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

February 3, 2012

"Open Marriage’s New 15 Minutes," and a coming out for the Poly Leadership Network

New York Times

Two weeks ago a bunch of us in the Polyamory Leadership Network had a discussion about whether to make the PLN's existence more widely known to the world. Many wanted to. I was cautious, suggesting that we continue to mention it to the poly community but make no wider push, so as not to attract trolls and unwanted demands.

To which Jasmine, a Unitarian Universalist Christian, gently chided me with a quote from a sermon the previous Sunday: "We were created to go beyond the borders of fear."

I responded, "Touché. I'm good with the PLN being more outward and visible." There seemed to be consensus.

Next thing you know, longtime polyactivist Anita Wagner Illig found herself with the opportunity, talking to a writer who called from the New York Times. So in Sunday's Times we're about to get wider ink than we imagined. The online version of the article is already up.

The article itself is no great shakes, in my opinion. A lot of it is about the writer's own fixation on the 1970s and confessing his cluelessness about what's been happening for the last decade or more. And some of us might have had our talking points a little better prepared. But at least he declares us to be a coming thing... as of the moment anyway.

Open Marriage’s New 15 Minutes


When Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, jolted the Republican race with her recent claim that the presidential hopeful had once asked for, in her words, an “open marriage,” the phrase seemed like an echo from the Nixon years. “Open marriage”? Adjust the rabbit ears. What decade are we in?

...But like Mr. Gingrich himself, the concept has popped up again, and not just as an unlikely topic in primary-season discourse. The phrase has become a titillating staple of celebrity gossip headlines. And the idea of the open relationship, supported by Web sites and a new generation of books, is showing signs of a second life as an alternative-sexual subculture for a generation acclimated to high divorce rates....

If nothing else, Marianne Gingrich’s allegation, which the candidate has denied, provided an unexpected publicity bounce for advocates of open relationships, who have long been trying to paw their way out of the cultural margins.

“We could never afford this kind of a public-relations opportunity,” said Anita Wagner Illig, an organizer of the Polyamory Leadership Network, an online organization advocating nonmonogamous relationships. She was interviewed by the BBC and Washington’s ABC news affiliate after the statements by Marianne Gingrich, and traffic at ModernPoly.com, an advocacy Web site promoting open relationships, spiked nearly 30 percent in the weeks that followed.

Though Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy unintentionally helped reintroduce the topic of open marriages in mainstream conversation, no one in the subculture appears to be embracing him as a celebrity spokesman....

“Cheating while married can technically fall under polyamory since it does mean ‘many loves,’ ” said Birgitte Philippides, a New York makeup artist and former president of Polyamorous NYC. “However, people in the polyamory movement don’t usually like to look at it that way. They think cheating is just cheating.”

As practiced today, open-marriage arrangements can take many forms. Some fall under the rubric of polyamory, which involves a couple sharing emotional and romantic attachment, as well as sexual, with more than one person. (Not all polyamorists are married, however, and many relationships involve bisexuality.)

Some fall under the term “partnered nonmonogamy,” which involves outside sexual relationships, but no emotional attachment, said Tristan Taormino, the author of “Opening Up,” a 2008 survey of 100 nonmonogamous relationships in this country that includes advice on managing jealousy and parenting duties for latter-day Bobs and Carols and Teds and Alices.

Despite the whiff of Roman-scale hedonism, modern open marriages often have little to do with the swinging sex romps of the “Love the One You’re With” era. Ground rules are usually settled on in advance by all parties. Some even sign family contracts delineating financial obligations, said Diana Adams, a New York lawyer and practicing polyamorist. Others seek to lend the practice an air of legitimacy by using terminology like the lawyerly “negotiated monogamy.”

...What exactly constitutes “sex” has changed, too. Technology has played a major role in increasing awareness of relationship options for a new generation, said Janet W. Hardy, who wrote, with Dossie Easton, “The Ethical Slut,” a 1997 book advocating nonmonogamous relationships that has sold more than 100,000 copies (a second edition was published in 2009).

Online culture brings new opportunities to engage with other partners outside the traditional bounds of monogamy, whether they are hookups on Craigslist or flirtatious “direct messages” on Twitter, Ms. Hardy said. But more important, it allows polyamorists a means to find one another and trade strategies for maintaining workable open relationships.

In the first flush of open marriage in the ’70s, there was hardly any way for the curious to find like-minded people. “Then the Internet came along and it was all just a keystroke away,” she said, adding that there are dozens of online forums devoted to the practice today. “It turned from an oddity into a community.”

...All of which raises this question: How many people are actually trying this? Even academics who study sexuality have no idea, since most practitioners remain in the closet, fearing bias, said Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University and author of a forthcoming study on polyamory in America.

And good luck finding out from the subculture’s leadership, which is loosely organized at best, said Ms. Illig of the Polyamory Leadership Network. And no wonder, she added. “We don’t have much time for it with multiple partnerships to see to.”

Read the whole article (paper issue of Feb. 5, 2012).

About that bit "How many people are actually trying this? Even academics who study sexuality have no idea" — he didn't look very far. As to actual polyamorists, there's a bunch of relevant research and analysis here. Short version: it's safe to say there are some hundreds of thousands of self-identifying poly people in the US. This is more or less in line with Newsweek's much-quoted estimate of 500,000 poly relationships (July 2009).

The number of open marriages is surely larger, since these are a more mainstream, less paradigm-challenging way of doing things. News reports during the Newt Gingrich episode have quoted sociologists' evidence that 5%, or "anywhere between 1% and 10%", of American marriages are sexually open by agreement. That would translate to 6 million, or between 1.2 and 12 million, individuals.

Better: the Wikipedia article "Open marriage incidence", which is rich with links to academic research sources, says: "...Despite these difficulties, researchers have estimated that between 1.7 percent and 6 percent of married people [in America] are involved in open marriages." That would be between 2 and 7 million individuals. And despite the NYT writer's assumption that there was a boom in the 1970s, a bust in the 1980s, and a rebound lately, "The incidence of open marriage has remained relatively stable over the last two generations."


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