Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

April 30, 2013

“ ‘Oh my God — you’re swingers’:
12 surprise TV encounters with the polyamorous”

A.V. Club

This goes under the category "misuses of the word." The 12 TV episodes listed here are about swinging and other pop-culture nonmonogamy drama/comedy, not polyamory (multiple loving relationships with knowledge and consent all around), despite the headline. I'm posting about this because it's liable to pop up in searches.

The A.V. Club is a TV and pop-culture site owned by The Onion. Each week it runs a list of items in a topical category like this, with descriptions. The descriptions are pretty thorough, for real TV fans. Listed below are just the 12 titles.

P.S.: The first mainstream TV drama with a storyline about an actual poly group, as far as I know, was ABC's "Private Practice" episode for Jan. 5, 2012, "Are You My Mother?" (Episode 5.10). See my writeup.

“Oh my God — you’re swingers”: 12 surprise TV encounters with the polyamorous

1. Bob’s Burgers, “It Snakes A Village” (2013)...
2. Party Down, “Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night” (2010)...
3. The O.C., “The Countdown” (2003)...
4. Justified, “Money Trap” (2013)...
5-6. Life On Mars (U.K.), “Series 2, Episode 4” (2007) / Life On Mars (U.S.), “Coffee, Tea, Or Annie” (2009)...
7. All In The Family, “The Bunkers And The Swingers” (1972)...
8. Mad Men, “To Have And To Hold” (2013)...
9. That ’70s Show, “The Good Son” (1999)...
10. Louie, “New Jersey/Airport” (2011)...
11. Portlandia, “Motorcycle” (2012)...
12. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “Mac And Charlie Die (Part 1)” (2008)...

Read the whole article, with the episode descriptions (April 29, 2013).


April 27, 2013

"The Perks of Polyamory": a free-agent feminist tells of her grand life

London Evening Standard (UK)

So far I've posted more items in April (18) than in any month since I began Polyamory in the News in 2005. Recently I speechified to Atlanta Poly Weekend that as poly awareness grows and its borders widen, the borders are coming in contact with ever more people, so more and more interesting things will be happening.

For instance: The ancient and once venerable London Evening Standard (now a freebie giveaway owned by a former KGB agent) gave space in its magazine section ES magazine to a poly feminist for a 1,500-word, first-person feature article about her life.

The perks of polyamory

How many partners do you have? Just one? How boring. Polyamory — loving multiple people — is a growing moment with its own set of rules. Zoe Stavri charts her journey from romantic exclusivity to five-in-a-bed romps.

I’ve found that my capacity to love is limited only by the amount of time I have — and the size of my bed

By Zoe Stavri

The alarm goes off and I don’t want to get out of bed, but it’s a work day so I have to. My lover to my left grumbles sleepily in protest. The one to my right shifts slightly. Reluctantly, I disentangle myself from the bundle of limbs and drag myself out of bed. As I leave, I kiss both of them goodbye. ‘See you very soon?’ I ask. Both nod enthusiastically.

After work, where I campaign for an NGO, I have a date with a regular companion. I tell her all about the night before, that glorious tangle of limbs, and she grins with approval. ‘Not too tired, I hope?’ she asks. I answer honestly that I’m not in the least too tired to give her my full attention tonight.

If you’d asked me five years ago if I thought my life would end up this way, I would have laughed. But things have changed, and now there is a word for the things I once fantasised about: polyamory.

Polyamory — or poly, as most of us end up calling it — is the recognition that it is entirely possible to love, fancy, and form meaningful relationships with more than one person at a time. There are a lot of different forms that poly relationships can take: some of us have a regular partner and also see other people; some of us live in three-, four- or more-way relationships; some live in big tribes of partners and friends. The possibilities are endless.

I’d fantasised about polyamory ever since I was a child. I wanted lots of husbands and wives and things. But it was only four years ago, when I was 24, and reading about it on a feminist blog, that I realised this was an actual thing....

As I got more involved in radical and feminist politics, I met — and dated — more poly people, although the community is far more diverse than the little corner I occupy. I think I’m reaching saturation point with poly women on the dating site I use, as everybody I am a high match with turns out to be someone I already know socially. We hold conferences and events, we talk to each other on Twitter, and there’s even poly speed-dating. Outside major cities, the scene is smaller, but I don’t doubt that there are poly people everywhere.

...By following a few basic guidelines, I’ve found that my capacity to love is limited only by the amount of time I have — and the size of my bed. Obviously, the key to making any relationship work is good communication. When relationships are in the plural, communication is just as crucial, if not more so. As a child, my favourite book was a lovely story called Six Dinner Sid. It told of a cat called Sid who lived on a street where nobody spoke to each other and everybody thought they owned Sid, so he was fed six times a day. When all six of Sid’s owners found out about each other, they started limiting Sid’s food, which made him sad, so he left. Eventually, he found a new street, where everyone talked to each other, and they were all cool with Sid’s culinary preferences.

This is basically how poly communication works. It involves everyone being as honest and upfront as possible about what it is they want, so as to ensure everyone is on the same page and can address any problems that might come up.... Sometimes conversations can be gruelling and difficult, and it can be hard to find words to say, or even work out what it is that you want. Sometimes I need to force myself to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t OK’.... I know that it is just as important to be honest about the bad as about the good, and I know that being honest is the only route to me fulfilling my needs — intimacy, passion and liberty — and being sensitive to my partners’ needs is the only way I can do this....

Read the whole article (April 26, 2013). Zoe Stavri also blogs as Another Angry Woman.

She writes us about her experience with the newspaper:

Hi Alan! On the whole, I found the experience quite positive, although it was interesting to see how little some people know about poly life; both in the editing process and the reception, I've had lots of questions. I'm glad, because I really want poly folk to be more visible! My one minor quibble is the picture the ES used. Felt cliched, and it annoyed me that all of the feet in the picture were white!"


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April 26, 2013

Bi and poly:
The connection and the numbers

There's been a bit of an uptick in discussion of the bisexual-poly connection. For instance, on the blogsite of the mainstream  Montreal Gazette, a frequent columnist ruminated:

Bisexuality, Monogamy and Polyamory

By Jillian Page

One of the biggest misconceptions about bisexual people, I am learning in my exploration of the subject, is that we are all polyamorous, that we have open lifestyles that see us engaging in multiple sexual relationships. Note the word “open” in that sentence. People who engage in polyamory, in theory, have the full consent of partners, as opposed to people who have “affairs”....

The fact of the matter is, bisexual people are mostly monogamous, from what I am reading. We have the capacity to love men, women and gender-variant people — as in, love transcends gender — but when they fall in love with someone and settle down, they do the traditional mating thing and are faithful to each other....

Or not, in large numbers. See further below.

...It wouldn’t surprise me if... biphobia is rooted in monogamy and the incorrect belief that bisexual people are compulsive swingers.

Sooo, now I’m wondering about the discrimination faced by polyamorists, or would-be polyamorists. Suddenly, instead of seeing sexual orientation as heterosexual or lesbian or gay or bisexual, I am seeing a bigger picture with monogamy vs. polyamory, and I am getting the sense that polyamorists may face more discrimination than all of the others combined....

Read her whole article (March 24, 2013).

Then there was this from Cary Tennis, the advice columnist at Salon:

In response to a recent column about a bisexual woman who was wondering if she should marry [where Tennis said "If there ever was a rational argument for polyamory and plural marriage. it is bisexuality"], some people wrote angrily to say that one does not have to want to be in a plural marriage to be bisexual.... They said that they were bisexual but happy in a committed monogamous relationship.... I erred in not speaking to enough bisexual people to understand the sensitivity of the issue.

But let me state affirmatively what underlies my thinking. People need to make choices based on who they really are. In order to do that they must have legal choices that suit who they are.

I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?

...Sometimes it is politically unwise to acknowledge the obvious.... Right now, we are seeing an unprecedented leap forward for sexual freedom. Ought we not take advantage of this moment and try to see the logic of the situation clearly?...

Whole article (April 15, 2013).

Speaking of logic (sigh), for the purposes that argument one could just as well be attracted to "both blondes and brunettes" as to "both men and women," but never mind. (I like Angi's take on his argument that she's just put up at The Radical Poly Agenda.)

More interestingly: How many bi people actually are poly? And vice versa?

A few years ago I rounded up research on this, and later Kelly Cookson of the PolyResearchers list added some annotated bibliography. Here's my current condensed version:


1. Bi Polys. There's no question: bisexual people are way more abundant in the poly world than elsewhere. Some statistics and observations:

In Loving More magazine's survey of 1,010 polys taken in 2000, 667 stated their sexual preference; of these, 51% said they were bisexual.

In her article "Polyamorous women, sexual subjectivity and power" (Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34, 251-283; 2005), Elisabeth Sheff writes, "Bisexual women were quite numerous in polyamorous communities. In fact, bisexuality was so common among women in the polyamorous community that they had a standing joke that it allowed them to 'have their Jake and Edith too!'" (p. 266).

My own observation is that when you ask a roomful of people at a poly conference how many consider themselves bi, something like 30% or 40% raise their hands. Workshops at poly conferences on exploring your bisexuality are well attended. Various other informal estimates have put the proportion of bi polys at 30% to 60% of all polys. This compares to just 2.6% of the general population identifying as bi (at least among 18- to 44-year-olds, according to the CDC's National Survey of Family Growth, 2006–2010).

2. Poly Bis. Firmer statistics exist for the other side of the coin: How many bisexuals are poly?

Psychologist Geri D. Weitzman, in her paper "Therapy with Clients Who Are Bisexual and Polyamorous" (Journal of Bisexuality, Vol. 6, Issue 1-2; 2006), wrote:

Page (2004) found that 33% of her bisexual sample of 217 participants were involved in a polyamorous relationship, and 54% considered this type of relationship ideal....

(The reference is in the paper's bibliography.)

Pepper Mint has written (on the LovingMore_Polyactive Yahoo group, May 24, 2007): "Kassia Wosick-Correa from UC Irvine has unpublished numbers that peg self-identified polyamorous bisexuals as 44% of all bisexuals."

In 2010 came this European report on preliminary results released from a large study, which found that 40% of bisexuals "consider themselves to be polyamorous." (The full study was to be published in 2011 in the Journal of Bisexuality.)

Kelly Cookson in 2010 provided additional references regarding how many bis are poly, with his brief summary of each:

Burleson (2005). Bi-America: the myths and truths of an invisible minority. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press. In a chapter discussing the relationship between bisexuality and non-monogamy, Burleson claims bi people tend to be non-monogamous more than people of other sexual orientations. I got this from a secondary source: Tameeza, S. (2007) Bi and in love: A phenomenological inquiry into the committed couple relationships of bisexual women. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA.

George, S. (1993). Women and Bisexuality. London: Scarlet Press. See page 230: "Do you have simultaneous 'open' relationships (i.e., have several lovers who theoretically have the same importance)?" Out of 107 bisexual women that responded, 72 (67%) said no, 14 (13%) said yes, and 21 (20%) said they had open relationships in the past. So 35 (33%) of bisexuals in this study had open relationships at some point.

Klesse, C. (2006). "Polyamory and its ‘others’: Contesting the terms of non-monogamy." Sexualities, 9, 565-583. "Although polyamory is not essentially linked to any particular sexual identity, a significant part of the UK polyamory scene seems to consist of bisexuals or – as one of my interview partners3 put it – ‘heteroflexibles’. It is not surprising, therefore, that polyamory emerged as one of the most significant discourses on nonmonogamy used by bisexual-identified participants in my study." p. 566.

Klesse, C. (2005). "Bisexual women, non-monogamy and differentialist anti-promiscuity discourses." Sexualities, 8, 445-464. "The scarce research into bisexual relationship practices (that mostly refers to the US context) suggests a relatively high frequency of nonmonogamous relationship arrangements among bisexual-identified women and men (George, 1993; Rodríguez Rust, 2000; Rust, 1996; Weinberg et al., 1994)." p. 448.

McLean, K. (2004 ). "Negotiating (non)monogamy: Bisexuality and intimate relationships." In R. C. Fox (Ed.), Current Research on Bisexuality (pp. 83-97). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press. In this study of bisexuals, 60 percent of the men and 52.5 percent of the women indicated their relationships were sexually open. Various forms of sexually open relationships were observed.

Rodríguez-Rust, P. C. (ed.) (2000). Bisexuality in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rust, P.C. (1996). "Monogamy and Polyamory: Relationship Issues for Bisexuals." In B. A. Firestein (Ed.) Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority (pp. 127-148). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. When bisexuals were asked about their relationship preferences, the most popular relationship preferences involved some form of sexual non-monogamy.

Sheff, E. (2005). "Polyamorous women, sexual subjectivity and power." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34, 251-283. "Bisexual women were quite numerous in polyamorous communities. In fact, bisexuality was so common among women in the polyamorous community that they had a standing joke that it allowed them to 'have their Jake and Edith too!'" p. 266.

Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J., Pryor, D.W. (1995). Dual Attraction: Understanding Bisexuality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. When bisexuals were asked about their ideal relationships, the most popular ideal relationships involved some form of sexual non-monogamy. Not all of them realized their ideal relationships. But 30 percent of them currently had more than one significant partner. (See Chapter 8.)

Here's my full previous post.

So there's a lot more available than guesswork! My working assumption from all of this is that roughly 40% of self-identified polys are bisexual, and roughly 40% of bisexuals are poly. But this awaits somebody rounding up all the current research and weighing the numbers intelligently. Thesis project, someone!

This also gets to the perennial question of how many self-identified poly people there are. News media keep quoting the 2009 Newsweek estimate of 500,000 poly households the U.S. But if the crossover percentage in the bi-poly matchup is the same in both directions (whether 40% or anything else), then the number of polys is equal to the number of bisexuals. For which there ought to be good modern numbers.

For instance, if we believe the CDC polling number that 2.6% of 18-to-44-year-olds in the U.S. say they are bi, that would imply there are 3.1 million U.S. polys. At least in terms of preferred relationship style.

Not sure I believe it.

Update, May 10, 2014: Elisabeth Sheff posts on her Psychology Today blog:

The most reasoned estimate of the number of poly people in the U.S. comes from Kelly Cookson, an independent Australian academic who looked at a lot of research and then compared the percent of bisexuals in poly research to the percent bisexuals in a national survey to inform his estimate. In an email interaction, Kelly Cookson summarized his results for me: “It appears that sexually non-monogamous couples in the United States number in the millions. Estimates based on actually trying sexual non-monogamy are around 1.2 to 2.4 million. An estimate based solely on the agreement to allow satellite lovers is around 9.8 million. These millions include poly couples, swinging couples, gay male couples, and other sexually non-monogamous couples.”

Read Sheff's whole post, How Many Polyamorists Are There? (May 9, 2014).


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April 24, 2013

"Open" TV drama series to start filming for HBO

Tristan Taormino's Opening Up website alerts us to this:

Vague but potentially important news from HBO: a pilot for a show called “Open” has been ordered to be shot this fall.

Described as a “multi-character exploration of the complex, ever-evolving landscape of sexuality, monogamy, and intimacy in relationships,” the project was written and co-created by Ryan Murphy (creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story) and Dexter producer Lauren Gussis. Murphy and Gussis will also serve as executive producers, along with Ryan Murphy Productions president Dante Di Loreto.

Not much else is known about the project so far, but it should be interesting to follow.

Turns out the story was broken by the entertainment-industry website Deadline:

Ryan Murphy’s Provocative Relationship Drama ‘Open’ Lands At HBO With Pilot Order

By Nellie Andreeva

Ryan Murphy
EXCLUSIVE: After fielding interest from multiple networks, Open, the racy new drama spec from Glee and American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy [who is gay], has gone to HBO, which has given it a pilot order. Casting is expected to begin shortly for filming in the fall....

...“I think it is a perfect marriage of an idea and execution,” [HBO president Michael Lombardo said.] “This is an area we’ve been talking about doing something in for some time, and Ryan did it in a way that is enormously engaging. We’re thrilled doing this project with him, Dana and Gary.”

Open revolves around five lead characters, including a married couple of thirtysomethings, the husband’s male co-worker, and a woman in her 40s who is a yoga professional. Murphy said he had been bouncing ideas about a show exploring human relationships when Dante Di Loreto of his company, Ryan Murphy Prods, heard about Gussis working on a similar project and put them together....

Lauren Gussis
“This is really an adult show that is very frank in its depiction of sex.” But that depiction never feels gratuitous, 20th TV chairman Newman adds. “It is a very honest exploration of relationships and intimacy, and the sex feels organic to the subject matter,” he said.

HBO previously tackled the subject of relationships and sexuality with Tell Me You Love Me, though I hear Open takes a completely different approach. “It is a challenge how do talk about relationships and monogamy without feeling navel-gazing and neurotic, and (Murphy and Gussis) figured it out,” Lombardo said.

For Murphy, Open adds to an already full plate that includes three series on the air, which he co-created and executive produces: Fox’s Glee, FX’s AHS, and freshman NBC comedy New Normal....

Read the whole article (April 10, 2013). Not much more info seems available yet.

I'm prepared to be disappointed. (It shoudda been you, Reid.)

A redditor comments, "It's by Ryan Murphy, so odds are he'll find some way to depict Polyamorous people as comical stereotypes. His experience with the subject so far resulted in one of the major depictions of Poly on mainstream television including a murderer and her victim in a triad that lasts for ten minutes of screen time, including said murder. He's not great at depicting anything other than gay assimilationist white men, is what I'm getting at."


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April 23, 2013

Transsexual triad meets British public acceptance

The Guardian (UK)

An international British newspaper profiles, in its Life & Style / Family section, a happy and outgoing MtF-MtF-F equilateral triad. Their university town readily accepts them, one of the trans women is a city councilor, and the other hopes to run for Parliament.

Brits have a reputation for loving their eccentrics if they're eccentric enough; could that be it?

Why three in a bed isn't a crowd — the polyamorous trio

When Sylvia's husband said he wanted to become a woman, she stayed with him. But then Zoe, formerly a married man, joined the relationship.

By Patrick Barkham

Like many students, the shy boy who studied computer science got drunk in the college bar with a girl from the year below. They snogged and — sharing a love of photography, computers and cups of tea — fell in love. Six years later, they married. A few years on, however, and this everyday story turned in an unexpected direction when the young man's hair began to thin.

"That was the point I was no longer able to be in denial — time was catching up.... I had visions of myself as an old man sitting in a nursing home waiting to die, crying all the time and nobody understanding why."...

The young man became Sarah, now a chatty, self-assured city councillor who lives in Cambridge [UK]. A stereotypical way of describing trans women in childhood is to say they feel like "a girl trapped in a boy's body," says Sarah, but she believes few people think at that level. "As a kid, I assumed that everybody wanted to be a girl and some people were lucky enough to be born that way. Then it very rapidly became clear that this was something that we did not talk about...."

...Sylvia, who works in computing in Cambridge, is remarkably phlegmatic about her partner's change of sex, and describes herself as "heterosexual by default" before Sarah's transition. "I never really considered dating women before, but when I look back, the relationship Sarah and I had when she was presenting male was a bit lesbian," she says. "The dynamics were a lot more like two women living together when compared with other opposite-sex relationships."...

After Sarah's surgery, it was not simply a case of Sylvia loving the person she had always loved. Like any big life change, transition affected Sarah's personality. "Before she transitioned to female, she was really quiet and nerdy and I was doing the talking for two," says Sylvia.

As a woman, Sarah is now forthright and confident. "It's amazing how people blossom and evolve when their relationships change," says Sylvia of Sarah. "There was something really nice that was brought out when she transitioned."

...The transformation of their relationship did not end there, however. When Sarah was transitioning, she struck up conversation online with Zoe O'Connell, a computer network manager who is also in the Territorial Army. Zoe was seeking a good place for laser hair removal in East Anglia and Sarah was able to recommend one, so they met for a cup of tea. Bonding over their shared experience of transition, they became good friends.

While Sarah's path to gender reassignment surgery had been gradual, Zoe had a lightbulb moment. Like Sarah, she had entered into a heterosexual marriage; unlike Sarah, Zoe had three children with her wife. And it was not until the marriage broke down eight years ago that she began to question her gender.

...When Sarah had surgery at a hospital in Brighton, Zoe accompanied Sylvia and they fretted in a pub. Zoe spent a period "part-time" before going "full-time" four months after Sarah. "It got ridiculous," remembers Zoe. "At one point I ended up flip-flopping between boy-mode and girl-mode seven times in a day." Zoe was treated at the same hospital as Sarah.

Some months later, Sarah and Zoe went to Brighton again to support a mutual friend's surgery and this time shared a twin-bedded hotel room. "There was sexual tension in the room," remembers Sarah, laughing. Sarah and Zoe were falling in love.

Feeling increasingly stressed about their feelings, Sarah, Zoe and Sylvia sat down to talk and, together, they "renegotiated the bounds of the existing relationship," as Sarah puts it.

Soon afterwards, Zoe moved into Sarah and Sylvia's house. At first, they tried sleeping together in a big bed but the person in the middle was always very uncomfortable. Now Zoe has her own room and often sleeps there, although the three all move between bedrooms.


...The striking thing when I meet Sylvia, Sarah and Zoe at their home is the absence of strain: their unconventional domestic arrangements — they also have five snakes — soon seem completely normal, perhaps because they are all so at ease with each other.

"A lot of people looking at this from the outside would probably see you as the long-suffering wife," says Sarah to Sylvia.

"None of the gender or poly stuff has ever been a problem," replies Sylvia. "Irritating personal habits are far worse."...

...Isn't three fundamentally an awkward number? "It can be really handy," says Sylvia. "If two of us are massively disagreeing about whether to do something around the house, we can have someone to break the deadlock. As long as you're careful enough so it doesn't end up with two people picking on one."

"We're all adult enough not to do that," adds Sarah.

Their relationship is a "triangle" (a "V-shaped" polyamorous relationship in which not all three members of the relationship are connected would be more tricky, they say), and they share many passions. Zoe and Sylvia go geocaching together; Sarah and Zoe go horseriding. All three women have Lib Dem politics (Zoe hopes to become the first openly trans person to stand for parliament for a major political party) and computing in common. They also enjoy climbing, mountaineering and canyoning together....

Living in Cambridge, they rarely experience discrimination or abuse. Sarah is not the city's first openly trans councillor, and when they pop down to their local real-ale pub: "No one bats an eyelid. We're probably some of the less 'out there' people," says Zoe.

..."If your living arrangements or social situation is abnormal, you don't just come out once, you come out all the time," she says. But occasionally it can be fun to observe people's reactions. "I come out as trans first and then bisexual," says Zoe. "Just when people are getting really confused you hit them with 'poly' and their mind just explodes."...

All three women feel liberated by their different experiences of transition and they know quite a few trans people now living polyamorous lives. "Gender transition is one of the most sexually taboo things you can do, and you do it and you realise the world doesn't end. Then you start thinking, what other things have I always taken for granted that are just wrong?" says Sarah. "In some ways I resent being born trans because it's been a lot of pain, a lot of hassle, and it has dominated my life. But at other times I almost feel grateful because it has given me an attitude that almost nothing is sacred and I don't have to be a prisoner to this very English 'mustn't make a fuss, mustn't challenge things' life of quiet desperation."

Read the whole article (April 19, 2013).


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April 22, 2013

"Think black folks don't engage in polyamorous relationships?"


At the Ebony magazine website, a columnist introduces modern poly and considers it in the context of the black experience. The headline writer confused the subject with polygamy, but the columnist doesn't. Excerpts below.

Ebony (print circulation 1.2 million) has been the leading mainstream magazine for African-Americans since 1945. (The article may be on the website only).

You, Me and He: Does Polygamy Work?


Think black folks don't engage in polyamorous relationships? Think again. Feminista Jones explores the ins and outs.

By Feminista Jones

Never judge a relationship simply by the two people you see. However unlikely, there could be four or five more people waiting in the wings to round out a happy family. Such is the life of polyamorous folks… and yes, Black people do engage in polyamory.... It’s important to understand that, for many people, relationships are not primarily about sex. Relationships can be far more complex, and there are more poly relationships in our communities than we think.

A polyamorous relationship usually involves three or more people consensually engaged in various degrees of romantic and sexual intimacy. All parties involved are aware that others exist, and they are all connected: either by one person being the central focus, or by some mix of interchanging partnerships and intimate fluidity. “Polyamory” literally means “many loves,” and these “loves” can include everything from deep, emotionally-bonded partnerships to sexual partners enjoyed from time to time.

More often than not, a male figure is at the center, connected to several women. In some instances, they practice what’s known as “polyfidelity,” a commitment to keep romantic and sexual activity within their established group.... In some polyfidelity situations, the women are bisexual and engage in sexual activity with each other. In other poly relationships, each partner has the option and opportunity to date and/or have sex outside of their committed relationships....

...The fascinating thing about polyamory in our communities is that so many of us have stories about how our grandfathers or elders had two families or had a wife and kids at home, but it was well-known that he was also dealing with Ms. So-and-So down the street, taking care of her house and home just as he was with his wife and kids. Many of our grandmothers seemed to have turned blind eyes to their husbands’ behaviors, but knowledge of these activities was widespread. We keep a lot of secrets and pretend these things haven’t and don’t still happen, but they do. Yet we often balk at the idea of people being open and willing to explore this type of lifestyle because it doesn’t seem right.

...Ann-Marie*, a married woman in a polyamorous relationship with her second husband and one other woman, says that she knew she wasn’t cut out for a monogamous relationship. “I got married young, at 26, to a man I loved, and I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do,” she says. “...Now, I’m in my late 30s and living a wonderful life with my [second] husband and my wife.”

Ann-Marie explained that when she met her husband, Devon*, he was dating their current third partner. He explained to her that he was exploring the poly lifestyle and wanted to be open and honest. She appreciated his honesty and they all began to build. Their other partner, Joanna*, wasn’t interested in legal marriage, but embraced the polyamory as they did. Ann-Marie lives with her husband and Joanna lives in an apartment in the building across the street. They spend a lot of time together and they make it work for them. Joanna occasionally dates outside of their triad, but for the most part, it’s the three of them in their unit — and according to Ann Marie, they’re all happy with the arrangement. (None of them have children, which one would imagine makes things less complicated.)

At what point do we begin to accept that people have the right to choose the relationship dynamics that work best for them?...

Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.

Read the whole article (April 16, 2013).



April 21, 2013

"A many-splendored thing? The polyamorous family"

City Living Seattle

We may think of Seattle as the poly capital of the world (Elisabeth Sheff has said of one part of it, “You’ve heard of gayborhoods? This is the first poly-neighborhood I’ve heard of.”). But many people who live in the city have no idea. A few more of them now get the concept following this long, informative article in a smallish city magazine about Matt and V. Bullen and some of their network:

A many-splendored thing? The polyamorous family

By Alberto Lacao Jr.

“Edwin” drew a picture of his family’s
polyamorous dynamic when he was younger.
Image courtesy of Matt Bullen.
The afternoon lunch rush has been long finished at the Columbia City café. A family with a husband, wife, their 11-year-old son and the husband’s girlfriend walks in.

Yes, the husband, happily married for 17 years, has a girlfriend, and his wife has no issue with it. In fact, she has a boyfriend, too.

They are a polyamorous family. Polyamory is a relationship model in which a person has more than one intimate relationship with the knowledge of everyone involved....

Matt Bullen and his wife, Vee (not her real name), who live in Southeast Seattle, opened their relationship more than five years ago while they were living abroad.... Emma (not her real name), who has been dating Matt for the last 16 months, said she felt nothing odd with the arrangement. “I was actually pretty surprised with how everything was normal,” she said. “‘Normal’ is the only word you can use to describe it.”

She attends the Bullens’ son Edwin’s soccer games on the weekends, and Edwin (not his real name) sees her like an “auntie.”

Emma, who enjoys her independence, found this relationship fit perfectly and considers herself monogamous. “I date Matt and have no other interest in dating anyone else,” she said. “The dynamics work out well for me. I get my time and then relationship time.” There is no set template for the structure of a poly relationship. Like Matt, Vee and Emma’s arrangement, there are triads involving three people, or quads involving four people, group marriages…the list goes on.

...Polyamory is more centered on the actual relationships more than sexual contact. However, this can be a sticky subject, according to Allena Gabosch, executive director for the Center of Sex Positive Culture in Seattle. She acknowledged, “There’s a bit of controversy about what ‘polyamory’ means to those of us who are poly. We get to define it, and we all define it differently. For many, poly puts the emphasis on ‘loving, intimate relationships,’ where[as] ‘open’ may be more about casual sexual encounters. That said, I know many poly folk who practice both.”

As for her relationships, Vee makes it clear that her relationships “are not a casual thing. We truly love each other, and if something is to happen to the other one, we are there for each other. Our relationships are like friends with benefits but long-term.”

The new relationship wave?

Matt believes that the next wave of polyamory being more socially acceptable will be “those who are currently poly but who camouflage it, will finally stop it. They come out and say that, ‘You know what? This picture on my desk at work is not my sister or brother, but my other partner.’ Because they had found a second or third partner and are sick of disguising it.”

...Those in polyamorous relationships include former National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland, actress/comedian Mo’Nique, actress Tilda Swinton, magician Penn Jillette and financier Warren Buffett.

...“People are used to the monogamous paradigm — they don’t know there is another option,” Vee said. “Rather than thinking healthily of how to communicate the feelings that they have with partners…, you are either doing serial monogamy or you are cheating. If people knew they had another option that wasn’t unethical and it could work for them, a lot of relationships could be saved because a sharing could be accommodated.”

The long run?

According to Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, not enough studies have been done on polyamory to know its actual viability. “Polyamory is a much more complicated form of living together for people who have not grown up with a village or [are] living in a group mentality,” she said. “Not impossible, just difficult. Even in those societies where multiple forms of marriage are legal and culturally familiar, the anthropological literature is replete with tales of competition, jealousy and favoritism. So I do not see it as a new trend but something that a small group people will want and an even smaller group of people will be able to do successfully.”

Vee agrees about the uncertainty, but she points out that it is “no different from a monogamous relationship, with a 50-percent chance of divorce. If you ask that about every mono relationship, people would be paralyzed.”

Matt added, “Monogamy is seen like the eldest child that is forgiven everything: No matter how many times it goes wrong, they still kind of favor it.… Then there’s the youngest son, polyamory, and everything he does is wrong. People tend to favor monogamy because that’s what’s always been around.”

Gabosch, of the Center of Sex Positive Culture, said that polyamory can be both “life-changing” and “important,” especially if one is going through a crisis. “I recently went through breast cancer, and having my poly family there was amazing. I never went to the doctor or chemo alone. In fact, many times, several of them were with me. I also think that the financial and emotional support that a poly family brings can be important.”

The Bullen’s son, Edwin, can definitely agree with this. He enjoys spending time with Emma, bantering about the Sounders or the latest James Bond movie, and with Vee’s boyfriend. A few of his friends know about his family dynamic, as does his schoolteacher (Emma is listed as an emergency contact), but he has not had any negative backlash from it....

Read the whole article (online April 19, 2013).


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April 17, 2013

Last night's swinger-and-poly documentary on Destination America

"Hidden in America" (Discovery)

The signs weren't good. Discovery's "Destination America" cable channel is all about lowbrow documentaries ("Monsters and Mysteries", "Hillbilly Blood"), and last night's entire run of shows were about sex. One was the "Hidden in America" show, which spotlights subcultures of weirdos. The episode title was "Swingers and Free Love." Some well-regarded polyfolks were to be on it. What had they gotten into?

The first half hour was about the swinging world, "the Lifestyle." To a background of dark, creepy music, we meet a tentative newbie couple hoping to test the waters and old-hand couples describing the Lifestyle's rules and guidelines. Cut to a counselor named Karen Ruskin, billed as "Relationship Expert." She declares that swinging is "sexual suicide" for any couple foolish enough to try it. (More on Ruskin later.) We visit a pool party at a Swingfest convention in South Beach, and couples talk about how swinging has strengthened their marriages and their sex lives together. The narrator tells us that cameras will be allowed for the first time ever into a swinging inner sanctum — on this cliffhanger we break for commercials — and then we see suggestive bits hinting at a partially clothed hotel-room four-way.

The narrator says that swingers have a rule of separating quickly from play partners, to be sure that they do not fall in love. This comes after we're shown a mugshot of a man named Kenneth McBride (with even creepier music) who murdered a man his wife fell in love with.

Next up: polyamory.

We are introduced to Sierra Black of the Boston area, one of our best spokespeople, and her extended long-term network of husband, lovers, and families with kids. The whole crowd is friendly, attractive — the nice intelligent young folks living down the street in any college town. Sierra matter-of-factly describes polyamory as "more than one loving relationship going on at a time," and calls her husband Martin, their 4- and 8-year-old daughters, and their associates "a stable healthy family." We see the whole crowd at a backyard barbecue, with various grownups talking and showing little signs of affection, and the kids playing happily. Karen Ruskin again: "Polyamory is symbolic of what kind of a culture we've become: a culture of entitlement" where people just take what they want.

And... what will become of those kids? Ruskin, getting more and more worked up: "Polyamory provides breakups and abandonment, certainly not stability." Sierra directly contradicts this, describing the kids' strong social network of caregivers, and we see more happy scenes from the barbecue.

The 8-year-old, in a previous appearance, was remarkably self-confident and well-spoken — she knows about her family's openness and gets it — and she comes through again. Her opinion: "Open marriages don't make much difference. You have more people in the community." (Quote may not be exact; I didn't record the show and was scribbling notes.)

But! — the music turns grim — there is jealousy. We get snippets of members of the group telling about times they felt lonely when someone was with someone else. One wonders what contexts these were assembled out of. Folks, if you don't want something presented out of context, don't say it in front of a rolling camera. Speak only in sound bites that can stand by themselves.

Deborah Anapol provides some general comments about polyamory, including "My best guess is there are at least 10 million polyamorists in the United States." (My own guess is that that's way high.)

Narrator: "It's a complicated life. Yet it appears to be on the rise." Sierra gets the last word: She tells how building a poly life offers a chance to get beyond, and subvert, the neuroses of mandatory couple-culture that most people are stuck in. And that when a person does this, "whether it's one person or a million, I think there's a little revolution going on."

And then to close, the show turns to elderly poly legends Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart and their 20-year partner Julie. Nothing looks so unthreatening as a happy old couple. Or triad. Now the music is all upbeat. This section is the only piece of the poly half of the show available on the Destination America website. I posted about it when it appeared there three weeks ago, and here's the video again in case you missed it. Two segments from the swinging portion follow on after it:

Morning Glory, Oberon and Julie. If the video player fails, watch here: http://america.discovery.com/tv-shows/hidden-in-america/videos/polyamory-in-america.htm

Narrator: "They have been happily married and polyamorous for almost 40 years. They've shared 20 years of that with their partner Julie [at right]. And they're living proof that open marriages can go the distance."

My overall assessment: Mixed. Although most of the material itself was fairly reasonable and unexceptionable, and the poly folks had a good say and came off pretty darn well, the editing, the narrator's voice, and the overbearing music were manipulative and conveyed a mood of danger and forbidden fruit through most of the hour. Especially the swingers' half; they got the worst of it.

No reruns are currently scheduled.


Oh, about Karen Ruskin! Just a few days ago, guess what? She contacted me asking my help in finding New England poly people to appear with her on FOX-25 TV in Boston. On her website she bills herself as "Media Psychotherapist Guest Expert." Fortunately, thanks to quick research by Terry of the Vermont Poly Woodchucks, the discussion lists around here were soon abuzz about Ruskin's previous ill-informed trashings of nontraditional relationships on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly, and her blog — and her shutdowns of any other viewpoints. So don't be tempted. On TV (unlike radio) the editing is everything, and there is nothing you can possibly do or say that will survive hostile video editing.


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April 15, 2013

Anapol: "Five Things You Might Not Know About Polyamory"

The Good Men Project

Deborah Anapol posts a sensible, research-based Poly 101 article, putting the subject in some perspective, at The Good Men Project. Thus adding another to my collection of recent "five things" articles about polyamory. Seriously though, her piece is worth the full read.

The Good Men Project ("a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century") has become a widely read online men's magazine. It claims to be "not so much a magazine as a social movement. We are fostering a national discussion centered around modern manhood and the question, 'What does it mean to be a good man?' "

Five Things You Might Not Know About Polyamory

Poly educator [and early movement organizer] Deborah Anapol addresses some common misconceptions about the polyamorous lifestyle.

Thirty years ago there was plenty I needed to know about polyamory, but not so many places to learn it. In fact, the word polyamory hadn’t been invented yet, so I’d adopted the unwieldy but descriptive term responsible non-monogamy when my first book on the topic, Love Without Limits, was published in 1992. By the time my latest book, Polyamory in the 21st Century, was published in 2010 there were nearly two million Google entries for polyamory, not to mention dozens of books in a multitude of languages, hundreds of articles, a little scientific research, and even some reality TV shows.

Travis Hornung / Flickr
We also have more new language for alternatives to monogamous (or serially monogamous) relating. Consensual non-monogamy is the preferred term in the academic world, and New Monogamy is being talked about in the marital therapy world. But whatever it’s called, it adds up to the same thing. Our cultural obsession with monogamy is going the same way as prohibition, slavery, the gold standard, and mandatory military service. In other words, lifelong monogamy is pretty much obsolete, and for better or worse, polyamory is catching on. Here is the latest information from the relationship frontier.

1. There is no evidence that monogamy is better in terms of relationship longevity, happiness, health, sexual satisfaction, or emotional intimacy. There is also no evidence that polyamory is better. So you may as well go with what feels best to you — and your partner(s).

...[T]he common arguments in favor of monogamy — including the illusion that it offers protection from jealousy, sexually transmitted diseases, and divorce, have been shown to be purely speculation, and unfounded speculation at that.

...If you’re not sure what would work for you, I suggest you find out — before you get involved in a committed relationship if at all possible, since compatibility is the name of the game.

2. Women are not necessarily in favor of monogamy. They just don’t like being lied to, treated inconsiderately, and expected to go along with a double standard....

...The bottom line is that everyone wants to be treated with respect and to have their needs honored. Both genders have dysfunctional conditioning to overcome whether they choose monogamy or not. Win-win relationship agreements that are fulfilling to everyone involved and allow for intimacy with multiple partners, are just as appealing to women as to men. In fact, all of the early leaders of the modern polyamory movement were female.

3. Gay men are more likely than heterosexual couples, lesbians, or bisexuals to practice consensual non-monogamy — but they still struggle with jealousy.

...However, if [anyone's] relationship is basically healthy and if additional partners are found to enhance, rather than detract from, the satisfaction of all partners, jealousy can usually be managed successfully.

4. Children raised in consensually non-monogamous families have been shown to do at least as well on many measures of health and achievement as children in monogamous (or serially monogamous) families.

It’s not news that many adults project their fears onto their children.... In my book Polyamory in the 21st Century I discuss both research and anecdotal reports which indicate that if anything, children in polyamorous families or open marriages do better than children in conventional families....

5. Polyamory is not necessarily easy, especially if family of origin issues and skill deficits are not addressed.

Polyamory isn’t a solution for a floundering relationship, but it can solve problems of unequal or different sexual desire in an otherwise healthy and happy relationship. The tantalizing pleasures of expanded intimacy can also be a great motivator for stepping up to the plate to do your personal work. Polyamory requires emotional literacy, as well as the ability to communicate well, set and respect boundaries, and keep agreements. Beyond these basic skills, polyamory is also a very rich opportunity to address dysfunctional patterns inherited or acquired in childhood....

Read the whole article (April 11, 2013).


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April 14, 2013

"Polyamory is Boring" as, in some places, it becomes normal

Slate Star Codex

If this guy has 208 responses to his philosophy-blog article "Polyamory is Boring," he has a larger and more engaged readership than a lot of so-called real media, so he's worth noting here.1 Especially for the quality of this piece — its writing, its interesting ideas — and for what it says about poly in Millennial culture these days, at least in intellectual college towns. Samples:

Polyamory Is Boring

By Scott Alexander [slightly fake name]

(Trigger warning: people in happy loving relationships.)

I explained polyamory to my father last week when we met in Utah. He just shrugged and said “I guess I’m too old-fashioned for that sort of thing to make sense.”

I feel blessed to have a father with the rare skill of being able to generate “I am old-fashioned” as a counter-hypothesis to “other people are evil”. But more than that, I sympathize with his response. I sympathize with it because it was exactly my response when Alicorn told me about polyamory two years ago or so.... For a twenty-eight year old, I am really good at sighing and saying “Kids these days!” in a despairing tone, and that was about my response to the whole polyamory concept.

And now seven months after moving to Berkeley I’m dating three people.


What changed? It just started seeming normal.... Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people!"... And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going forget about the whole Irish thing too....

This was my experience with poly people upon moving to Berkeley. Alicorn makes a big deal about poly-hacking and having to valiantly overcome some sort of strong natural tendency to switch from monogamous to polyamorous relationships. This wasn’t really my experience at all. It just seemed like once the entire culture was no longer uniting to tell me polyamory was something bizarre and different and special, it wasn’t. And then it started to look like a slightly better idea to take part in it than to not take part in it. So I did.... Alicorn and Mike are probably the best couple I have ever seen. I have lived with them for seven months now....


...The other thing people always bring up is the jealousy issue. I feel like the correct, responsible thing to say at this point would be “Yes, of course everyone experiences jealousy, and it’s hard for the first few months or years, but eventually you just learn to live with it and the sacrifice is worth it.”

But the responsible answer is wrong, and the incredulous-stare answer is right. At least in my very limited experience, jealousy is a paper tiger, sort of the post-9/11 al-Qaeda of emotional states....


...This is not meant as a sociological or political claim that polyamory is good or even harmless. The community here in Berkeley is several standard deviations away from the mean on practically every dimension, not to mention that they’re a highly self-selected group.

It is easy to imagine that if “bad people” got a hold of polyamory, they could mess it up.... I don’t know if [its] social costs are useful in preserving it [only] for people who would probably use it for good, or whether it is just an unalloyed good that everyone should switch to right away. The latter seems to match my experiences better, but the former seems to match the observation that things usually go wrong in unexpected ways. Still, the former (good for the people who use it, even if not necessarily a good thing to remove the barriers to wider adoption) seems like a floor to how bad it could possibly be.

Read the whole article; there's much more (April 6, 2013).


1. Also, I'm envious. I'm getting an average of only 2 comments per post here despite an average of about 2,200 reads per post. What's wrong with you guys?


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April 12, 2013

"What Open Relationships Can Teach Us About Fidelity"

HowAboutWe / Date Report

Here's another instance of how poly relationship ideas are diffusing into the wider culture, where other people see them as awesome ninja-quality practices for monogamous relationships too:

What Open Relationships Can Teach Us About Fidelity

By Jo Piazza

...The very concept of polyamory — engaging in open relationships in which a person can be involved with more than one partner — can seem terrifying to the lifelong monogamist (which most of us are). I met my first open couple about a year ago and it made me nervous in the way meeting steampunk enthusiasts makes me nervous: I didn’t understand what made them tick.

In the time since, I’ve gotten to know several non-monogamous couples, and they not only seem very happy but also extremely devoted to each other.

That’s not to say I’m giving up monogamy anytime soon. But there are lessons to be learned about long-term fidelity and communication from couples who decide to bring in partners outside the relationship.

Here are takeaways from three polyamorous couples that are valuable for any relationship, open or no.

1. You are allowed to make your own rules for your relationship....

...Polyamory comes with a lot of baggage, but then, so does monogamy.

The difference is that monogamous couples don’t think about the fact that they have the power to shape the rules for their relationship.

Diana Adams is a family mediator and family attorney who works with both monogamous and polyamorous couples. In her personal life, she has been in a happy open relationship for six years (both she and her boyfriend are free to see other people). She encourages all couples, monogamous or not, to create an intentional agreement about their relationship. “One of the most important rules that polyamory can bring to monogamy is that you don’t have to take society’s definition or your parent’s definition of what a real marriage should look like,” Adams explained....

2. Your partner doesn’t have to be your sun, moon, stars, best friend, skiing partner and massage therapist.

Michael Buble was wrong: Your soul mate shouldn’t be your everything. There is a pervasive idea that when we fall in love and choose someone to be our longterm partner that that person will be a tremendous lover, talk to with us about Tolstoy, take long walks on the beach with us, raise our children, manage our finances and have very long and serious discussions about the state of our soul. No pressure.

Open couples are very aware of the fact that their partner does not have to be absolutely everything to them. Because they can go outside a relationship to have their needs fulfilled sexually, they are often more open to having other needs fulfilled by other people, instead of defaulting to the kind of codependence that grows between a monogamous couple....

3. If you want a great relationship, embrace radical honesty and be an emotional ninja.

Open couples make an effort to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Because there is no room for jealousy in an open relationship, it is paramount to identify your personal insecurities and fears and take responsibility for your feelings. Even if you aren’t in a relationship where you and your partner act on your desires, identifying your feelings about those desires and discussing them with your partner can only serve to strengthen your bond.

Mara had been dating Mike exclusively for about a year when she began feeling an intense attraction to Erika.... “After I said it, I didn’t even really want to do it anymore. It became this intense desire because I thought it was so taboo. But once we talked about it, I kind of lost interest,” Mara said. The pair have been together for five years and have since had relationships outside of their relationship, but Mara still credits that one drunken admission to keeping them together this long.

It’s counterintuitive, but being honest about having desires for other people can actually lead to less infidelity.

“I believe in radical honesty and radical listening. If your partner has a desire that you might find upsetting, you still need to take the time to listen to it. [Open relationships] require a level of emotional ninja skill. You have to work hard at being a self-aware person,” Adams said....

Read the whole article (March 27, 2013). I can't agree with Deborah Anapol's argument (see her recent Message in a Bottle) that the mainstreaming of poly ideas into conventional relationships only helps to perpetuate a failing, patriarchy-derived world.

Here's more on do-it-yourself designer relationships, from Aoife O'Riordan in Ireland:

One of the biggest things, you see, about being in a Non-Traditional Relationship(TM) is that it can be difficult to work out what you’re supposed to feel at a given point in time. This is, by the way, as much of a feature as it is a bug — working without a script leaves immense freedom to make things up as you go along and to shape what you’re doing to the needs and preferences of the actual people involved. It’s awesome enough that I’d advise throwing the script away to the rest of you as well. Write your own damn scripts. They’ll probably fit you better....

Read on (March 27, 2013).



April 10, 2013

Do the media "over-normalize" polys? And a new TV documentary airs Tuesday.

HuffPost Women

The "polynormativity" discussion continues — following Andrea Zanin's January manifesto, The Problem With Polynormativity, which inveighed against how the media tend to showcase the most mainstream aspects of the most privileged-looking, normal-seeming polyfolks.

Sierra Black
This afternoon, polyactivist and writer Sierra Black posted about her own experience with this phenomenon when ABC's 20/20 filmed her and her extended family/community for three days. The result of that experience was the positive but whitebread-oriented segment on 20/20 a year ago. Their queer parts were erased. Black just posted her article on the Huffington Post Women site, where she's a frequent contributor. I found it hard to condense much, so she gave me permission to repost a large fraction of it below.

This is immediately relevant because she and hers are going to be on TV again this Tuesday: in a segment on the Destination America channel's "Hidden in America" series, at 10 p.m. Eastern time. It's part of a one-hour show titled "Swingers and Free Love." Schedule. Channel finder.

"Hidden in America" does not look like it is about showcasing normalcy.

Challenging Poly Stereotypes In Media (and at Home)

The media spotlight is on polyamory in a big way these days. In the past year and change, since I started writing about my open relationships, I've been approached by about 10 television producers wanting to do spots about my poly family.

A few of those came to nothing, a few I referred out to other poly folks, and we've actually filmed segments for three of them.... The revolution may not be televised, but suddenly, my romantic life is.

What does all this media mean?

On the one hand, it's great to have the media taking a look at polyamory. I never tire of telling the world how much I love my people and how wonderful the lives we share are. We're healthy and happy and having a good time. That's a great thing to show the world: Look, here's an idea that is really good for some people.

...On the other hand, the media isn't simply holding up a mirror to the reality of polyamory. They're shaping the cultural perception of what polyamory is and who does it, by carefully choosing the stories they tell.

A little while back, Andrea Zanin at Sex Geek published this fascinating (and perilously long) article on what she sees as "polynormativity" in the media. It's pretty strident, and rather polarizing. I know a lot of people who felt threatened and attacked reading it, like their personal practice of polyamory was under fire.

I certainly felt taken to task. Which I think makes sense, since the target of her article is "polynormative" people appearing on TV to talk about polyamory.... But... her thinking is good and a lot of her critique is spot on. For example:

      The most fundamental element of polyamory -- that of
      rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically
      rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and
      practice love, sex, relationships, commitment,
      communication, and so forth -- is lost in favour of
      a cookie-cutter model that's as easy as one, two, three.

She defines polynormativity as starting with a couple, who rely on hierarchy and rules to protect the primacy of the original couple, and who are young, white, conventionally attractive and straight. She doesn't mention class or gender identity as essential components, but it's a safe bet that affluence and cis-gendered bodies are part of the polynormative package.

It's easy to see me and my family and friends through that lens. Not because that's who we really are, but because that's who TV producers choose to portray.

In real life... I hate rules and hierarchies. I'm queer as f**k and also a big slut.

Good luck figuring any of that out from TV. TV makes it look like I have A Husband and A Boyfriend and A Girlfriend (in that order), not a spectrum of relationships with different friends and lovers and partners. There's no sex in my TV relationships. On TV, I never worry about money. My husband's Latin American background is erased, as is his complex queer identity.

It doesn't matter how loudly we disclaim the polynormative model. When "20/20" filmed us, they were here for three days to get seven minutes of final footage. They spent many hours talking to us all as a group and to each of us individually. All the brilliant, witty, insightful things my unmarried lovers and friends said wound up on the cutting room floor; they used only interview material from the two married couples in the group. That sure made those pairings look like primary relationships in a way that the original interviews did not.

They took hours of footage of me with the two women I was romantically linked to, and used only a few seconds of it, while focusing lots of screen time on my lunch date with the charming young man I hang out with. That editing choice sure made me look straight in a way the original filming did not.

So the problem as I see it isn't that the media is cleverly choosing people who do poly a certain way and depicting their lives. In my case, at least, it's that the media is cleverly misrepresenting my life to fit a certain model.

You may or may not see a problem here. Maybe the media image of polyamory reflects your experience in a meaningful and positive way. Plenty of people feel comfortable in their primary-couple-centered relationships. Rules work for many people; my partners and I have a few here and there ourselves.

Plenty of people don't thrive in this model, though. Many people feel marginalized by representations of polyamory that focus only on people with a lot of privilege around marital status, race, class, gender and sexual identity. It's hard to find your place in a community that looks monolithic.

So how can those of us who are representing and defining polyamory (either in the media or in conversation with our friends and families) do it in a more inclusive way? How can our communities legitimately become more inclusive?

To get at these questions, I corresponded with Pepper Mint, who organized the OpenSF conference for non-monogamous folks of all stripes in San Francisco last year. Pepper writes, "I think it is really crucial for community leaders and activists to educate themselves about issues of discrimination and power around race, gender, ability, sexuality and so on. This is not an easy process, but is very worth it."

His experience with media is that they will go for the most mainstream representatives of polyamory they can get their hands on, and for this reason, Pepper encourages those of us who talk to media to stress our own non-mainstream qualities and also encourage a diverse array of people to step forward to talk with media people.

It's not just in the media that polyamory is represented and images of it are formed, though. We need to take care to challenge assumptions in ourselves and in our friends and family as well.

Pepper says:

Any time someone says 'poly people are...; or something similar, call them on it. And at the same time, if you have gotten the impression that poly people are a certain way, remember that your impression almost certainly springs from the fact that you have only seen a self-selecting slice of the poly world.... Remind folks that any established sexual minority community is huge, and the people in it will have very different backgrounds, sexualities, motives, identities, and so on.

I have ideas about how to proceed with this.

1. Watch your language: Try to be mindful of assumptions that reinforce the mainstream image of polyamory. A lot of them may be built right into your language.

2. Be inclusive! Reach out to people whose lives and identities are different from your own. This is especially important if your life does at least superficially reflect the "polynormative" model, as mine does. Do what you can to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances and demographics in whatever you're doing. Pepper stresses the importance of creating events that are accessible and attractive to people from a diverse range of backgrounds and sexualities.

3. Pervert expectations: A lot of the questions you'll get when you talk to people unfamiliar with polyamory won't make sense. Don't feel obliged to answer them. If there's not a bright line for you between your "serious" relationships and your "friends with benefits," don't draw one just to make a reporter (or your mom!) happy. If the phrase "poly couple" doesn't make any sense in your life, gently correct the person who uses it. You don't need to fit the reality of your polyamory into a monogamous framework.

More important than merely presenting a more diverse image of polyamory to the media and our social circles is embracing a richer, more diverse model of relationships and community. I asked Pepper how our communities could become more diverse and inclusive. He said: "I think the non-monogamous population already is quite diverse, and so it is just a matter of being able to recognize that diversity and hold events that actually cater to people across it."

Non-monogamous communities are small, marginalized groups with a lot of popular misunderstandings surrounding them. In that context, it might seem foolish to be worrying too much about the whitewashing of our media image. But as our communities become more visible, it seems like the perfect moment to ensure that we become visible in all our diverse, complicated beauty....

See the whole original (April 10, 2013).

P.S.: About next Tuesday's "Hidden in America" show, Black tells us,

We filmed it last summer, and it's been delayed considerably. We liked the producers a lot; they seemed generally respectful and like they "got us". They asked thoughtful questions, backed off when we corrected them about mistaken assumptions, and took a lot of guidance from us in shaping what they filmed. They spent a long time interviewing us individually, which gave people a chance to say really interesting things, but who knows how that will play on TV or how much of it they'll use.

One thing I'm sure of: they filmed more people! We had a backyard BBQ with a big group of friends and neighbors and lovers, so hopefully there will be lots of smiling poly faces on screen.

I think in some ways it will be very similar to the 20/20 piece; they asked a lot of the same kinds of questions and used some of the same settings. Which was a little disappointing, but maybe unavoidable — there's a clear story to tell here. My hope is that it will be more reflective of our actual lives and less supporting the kinds of mainstream stereotypes the 20/20 piece played into, but I have no idea how they will have edited the footage they took.



April 9, 2013

Our Happy Destiny: my keynote talk at Atlanta Poly Weekend

Continuing on the topic of Atlanta Poly Weekend, some of you asked me to post the talk I gave at the closing on Sunday afternoon. Here it is. No apologies if you've seen some of it before.

Our Happy Destiny: Polyamory in the Coming Years

(Modified from a speech I gave at Loving More’s Poly Living Conference in February 2012)

Hi! I'm Alan. Thanks so much for coming. It says here that this is the weekend’s closing keynote, so I am going to take that literally. I've done this before at the start of a conference, but now…

This is a pitch pipe. (Holds it up.)

And this is a key note. (Blows pitch pipe.)

A key note, remember, is sounded for a chorus, so that the people can start singing together on the same key. But now, the show is mostly over and winding up!

Well, every ending is a beginning. We’re going to say our goodbyes and walk away from this magic, special space that everyone has created, out into the old ordinary world.

You know about “con drop?” The disorientation, the emotional crash that can happen after a gathering of really special people in a special place, when you go back out into the… ordinary? Well… may I sound for you a key note to set the tone, for what I hope we can carry away back with us out into the wilderness.

You know, so much of the world looks like it’s turning for the worse. Climate change is going to grow more severe with no turning back yet in sight. International crises and wars are going to increase as a result, the Defense Department says, because of food, water, and resource disruption. Our own once proudly functional political system is broken, the rich and powerful are becoming more rich and powerful and further abandoning their connection to the rest of us; their pet crazies have seized the works and deny everything – you know the drill – I won’t make this a political rant.

But of all the things I’ve ever been active in, poly was the very first and closest to my heart. And it warms me no end now to see that public understanding of what's now called polyamory, and acceptance of relationship choice, is one thing that looks like in coming years is just going to get better. As we go out of here this afternoon, we can look forward to things for us and our communities getting better, and take comfort in that, and be a part of making that happen.

I called this talk “Our Happy Destiny: Polyamory in the Coming Years.” A few of you will recognize, with a little bit of sentiment, where that came from: the final section of the science fiction story Stranger in a Strange Land is titled His Happy Destiny. And I know we are going to have an easier time of it than the title character in that novel did.

I’ve been in and out of the poly world ever since I was invited into a group of young Stranger in a Strange Land waterbrothers – bonded lovers – when I was 17. I’ve been really back into it for the last eight years. That’s because after a long time out of it, living a pretty conventional life, I discovered in 2005 that what was now being called the polyamory movement had grown and matured enormously while I wasn’t looking. It seemed loaded with fine people who had great ideas and values, and was really getting its act together. So I dove back in.

One thing I’ve been doing is running the Polyamory in the News website. I’ve reported on more than 1,400 news articles, magazine articles, radio and TV broadcasts, all sorts of things, as poly and the poly movement have been coming into the eyes of the wider public. And the trends I’ve seen across these last eight years are really good.

What I’d like to do here is say my piece – and pardon me if you’ve heard some of it before – and then throw it open for discussion.

A few things right away. We’re getting on TV a lot more, and it’s only beginning. This matters to the culture. And by and large, it’s been pretty damn good TV – that emphasizes how much polys care for each other, and how they work at making their relationships good for everyone involved. There were a lot of human-interest news reports like this in the last year, some of them really breaking ground for positivity. There was the Polyamory: Married and Dating series last summer on the Showtime network – which was successful enough that it’s been renewed for a second season. And the best-ever portrayal of us on mainstream TV in my opinion happened just a couple weeks ago on the Oprah Winfrey network, with the hour-long Lisa Ling "Our America" documentary including Gina, Shaun, Jessie, Wes, and Ginny here. We really owe you guys immensely.

This is worlds away from how the media used to be toward the poly vision, on TV especially. They really didn’t used to have a clue what it was, or how to treat it other than as a joke or something to pretend to be shocked by. They still don’t always think it’s a good idea, but at least they usually get it now. And, so do more and more watchers and readers and listeners. People are learning the word. The idea that happy multi-love relationships exist, and are happening, and can be a successful way of life for some people – it's much more out there in the culture than it used to be. And that’s going to grow, and grow.

It’s slow. Even a thing like the Lisa Ling show on cable has less than a million viewers, out of 300 million Americans. But it’s happening. A decade ago almost no one you talked to imagined that loving truly, and happily, and openly beyond a couple was even possible. Most people assumed the idea was just completely outside of human nature.

There’s more coming down the road. Reid Mihalko has worked in and around the TV industry and has said for several years now 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 for at least five years now, since he pitched his own half-hour sitcom Polly and Marie to HBO. He says they came within an inch of buying it. But they were nervous about how advertisers would react. In TV, advertisers rule everything. Now in the last year it looks like maybe this dam is starting to break.

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 for people to interview. Truly – if you want to try your hand at representing open relationships and poly life to the public, the way is open for you. Joreth here has been training 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. She’ll coach you in this for free. Joreth, what's your email where people should write? (Answer: joreth (at) techie.com.) Thanks. And also, call Robyn Trask at Loving More, who has a lot of experience with this too and who gets a lot of calls from media looking for people.

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.

Here is something I saw change in just 2½ years. You remember the flap a year ago over Newt Gingrich demanding from his wife that they have an open marriage. Unlike previous cheating-politician scandals, that event became a vehicle for lots of major media attention to good open and poly relationships, contrasting with how Gingrich did it. There were profiles of people doing multiple relationships well, 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.

Now: Contrast that experience with the Governor Mark Sanford cheating-politician scandal 2½ years earlier, which also captivated the nation. Sanford was the governor of South Carolina. Mr. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, with the secret mistress in Argentina. During that, Loving More sent out a press release to media high and low trying to drum up attention for people doing multiple relationships with kindness and consent and good ethics all around – and they couldn’t get a peep of interest. Something really changed in just the couple years between those things.

And while we're on this topic, last year we crossed a certain milestone in poly history – we became a political football in a way that was good for us. For years, we’ve been the Something Awful that’s waiting at the bottom of the slippery slope of gay marriage. But the day before the Florida Republican primary last spring, the largest newspaper in Florida’s largest Republican belt, the Tampa Bay Times, published a long feature article on the people in their local poly community and their high ethical standards – explicitly drawing a contrast between them 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 vote.

If we’re going to be used as a political football, that’s a pretty good football to be.

It’s now at the point where, just for an example, a couple weeks ago a commentator at the University of Maryland had this to say:

“...I’m the wrong person to explain exactly what polyamory is, as I fall under the umbrella of monogamy. However... the polyamorous people I have encountered in my life are some of the most stable and rational people I know. They develop strong emotional connections with their partners. They have real, loving relationships and can even be happily married with children. Though their relationships are often hidden to avoid social stigma, when you get to know them as people, they are just as open and happy about their relationships as anyone else.”

Some polyfolks clearly impressed that guy pretty favorably. Thank you, whoever you were. This stuff is happening a lot. One thing I hope I can leave you with as we go out of here, is that we can help a poly-friendly world to develop by being our best in how we run our lives and in how we impress the people around us.

Now, 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?

My prediction is no. 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 why I think 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. Not just as a side exhibit in the gay-marriage debate, but as a threat in our own right. 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 dropped it, and went on to try other things that would do better in the panic market.

Meanwhile, therefore, we have had year after year 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.

We've done it thanks to a whole lot of brave volunteers – including in Loving More, the Polyamory Leadership Network, a whole lot of local groups all over, and the folks right here who created this conference from scratch starting three years ago. Thanks to all these people, we’ve 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 in the mid-1980s. We’re not quite there yet. But it’s going to happen.


And now I want to look ahead much farther into the future, where a lot of things in the world may get grim.

Barry Smiler, who was here last year, 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. Maybe you see where this is going.

As someone who was influenced early by science fiction, I try to take long views.

150 or 200 years from now, I sometimes think, I see surviving cultures spreading out and recolonizing over the climate-changed, resource-overshot wreckage of the 21st and 22nd centuries.

Getting to a sustainable world on the other side, or maybe with any luck before things get that bad — “sustainable” meaning a world that is both good and able to lastwill 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 get 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 the 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 involve 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.

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 a culture’s tendency toward war hysterias, religious fanaticism, 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 the computer pioneer Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


So. (Blows pitch pipe.) As we go out into the world again when we close down here, just go for it. Follow your dream, follow your bliss. Help make it happen. “Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage.” It’s going to get better for us. The wind is with us.


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