On Kittens and the Very Invented Culture of Polyamory
By Leanna Wolfe
Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality
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.
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