"Love Unlimited: The Polyamorists"
The best, most important article about polyamory that I can recall appears in tomorrow's New Scientist (for July 8, 2006). Based in England, New Scientist is a large-circulation magazine for the science-reading public; it claims to be the world's "leading science and technology weekly." (Though its coverage of my own field has sometimes been sensationalist and uncritical.)
The article, by Annalee Newitz, is bannered on the magazine's cover. It centers around a pleasant dinner with a typical poly family near San Francisco, and it takes off from there:
It is hard to estimate how many polyamorists exist there is no box for them on any national census but the number of online resources, articles and books on the topic has exploded since the early 1990s, when the term polyamory ("poly" for short) was coined in internet newsgroups. The Ethical Slut, a 1997 book by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt that some call the "bible of poly", has sold more than 50,000 copies and is about to go into its second edition....
For psychologists and evolutionary biologists, polyamory is a rare opportunity to see, out in the open, what happens when people stop suppressing their desire for multiple partners and embrace non-monogamy. Proponents say the poly brand of open but committed relationships may be a way around infidelity because it turns an age-old problem into a solution: polyamorists are released from the burdens of traditional marriage vows, yet they seem to keep their long-term relationships intact. What makes poly enticing is the possibility of reconciling long-term stability and romantic variety.
...What evidence there is shows that poly couples stay together as long as monogamous ones and, apparently, for good reasons. In a study published last December in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (vol 8), [Elaine] Cook analysed the relationships of seven couples who had been married for more than 10 years, and who had had additional partners for at least seven of those years. She found that most of the couples reported "love" or "connection" as important reasons for staying together. This contrasts with monogamous couples, Cook notes, who often list external factors such as religion or family as major reasons for remaining committed.
...In April, psychologist Rachel Robbins at the Mission Mental Health clinic in San Francisco conducted a survey of 250 polyamorous women. The number 1 reason they gave for being poly was "to experience different activities and explore different parts of themselves with different people". Instead of asking one person to meet all their needs, polyamorists are content with several people who each meet a few.
..."We all have our own bedrooms, which is key," Noemi says. "And our bedrooms aren't next to each other, so we have privacy," says Heather. "Also, we have a nominal schedule where Jim sleeps with Noemi and me on an every-other-night basis, and I'm with Gordon on the weekends."
"My nights without Jim are great," Noemi says with a laugh. "I get to hog the covers, and nobody snores."
...Polyamorists come to it at different points in their lives and for different reasons. Emma says she had open relationships in high school, and many people I spoke with described discovering poly in their late teens or early twenties. Most, like Jim, tried monogamy. "My first marriage was supposed to be monogamous, and I was," he recalls. "But she slept around in a cheating way. That killed the relationship."
The article goes on to ask whether poly is more sustainable than monogamy:
"Infidelity in monogamous relationships is estimated at 60 to 70 per cent, so it seems that attraction to more than one person is normal. The question is how we deal with that," says Meg Barker, a professor of psychology at London South Bank University, who presented her research into poly at the 2005 meeting of The British Psychological Society. "The evidence is overwhelming that monogamy isn't natural," says evolutionary biologist David Barash of the University of Washington, Seattle. "Lots of people believe that once they find 'the one', they'll never want anyone else. Then they're blindsided by their own inclinations to desire other attractive individuals. So it's useful to know that this behaviour is natural."
The article then goes on to discuss whether, from an evolutionary standpoint, poly is better or worse than monogamy as a mating strategy. Barash is quoted as saying "Jealousy is probably fitness enhancing," since a jealous male is more likely to ensure that his own genes are the ones that get passed on by his mate. This certainly explains why some sexual jealousy seems innate to human nature, rather than purely cultural. And the article quotes biologist Joan Roughgarden (Stanford University) as saying flat out, "Polyamory won't last. The likelihood of being able to successfully raise children in that context is very limited. My guess is that it's not an evolutionary advance, but a liability."
But, the article counters,
To others... biology is not the point. "In middle-class urban cultures, people aren't marrying for survival any more," says psychologist Dossie Easton, co-author of The Ethical Slut.... "This means we're having marriages and relationships for very different reasons than our ancestors did. We're doing it for emotional gratification." Easton sees poly as a break from the "survival strategy" traditions that created both polygamy and monogamy. "Polyamory is a cultural outgrowth of serial monogamy, or having multiple partners without necessity," she says. "Once you're released from necessity, you can start doing all kinds of original thinking."
Barker concurs. "It's assumed that jealousy is a natural response," she says, "but some polyamorous people say they hardly feel it at all. I think this gives us insight into how people can make sense of their worlds in many ways if monogamy isn't the default." She has found that when people leave traditional monogamy behind, they often rethink "givens" such as how to divide up the housework, money and childcare. Children of poly couples, for instance, tend to be raised by a small community instead of two parents.
The article concludes with a powerful statement:
Although poly is still well out of the mainstream, it has become an attractive alternative to monogamy for some. Whether it is good for society remains an open question. For now, there's a more pressing issue is it good for you?
With the article are a couple of sidebars, including a Q&A with Dossie Easton in which she says: "There is a whole range of reasons [for choosing this lifestyle], but the highest is finding community. Poly community becomes an extended family that shares intimacy, sex, housing and child-rearing. I see non-monogamy as creating places where people can nurture relationships because they don't have to leave home, children or partner to explore themselves. They don't have to tear up their world every time they try something new."
Read the whole article. If it disappears there, you can read the text here. (One correction: the words "polyamorous" and "polyamory" were not invented by Deborah Anapol but by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart and Jennifer L. Wesp, independently of each other.)
This article ought to become the poly movement's standard explanatory handout. Combined with this week's news coverage of the word "polyamory" entering the dictionary (see two entries back), this could be the biggest attention-getter we've had since the debut of "Big Love." And a much better one too.
(New Scientist has also produced a good podcast interview with the author.)