Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

September 25, 2008

Open Marriages on Fox's "Morning Show"

The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet

On Fox TV this morning, Jenny Block (author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage) got a minute or two to enthuse about her relationships to the skeptical hosts, followed by two people who called open marriage a formula for disaster because people can never control their emotions. (Editor's note: It's not about controlling your emotions, it's about controlling your actions.)

The whole thing was fast, superficial, and I would say unhelpful. It was over before the idea at the heart of polyamory — supporting your lover's other relationships, not just tolerating them — could even get onto the floor. So the show was totally old-paradigm. Bleh.

At least it may help sell Jenny's book.

Watch the segment here: Part 1; Part 2.

Update: See the excellent discussions about this show at Joreth's journal and Anita Wagner's Practical Polyamory blog.


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September 20, 2008

"Open marriages have own rules of engagement"

National Post (Canada)

Canada's nationwide conservative newspaper presents a long article on open-marriage polyamory. The article features a couple and their agreement to do very hierarchical relationships — which the careless writer, unfortunately, presents as being the definition of polyamory in general:

Love & Mixed Doubles

An open marriage has its own rules of play

By Zosia Bielski

Samantha Fraser has a few rules for a successful marriage. She keeps a regular Wednesday lunch date with her husband, Stéph, and they make a point of reserving weekends exclusively for each other. Their best time is typically in bed just before sleep, when the two talk about "something new that brings us closer together."

But the Frasers, married since 2004, have other rules, too. That is because they are in an open marriage: The couple has practised polyamory — having several sexual or emotional relationships at once — for two years. Samantha, 28, has one sexual partner outside of the union, as does Stéph, 31....

They reserve the right to veto these partners, though this has happened only once. They also try to introduce each other to their respective dates. Sleepovers are forbidden, unless someone is too drunk to get home.

"We used to do sleepovers more last year and it contributed to some issues with us getting too close to people," said Fraser, who works in Toronto's digital media sector and details the perks and challenges of polyamory in her blog, Not Your Mother's Playground.

...To the uninitiated, polyamory may look like a return to the hedonistic free love of the 1960s, but its current proponents say today's open relationships are often regimented by more rules than monogamous ones, largely because the polyamorist's main challenge appears to be jealousy.

The reason their open relationships work is because of constant negotiations between partners, or what Fraser calls "checking in on all partners."

Often labelled as swinging, which usually involves a couple having sex with other people together, polyamorous relationships are highly hierarchical: Primary partners are strongly attached, while secondary partners float in and out, ideally without the emotional or economic commitments of the married couple.

GAAK! Not always, please. Not even usually.

...Several Toronto sex shops have hosted workshops on polyamory and jealousy, while a group called the Toronto Ethical Lover Group meets regularly at the University of Toronto to discuss happy "poly/non-monogamous relationships." At least two polyamory how-to guides hit Canadian bookstores last month, and support groups have sprouted online for polyamorists in Vancouver, Montreal, Newfoundland, Ottawa and Tobermory. Meanwhile, polyamory conferences — some of them nude — were held in New York, Pennsylvania and California this month.

...The practice has also been examined in a paper presented recently in Vancouver. In "Is Polyamory an alternative to marriage? A sociology inquiry into jealousy," PhD candidate Jillian Deri posits that jealousy is an "outcrop of the institution of monogamy and Western ideas about love and marriage." She believes jealousy is "being resisted and rewritten by those who practice polyamory."

Asked how they deal with that nasty emotion, polyamorists often insist that having more partners can actually help people cope with jealousy — and ultimately have better relationships.

Many seem keen to question the underpinnings of jealousy. "I believe that jealousy is a learned behaviour, one that is reinforced and rewarded all around us every day in every form of media and behaviour. There's an expectation that if you love someone and they find someone else attractive, you need to be jealous and, if not, that's strange," says Tristan Taormino, a Village Voice columnist, porn director and author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.

...At the Toronto sex shop Come As You Are, Dana Shaw recently gave a workshop on "Taming the Green-Eyed Monster: Polyamory and Jealousy," which drew couples hoping to enter into an open relationship and those already in one. "We are each taught very early in the socialization process that someone else doing something that excludes us is selfish, but that's not necessarily the case," says Shaw, who has been in polyamorous relationships for 20 years.

She says monogamists could benefit from the discussions polyamorists have constantly: "Jealousy is about responding to a fear that someone will do something to hurt you. Those fears can be about abandonment, lack of attractiveness or low self-worth. They point to an individual's triggers for feeling badly about themselves and projecting that fear on to the other person. The opportunity in polyamory is to look at the fear response and ask yourself really important questions about those triggers."

The article does include a list of some different types of poly, taken from Taormino's book, which contradicts the narrow definition in the article:

A Who's Who of Polyamorists

Partnered non-monogamy. Two partners committed to each other who have secondary experiences that are sexual, casual and uncommitted. Otherwise known as the sex buddy.

Solo polyamorist. An individual has multiple partners but none are primary. These partners do not share children, finances or a home. People may look at them as single, but single is not quite the right word for them because they have multiple partners and they're not looking to settle down.

Polyfidelity. A polyamorous relationship with more than two people who are all committed to each other: Three is a triad and four is a quad, and so on.

Mono-poly combo. One partner is monogamous and the other partner polyamorous.

Swingers. These partners engage in joint extramarital sexual encounters, revolving around couples. Most swingers consider themselves emotionally monogamous and sexually non-monogamous. Swinging has its own distinct history, community and culture.

Read the whole article (Sept. 19, 2008).

I don't find any place to leave comments. Instead, post a letter to the editor here.

Samantha herself comments about the article on her blog; also see her comment below. Apparently the writer had a hard time getting the paper to print it at all. Did a conservative editor give it a working over? Is that why it comes off as clinical and joyless?

But at least it gets the concept out there for people who need to know.

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September 15, 2008

Poly on South African Radio and TV

Sitting at my shortwave radio as a boy, I was fascinated to pull in strange, unheard-of programs from hidden corners of the world through my antenna in the treetops. Nowadays a computer does it better.

For instance, here is South Africa's Bush Radio, a station run by and for historically marginalized populations who may speak primarily tribal languages, presenting an absolutely stellar interview about polyamory with a sweet lady from Cape Town named Melanie representing the ZaPoly group. It was broadcast July 9th on a show called Sakhisizwe, "Building the Nation." An excerpt:

...Melanie: Polyamory is being able to have many different, loving, romantic relationships at the same time, with everybody involved in them knowing about each other.

Host: But, isn't it like cheating?

Melanie: Not if everyone knows about it and everyone's happy about it.... It is nothing like cheating, in the way that everyone is open, we all talk about our feelings, we all talk about what we expect from the different relationships we are in, and we're very very open about it....

It is also open for both men and women to date other people....

...If you want to bring polyamory into your existing relationship, the first thing to do is discuss this before there are any partners. Before there's anyone else in the picture, you have to first sit down with your partner and say "This is what I want." And you must talk about it and make up rules that work for the two of you. Then when you are interested in somebody, what I do is I then talk to the person I'm interested in, explain the situation, tell them "Yes I am interested in you, but I have to talk to my husband first."

Then I'll go home, and I'll sit down with my husband and we'll talk, and then he will ask to meet the new person, and they'll get to know each other. If he's happy, then I can start a relationship with the new person. If he's not happy, we've got to sit down and find out why he's not happy. And we've got to find out how to make him happy. Because the ideal is for everyone to be happy — and I'll be a little less happy if I don't have my new partner, but I want my husband to always feel safe and secure, and I want him always to be happy.

Host: ...These relationships, do they become true families with long-term commitments like children and stuff?

Melanie: Oh yes, there are a number of them, especially in the United States. Polyamory is still very small in South Africa, but in the United States there are what we call "polyfamilies." And what they are is a group of three or more adults who all love each other and are in a relationship with each other, and if they have children, those children think that they have three or more parents — so they'll call one Mommy and one Mom — they'll have different names for each of their parents but they'll all be parents in the child's life.

...Children like what they're used to. I have a child, and she always plays little games, about "This is the mommy and this is the daddy, and this is the other mommy and the other daddy," and she loves these little games because that's what's normal to her. And the only time she feels different is when she sees one of her other little friends with only one mommy and one daddy....

...Host: What about jealousy, now?

Melanie: ...Jealousy is a wonderful tool, if you know how to use it. Because it tells you that something's wrong.... When I'm jealous of my husband and his girlfriend, I'll sit down with my husband and say, "I'm feeling jealous. Let's find out why." And what is usually is, is it's about time. I feel he's spending too much time with her, or not enough time with me. And all we've got to do is sit down and get to the root of the problem. And say, no no, we've got to make a — we now have a date night every week, just the two of us, we organize babysitters, and we have a wonderful time, all because of jealousy.

Here is another South African radio interview, this one on "Cape Talk," from Cape Town earlier this year (April 16, 2008).

And here's a TV interview on "3Talk with Noeleen" on South Africa's Channel 3, dating from February 28, 2008 (audio or 80MB video). The show is 45 minutes long. 3Talk claims to have 4 million viewers.

South Africa's small but enthusiastic poly community has a website and an active Yahoo Group for discussion. The group's moderator, Andrea (a.k.a. Green Fizzpops), scours the web for noteworthy poly articles that deserve to be rescued from oblivion. If you enjoy Polyamory in the News, you'll enjoy browsing the essays, blog posts, first-person stories, and insights that have caught her attention; look through the ZaPoly Yahoo Group's backlist.

She observes, by the way, that South Africa is the only African nation with a polyamory website (at least according to the international listing of poly sites at polyamorie.startpagina.nl, in Dutch) — compared to the dozens of African sites about polygamy.


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September 4, 2008

"The monogamy gene"?

Maybe you've seen the breathless news coverage of the "monogamy gene" that researchers in Sweden have supposedly found. The gene affects receptors of vasopressin in the brain. Vasopressin is one of the famous hormones (along with dopamine, oxytocin, and phenylethylamine, PEA) that are involved in falling in love, limerence, NRE, and bonding behavior in both humans and animals. In a sample of 552 Swedish couples, men who had the genetic culprit were more likely to have colder, conflict-prone marriages and to show other signs of poor relationship behavior.

What the reseachers actually seem to have found is a gene that affects bonding, not necessarily a "monogamy gene." It's being called that because monogamy is the only type of intimate, committed sexual bonding that the news media grasp.

Here's a hypothesis: Test people living in triads and quads for the gene, and I have a hunch that they'll score unusually low for the problem genetic trait, rather than unusually high as people might naively expect.

Hey researchers, here's a project! Not just because it might tell interesting things about polys, but because it would refine the actual effect of the gene and its vasopressin mechanism. Does lack of the gene promote successful monogamy directly? Or does it merely promote intimate connections generally?...including the polyamorous generalization of couple-love into something wider. Polys would be a tool to split that difference in the gene's effect.

Here's a good, clear article on the findings from the Washington Post:

Men are more likely to be devoted and loyal husbands when they lack a particular variant of a gene that influences brain activity, researchers announced yesterday — the first time that science has shown a direct link between a man's genes and his aptitude for monogamy.

The finding is striking because it not only links the gene variant — which is present in two of every five men — with the risk of marital discord and divorce, but also appears to predict whether women involved with these men are likely to say their partners are emotionally close and available, or distant and disagreeable. The presence of the gene variant, or allele, also seems predictive of whether men get married or live with women without getting married.

"Men with two copies of the allele had twice the risk of experiencing marital dysfunction, with a threat of divorce during the last year, compared to men carrying one or no copies," said Hasse Walum, a behavioral geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who led the study. "Women married to men with one or two copies of the allele scored lower on average on how satisfied they were with the relationship compared to women married to men with no copies."

The scientists studied men because the hormone being examined is known to play a larger role in their brains than in women's brains....

Walum said that... the study is the latest piece of evidence to show that biology — down to the level of individual genes — can play a powerful role in shaping complex human behavior.

The allele... regulates the activity of a hormone in the brain known as vasopressin. It dictates how and where vasopressin receptors are situated in the brain. Effectively, said Larry J. Young, a psychiatrist who studies the genetics of social behavior at Emory University, brain receptors act like locks, and vasopressin acts like a key. The key works only when there is a lock; in the absence of a receptor, vasopressin cannot act.

All the scientists emphasized that more work needs to be done to replicate the finding, and to explore possible interactions between multiple genes and environmental factors....

Read the whole article (Sept. 2, 2008; free registration required). If it becomes unavailable, you can read the text here.

Here's New Scientist magazine's story:

There has been speculation about the role of the hormone vasopressin in humans ever since we discovered that variations in where receptors for the hormone are expressed makes prairie voles strictly monogamous but meadow voles promiscuous; vasopressin is related to the "cuddle chemical" oxytocin. Now it seems variations in a section of the gene coding for a vasopressin receptor in people help to determine whether men are serial commitment-phobes or devoted husbands.

...Given that everyone surveyed had been in their relationship for at least five years, the team suggests that having multiple copies somehow contributes to commitment problems in men. Because the results were collected for a different study the team couldn't quiz the men on whether they were faithful, says Walum.

...Walum's colleague Paul Lichtenstein says the team's next task is to test how a nasal vasopressin spray affects altruism and jealousy.

Read the whole article (Sept. 1, 2008).

Not so fast, says Wired:

...Journalists rushed headlong into the "divorce gene." "Whether a man has one type of gene versus another could help decide whether he's good 'husband material,'" announces HealthDay News. "Marriage problems? Husband's genes may be to blame," says a Reuters headline writer. "Marital woes can often be attributed to men's genetic make-up," declares Agence-France Press....

Taking the prize for carelessness is the [London] Telegraph, who coined the term "divorce gene"....

...NPR's All Things Considered also parrots the "new excuse" line, but qualifies it well: bioethicist Erik Parens... [notes] that "it's possible to have the gene variant but not have the marital difficulties," and vice versa. "Human relationships are so complicated," Parens is paraphrased as saying, "that the effect of any one gene would be very small."

Furthermore, the study's fine print notes a previously observed and tentative link between the genetic variation and autism. Men with "bad" genes — or "bad" neural networks — might not be two-timing gigolos, but people who are bad at communicating and social interaction.

Read the whole article.

The reseachers' actual paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for Sept. 2, 2008. (To get the whole thing you have to be a subscriber or pay $10.) Here are the title, authors, and abstract:

Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans

Hasse Walum, Lars Westberg, Susanne Henningsson, Jenae M. Neiderhiser, David Reiss, Wilmar Igl, Jody M. Ganiban, Erica L. Spotts, Nancy L. Pedersen, Elias Eriksson, and Paul Lichtenstein.

Pair-bonding has been suggested to be a critical factor in the evolutionary development of the social brain. The brain neuropeptide arginine vasopressin (AVP) exerts an important influence on pair-bonding behavior in voles. There is a strong association between a polymorphic repeat sequence in the 5′ flanking region of the gene (avpr1a) encoding one of the AVP receptor subtypes (V1aR), and proneness for monogamous behavior in males of this species. It is not yet known whether similar mechanisms are important also for human pair-bonding. Here, we report an association between one of the human AVPR1A repeat polymorphisms (RS3) and traits reflecting pair-bonding behavior in men, including partner bonding, perceived marital problems, and marital status, and show that the RS3 genotype of the males also affects marital quality as perceived by their spouses. These results suggest an association between a single gene and pair-bonding behavior in humans, and indicate that the well characterized influence of AVP on pair-bonding in voles may be of relevance also for humans.

Update Sept. 9: So it turns out that, according to recent research, the gene in question affects a whole spectrum of other human traits and behaviors — autism, memory, musical memory, eating, cooperative behavior, strategies in playing The Dictator Game, and creative dance. Here are a bunch of papers about this collected at the Gene Expression blog.

Creative dance? I dance like a crippled giraffe; is that why I'm a good poly-mono switch? Don't tell the media about this....

More update: Mark Liberman takes apart the bad science reporting and puts this interesting study into perspective here.


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