Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

February 17, 2012

My keynote speech at Poly Living 2012

I'm still winding down from the exciting, almost overwhelming whirl of people (130 of them) and workshops and ideas and conversations and affection at last weekend's Poly Living Conference in Philadelphia, run by the Loving More nonprofit. I gave the keynote speech.

People asked me to put the text of it online. So here it is. Regular readers will recognize chunks of it and some of my hobbyhorses. No apologies for self-plagiarism.

For much of the time I was talking I had a slide show running on the wall behind me, presenting screen shots of the last 90 or so posts on this site. Some people said this was an effective enhancement; others said it was a distraction. If you were there, what did you think?


Busting Loose: Polyamory in the Next Five Years

(Keynote speech, Poly Living Conference; Feb. 10, 2012)

Hi! I'm Alan. And now, if this is supposed to be the keynote talk for the weekend, I am going to take the assignment seriously:

(Blows pitch pipe.)

A key note is sounded for a chorus, so that they can start together on the same key. I hope that what I say here will set the tone, for everybody to have an exciting and productive weekend.

(Holds up pitch pipe.) I will be back to this.

Okay, here is what I am going to do:

-- I'm going to talk first about how and why polyamory right now is busting out all over, and what I think we can expect to see in the next five years or so.

-- And then, looking much farther out, I'll be a bit daring and describe how I think the things we are doing, and the culture we are haltingly building, just might shape the direction and survival of Western civilization in ages to come.

-- And then, we can get up out of our seats and do a couple of fun little exercises to maybe start getting to know each other better and kick off the social part of the evening.


What kind of "busting loose" is polyamory going to have in the next five years?

Just a couple months ago when I wrote the description of this talk in the program, I worded it kind of tentatively. "We may be in for quite a ride." "The pace of public awareness may be accelerating." Well since then, things have been going nuts. We're having a sudden breakout of greater public recognition, which clearly must have been just waiting to happen.

For instance: Unlike in previous cheating-politician scandals... (audience laughter) ...the Newt Gingrich open-marriage episode two weeks ago became a vehicle for major media attention to good open and poly relationships, contrasting with how Gingrich did it. There have been big profiles of people doing multiple relationships, and articles on how to make them work with honesty and close communication and compassion and respect, in the New York Times (twice), the BBC, USA Today, many others. Representatives for poly done well are suddenly in demand to I think an unprecedented degree.

And here I have to show some slides from less than 24 hours ago. (Click other powerpoint.) Our own presenters Anita and Tim Illig and Michael Rios and Sarah Taub here this weekend were riding this wave last night on the Channel Seven news in DC, representing us and our values just beautifully.... And a bit farther south in Virginia, members of that area’s poly community are about to be on TV too. It’s happening all over.

Now: Contrast this experience with the Governor Mark Sanford cheating-politician scandal 2½ years ago, which also captivated the nation for a few days. Sanford was Mr. Hiking the Appalachian Trial. During that one, Loving More sent out a press release to media high and low trying to drum up attention for multiple relationships that are done with kindness and consent and good ethics all around — and couldn't get a peep of interest. Something really changed in those intervening 2½ years.

Moreover: On January 30th I think we crossed a certain milestone in poly history. For the first time that I know of, we became a political football in a national political arena in a way that was good for us. For years, we’ve been railed against as an example of the Something Awful waiting at the bottom of the slippery slope of gay marriage. But the day before the Florida Republican primary, the largest newspaper in Florida's largest Republican belt published a long feature article on the people in the local poly community and their high ethical standards, explicitly drawing a pointed contrast between us and Newt Gingrich right in the lead paragraphs. The newspaper was profiling us very positively to drive home Gingrich's scuzziness by comparison — the day before Florida's crucial vote (which Gingrich lost, though I'm sure this was only a tiny part of it).

If we're going to be used as a political football, that was a pretty good football to be! I didn't expect to see this happening this soon.

Other milestones in the last month or so: In the space of one week, we saw poly triad families, each with a kid, profiled positively on ABC's Morning Edition, Nightline, and the National Geographic Channel. More and more of the public is getting acquainted with what multi-partner families actually look like. We are becoming more familiar; on the way to being normalized.

That same week, we also saw a broadcast-TV drama, ABC's "Private Practice," present a fictional polyamorous triad family — explicitly called that by name, so viewers would be sure to get it — treated so well, and at such length, that it reminded me of the first breakthrough shows treating gay characters with understanding and respect.

Reid Mihalko, who works in and around the TV industry, has said for a few years that Hollywood is quite aware of modern polyamory and its potential to seize viewers' interest. He says TV people have been nosing around the edges of it. But they've been nervous about letting it get any closer to home than the polygamists in "Big Love" and "Sister Wives," who are pretty removed from American mainstream life. Because, Reid says, the networks still aren't sure how advertisers will react, and in TV, advertisers rule everything. Now it looks like maybe the networks have decided it's time to test the waters a little more boldly.

Demand for publicly out polys who want to appear in the media exceeds the supply. People like Robyn Trask in Loving More, and Anita Wagner active in the Poly Leadership Network, keep getting calls. Truly — if you want to try your hand at representing open relationships and poly life to the public, the way is open. Robyn would love to have more good people to send media inquiries to. She is experienced in dealing with the media herself, and she's an invaluable resource for newbies about how to negotiate with them on a more even basis so you get treated right. And how to know when to walk away, and how to present your message effectively like a pro.

Also: We now have a Polyamory Media Association, which is run by Joreth. It's set up to train out-and-proud polyfolks to become skilled, effective public spokespeople for themselves. There are necessary tricks to this, especially for TV, and they’re easy to learn. The Poly Media Association is also a resource for reporters and program directors seeking poly people. Its services are free and depend on volunteers.

As for the next five years? We're going to be busting loose more all over, though of course there will be plateau periods too. The things we are saying and doing truly grab attention. We turn heads. With relationship roles and rules and ideals in flux throughout society, society is increasingly ready to hear us, and see us, and consider our examples.

And, as we become more widely seen and talked about and thought about, is there going to be a backlash in the next few years? A big moral-panic persecution, as the things we’re saying become less avoidable, less dismissable, and therefore maybe more threatening?

No. That is my prediction. I used to think there would be a great backlash at some point, but now I don't.

There will continue to be a lot of pain and discrimination. There will continue to be trouble from your birth families, and in court from hostile judges in child-custody divorce cases, and from bosses who may fire you. But gradually less with time.

One reason I say this, is that an organized backlash has already been tried. From about 2003 to 2006, some top-level conservative think tanks and journals tried to whip up a campaign against us as the next great threat to civilization that they could defend everyone from. It was all over the serious conservative journals like the National Review and the Weekly Standard.

This campaign gained very little traction beyond the conservative movement's immediate followers. It didn't take. So, they pretty much just abandoned it and went on to try other things that might do better in the panic market.

Meanwhile, therefore, we have had years now in which we've been defining ourselves to the public on our own terms. This is crucial. Politicians spend millions of dollars trying to define themselves to the public before their opponents can do it. We've done it on a shoestring.

Thanks in part to Loving More and a whole lot of brave individual volunteers, we've by and large successfully represented the modern polyamory movement to the public as what we know ourselves to be: ethical people who care deeply about good relationships — smart, verbal, interesting, friendly people — nonthreatening and respectful of all well-considered relationship choices, monogamy included — and by and large just kind of adorable. Every year we are better entrenching this public image, firming up our defense against future moral panics.

It is going to get easier. It's gradually going to get easier to be out. And when that happens, the dam will really burst.

Remember, the dam broke on gay issues when a flood of gay people finally got sick of the closet and came out all over the place in just a few years. We're not quite there yet. But it's going to happen.


And now, before closing, I want to look ahead much farther.

Barry Smiler has said, quote:

> I'm more than half convinced that in the future when
> historians look back on the poly movement, we'll be
> remembered not so much for multiple partners, but
> rather as the cauldron in which was developed some
> powerful tools and frameworks for discussing and
> negotiating win-win in relationship situations.

In other words, we're among the people developing powerful tools and frameworks for getting along intimately in close, complex social structures.

You see where this is going.

I have a rather bleak view of what may happen to the world in the coming century or two. Some of you have heard this from me, but I'm going to lay it out again.

Maybe 150 or 200 years from now, following climate-change and resource-overshoot catastrophes, I see surviving cultures spreading out and recolonizing the wreckage of the 21st and 22nd centuries.

Getting to a sustainable world on the other side of this, or maybe with any luck before it gets that bad — "sustainable" meaning a world that is both good and able to last — will not happen, without the emergence of genuinely attractive life alternatives to high material consumption.

A sustainable world will surely require more people sharing homes, kitchens, child-rearing, goods and resources of all kinds. Life in more crowded quarters, in a low-consumption economy of resource-sharing, is generally a worse way to live in the present culture. People strive hard all their lives to move in the opposite direction: to buy bigger, emptier homes farther apart. Closer living, using less material goods, will truly attract people only in a new culture of unusually high interpersonal and group-living skills by today's standards.

Never mind about sex and romance for a moment. I see today's polyamory community gardening up sprouts of these next-level interpersonal and group-interaction skills — the practices and ideology and interpersonal value system of a new culture. I really want these ideas and practices to take root well enough to survive through ugly times, if that's what's coming, and be there to seed the ground on the other side.

Second point: Back to sex and romance. A sustainable world is going to require attractive ways to pursue and acquire richness and purpose and meaning in life that do not depend on Getting More Stuff. The ways that people find richness and value and meaning will need to have low resource costs. Which means, finding these things in each other. As the bumpersticker says: "The best things in life aren't things."

A culture offering wide possibilities for romance and sexual intimacy, or just deeply intimate socialization throughout life, can offer abundant richness and purpose. A materially simple life need not be simple in any other way.

Don't get me wrong; I have no use for fairyland woo-woo about these things. But I do think that the polyamory paradigm might help to humanize the world. I think that it might even someday generalize the magic of romantic love into something larger and more powerful in the world than the isolated couple-love where society has safely walled it away. Thus helping to provide ways to lead rich, rewarding, meaning-filled lives without the Earth-killing pursuit of Ever More Stuff.

And thirdly: Sexual repression in a culture is an accurate predictor (as the CIA is said to be quite aware) of that culture's tendency toward war hysterias, religious fanaticism, violence, submission to authoritarian rule, and pathologies of denialism toward reality-based ways of thought. So, a safer world will have to be freer of it. And we're on the intellectual cutting edge against sexual repression.

So: Is this really going to be the great future that this movement has ahead for us?

Well as computer pioneer Alan Kay said: "The best way to predict the future, is to invent it."

Thank you.


Okay! Now, here is the Key Note!

(Blow pitch pipe.)

My challenge to you guys here this weekend, is to imagine what YOU would like to create. What ways of being would you like to develop here at this conference? How do we empower each other to do this? Go for it — go ahead and push your limits. Risk it.

We've kept you in your seats long enough. I'd like to suggest we try a little something to get up and get the juices flowing for the reception and the next part of the evening.

First let's everybody stand up and stretch.

Now — start moving around a bit. Just moving.

Okay, as you are milling, look at someone near you that you may not know. Get their eye.

And the two of you, face off with each other. Now if you're okay with this tell the other person your deepest hopes and dreams about what you hope to get out of this weekend. First one of you, then the other.

What brought you here? What are your dearest hopes in your heart for this event? And then trade, and the other person can say theirs.

And when you're done, go back to join the milling, and do it with someone else, someone you don't know....

(By that point I was completely drowned out by a rising roar of excited chatter, and my job was done. It worked!)


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure that persecution isn't going to get worse at some point. We're not that much a threat to people yet.

February 17, 2012 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Jiminy said...

Yes we already are. This isn't like acceptance of gays. Most people never worry that their spouse is going to turn gay. They worry a lot that their spouse might get bored with them and "find somebody better" Newt Gingrich style. What we're saying is not like Newt Gingrich but most people don't know that (or believe it).

February 17, 2012 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Tara Shakti-Ma said...

Alan, your keynote was a total delight, and I found it very affirming to all the awareness work we've been doing, as well as inspiring to our future work. I feel we are really "coming out" much faster than many among us suspected would be possible, as a seen "sub-culture" and group of folks with a perhaps unconventional but no less viable relationship-style/orientation. Your speech really highlighted this.

I really enjoyed the slide show too. While I was challenged to keep my focus on your words, while also becoming captivated by the visuals, I really liked that I could move back and forth in my focus between the two. The slides seemed to be visual expressions of what you were saying, in a way where they felt to me to be very in tandem with each other.

All that being said, I am glad you have posted the text of your keynote, so I can read it without the distraction of wanting to look around and see who was in attendance, and also wanting to leap up and run to exchange a few "so nice to see you again" hugs. Now I can simply sit here, relaxed, with my feet up, and really drink it in. Thanks for sharing it this way.

February 17, 2012 11:59 AM  
Anonymous Joreth said...

I wasn't in attendance, so I didn't see your slideshow, but I do know that there have been studies done (sorry, I didn't save the link) that show that people who see words & hear words have lower retention than people who do just one or the other. This isn't just for when the written & spoken words don't match - apparently this happens when they *do* match too.

So the best presentations are ones that include pictures or video, and not text on a screen, and especially not a presenter reading text off the screen. If a website screen capture is a part of the slideshow, it's best to do it in such a way that the text of the website isn't legible (too small, for instance).

But nowadays, slideshows that accompany lectures & presentations are so common that it is often felt like something is missing when a speaker doesn't have one. I know that I tend to get bored just staring at a talking head & I'd rather listen while watching relevant picture to help anchor the words with an associated image.

February 17, 2012 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three cheers for your upbeat views and prognosis, Alan!

(I'm not really anonymous, but it appears to be the only way I can post a comment here.)

Being an optimistic realist or realistic optimist, I've long felt that polyamory is destined to move into the mainstream sooner rather than later, so that being poly will be no more remarkable than being left-handed or dark-haired.

Having lived poly for half a century now myself, I personally remember not only when the psychotherapeutic community officially classed homosexuality as a disease, but also when singles never admitted even to sharing sex with anyone, and certainly kept their rare unmarried cohabitation very much in the closet; and open relationships among marrieds was limited to a small societal fringe of "wife swappers" (the forerunners of swingers).

So it was an enormous leap when we acquired our name "polyamory" 2 decades ago, so we could find each other and start to compare notes; and as an identifiable community we've come a long way since then as well, and continue to leap ahead, as Alan documented well in his talk.

My 2 primary partners and I are also involved in that longer view that Alan mentioned -- creating intentional communities (ICs) so as to maintain physical and emotional comfort and happiness while consuming less "stuff". As Alan indicated, it seems clear to me that the same ethical principles and skills for interpersonal communication, relationships, and personal growth that are so much at the core of healthy poly relationships are equally essential in any successful IC, and will become increasingly so in society at large, world-wide.

Those interested in learning more about the IC movement should check out the Fellowship for Intentional Community, http://www.ic.org/. I'm also glad to hear from folks myself: petebenson (at) starpower.net.

Pete Benson
Author of "The Polyamory Handbook: A User's Guide"

February 17, 2012 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*** Poly Community Group forming ***
For those of you who find this interesting AND happen to live in the Eugene, Oregon area; there is a community building venture being put on by a new poly community group called Gaia Phoenix. You might want to contact Kris Reik about it. They are having a special community building event in mid April. Kris's number is 903-271-8896

Cheers, Eric Best
Founder of The Mariposa Group community

February 18, 2012 2:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


February 19, 2012 1:30 PM  

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