"Meet the Polyamorists:" another first-rate mainstream article
So I just got back from the Loving More retreat in upstate New York. There I told the crowd, "In the last several years there's been increasing attention to polyamory in the mainstream media and increasingly, they're getting it right. To the point that it's really unusual now for them to screw up the basic concepts."
And then as soon as I got home, a major new example of such positive coverage was waiting on the computer.
The Independent is one of Great Britain's leading newspapers. Its Sunday edition presents a very long, accurate, perceptive account of who we are and what we're about (with a lovely photo). Excerpts:
Meet the polyamorists a growing band of people who believe that more lovers equals more love
It's the age-old story: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy meets another girl and they all live together happily ever after.
By Colette Bernhardt
A minority group for those who find strength in numbers. A community for people who like their intimate lives communal. Polyamory – the practice of openly engaging in multiple loving relationships – acquired its name in the 1990s, and has been gaining ground as a recognised lifestyle and movement ever since. With the UK's first "poly" website just launched, and Polyday taking place in London later this month, it seems there's never been a better time for "ethical non-monogamists" to stand up and be counted.
Let's clear up a few things first. This isn't polygamy, where one person (usually male) has numerous spouses who cannot pursue other liaisons themselves. Nor is it swinging or adultery; polyamorists aren't into cheating or one-night wife-swaps. It also differs from the hippie notion of "free love", which was primarily about enjoying sex. And it's a bit more specific than an "open relationship". What polys want – not so different from the rest of us – are ongoing, honest, committed relationships. But with several people at once.
The internet has helped them hugely on this quest, allowing individuals who might otherwise never meet to form vast, wide-ranging networks and communities....
In the UK alone, there are thought to be several thousand enthusiasts. In July, Britain got its first dedicated poly website when Graham Nicholls founded www.polyamory.org.uk. "The whole community was calling out for a main information site," says the 34-year-old artist from west London, currently in a "triad" with two female partners....
...Around 300 attendees are expected at Polyday, a day of talks, workshops, socialising and "sex-positive cabaret" in central London on 26 September.
..."British polys are often into alternative lifestyles and politics, and tend to be more radical and progressive than American polys," says Nicholls. "Some even identify themselves as 'relationship anarchists'."
One such politically-driven poly is Owen Briggs, a 33-year-old gardener from Nottingham. "I believe in trying to break down power hierarchies in society, and that means breaking them down in my personal life as well," he says. "If I wish to try to allow others to be free, why would I want to control the people I love and care most about?"
Anarchic approaches to relationships also abound on the "queer" poly scene, which, as Johanna Samuelson and her primary partner Jonathan David explain, is a little different from the standard gay scene....
..."The kids all find Ben's presence quite natural," says Kaye, "and we go out for dinner and on holiday together. My eldest daughter, who's 19, has coped really well, considering she's a teenager." What about school-gate gossip? "Things have really moved on," she explains. "My children's school no longer makes presumptions about numbers (or genders) of parents. The forms they bring home simply ask, 'Who's in your family?'"
Nevertheless, non-monogamy remains very much a taboo in Western culture, where for hundreds of years our core values have revolved around exclusive pairings and the traditional nuclear family. Polys who are open about their lifestyles inevitably face prejudices. "At times I've felt really isolated and lonely," says Luisa Miller, a 26-year-old event organiser from north London. "People can assume it's just about sex, and having 'fuck buddies'. Despite what you'd think, it's often harder to find relationships, because there aren't a lot of people who are OK with polyamory." David agrees that the poly ethos is too frequently misunderstood: "It gets portrayed as greedy, selfish and over-sexualised."
Males tend to encounter the most suspicion. "There's this perception that it's just a way for men to get their end away," says Nicholls. "In actual fact, the movement has risen out of third-wave feminism, and the first five significant books on the subject have all been written by women."
Maxine Green, who enjoys simultaneous affairs of the heart with three men and one woman, endorses this argument: "My experience of the poly world is that there's much more emphasis on equality than in the average monogamous relationship. Women are just as able to make new connections as men, and are at least as often at the centre of a group."
But not everyone has had such a positive experience. Rosie (not her real name), 32, from Bristol, spent two years in a polyamorous relationship. "Soon after my boyfriend and I got together, we decided to try polyamory, as we often fancied other people and didn't want to limit each other's freedom. It worked well for a while," she remembers. "But I did sometimes have insecure moments when he was off with another lover. The trouble really started when one of my other relationships got more serious, and he became distant and quiet. I was always completely open with him, and constantly emphasised that I was still in love with him, but he couldn't handle it, and in the end we split up."
Rosie sounds a word of warning: "I wouldn't judge anyone for trying it, but I do worry slightly that some people – especially young people – might do it because it's trendy, or because their partner wants them to."
But polyamory is not solely the preserve of those frisky, idealistic youngsters. Pete Benson, 69, has rejoiced in "emotional connectedness with more than one person" for half a century, and last year published his "user's guide" to the practice, The Polyamory Handbook. The American author raised his two children while living in a "quad" with his first wife and another couple in Eugene, Oregon, during the early 1970s. "All five children in the quad family really loved having four parents to love them, pay attention to them, help them, and just do things with them. We adults, too, had more free time by sharing the parenting activities....
There is definitely more acceptance now than 40 years ago, when I was in my twenties.... Nowadays, my wife and I routinely mention being polyamorous when relevant in conversation, as normally as mentioning, say, that we enjoy bicycling." After more than 50 years as a polyamorist, he's a "veteran" in the field. His advice is simple: "It takes thorough communication, flexibility and constant cultivation of one's primary relationship (if you're in such a relationship) to maintain trust. A sense of humour also helps."
...Roland Combes, a 42-year-old British web programmer, goes one step further: "While I don't agree with dictating to people how they should live their lives, I feel that if governments promoted and encouraged these types of larger families, all sharing resources, it would benefit society as a whole by putting less pressure on the planet."
Though it's unlikely that state-funded leaflets extolling the virtues of non-monogamy are going to hit our doormats any time soon, polyamory's increasing visibility and popularity suggest that in the not-too-distant-future there'll be a lot more of it about. Whether, as Benson puts it, "poly-style open relationships and multi-adult households might one day be accepted by society as a perfectly normal option for living and loving" remains to be seen, but movers and shakers in the poly world are already doing their damnedest to put this unconventional approach to romance on the map.
The paper notes that "Polyday is at Dragon Hall, 17 Stukeley Street, London WC2, on 26 September. For details, visit www.polyday.org.uk."
With the article are sidebars profiling three poly relationships, titled "The homemakers", "The activist", and "The experimenters". From this last:
"I was quite shocked when Jonathan first fell in love with someone else," admits Samuelson. "We've had to work out new boundaries." David, too, felt "insecure and jealous to start with", but now enjoys "being able to go out and play with others while still having a long-term, domestic partner."
Sexually, Samuelson relishes the opportunity "to have beautiful moments with different people", and David "to learn some new tricks to teach Johanna". Transgender David also believes that the additional intimacies "have made me feel more comfortable with my body".
"As long as you do things with responsibility and respect, and communicate well beforehand, the positive energy you get with a new person can be really good for your main relationship," says Samuelson. "People see it as having the best of both worlds. But this hides all the hard work you have to do."
Read the whole article (Sept. 13, 2009).
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