Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

February 29, 2008

"Internet Pushes Polyamory to Its 'Tipping Point' "

Wired magazine

Those of us who labor in the poly-awareness vineyard sometimes get a sense that big things are actually starting to happen. I'm always wary of wishful thinking (having taken catechism about this from Heinlein's Time Enough for Love in my youth). But now comes Regina Lynn, columnist for Wired magazine, saying that thanks to the internet, poly is breaking out as some kind of Next Big Thing.

Internet Pushes Polyamory to Its 'Tipping Point'

By Regina Lynn

The internet is famous for hooking people up for everything from blind dates to political activism.

For people into polyamory — a way of life in which participants engage in multiple intimate relationships simultaneously, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved — the internet provided a handy label for their lifestyle and a launch pad for injecting the concept into mainstream consciousness.

"Around 1990, we found this nifty name to call ourselves, instead of 'responsible, consensual nonmonogamy,'" says Dr. Kenneth Haslam, a retired anesthesiologist and curator of the Kenneth R. Haslam Collection on Polyamory at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. "About that same time, the internet came along — and it was at exactly the right time. The internet is a tipping point for polyamory."

From its somewhat murky etymological past to 1992's creation of the alt.polyamory Usenet newsgroup, the term has swept to mainstream acceptance.... The Washington Post ran a long feature on the subject for Valentine's Day....

While having multiple committed partners is not a new concept, many polyamorists have told me they felt lost, guilty, alone or freakish until they came across the word polyamory on the internet and for the first time had a context for the way they felt about love.

...Geeks have not traditionally been viewed as relationship experts, yet as a subculture, we are open to alternative ways of life. We immerse ourselves in science fiction and fantasy, imagining other cultures and experiencing relationships not necessarily bound by puritanical traditions.

...Cunning Minx, creator and host of the Polyamory Weekly podcast, says she's seen a significant change in how the mainstream media treats polyamory in just the three years since her first episode. "Poly used to be so alternative you had to adopt this entire different culture [to participate]," she says. "While it's definitely still an emotional and spiritual upheaval for many people to shake off the paradigms of monogamy that are so ingrained in us, now you can meet poly people in a group and talk about it in a safe place."...

Read the whole article (Feb. 29, 2008).

Me, I think it's happening more slowly. I think we'll still be talking about being in tipping-point moments 10 or 20 years from now. I don't think we'll have a really poly-aware and poly-mature culture for 50 or 100 years, but I am convinced that it's coming. (Even then, my hunch is that 90 percent of people will choose monogamy if only because it's simpler, but that's another topic.)

I'm reminded of something that Stanley Kurtz wrote two years ago, when the TV series "Big Love" began, about the nature of social change. Kurtz is an anti-gay-marriage fulminator for top-tier conservative journals and think tanks, and he has us polys squarely in his sights. He wrote:

Collapsing Taboo

It's... important to remember that support for polygamy and polyamory (approval of one is bound to help license the other) cannot be tracked in a simple, linear fashion.... We are dealing, not with an election campaign, but with the possible collapse of a social taboo....

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....

Three cheers, say I.


And now, a cautionary note.

The people who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon's wheels move half an inch. If the effort succeeds, the bandwagon eventually starts rolling on its own, faster and faster. And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.

Is this what Stanley Kurtz will be writing about polyamory 20 years from now? Will he be right?

Remember what happened to the psychedelic drug movement. It started with tremendous promise among a handful of philosophers and intellectuals in the early 1960s, gained popularity and momentum, careened out of control downmarket, and morphed into a cheapened, degraded "drugs are good" cultural meme for the masses. By the early 1970s the drug-culture bandwagon was so ugly and indiscriminate that people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died from, of all the stupid things, tranquilizers and heroin.

So maybe it's time for us poly activists to pay less attention to pushing the polyamory-awareness movement, and more to steering it.

If we are to save our defining word from serious cheapening, and guide this thing in good directions as it gains momentum, we should, in my opinion, be taking every opportunity to:

** Stress that successful polyamory requires high standards of ethics, integrity, intention, generosity, and concern for others;

** Emphasize that poly is not for everyone and that monogamy is the best model for many;

** Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the "full knowledge and consent of all involved";

** Expand that to not just "knowledge and consent," but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of poly, I'm convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one's metamours not as rivals to be resented or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, friends and acquaintances for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that minimum, there's no limit to how deep it can go.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs. In this way it becomes a generalization of the magic of romantic love — into something much wider and more powerful than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.

** Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, ruthless self-examination, tough personal growth, and a quick readiness to (as the Marine Corp puts it) "choose the difficult right over the easy wrong." It can cause catastrophes if you let your personal standards of conduct drop even briefly.

Please — with the bandwagon now moving, let's not let it run away from us in the next few years to the point that "polyamory" goes mass-market as something careless, trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.


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Blogger Anita Wagner Illig said...

As usual, very wise words, Alan. And I'm glad you recalled that passage by Kurtz. He obviously knows what he's saying about the falling away of taboo and the nature of its progression. Natch in this case we disagree as to whether that's a bad thing or a good one.

I am also agree about the importance of steering the wagon. I've always instinctively believed that we spokespeople absolutely must put our best foot forward and make very clear the ethics and skills that successful polyamory requires. Very recently I found myself online trying to convince a monogamous woman who had been treated very shabily by her so-called poly boyfriend that the problem wasn't polyamory but her unethical boyfriend. She was so hurt and outraged that she had trouble grasping what I was saying.

I also very much like your point about having good will toward OSOs. I don't think we have to be close friends if it doesn't work, but we do have to act in their best interests as well as our own.

February 29, 2008 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments about steering the poly movement are very good, and I'm happy to see those who actively take up the mantle of Poly Activist are doing just that. We have the benefit of watching just such disasters as you've mentioned and success stories too, to help guide us on our path to educate society about who and what we are

February 29, 2008 8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nicely written, and very true about steering the cart.

March 03, 2008 12:04 PM  
Blogger Galen said...

Bravo. I agree wholeheartedly. Polyamory should not be defined by default. It should be defined explicitly by those who understand and embrace it. We should hold on to the term for dear life. Otherwise, people will calously or with ill intent turn a benign and beautiful word into a mockery and brand of shame.

Polyamory is, I think, first and foremost an ethical code, not a bean-counting exercise. It's not how many partners you have, but whether the process is a moral one.

We don't need to offend monogamy. We don't need to alienate people. But we can't let our desire to seek tolerance from others stop us from being intolerant of those who abuse our ideas, for good or ill.

Keep up the great work.

- Galen

March 04, 2008 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Alan,

I've just finished a PhD in environmental ethics, and I've started thinking about doing some work on polyamory, largely because it is an issue close to my own heart and one that has been underexamined in moral philosophy. I think a lot of what you say is true, especially your comment that "polyamory requires high standards of ethics, integrity, intention, generosity, and concern for others".

It is sometimes difficult to figure out what this involves in poly relationships, because there are few social norms, blueprints and role models for us to look to, which just emphasises the need for some decent philosophy to be done in this area. If you know of any resources I could get my hands, on, I'd be really pleased.

Anyway, good stuff.

- Liz

May 10, 2010 8:37 PM  

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