshing tendency not to preach it); others find that once they have burned off the testosterone or equivalent hormone, they settle back down; others move from partner to partner with no sign of weariness; but in each case, there has been a challenge of the norm, and what comes out at the end when the dust has settled is closer to the truth than what went before.
The other rewards are easy enough to imagine - yes, we're back in Inkubus Sukkubus territory here. When you can be wholly responsible for yourself, you can take your pleasure on the earth how you will, with whoever is willing. This is, to my mind, the ideal way to live. Rather than putting pressure on sex, it takes it off; sex can become an expression of friendship, a gift, a lighthearted thing. It can also be profound, a healing act, totally anonymous, completely familiar, comfortable, painful, warm as midsummer or fierce as wild wolves. The gift is there to be accepted.
We are (particulary in England) notoriously reluctant to discuss our sexuality or do anything about it. This has to change. There is simply too much important energy out there going to waste, or locked in pointless circles. We have to remember, or invent and believe in, a time when we walked free, full of laughter, not afraid to be alone. It is happening already, not only in Pagan circles, but wherever people with intelligence and vision have gathered together and decided that the time of Restriction must end.
Come join the celebrations!