How Prevalent Is Polyamory?
Depends on what you mean.
Psychologist Geri D. Weitzman has a new paper out, "Therapy with Clients Who Are Bisexual and Polyamorous" (Journal of Bisexuality, Vol. 6, Issue 1-2), where she summarizes some of the little that's known:
Page (2004) found that 33% of her bisexual sample of 217 participants were involved in a polyamorous relationship, and 54% considered this type of relationship ideal. West (1996) reported that 20% of her lesbian respondents were polyamorous, while Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that 28% of the lesbian couples in their sample were. Blumstein and Schwartz found that 65% of the gay male couples in their study were polyamorous, and that 15-28% of their heterosexual couples had "an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances" (p.312).
The references, if you want to look them up, are in the paper's bibliography. The bibliography and appendix, by the way, have links that offer a good start into the research literature on polyamory which is very interesting but still thin on the ground.
The last item cited above that 15% to 28% of American couples had an "understanding" to allow some nonmonogamy implies that 18 to 35 million Americans live in such marriages or partnerships, based on U.S. Census data. But my guess is that many of those understandings are just some form of a DADT (Don't Ask Don't Tell), a sickly and pathetic thing in my opinion. Polyamory is about sharing the magic not sweeping it under the rug and pretending it's not there (say I).
So: how many conscious, self-identified polys are there?
Robyn Trask, editor/director of Loving More magazine, recently said on the Steve Douglas radio show, "In our national database that we have here at the magazine, we have 13,000 people, and that probably only represents a very small portion of the polyamorous community." She explains that that figure "is the number of people who have ordered, subscribed or requested information. It is the largest 'poly' database but it does not really give us any idea of the real numbers. Another thing to keep in mind is that many people are in couples, triads or quads but are listed as one customer."
Last year Trask estimated that there are 2,000 polys in the San Francisco Bay area.
The largest poly gathering that I know about, Polycamp Northwest in 2005, drew 250 people. More-structured conferences struggle to hit the 100 mark.
PolyMatchMaker.com, the leading poly personals site, currently has 6,717 members. The largest online poly communities on LiveJournal, Yahoo Groups, MySpace, and tribe.net have about 4,500, 1,300, 1,350, and 2,600 members, respectively. There are hundreds of smaller and independent online communities. Most poly people probably belong to none of the above. (Editorial comment: But they should; there's so much knowledge to share....)
The publisher of The Ethical Slut, the most popular how-to guide for multipartnering, says in a January 2007 press release that "more than 75,000 copies [are] in print."
In Loving More issue #30 (Summer 2002), Adam Weber summarized a survey of poly people carried out via the magazine. "Over 1,000 people responded directly to the survey, and they talked about another 4,000," for a total sample of 5,000. From the fact that roughly one in 10 polys he knew or encountered at conferences were in the survey, he estimated that "the number of poly-identified people [is] around 50,000 in the U.S. I would estimate that only about 1 in 10 people who are actually poly have even heard the word 'poly,' bringing the estimate up to about a half million."
So when asked, I say that my own best guess is that "some tens of thousands" of people consciously identify as polyamorous. So far.
Compare this to the more than 4 million swingers in America, according to estimates by the Kinsey Institute and others. Are there really 50 or 100 swingers for every one of us? That can't be right... can it?
But hey, as Paul Tillich said, "There were only a few thousand people in all Europe who brought about the Renaissance."
Update May 25, 2007: There's been renewed discussion of this on the Loving More Polyactive list. Longtime queer activist Pepper Mint responds to the above (copied with permission):
I think that Alan is in the right ballpark with his estimate of poly-identified people. However, the good news is that the numbers might be slightly higher.
This is because, actually, there are probably polyamory scenes out there that we have very little contact with. I keep discovering these in San Francisco. Recently I stumbled across a younger new-age poly cohort that seems to have no communication with the greater poly community. These people are new age, in their 20's or 30's, feel little need to go to poly events, tend to work in life coaching, massage, or the like, and a significant percentage of them are poly.
Did you know that polyamory is (or at least, used to be) really popular among ravers? Going to rave parties was the first time I had the experience of being able to assume that everyone around me knew what polyamory was.
So I think there are large chunks of the community that are really not in the community, as it were.
We can see this with some of the people who are creating poly resources and media. Remember the Polly and Marie pilot episode? [link]. That came entirely out of left field, as far as I could tell. It was a very serious (and expensive) effort, created by the people who started Cuddle Parties, another venue for poly recruitment. They are in the younger new age crowd I describe, and I do not see them on the national lists.
Also, Tristan Taormino is about to put out a book on polyamorous relationships. Her background is queer, sex radical, and porn. Has anyone here ever actually talked to her? Did we see this coming?
I think the community we see is a subset, and not the whole picture by a long shot. So there may well be more than 100,000 self-identified poly people out there, though I think we are not anywhere near anything like 5% of the population.
However, consider these numbers. Kassia Wosick-Correa from UC Irvine has unpublished numbers that peg self-identified polyamorous bisexuals as 44% of all bisexuals. This confirms the numbers someone quoted earlier.
The CDC 2002 family growth survey had self-identified bisexuals clocking in at 2.8% of women and 1.8% of men, in the 18-44 age range.
If we assume Kassia's numbers are right, and we combine these statistics, we get that about 1% of the 18-44 age range is polyamorous bisexuals. If we assume zero polyamorous bisexuals above 44 or below 18, that gives us around 1.35 million polyamorous bisexuals.
The high-end percentage of bisexuals within polyamory seems to run at around 60%, from informal polls, which would give us an overall count of 2.25 million polyamorous people.
Now, I think that's too high. Perhaps Kassia's numbers are off, perhaps because she had limited options in her surveys? If we assume that she's off by a factor of 4 (giving 11% of bisexual identifying as polyamorous, which definitely seems like an undercount), then we have around 500,000 poly people.
This gives us a decent range, I think. We're probably not as low as 100,000, but I doubt we've made it past a million or so. Estimates of the BDSM and swing communities come in at 2-4 million, and I don't think we're as big as either of those. Unfortunately comparing with swing events is not a good measure, since swinging is more event-oriented than polyamory. We can however compare with BDSM since it is typically practiced outside of events, and there are a lot more (and a lot bigger) kink events. In any case, I am quite certain that we do not have nearly the numbers that kinksters have, despite there being a solid overlap.
Okay, I'm a numbers geek.
To which Anita Wagner adds,
> I think the community we see is a subset, and not
> the whole picture by a long shot. So there may
> well be more than 100,000 self-identified poly
> people out there, though I think we are not
> anywhere near anything like 5% of the population.
Since I've been doing poly programs at BDSM events for a couple of years in addition to poly events, since there appears to be a big need there for something beyond poly 101 classes, it has become very clear to me that the number of poly BDSMers is very large, possibly as large or larger than the visible vanilla poly community. I don't know how we'd extrapolate numbers from that community, but it's too large to leave out, at least without mention.
UPDATES, 2009 – 2011: See this post.