"The surprisingly woman-friendly roots of modern polyamory"
You remember the Slate article a few weeks ago about why male-dominated polygamy is bad for the societies that host it? Now the same writer is back with the flip side.
Her article gets it right but seems a little breathless, as if she's discovered something new. It may be new to many Slate readers, but the fact that women have supplied most of the modern polyamory movement's leaders, writers, organizers, public spokespeople, and movers-and-shakers since the late 1980s is well known and widely remarked.
I'm struck by how this continues to be true year after year as new leaders, spokespeople, and organizers emerge. I'd say the female-to-male ratio in the movement's key roles may be as high as 3 to 1. (Somebody ought to do a proper study.) And, the men are feminist or feminist-friendly.
This is the biggest difference between polyamory's current "third wave," as sociologist Elisabeth Sheff calls it, and the more male-dominated second wave of the 1960s and 70s, when quite a few women came to feel they were getting the short end of the free-love stick. The women's rebellion against this inside the counterculture came on suddenly around 1969. That in turn had a lot to do with starting the explosive spread of feminism into mainstream society in the early 1970s. But that's another story....
Making Love and Trouble: The surprisingly woman-friendly roots of modern polyamory.
By Libby Copeland
Polyamory does not have the same male-centric history as polygamy.
Recently I wrote about the many problems polygamy tends to cause across the world, including high crime rates resulting from young men confined to singledom because older men are hoarding wives, and the subjugation of teenage girls forced to marry because there simply aren’t enough women to go around....
Historically, though, there’s been an exception to the rule about plural marriage being bad for women. Polyamory, in which people openly take on multiple relationships, sometimes in the context of group marriage, has a radically different history. Nearly as marginal on the left wing of our culture as polygamy is on the right, modern-day polyamory is intertwined with the rise of feminism, and its roots go back to the ’40s — the 1840s....
In the 1970s, during what sociologist Elisabeth Sheff calls the second wave of polyamory, fringe groups around the country experimented with non-monogamy. A San Francisco-based commune called Kerista, founded by a man who called himself Jud the Prophet, consisted of three large group marriages, in which sleeping schedules were rotated regularly to keep intimacy evenly distributed.... Its 1979 handbook mandated egalitarianism and required that members care for the commune’s children in “non-sexist parental roles.”
During the ’90s, the Internet sparked a third wave of polyamory, after AIDS had driven it underground during the ’80s. A Usenet newsgroup called alt.polyamory helped build a community, and a woman calling herself Morning Glory Zell, member of a “neo-Pagan” organization called the Church of All Worlds, helped popularize the term in an article called “A Bouquet of Lovers.” In more recent years, polyamory has mainstreamed somewhat, becoming fodder for features in Newsweek and on ABC’s Nightline. MTV did a True Life documentary on polyamorous young people, books like The Ethical Slut explored the topic, and Dan Savage continues to champion non-monogamy. Polyamory is no longer primarily identified with pagans and prophets.
In the most crunchy, West Coast communities, group marriages and open marriages are common enough that people can talk about being “poly” without having to explain what that is, says Sheff, a Georgia State University professor who is working on a book about polyamory. In her research, Sheff has even come across an area in Seattle populated by large polyamorous families: “You’ve heard of gayborhoods? This is the first poly-neighborhood I’ve heard of.”
Women are in many ways the driving force behind polyamory as a movement these days...
Read on (March 12, 2012).
P.S.: I'm glad to hear that Elisabeth Sheff is writing a book. Though not poly herself, she has been one of the prime academics studying the movement's sociology.
P.P.S.: Here's a history resource from the time between what Sheff calls polyamory's first and second wave: Yonina writes, "I just did a project on polyamorous / non-monogamous discourse and practice in the literary modern period (~1900s to 1930s)." Here's her annotated bibliography with much useful detail.
Update, March 20: An audio interview with the Slate author just went up on New Hampshire's Public Radio's "Word of Mouth" program. Listen here (8:40).