Multi-Player Option; Young polyamorists are rewriting the laws of desire
By Michelle Chihara
June 8, 2004

Among the likeliest effects of gay marriage is to take us down a slippery slope to legalized polygamy and "polyamory" (group marriage). Marriage will be transformed into a variety of relationship contracts, linking two, three or more individuals (however weakly and temporarily) in every conceivable combination of male and female. A scare scenario? Hardly.
Stanley Kurtz, writing in the
Weekly Standard

To conservatives like Kurtz, the slippery slope might look something like this: Joshua is a twenty-four-year-old recent college grad from Philadelphia. After graduation, he started an internship at an organic farm in Massachusetts. Then he started dating Raven, the farm's owner, and moved in. Raven, a female-to-male transsexual, bought the homestead with his lover, Bella, seven years ago. In 1999, Raven and Bella got married there. Raven's daughter was raised there; she only moved out recently when she turned eighteen. Today, Joshua, Raven and Bella share a bed, with Raven in the middle. They are neither encouraged nor discouraged by the binary nature of legal marriage.

Or it might look like this: James is an Internet executive for a well-known company in San Francisco. He lives with his wife, his younger girlfriend and their best friend. Successful professionals, the four of them share responsibility for James's five-year-old son. They own their house together. The two women "time share" James. All four are committed for life. Their son gets a lot of bedtime stories.

Kate, a twenty-one-year-old physics major at Hampshire College, says this non-binary approach to commitment has become "very common" among her friends. She has a boyfriend (a twenty-one-year-old grad who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is selling Macs until he gets his career in independent TV going) and a close friend who is also sometimes a girlfriend. Her boyfriend still dates two other women. Kate gets along with one of them ("nothing has happened between us, yet"), but the other girlfriend wants him to be monogamous, and that's causing problems. Still, Kate sees traditional dating as more combustible. "This just feels much more sincere," she says. "I see people who don't talk, then they cheat on each other, and that just seems like the worst thing in the world."

Polyamory the practice of loving more than one person at a time is a practice often associated with aging hippies. For social conservatives, it is evidence that the '60s sowed the seeds for the decline of our civilization. Maybe so. But a new breed of polyamorist is springing up. They're young, in their teens or twenties. Some fold polyamory into another "alternative lifestyle:" bisexuality, BDSM, paganism. Others, like Kate, could be the discreetly tattooed girl next door. What they all have in common is that they've looked at the traditional cycle of dating-cheating-marrying-and-divorcing and thought, that just makes no sense to me at all.

Given that monogamous love has been reduced to something between a game show and a bloodsport by pop-cultural bellwethers like The Bachelor and Cheaters, it's hard to argue that the mainstream idea of marriage and fidelity isn't in need of an overhaul. Polyamorists have traditionally believed that the impulse to "cheat" is natural, and can be dealt with, even embraced. But young polyamorists often seem most committed to writing their own rules. They're not subscribing to "polyamory" per se. Among a pantheon of failed traditional institutions public schools, the corporation marriage is just one more area of life where they don't trust received wisdom.

"I just always wanted to have a big household, with a lot of people," says Joshua, who was raised by a single mother, his grandmother and various uncles under one roof. His first partner tried to convince him of the benefits of monogamy, but Joshua found the idea unworkable. "He was very into the romantic image, where you fall in love forever and ever, and you wouldn't even think about anyone else, or if you did, then something was wrong," he says. "But I was pretty arrogant when I was a teenager. I just thought I could convince any partner that this was the way things ought to go. And I thought heterosexual dating was strange."

Arrangements like Joshua's and James's are sometimes called a "V" in polyamorous circles. Raven is a "pivot" with his wife and lover, who are close but not romantic; all are free to pursue romantic and sexual relationships outside the house. Many polyamorists have a basic understanding that they can see other people, but there are different sets of rules. Some people allow only for sexual liaisons outside the house. Some demand that new partners be brought home. Polyfidelity, where a group of people are committed and sexually faithful to each other (with or without the understanding that you can always add to the group), is a sub-category of polyamory. Triads are committed threesomes. Open relationships even ones where young members of a couple move to different cities and agree to see other people count as polyamory. There are certainly sex parties, and polyamorous parties, and there's even a polyamorous matchmaking site. But the term is primarily an umbrella that applies to any relationship that isn't one on one.

Outspoken queer and kinky polyamorists are sometimes easier to find, but if you can imagine the configuration a triad of three gay lovers? a straight quad? a big houseful of lovers in some hip urban neighborhood? you can be sure that somewhere, out there, it exists. Mike, a twenty-eight-year-old gay personal trainer in San Francisco, has other lovers but is committed for life to his boyfriend. "Make no decision based on fear," he says. "I cheated on every boyfriend I had, before. We both came from closed relationships that had led to cheating and distrust. So we decided to be open, in all aspects." Jen, a political writer in Austin, is twenty-nine and has an arrangement with her girlfriend where she can sleep with other people as long as she doesn't get emotionally involved. For her, polyamory is mostly the agreement that the occasional hook-up with someone else is okay. "We're not very traditional people," Jen says. "I saw a guy on 60 Minutes who had something like fifteen wives, somewhere in New Mexico, and for the first time I realized that wasn't a big deal. They're all happy. People just get freaked out, but it's just another way of being with someone."

And people do get freaked out. Joshua's grandfather remains convinced that Joshua has joined a cult which recruits teenagers off the Internet. In fact, however, the V has actually become quite domestic. And besides, "the quality of teenagers you can recruit over the Internet is pretty low," says Joshua with a laugh.

It might not be a recruitment tool per se, but the Internet has been instrumental in spreading the polyamorous word among younger people., now the most established center for all things poly, has a private "Under 30" mailing list with more than 150 members, from teenagers up. According to one young polyamorist, however, that list is mostly "newbies." Once they've figured out their own way of thinking, people create their own Web spaces. Like thirty-three-year-old Leila, who runs a sex Web site with her (male) partner, where they've posted black-and-white photos of themselves alongside their polygamous creed. And in one LiveJournal polyamorist community, a recent college grad in the D.C. area named Colin posted lyrics to a song he wrote:

The radio blares
song after song
of 'baby I'll never leave you
you know I'd never deceive you
and it seems no one cares
that the tunes they play right after
are all 'Dammit, you cheating bastard
how could you do me so wrong'
Do I still have to sing along?

As in the pop lyrics, honesty is a running theme with polyamorists. In their conversation, on their Web sites and newsgroups, the words "healthy," "consensual" and "communication" crop up often (especially "communication"). People under thirty have grown up under the shadow of AIDS; as adults, they've had to contend with rising rates of herpes and HPV. While in practice, there is some overlap with sex parties (or swinging), the most outspoken polyamorists are interested in experimenting with commitment as much as if not more than sex.

Brendan Coffey, a twenty-nine-year-old software engineer in San Francisco, is talking marriage with his live-in girlfriend of three years. She's currently dating another man. So is Brendan. When he first started acting polyamorous, Brendan didn't know the word existed. "When I got into a new relationship, with sexual and romantic components, I didn't want to give up the old one just because there was a new one," he says. Monogamy, to Brendan, always seemed doomed to fail. "The man says, 'I have sexual feelings for another woman, what should I do?' and the woman is like, 'I can't deal with this, I'm leaving you.' If you don't have a space where you can at least talk to one another about this whether or not you can entertain the ideas or act on them that just seems inherently dangerous."

Polyamorists aim for greater emotional intimacy by removing the spectre of cheating, by opening the boundaries of relationships and encouraging communication. No one pretends that it's easy. Polyamorists are doing their best to live out a new definition of commitment as something emotional, and highly verbal, rather than physical. They try to break jealousy down into its components: What does it mean if you're jealous of your wife's live-in boyfriend's date? Something new and different. But jealousy doesn't disappear. A formula that delivers triple the sex and twice the intimacy can also go exponential on the heartbreak. "It doesn't make you a superhero," says Brendan. "It's not an enlightenment contest, it's not about who can not be jealous, ever. Some people think polyamory is 'I don't care who my partner f*cks,' but I haven't met anyone like that."

Along with the changing definitions of relationships and commitments come changing definitions of gender itself. For M'issa, a cute, punky twenty-two-year-old who's getting her master's degree in library science in San Jose, California, not only is marriage a bankrupt institution that "keeps a lot of binary sex-power dynamics in place," but also, gender roles have lost their meaning. "I don't see gender as a binary," she says. "I don't see an opposite sex." M'issa now has a girlfriend, and a list of "entanglements" it takes her twenty minute to describe. "No one person will be anybody else's everything," she says. She recently transitioned out of a five-person relationship with "Kelly, who sees herself as a little boy," Todd, "who transitioned," Andrew, who was a she and is now a he "who's getting married, and they're going to have an orgy at the festivities for their wedding," and one other girl. So it is perhaps understandable that she calls herself "queer" but can't be pinned down by any other labels.

In fact, the most resistance to polyamory that M'issa has seen or heard has come from the gay community. She remembers a lesbian psychology class she took at her liberal arts college, where the professor put M'issa in a discussion group with some self-identified dykes. "Polyamory came up in a conversation about 'myths about bisexual women,'" M'issa says, "It was like the worst kind of woman is one who would date a man and a woman at the same time! That kind of woman was supposed to be a myth!" She tried to explain that her girlfriend had had a boyfriend for five years. "But it was like, 'why would any self-respecting person date more than one person at the same time?' I think it's this feeling they have, like, 'you're setting us back, you're being weird and we're trying to be normal.'"

And of course, the conservative right is trying to use the specter of legally recognized polyamory to set back the cause of gay marriage. But in reality, the law and most of society are a long way from recognizing any of these experiments. Most polyamorous people believe that all consenting adults should be able to bind themselves to any other consenting adults of their choosing. Were gay marriage to become fully legal, polyamorous activists would certainly try to use that to their advantage. But there is no obvious legal equation between allowing gay marriage and allowing polyamorous marriages (for better or for worse, depending on your take). Nan Wise, a relationship counselor who's about to move in with her husband's lover and her own lover in a house in the Jersey suburbs, thinks there is increased fuss around polyamory partly as a "backlash to what's going on with the gays." She cites a "great" recent Discovery Channel documentary and an invitation to appear on The O'Reilly Factor as evidence of heat (she declined the Fox News gig). She has been interviewed by Esquire and was contacted by a filmmaker from HBO who's doing a movie on fidelity. Overall, she sees polyamory growing, and soon. "There are more conferences," she says, "And there used to be just one. Obviously, there's interest. " As a counselor, she is anxious for new polyamorists to understand that the decision to love more than one must come "from a position of strength" in a relationship, "not as a measure to fix things." She is aware of the "paradigm shift" that polyamory requires and recognizes the backlash. But she predicts it will only see increased acceptance. "Poly," she says with satisfaction, "is the new gay."

Whether or not it will prove to be the next organized movement, polyamory is certainly an "interesting life," as M'issa says. She doesn't have a lot of role models, but of the ones she has, she says, "they're blurring gender roles at the same time they're redefining relationships. And maybe they're into leather too. If you can be all of those things, and at the same time be open and honest with your children, . . . well, that's pretty f*cking awesome."