Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

March 26, 2006

"Don't Do Unto Others"


More "Big Love" fallout: William Saletan has a column in the respected online magazine Slate (for March 23, 2006) on "the difference between gay marriage and polygamy" (and polyamory). His liberal perspective is right upfront:

Uh oh. Conservatives are starting to hyperventilate again. You know the symptoms: In a haystack of right-wing dominance, they find a needle of radicalism, declare it a mortal danger to civilization, and use it to rally their voters in the next election. First it was flag-burning. Then it was the "war on Christmas." Now it's polygamy....

But then Saletan claims the whole thing is a non-issue because polygamy and polyamory will never seriously happen:

The average guy would love to bang his neighbor's wife. He just doesn't want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn't natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn't the number of people you want to sleep with. It's the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.

Sigh. Polyamory is not for "the average guy." It's for the few percent who decide their hearts are too big to be ruled by jealousy, learn how to succeed, and go on to live lives together rich in love, wonder, and companionship such as most folks can't imagine. (For that matter, gay marriage isn't for "the average guy" either!) If liberals' defense is going to be that polyamory can't exist, even for a few, they deserve to be shot down.

Read the whole article. At least it contains lots of interesting links.

Some of you get congratulations for trying to educate this guy and his readers; click "Post a Message" at the end of his article to join in (you have to register). A longer rebuttal is at the Explananda blog (thanks to jinx854 on the Live Journal Polyamory Community for pointing this out):

There's an odd assumption that many people make that if an activity is unnatural... [it will] result in an intolerable strain. That's not necessarily so. To borrow Frans de Waal's example, it's natural for a tiger to kill a dog. But if you raise a tiger with a dog in a zoo (dogs are sometimes used to socialize tigers), then the tiger won't be interested in killing its adopted mom or siblings. This is highly unnatural, but it's hardly an intolerable strain on the tiger....

And isn't that what makes civilization possible?

March 19, 2006

"Hello, Poly"

Village Voice

Tristan Taormino, a prominent sex radical and a columnist for New York's Village Voice (March 17, 2006) talks to folks of the "independent actor" persuasion who are happy to live their lives as secondaries:

By Tristan Taormino

Polyamorists must create and maintain their complex, nontraditional relationships in a society that promotes and values monogamy as the ideal model. There's a growing list of publications, websites, groups, and events dedicated to polyamory, but most of them focus on the primary couple. There may be tips on how to transform a monogamous relationship into a non-monogamous one or, for those already in open relationships, strategies for negotiation and problem solving. Like advice I've read (and given) about how to have a threesome, most is geared toward the couple, and the third of three is given little information or support. That person is not simply a plaything or a third wheel, but a human being with as many needs, desires, and feelings as the primary couple.

A few months ago, I attended "Polyamory for Non-Primary Partners," the only class I know of to address this issue....

Some folks... eschew the concept of primary/non-primary altogether because they don't believe in the hierarchy it implies. "I'm in two relationships, and I consider them both equally important," says Cate, a San Francisco-based filmmaker. "A mother doesn't consider one of her children to be the primary child, does she?" Sarah counters, "Eventually someone has to be on top because we will be put in a position where we have to choose where our energy is going to go. If [people who reject a hierarchical model] can make that work for them, it's great. In my world, at some point you have to decide." Penny says, "We think of each relationship as different. I don't know if non-primary is the word I would use, but there is no other word, so it's like the default."

Regardless of semantics, what these women do have in common is their emphasis on being very aware of their wants and needs. Sarah stressed that people must have good boundaries and practice honest negotiation and communication to make polyamory work. For her, it has great rewards: "If I wasn't poly and willing to be someone's non-primary partner, I would miss out on incredible people and the lessons I've learned from them. I will trade the silly fantasy [of one true love] for multiple functioning relationships any day of the week."

Read the whole article.

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March 16, 2006

Will "Big Love" be a cultural tipping point?

The HBO polygamy drama "Big Love," scheduled to run Sunday nights for 12 weeks, has turned public attention to non-monogamous families like nothing in recent memory. Opinions in the polyamory community are mixed, but the show is certainly better than many feared, and it has won some over. For instance, Rob Wilson at Polyamorous Percolations writes in the first of a series of weekly reviews he plans (titled "Big Love, Big Opportunities"):

...As I sat and watched I found several subtle things that we in the polyamorous world can point to and say "This is very true." Such as the support network created by an extended family.

...The show started off with all the family gathered together about the table sharing dinner. Notice the important word — family. Not a separate dinner with each wife, not a harsh word between the wives; a general sense of well being and community was instead implied.

All three wives are shown at the table dividing up the income, working out a fair and reasonable way to "share" the attentions of their mutual husband and discussing various things.... [When] Margene was way over her head while watching the kids... who comes to comfort her? Not Bill, but the other two wives who cradle her and express mutual support and love for each other.

And that's exactly the idea, say the show's creators, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, according to an article in the February 26, 2006, Los Angeles Times:

The more [Scheffer and Olsen] explored the idea, the more they realized polygamists could embody universal and admirable qualities that define the best family love. "We're very much populists in what we're going for. We don't like cynical.... We want people to fall in love with these characters and to root for this family," Olsen said.

...At a time when strong female roles are rare in movies and television, "Big Love" is a candy store for actresses. "There are feminist analogies in the material," Scheffer said. Polygamist women, who are bonded to one another as well as to their husband, have strong and close relationships, he said. "They find their power with and in each other."

"It's not just a marriage between a man and a woman," explained [actress Jeanne] Tripplehorn [who plays Barb] — who, like the other cast members, spoke of the characters as if they were real people. "A woman doesn't enter into that relationship without the agreement of the other woman, or women. If one had said no, then Margene wouldn't have been in the marriage."

Read the whole article.

Even some lions of cultural conservatism are being won over... a bit. At National Review Online, Louis Wittig has gone distinctly wobbly:

Being a cultural conservative is monotonous. Everything is in a perpetual state of going to hell. Two things can really break the routine. The first is when the slippery slope becomes a high-speed luge track....

Big Love is an example of that rare... thing that can interrupt conservatives' parade of sighs: a show that, if you think about it, does eat away at a pillar of society. But a show that you don't think about like that — because it's too good.

...Big Love's polygamy doesn't seem surreally normal because Olsen and Sheffer [a gay couple] tried to make it that way (if they have any obvious take, it's that polygamy is a tremendous hassle). Polygamy seems innocuous because its polygamists are such well-written, well-acted characters.... First and foremost, you like them. Bill, Barb, Nicki, Margene, all of them. You sympathize with them. You're pulling for them to overcome their obstacles.

It's kind of unnatural, then, to try and turn your mind around and start thinking of them in fire-and-brimstone terms. You just go with it. There may be things about the characters you don't connect with, parts of them you don't sympathize with. But if the characters are strong enough — and Big Love's are — those elements recede, becoming quirks more than defects, and, really, afterthoughts. Polygamy: an afterthought.

...At least you'll have something great to watch as everything falls apart.

Read the whole article.

So — is HBO on the cusp of a culture lurch toward group relationships becoming widely accepted, even hip? Karen von Hahn in Canada's national newspaper the Globe and Mail thinks maybe so:

...the people at HBO seem to have some weird third eye thing into the zeitgeist. Remember when they introduced Sex and the City, how it was also the moment that everything was about single girls in Manolos drinking their Cosmopolitans and talking about men? When they launched The Sopranos, we were all suddenly busy listening to the Rat Pack, buying pinky rings, playing five-card stud and taking the red-eye to Vegas. And guess what — Jeanne Tripplehorn, the "Boss Wife" on Big Love, agrees with me. "When I got the script, you know, I just laughed," she said in a telephone interview. "But the thing is, this really is a real way of life for a lot of people." Moreover, according to Tripplehorn, who prepared for her role by researching the "poly" lifestyle (we conventional couples are "diads," by the way), "the numbers suggest that this progressive kind of polygamy is on the rise."

Read the whole article.

(Before anyone gets too excited about Tripplehorn having researched "the 'poly' lifestyle," I wonder if this was just the author's clueless abbreviation for "polygamous." Does any reader know more?)

Our favorite conservative chronicler, Stanley Kurtz, uncovers, as usual, a conspiracy to overthrow Western civilization, and he practically throws up his hands in despair that we polys are winning hearts and minds all over the place:

It has been argued that Big Love is just a harmless drama, no more likely to promote social acceptance of polygamy than the Sopranos is likely to promote crime. But we know that Big Love's own creators and stars don't see it this way. They clearly intend their show to challenge and change America's way of thinking about the family.

...Speaking to The Washington Blade, Olsen said he and Scheffer wanted to address our culture war over the family by trying to "find the values of family that are worth celebrating separate of who the people are and how they're doing it." In other words, family structure shouldn't matter as long as people love each other. Scheffer adds that what attracted him to the Big Love project was "the subversive nature of how we deal with family values.... I think what's really exciting about the show is the nonjudgmental look we have on our characters."

Kurtz then goes on to make a very perceptive point about social change that should gladden us all:

Collapsing Taboo

It's... important to remember that support for polygamy and polyamory (approval of one is bound to help licence the other) cannot be tracked in a simple, linear fashion. This is not something that can be judged by open support, like public opinion during an election campaign....

We are dealing, not with an election campaign, but with the possible collapse of a social taboo — something television is ideally suited to achieve. Social taboos may erode gradually over the very long haul, but up close, and especially toward the beginning, you get little collapses — the quick and unexpected falling away of opposition. What used to be hidden emerges with startling rapidity, because much of it was there all along. Polygamy, and especially polyamory, are already widespread on the Internet. Both practices are pushing toward a major public taboo-collapsing moment. We can't know when "critical mass" might be reached, but Big Love has got to be getting us there a whole lot quicker than we were.

It's a radical's dream come true.

Read the whole article.

In a discussion of that article on the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness e-mail list, Stanley Forrester — who describes himself as a conservative Republican with a libertarian bent — offers important insight on why people like Kurtz fear us, and how we can address their fears on their own terms. He wrote (reprinted with his permission):

From my reading of Kurtz he is not opposed to same-sex marriage/polygamy out of a desire to oppress as much as a desire to preserve something he sees as valuable. Advocates for a traditional family structure can point to a system which for all its faults has been instrumental in the continuity of our culture and civilization.... to dismiss out of hand the concerns and doubts of others is to drive yourself into an adversarial relationship with that other.

As a progressive you don't need the support of conservatives (and to try to get it would be a fool's errand in any case), but you do need their acquiescence. Your most powerful lever is the sense of fair play which is so part of the American character. Address the concerns that Kurtz raises, allay the fears that will drive the readers who form Kurtz's audience to the polls to oppose you. If you want to see same-sex marriage or polygamy legalized, then point out that there are same-sex and poly families that raise families and contribute to their communities. Show that these families can be stable wholesome environments that will promote values and the common good they can identify with. You may not convince many people, but all you really need is to move a few of those who would otherwise oppose you to give you the benefit of the doubt.

...Take the time to reach out to conservatives, to convince them that this is not just an issue of individual license. Take the effort to bring them along.

P.S. added later: Another widely printed conservative's column prompted by Big Love is Charles Krauthammer's, which originally appeared in the March 17th Washington Post.

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March 12, 2006

"Opening the Door on Polyamory"

Marin Independent Journal
(Marin County, California)

Deborah Anapol, one of poly's most visible early activists and author of the 1997 book Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits (expanded from her 1992 edition titled Love Without Limits), is back in the news with a nice interview on the basics published March 12, 2006, in a local newspaper north of San Francisco:

...Deborah Anapol has sifted through most of those layers in 30 years analyzing, living and providing therapy to alternate lifestyles in many manifestations. The San Rafael psychologist and author of "Love Without Limits" isn't sure "Big Love" is going to get it right but at least the idea is creeping out of the closet. Gay characters on TV shows have been hailed as fostering acceptance. "Hopefully this show will do something like that for polyamory," Anapol says....

In some ways, polyamory is much like monogamy, Anapol says. Most of the relationship happens outside the bedroom. "One of the biggest difficulties that people have in polymamorous relationships, once they get past jealousy, is time management," Anapol says. Pointing to the "Big Love" story she adds. "If you've got three different wives in three different houses, you have your hands full."

Anapol says another major misconception is that polyamory is strictly a man's game. While men with multiple wives has been a model in cultures around the world, many women are living the exception, she says. That's not the plot line in "Big Love" but it happens. "While women have been more thoroughly socialized than men to be monogamous, once woman break out of their conditioning, they are equally interested or maybe more interested in having more than one partner," Anapol says....

Nuclear families Anapol claims are not historically the norm. Before World War II, most people lived in extended families with multiple generations under one roof. Polyamory could be seen as a variation on that. Where nuclear families might be overextended, polyamorous homes have multiple adults supporting the family financially and around the home. She counts the idea that such situations are bad for children among the biggest misconceptions of all. "As long as everybody is getting along reasonably well, it is terrific for children," she says. "They don't have the same kinds of judgments that older people do."...

ON THE WEB: Read more about Deborah Anapol and her books at www.lovewithoutlimits.com.

Read the whole article.

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March 3, 2006

"Table for Three"

The Stranger (Seattle)

The Stranger, an edgy alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle (one of the world's great poly centers), ran an interview with a happy equilateral triad in its issue for Feb. 23 - Mar. 1, 2006. Excerpts:

How do you handle inter-triad jealousy? What about jealousy about partners outside the triad?

I honestly do not know the last time I felt jealousy with Jim or Allena. When faced with jealousy from outside of our family relationship, it usually stems from me not having enough information to feel safe.

Allena: When I feel jealous, it usually means that a need of mine is not being met. It's my responsibility to figure out what that need is and get it met. My jealousy belongs to me and it's inappropriate to give it to anyone else.

Jim: Whenever it pops up for me, I just have to wait, and it all evens out.

What makes being poly something positive for you?

It allows each person to be someone uniquely special to me. I'm not interested in being everything to one person, and you don't have to be everything to me.

Allena: Poly isn't easy and it isn't for everyone. It means that you have to be able to share. However, it's the most amazing life anyone could have. I feel so blessed, and I couldn't dream of being any other way.

Jim: It gives all three of us an opportunity for joy that we could get no other way.

Read the whole interview.

Incidentally, I have a semantic bone to pick. The interviewer defines a "triad" as a relationship in which all three sides are sexually intimate, as opposed to a vee. No way. I know people in vees as far as sexual contact goes who, for years, have been deeply committed all around as a triad. And they would take great offense at not being considered such. Let's get the words straight: both "equilateral" and "vee" are subsets of "triad," if the people forming the wings of a vee feel like family. Poly is not defined by who’s having sex.

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March 1, 2006

"Big Love"

Weekly TV series on HBO

I admit it, I've been avoiding mentioning "Big Love" — the new HBO series about a quasi-Mormon businessman in Salt Lake City and his three wives. But it's high time; the show premieres on March 12th (to run Sundays 10-11 p.m. Eastern Time, right after "The Sopranos." Here's a preview.)

I worry that this will be so not what we are about. Nevertheless, the show is likely to be the biggest conversation-starter about non-monogamy in a long time, so we'd better be ready for it. Here's a good briefing from the Village Voice (for February 27, 2006):

...[Big Love] has a basic premise - one husband, three wives, seven children - that promises a feast of emotional friction rarely seen on TV, apart from HBO series like Deadwood and Six Feet Under. It took me a while to fall in love with those shows, to take in their formidable array of major and minor characters. Same with Big Love, which is in no hurry to unfurl its plotlines or push its charms. Give it a couple of episodes, though, and you'll be snared.

Big Love's sharpest move? Making the viewer sympathize with husband Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who comes across not as an exploitative patriarch but as a decent man stretched to the limit by his attempts to "do the right thing." That includes polygamy, according to the cultish Juniper Creek compound where Bill grew up.... Not only does Bill financially support three separate but conjoined households (a row of colonials on a swanky suburban street), he's also got a grueling schedule of conjugal duties that requires a nightly dose of Viagra. Even worse, he has to contend with numerous in-laws, including Roman (played by the ever creepy Harry Dean Stanton), the devious prophet of the Juniper Creek sect.

Bill's wives don't exactly fit the polygamous ideal of sisterly love and doe-like obedience. The three women battle their own jealousy as they jostle for the family's most limited resource: Bill. It's an entertaining, never ending power struggle with a distinct pecking order.... Heading the homemaker hierarchy is first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the most mature, educated, and "modern" of the three women; she works outside the home as a substitute teacher and accompanies Bill to public events. Second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) resents her in-between status, constantly sniping at Barb (or "Boss Lady," as Nicki dubs her) while pulling rank on third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Barely legal, Margene still acts like a kid and seems most herself when rassling with Barb's boner-prone teenage son.

The claustrophobic aura of self-containment and secrecy only adds to this pressure cooker of tension and rivalry. Since polygamy is illegal and any hint of perversity might sink Bill's business, the family has to pass for normal. From the street, each house looks separate, but their backyards join to create an alternate moral reality.

...Owner of a chain of home improvement stores, Bill is desperate to sever ties with Roman, the original investor, who is now demanding a tithe on all future franchises. With his bolo tie, parchment skin, and beady eyes, Harry Dean Stanton has never looked more sepulchral and sinister, as he declares, "There's man's law and there's God's law, and I think you know which side I'm on."

Bill longs to escape the prophet's tentacles, a situation further complicated by the fact that Nicki is Roman's daughter. Maybe the marriage was part of Bill and Roman's business transaction, the blood tie that sealed the deal. It's hard to sympathize with Nicki as a pawn of the menfolk, though; Sevigny plays her as a sullen, manipulative creature with a vicious shopaholic streak that leads to terrifying credit card debt.... The titanic clash between honest Bill and slimy Roman could easily play out across several seasons.

Big Love's menagerie of repellent characters risks turning off the viewer: Bill's mom and dad, played by veteran freaks Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie, are wildly cantankerous, and Roman's child bride seems spooky verging on psychotic. But through it all shines the decency of Bill and Barb, constantly in the process of making moral calculations. Intriguingly, the series intimates that Bill took up polygamy out of principle rather than active desire, and you sometimes sense that he'd be happier riding off into the sunset with Barb, leaving the younger wives in the dust. But instead he's chosen to raise his kids (and the other wives) on this weird cusp - one foot in the polygamous, out-of-time society of Juniper Creek and one foot in the mainstream Mormon Utah of fast-food joints and iPods. Bill looks to religion for guidelines and clarity; instead he finds only fuzziness and confusion rising like groundwater.

Read the whole article. Or you can Google up lots more.

This show means we'll have to spend a lot of time explaining what we are not. As I've written elsewhere: polyamory is to traditional polygamy what loving couples of equals in modern society are to wife-ownership in the Old Testament.

Did Hollywood miss the boat here? Even on its own terms? The HBO-watching public might be more titillated and intrigued by a show about their modern polyamorous middle-class neighbors than about offshoot not-Mormons in Utah doing something so 19th century. I wonder if some TV producer will realize the missed boat, and get the idea for a copycat show about folks like us. Picture it: a big old Victorian house in a city neighborhood — full of cats, clutter, and six poly people, 3M 3F, working though several simultaneous permutations of the dramas and hopefully the wonders. Add some clueless in-laws and precocious kids for laffs.... I don't know whether to hope or cringe.

P.S.: For some good talking points on polyamory versus religious polygamy (as usually conceived), see this essay by longtime activist Cherie L. Ve Ard. Synopsis: think gender equality vs. male dominance; secular/liberal vs. religious/conservative; love vs. authority; modern self-determination vs. pre-modern submission to roles.

To that I might add: experiment, growth, and evolution vs. static doctrine. And, recognition of fallibility vs. claims of final truth.

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