Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

January 25, 2009

"Goth, Wannabe, and Christian Sexuality"

National Sexuality Resource Center

The first time I walked into the crowded weekly gatherings of Poly Boston folks at a hip local cafe near Cambridge, I was struck by how many people were wearing black. It wasn't a goth crowd, but the fashion looked goth-influenced by one or two degrees of separation.

No coincidence. Polyamory and its values have become established in goth culture, well known and understood there even by non-polys, according to Amy C. Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado/Boulder. Her book Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and Status came out in 2008, and she published an article a couple months ago that is now spreading in the blogosphere:

Goth, Wannabe, and Christian Sexuality
National Sexuality Resource Center
By Amy C. Wilkins

“Freaks” dressed in all black. “Easy” white girls who date the “wrong” guys. “Good girls” who’d rather pray than date.

Goths, Puerto Rican “wannabes”, and Christians are all seen as “odd,” as “freaks,” or as “posers.” Outsiders think they wear the “wrong” clothes, have the “wrong” emotions, and — perhaps most alarmingly — make the “wrong” sexual choices.

But young people in these groups are not so different from us, anyone who has ever wanted to improve their appearance, have fun, be noticed, or be seen as authentic rather than fake....

Although goths, wannabes, and Christians each have a distinct approach to sex and sexuality, sexuality is central to identity-making in each group. In various ways, [all three] challenge expectations for young women... but each subculture also valorizes romance in manners that offer both payoffs and costs....

At the Sanctuary, a weekly dance night in the Northeast, Goths (who, in this group, are predominantly white, middle-class, and college-aged) get together for a night of dancing, hanging out, and forming “cuddle circles.” Proud of their freaky personas and dark style, they wear fetish wear, leather and PVC, dog collars, and leashes. A man walks through in chaps and a thong. Other men “gender blend” in make-up and skirts, but the women are dressed in sexy, clearly feminine outfits. On the sidelines, pairs and groups of people kiss, caress, suck on each other’s necks.

At the Sanctuary, they tell me, the rules are different: People are free to kiss who they want, even if they are in relationships with other people. And women are the sexual aggressors. Men are “ostracized,” Hyacinth says, if they hit on women too overtly. Goths value these rules, describing the “meat market” scene of hip-hop clubs as “repulsive.”

“I really, really liked it [about the Sanctuary],” Hyacinth explains, “that nobody tried to grab my butt.”

...Goth women value sexual agency, pursuing sexual and romantic relations with multiple partners, both men and women, and experimenting with “freaky” sex. They describe their sexuality as empowering, arguing that they are in control of their sexual choices....

...The Goth, wannabe, and Christian strategies come with similar costs... sexual double standards are alive and well. As much as goths and wannabes experiment with being “bad,” they... want to think of themselves as different from girls who are really, really bad.

...Goths routinely distinguish “true” polyamory (simultaneous involvement in more than one intimate relationship, which many of them practice) from “just sleeping around.” They explain that “in its purest form, it’s not about sex, it’s about love” and that they “don’t want to be associated with people who are irresponsible.”

...Despite their different sexual styles, the women I interviewed all valorize romance. Goths and Christians explain that their sexual choices are better paths to romantic intimacy. For goths, polyamory forces them to develop better communication skills, to be more honest, and to trust each other in new ways. All this creates better, more authentic relationships, they say.

Christians use a logic that assumes that wasting romance on a relationship that doesn’t end in marriage means that there will be less romance left over for the marriage itself. For them, delaying dating and sexuality ensures unparalleled intimacy with their (anticipated) future husbands.

A bit differently, wannabes explain that they aren’t just having sex with Black or Latino men because they’re cool, but because they truly, deeply love them — and they work hard to create enduring romantic relationships rather than sexual ones. For them, romantic relationships are the key to securing community membership, while purely sexual relationships mean that they will be dismissed as “easy white girls.”

This emphasis on romance comes with costs....

Read the whole article (Nov. 18, 2008).

Wilkins says she "is currently researching race and gender identities among Black middle-class students at predominantly white universities, and the use of monogamy in the construction of notions of love among young and mid-life adults."


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January 24, 2009

Danish poly

Jydske Vestkysten (Denmark)

Year after year, surveys of happiness worldwide find Danes to be the happiest people on Earth. (For instance.) With that as background, a newspaper in Denmark has published a report on polyamory. It's not online, but here's a summary on the paper's website (translated):

I love you (from Tuesday to Friday)
By Anne Blume Futtrup (Jan. 11, 2009)

Love: Spend four days with a confident husband and three with a fiery lover, put three toothbrushes in the holder, and skip the bad conscience when Christmas dinner ends with a trip to somewhere else.

"Polyamory" is the form of partnership in which men and women have ongoing sexual love with more than one partner — and are honest about it.

An open relationship can work in many ways, but the point in common is that all in a poly relationship know what is going on between the others. In this way polyamory differs from ordinary adultery, where guilt and secrecy are usually part of the package.

The 1970s sexual revolution gave this lifestyle a boost. It is hard to determine how many people live in open relationships these days, but polyamory, which may also qualify as a sexual political movement, has won new popularity. And Danes are open to this lifestyle.

In today's edition of Jutland West Coast you can read more about polyamory, which should not be confused with "swinging".

P.S.: Two Danish resources:

Polydan; includes e-mail list.

Polyamory.dk (note the interesting version of the infinity-heart logo).


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January 21, 2009

"Knives Out for Poly Peeps"


Canada has its own branch of the polygamist Mormon sect that was raided in Texas last year for alleged child abuse. In the town of Bountiful, British Columbia, fundamentalist Mormon men have been openly marrying plural wives for many decades. And as in Texas, male leaders are said to abuse women and force underage girls into marriage against their will.

But with no insiders willing to talk, there was never enough evidence to bring statutory-rape or abuse charges. And prosecutors were unwilling to bring charges of simple polygamy, fearing that if the polygamy law were ever tested it would be overturned as a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But on January 7th, British Columbia attorney general Wally Oppal finally went ahead. He had Winston Blackmore, 52, charged with having had conjugal relations with 19 women, and James Oler, 44, with having two wives. The two men lead rival polygamist factions in Bountiful and are said to have about 1,000 followers in all.

What does this have to do with non-abusive, free-choice, secular polyamory? Nothing, say the law's backers. Everything, says the law itself.

Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which prohibits polygamy, also criminalizes "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage." This is punishable by up to five years in prison.

In other words, polys who consider themselves group-bonded, or call each other wife and husband, or agree to be poly-fi, or maybe even just agree to care for each other, are criminals as the law is written.

You don't even have to have sex.

Xtra, Canada's chain of gay newspapers "where queers conspire," has a column about this:

...[T]he trial of a cultish leader of a tiny religious sect could very well be one of the most important legal battle of the next decade for gays and lesbians — and all people who have flirted with unconventional sexual expression. Will we be brave enough to tackle it?

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with one count of practicing polygamy Jan 7. Those charges are the culmination of 20 years of allegations and rumours about all manner of depravity at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound in Bountiful, BC.

At best, the polygamy charge is a stand-in for unproven allegations, especially spousal and child abuse. The RCMP [federal police] sleuths haven't been able to make the case that these guys are abusing their wives and kids, so they've slapped them with a polygamy charge. At worst, BC Attorney General Wally Oppal is seriously planning to get tough on polygamists in some throwback to 19th century prudishness. Either way, it's an embarrassment.

Gays and lesbians are all too familiar with the reasons why laws enforcing sexual norms on private relationships are antiquated....

Ultimately, prosecutors will be trying both Bountiful's top dogs and Canada's polygamy law at the same time. That's bad luck for anyone interested in sexual freedom or social tolerance. The spectre of Bountiful's other rumoured offences will hang heavily over the trial and its inevitable appeals.

It will almost certainly go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, they will have to test the constitutionality of a flimsy, seldom-used law — using, as its test subject, a blackguard of religious totalitarianism. Not exactly a sterling martyr for sexual freedom.

...If the Supreme Court uses the "icky" test in R v Blackmore, lord help us all.

Read the whole article (Jan. 8, 2009. Ads may be NSFW). There's been lots of other news coverage in the Canadian press.

Update: Here is Section 293 of Canada's Criminal Code:

(1) Every one who

(a) practices or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practice or enter into

(i) any form of polygamy, or

(ii) any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage, or

(b) celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned in subparagraph (a)(i) or (ii), is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

Evidence in case of polygamy

(2) Where an accused is charged with an offence under this section, no averment or proof of the method by which the alleged relationship was entered into, agreed to or consented to is necessary in the indictment or on the trial of the accused, nor is it necessary on the trial to prove that the persons who are alleged to have entered into the relationship had or intended to have sexual intercourse.

Note that if you are merely "a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction" the relationship, you are equally guilty. If you attend someone's handfasting, contribute potluck food to the ceremony, or help the people draft agreements, you're also subject to up to five years in prison.

Yay Canada.

P.S.: Two relevant papers:

"Polygamy in Canada: Legal and Social Implications for Women and Children — A Collection of Policy Research Reports," by Campbell, A. et al. (2005). Status of Women Canada, Gov't. Canada. (PDF or HTML format.)

"Polygyny and Canada's Obligations under International Human Rights Law," by Cook, R. J., and Kelly, L. M. (2006). Family, Children and Youth Section Research Report, Department of Justice Canada. (PDF or HTML.)


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January 20, 2009

Fumbling it in Oklahoma


First: everything came to a halt today and we crowded around a TV to watch what will be, I dearly hope, the greatest and best turning of the page for America in my lifetime so far. Sparkler and I are headed off to a local inaugural ball soon. Next to this, all else seems trivial.

Nevertheless life goes on, so....


The website of The Oklahoman, Oklahoma's largest daily newspaper, has a factual question-and-answer column called "Strange but True" that today fumbles a question about polyamory. After a reasonably accurate definition (quoted from Helen Fisher), readers are informed as follows:

Polyamory is utopian and perhaps ultimately impractical. It may sound good to receive attachment from one partner, romantic love from another, physicality from a third. But we are a jealous people, and not surprisingly, polyamorous couples spend many hours every week sorting out their feelings of jealousy and possessiveness.

Kinda begs for comments? Add yours at the end of the full article (Jan. 20, 2009).

The column also appeared in the Deseret News, the Utah newspaper run by the Mormon Church, on January 21.


January 15, 2009

Poly awareness on campus

The Silhouette
(McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario)

In her keynote speech at last summer's Loving More East conference, Diana Adams offered an ambitious goal: "that every college student in America will know the word polyamory and what it means within five years." Her idea was for TNG (The Next Generation) to hear that poly can be a workable option and that, when a relationship grows serious, exclusivity is something you discuss and deliberately choose, or not — rather than assuming that nothing else is possible.

The crowd cheered. But I don't see any real action yet toward forming the kind of speakers' bureau, education materials, outreach to campus professionals, and national office that might make it happen. However, these are early days. Adams has cast down the gauntlet.

Meanwhile, college newspapers have run a smattering of articles about polyamory. A new one came out today at McMaster University in Canada. It has some interesting nuggets:

Sex and the Steel City
By Molly Horton

“Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error,” wrote George Bernard Shaw....

Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray argued, “You would think that more people would be [practicing] polyamory, because, evolutionarily, we’re built to have multiple relationships. We’re built to fool around.”

According to Fisher, while human beings may be “hardwired” to fool around, we still get attached and jealous. How do polyamorists avoid this unavoidable pitfall? Fisher revealed, “They’re honestly dealing with the fact that we’re not meant to be faithful. They accept that inevitability and channel it into ways that minimize pain and maximize joy. They attempt paradise.”

This attempt at paradise comes with rules. While rules many vary from relationship to relationship, there are some common conventions, such as complete honesty, safe sex, and no secrets....

[A 1998 article] cited a 20-year study conducted by Arline M. Rubin of Brooklyn College in which [open] relationships were found to last just as long as monogamous ones.

...While it is easy to argue that polyamory is not the perfect alternative to monogamy, any type of lifestyle that at its core stresses love, honesty and compassion is worth a closer look with an open-minded eye. Whether or not this option is a moral ideal, it is happening here and now — for a reason — the understanding of which might help us decode the complexity of human nature.

Read the whole article (Jan. 15, 2009).

BTW, here's the abstract and first page of that study by Arline M. Rubin on open vs. monogamous relationships.


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January 8, 2009

Poly and family in Esquire magazine

"It may have started with Big Love, which starts up again this month," writes Steven Marche in the January Esquire. He argues that pop culture's increasing fascination with family-structure weirdness "reveal[s] a change in the American home":

Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the famous line, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Which sounds terrific but is bullshit when you think about it. Unhappy families are all booze and cheating and fighting about money — all the tiresome same. Happy families are the weird ones, all inside gestures and codes of their own, distinct ecologies of need and habit and desire, and the history of the American sitcom has been the gradual acceptance of this complicated truth....

...Not since the time of Utah's entry into the Union has the subject of plural marriage consumed so much psychic energy. "Big Love" begins its third season this month on HBO, David Ebershoff's "The 19th Wife" made fall's best-seller lists.... These pop-culture polygamists have something to sell — namely, the promise of one big happy family — and Americans are buying....

...It's no coincidence that the creators of "Big Love" and "The 19th Wife" are all gay — gay men know about illicit love and households with complicated sexual economies.

...That great bellwether of social change, The New York Times Styles section, recently devoted 1,200 words to the current popularity of polyamory, which shows that polygamy is legal de facto if not de jure. And look who's likely to show up at George Clooney's villa at Lake Como these days: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who've sworn off marriage until same-sex couples are guaranteed the same right, and Tilda Swinton, who sometimes lives with the 68-year-old father of her twins and a 30-year-old artist-actor. Martha Nussbaum, the leading feminist intellectual of our time, recently came out in favor of not just polygamy but the 19th-century Mormon model of polygamy. In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer [May 22, 2008; text is here], she argued that polygamy is not inherently more patriarchal than monogamy....

...The fact that mainstream audiences respond to such blue-sky depictions proves that Americans are desperate to believe in a happy family again — any happy family. Far from declining under this revolution in who lives with whom, the American family is resurgent, even as it splinters into kaleidoscopically shifting arrangements of varying sizes and shapes and intensities. The Henricksons and the schlubs of "Two and a Half Men" are the happiest families on television not despite their confusing arrangements but exactly because they've opted out of the standard lifestyle....

I'll buy it. What originally attracted me to the idea of poly, way back when, wasn't the idea of sleeping with two girlfriends but having a big Robert Heinlein science-fiction family.

Read the whole article.

P.S.: Right in line with this idea is Terisa Greenan's poly sitcom on the web, "Family".


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January 6, 2009

"Why Are Gay Marriage Advocates Not Defending Polyamory?"

Huffington Post

Lee Stranahan, a pro-gay-marriage columnist for the Huffington Post, comments on gay-community extremism following the passage of Proposition 8 in California — and calls out the Marriage Rights movement for not acknowledging that poly marriage rights are every bit as valid... theoretically.

After the passage of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, something shifted in the gay rights movement. The new normal now seems to be that anyone who is opposed to gay marriage for any reason at all is quickly labeled a bigot and a hater.

I fully support gay marriage but don't agree with the bigot/hate labeling. I think there are plenty of people for whom the idea of marriage equality is simply something too new for them to have fully wrapped their heads around....

This is where the most vehement of marriage equality advocates point out that their rights were violated by the passage of Prop 8. Marriage is a right, they say; THEIR right and those who would deny it to them are committing an offense on the level with any serious violation of human rights. Waiting is not an acceptable option, they argue — it's just as cruel as telling a slave they must wait to be free.

On a theoretical basis, I actually agree. I do think that consenting adults do have the right to enter into marriage contracts with the people they love.

So I wonder why I don't hear more gay marriage advocates giving full throated support to recognize the marriage rights of polyamorous people?

If you aren't familiar with polyamory, it's pretty straightforward — it's multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all parties. In other words, you have more than one lover and everyone involved knows.

Polyamory recently got an online publicity boost when influential personal development guru Steve Pavlina announced he was going to try poly relationships this year. For those interested in learning more, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start. Another longtime poly resource is the book The Ethical Slut.

...There's no argument you can make against a poly marriage that wouldn't work just as well as an argument against gay marriage....

Read the whole article. Stranahan notes that he has been in a poly relationship himself.

He makes his point well, but in reality, any reasonable state recognition of poly marriages would actually be far more complex and difficult.

Same-sex marriage is simple. It fits exactly into the vast legal regime that's already well developed for straight marriage (at least, this has been true ever since courts started regarding men and women as marriage equals.) But state recognition and regulation of poly relationships would require a whole lot of new legal structures, precedents, and policies, as I've commented before:

How would the law mandate, for instance, property rights and responsibilities in partial poly divorces? What about the rights and responsibilities of marriages that merge into pre-existing marriages? Setting default laws for multiple inheritance in the absence of a will, allocating Social Security benefits, it goes on.

And because there are many different basic kinds of poly relationships, compared to only one basic kind of couple marriage, each would need its own legal regime — and we know how good the state is at regulating complicated personal matters.

Moreover, unlike couple marriages, poly relationships can change from one kind to another kind while continuing to exist. An equilateral triad can become a vee or vice versa, or something in between. The flexibility to adapt — to "let your relationships be what they are" — is a core value in the poly groups I know. How would the state keep up with your particular situation?

I've also heard it argued that opportunities would abound for unscrupulous people to game the system in ways that the law couldn't easily address: for people to pretend that their poly relationship is a different kind than it really is, or that they're in poly relationships when they're not. (For instance, could gang members group-marry to gain immunity from each others' testimony?)

In poly meetings I've been in, the discussion quickly comes around instead to business-partnership models for poly households, such as subchapter-S corporations or family LLCs or LLPs. These are already well developed to handle a wide variety of contractual agreements between several people.

Looking farther ahead: Good law follows reality rather than precedes it. Fifty or 100 years from now when poly households are commonplace and their issues are well understood, I'm sure an appropriate set of law will have grown up organically to handle the issues that arise. At least that's how it works when civil society is allowed to go about its business, free of religious or ideological compulsion.

Poly and Steve Pavlina: In his article, Stranahan mentions personal-growth writer Steve Pavlina, author of Personal Development for Smart People. I'd never heard of him but apparently he has a big following. Several days ago Pavlina announced his intention to begin a poly life in 2009, and this is getting widely noticed and commented upon. Pavlina is treating it as a serious public experiment that he'll be writing about.

In addition to his articles so far, he and his wife have put up a long podcast about their — or rather his — poly intentions.


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