Umm, that article: "Polyamorous sex is the most quietly revolutionary political weapon in the United States"
With a headline like that, this massive article in Quartz (4,400 words) had a lot to live up to. It has raised a stir in the poly world since it appeared last Thursday, and not in a good way, with some very sharp reactions.
The story is certainly sympathetic, and its thesis might seem bold and gratifying. But look again. The story is coming under fire for (1) being carelessly reported, with errors about people in it, (2) confusing the fact that some people are finding new freedoms with a revolutionary political movement, and especially (3) wearing narrow cultural blinders: only noticing that cis het white mainstreamers are discovering a thing that others have been living for a long time. Especially with that overreaching headline.
See what you think. The article is by a prolific writer; it's one of 12 she has cranked out for Quartz so far this month.
Pardon me for being several days late with this post. This is going to be long, so sit back and settle in.
First, some excerpts:
Polyamorous sex is the most quietly revolutionary political weapon in the United States
By Olivia Goldhill
To find polyamorists today, head to Brooklyn.
In areas of the borough dominated by corporate-sponsored graffiti and homogenous warehouses-turned-craft-cocktail-bars, the practice of dating multiple lovers has developed into a social scene. ...
...Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Americans who rejected monogamy typically did so in an effort to throw off mainstream, normative culture and politics. But the attendees of Tableaux fit in with the rest of privileged, gentrified Brooklyn: They match the dark, tattered-glamor aesthetic of the room; wear dark-grey clothes and plenty of eyeliner; and are overwhelmingly white. In a group of more than 50, fewer than five are people of color. And, though people at the party tell me the polyamory community is ahead of the curve on gender politics, most there present as cis; most queer women as femme. Sex is no more prominent here than at any other party in middle-class Brooklyn. We discuss vegan burgers and holiday destinations. ...
Yet many polyamorists consider the whole lifestyle to be radically transformative by virtue of its nature. ...
...The lack of overt political activism in today’s polyamorous communities is quite different from earlier generations of American polyamorists. The few who openly practiced polyamory in the 1960s and 1970s typically lived on communes, and outwardly rejected capitalist ideals of a nine-to-five, conventional lifestyle. Many practiced some form of communism, pooling all their resources and ensuring everything, from food to sleeping partners, was shared equally. In some cases, this commitment to “equality” went so far as to undermine free choice. One famous polyamorous commune, Kerista, based in San Francisco from the 1970s to 1990s, insisted that members live according to a strict sex schedule, rotating who they slept with each night within formally organized groups, or “best-friend identity clusters” of four to 15 people.
“What’s happening now is so much more healthy, because it’s deciding for yourself,” says Jessica*, a 34-year-old who asked to use a pseudonym as she’s not yet out as polyamorous to her parents. Jessica, who has a wide smile and the slightly scruffy look of a Brooklyn resident too distractedly happy to worry about preening, describes polyamorous politics as a mixture of socialism — a respect for a non-hierarchical society that values collective, community decision-making — and a libertarian belief that everyone should be free to make their own decisions without government interference. For example, Jessica and other polyamorists I speak with say there’s very little discussion about the right for polyamorous marriage, because few in today’s poly community believe government recognition of a union is a worthwhile goal.
However, while they may not be organizing as a collective around specific issues, many polyamorists today believe the act of dating multiple people is inherently political, since monogamy, they note, is inextricably linked with both economics and politics.
In the late 1960s, feminists made the groundbreaking argument that the personal is political: How we interact in private, and in our intimate relationships, has political implications, and therefore the tenor of those interactions should be examined in the public sphere. The way a husband treats his wife, for example, does not just characterize one individual relationship, but reflects widespread societal norms that determine both male and female career opportunities and expectations at home. ... The people we choose to have sex with, and how we treat our romantic partners, are not just personal choices, but political acts.
Polyamory is radical politics from that perspective. Today’s polyamorists may not be rejecting conventional jobs or bourgeois consumption, but they are shifting fundamental structures of society simply by relating to each other differently.
Perhaps contemporary polyamorists’ embrace of and engagement with mainstream life allows them to surreptitiously change what it means to be “normal.” Progressive changes to gender roles, economic opportunities, and the definition of family, follow as consequences. ...
...Polyamory also shifts the sexist narrative around sex itself. ... The pervasive stereotype is that women are more eager for long-term monogamous relationships than men, and so, men pursue women for casual sex, while women seek a partner. In contrast, those I spoke to in the polyamory dating scene said both men and women are expected to enjoy sex for its own sake, without judgement, and that the “ghosting” and callous behavior so widespread in monogamous dating is practically unheard of in the polyamorous world.
Polyamory also has the power to transform traditional heterosexual family dynamics, and dismantle the gender norms demanded by that family structure. ...
Elise* is 14 years old and lives in Springfield, Virginia, not too far south of Washington, DC, with her mom, her mother’s boyfriend, and her mother’s boyfriend’s wife. There’s also her half-sister, two step-brothers, a roommate, and large dog in the house, as well as a “cave” room where the adults’ various partners occasionally stay the night. ... The family knows combining parenting with polyamory is controversial but laughs at the suggestion that there’s anything unhealthy about their arrangement. “Our joke is always ‘won’t somebody think about the children?’” says Elise’s mother, Jill. “People say that all the time to disparage non-traditional relationships. But our kids have this house full of folks who are interested and engaged with them.”
...“I don’t feel like our particular household is on some great political journey,” says Jill. If anything, “it’s a survival strategy.” Together, they can support each other and afford to live in a large, detached house with marble kitchen countertops and glossy wooden floors. “A lot of people are struggling financially,” she says. “A lot of people are lonely. This can really help people support each other.”
...Polyamory also struggles with racial diversity. There are a growing number of regional and national polyamory groups and events in the US, such as Poly Dallas and Black & Poly, with predominantly black attendees. And [Leon] Feingold, the Brooklyn landlord, presents polyamory as widely diverse both in terms of race and class. “You meet millionaires and people on food stamps,” he told me.
...But many polyamorists say the community is still predominantly middle-class and white, and there remains a distinct lack of events that are racially diverse. Kevin Patterson recently published a book, Love’s Not Color Blind, on how the polyamory community needs to address its white hegemony.
Chaele tells me the racial prejudice that exists in polyamorous communities reflects the wider world. “We don’t live in a vacuum utopia,” she says. “White people get centered in everything.” The major polyamory groups are predominantly white, she says, and there are smaller offshoots for those who feel uncomfortable identifying as a minority. Though Chaele is involved in majority-white polyamory groups, she says she occasionally wants to surround herself with other African American polyamorists. “It’s very hard to trust and want to be in predominantly white spaces sometimes,” she says.
...There are various theories about the cause of polyamory’s racial divide. Some of those I interviewed suggest it’s far easier to be polyamorous if you’re white and wealthy. Those already marginalized and persecuted due to their race or economic standing would understandably be less likely to take part in a relationship that’s viewed as transgressive. Others believe it’s because the polyamory community in the US was largely built by white founders, who reached out to others like them and didn’t try to be more inclusive.
[Michael] Rios, now 70, is one of those early founders. He helped run a polyamorous commune that moved throughout DC, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, and today leads a co-living space in Arlington, Virginia, predominantly filled with polyamorous people. ... When I visit at the end of March 2018, the house is warm and slightly messy, like the lovingly disheveled home of college students. In my afternoon there, I rarely see two people talking without also stroking each other, or kissing, or sharing a lingering hug.
"A few members of Chrysalis, a polyamorous community in Virginia." (It's actually an intentional-community house with some poly people. From left: Michael, Sarah, Indigo, Dawson.)
Rios says polyamorists today are far less politically zealous than in his younger years. “When I started off, anyone who was polyamorous was making a radical social statement,” he says. “These days, you get a lot of people who are in it because they want a more open sexuality. These people are not necessarily liberal, or feminist, or anything.” Many do, however, care about diversity.
When I visited, the house was majority white (five Caucasian and three Jewish), though one resident is African American, one South Asian, and one Latinx. Several younger members told me they’d like their community to become more diverse, and Rios later mentions in an email he’s planning to host an event organized by people of color. ...
Rios and his partner Sarah Taub have been running the Center For a New Culture (CFNC), a non-profit focused on teaching people the skills to create more intimate, loving relationships, since 2004. Today, Indigo and others in Chrysalis develop polyamory-friendly “New Culture” events in Virginia that are open to the wider public, such as evening workshops on personal growth and how to have drama-free relationships, and several-day-long sessions called “New Culture Camps.” For example, one three-day event, Winter Poly Wonderland, is described as “not just a party, or a conference” and offers workshops on intimacy building and relationship skills, as well as “hugs and cuddle piles” and dance sessions.
“New Culture is our baby,” says Indigo, bringing their hands together to form a cup and gazing at the invisible “baby” resting there. ... Indigo says they are in a “deep, long-term, loving, sexual relationship” with another Chrysalis resident, Dawson. They add that their other relationships within the house are intimate, but not necessarily sexual. (Ahead of our talk, Indigo and another housemate were lying on a bed, cuddling and kissing.) Indigo believes the culture of acceptance within their polyamory community is innately transformative, and describes the community’s philosophy as one of “abundance and freedom.”
...Taub points out that polyamory within the broader US culture is going through a process similar to Chrysalis’s adjustments as it grew. “The people who were initially into polyamory were really amazing, interesting, weird, iconoclastic — willing to go against all cultural norms for reasons both healthy and unhealthy,” she says. There can be something of a “culture clash,” she says, between those who were polyamorous back when it was more transgressive, and the younger, more mainstream polyamorists who are making the movement their own, seeking to improve it where they see fit, and gradually embracing more and more people and perspectives. These dynamics and politics are typical of any large movement. “First there are the pioneers and then there are the settlers,” says Taub. “We’re in the settler phase now.”
...For the most part, polyamorists are more likely to group together based on demographics, finding compatriots in, for example, suburban Virginia, progressive Seattle neighborhoods, and trendy Brooklyn bars. They’ve gone from oddity to humdrum normality and, though the community has largely abandoned some of the overt political ideals of polyamorous pioneers, polyamory’s new settlers are still, subtly but perceptibly, creating change. Polyamory today is not an overtly political movement. But it is still radical — quietly, personally, and apolitically.
Read the whole article (December 20, 2018).
Some narrow criticisms are about factual errors in the article and off-base representations.
Michael Rios, for instance, tells us, "What I said and what the reporter claimed I said had very little in common. I was horrified to see what was printed in the article about racial diversity. I never said or implied that racial diversity wasn't a problem; it is an issue that I have offered financial and resource support for. I was making the point that diversity is not only about race, but that there are other diversity issues also that might not be visually apparent."
Also, "Even something as simple as calling Chrysalis, where I live, a 'polyamorous community'. Some of us are poly, some are not; the community as a whole is not polyamorous." And, "I don't think I have ever had an interview be this far off. Many others who were interviewed have expressed similar concerns."
Both he and Sarah say the writer got the story wrong of how and why they dialed back their relationship, and Michael has posted elsewhere to correct the record. Indigo and Dawson were also planning responses.
Also, says Sarah, "I have an intention to post something overall renouncing the thesis that polyamory per se is a potent revolutionary tool. Rather, the skills behind successful polyamory — transparency, curiosity, compassion, strong boundaries, commitment to one's truth rather than abiding with norms that have been imposed on us — are potent tools for building a new culture, along with many other tools."
At least two other people in the story have publicly complained about being misquoted or other mistakes. Leon Feingold has since gotten a correction about his views into the published article.
More consequential criticisms focus on the story's narrow presentation of poly as a new white thing, a new straight or straight-presenting thing, or a Brooklyn hipster thing.
● Crystal Farmer, editor of Black & Poly's website, posted this response:
When you talk to white middle class polyamorists, you get the viewpoint of white middle class polyamorists.
Olivia Goldhill recently wrote about polyamory and whether it is a political movement. While she acknowledged the existence of Black & Poly's Facebook page, she concluded that the poly community was largely white and cisgendered. Unfortunately she did not reach out to Ron Young or any of the non-white leaders in the polyamory movement. As a result, her article demonstrates a narrow view of polyamory.
Missing from the article are people of color and queer people who struggle to live their lives in a culture that is not at all accepting. Despite the fact that black polyamorists face discrimination from family, potential partners, and work colleagues, non-monogamy has always been a part of black culture. The Black Panthers lived collectively and had multiple partners during the sixties, but the author is ignorant of this history. Black & Poly specifically takes a womanist view of the world that centers the experiences and desires of women in a distinctly non-patriarchal way.
The author also glosses over the LGBTQ community and their history of non-monogamy. Though she mentions some women and non-binary people who identify as queer, it's clear she has only talked to bisexual women who largely operate in the heterosexual poly community. ...
Middle-class whites did popularize swinging, where couples meet in homes or sex clubs for purely physical relationships. The author confuses these two flavors of ethical non-monogamy while trying to define polyamory. In doing so, she conflates sex and love in a way that many poly people dislike. The event she profiles in the article is not a poly meetup but a BDSM mixer. ...
...Poly family homes are another stereotype that is not part of most people's lived reality. For all her focus on marble countertops, she ignores the subset of black polyamorists that specifically seek to build black economic power outside of the mainstream economy. Once again, the black poly community is actually more political than the people she interviews. ...
The author went looking for radicalism in the poly community, and she found middle class people who are using their privilege to live comfortably despite having an alternative lifestyle. ...
If it feels like history is repeating itself, it is.
Read her whole article (Dec. 22).
● A queer response quickly appeared on The Daily Dot ("original reporting on Internet culture and life online"): Polyamory isn’t a ‘political weapon,’ it’s a way of life for queer folks (Dec. 21).
By Ana Valens
...It’s an, um, gripping headline, to say the least. But the article doesn’t tell the full story about polyamory, especially queer polyamory. ... We’re about to dive into a piece that’s so heteronormative, it might as well be called “Wife-sex world is the most quietly revolutionary political weapon in the United States.”
Goldhill’s piece opens with a line that’s sure to roll the eyes of every American sick of New York-centric culture takes: “To find polyamorists today, head to Brooklyn.” In peak gentrified Bushwick, Goldhill visits a casual, poly-friendly kinky mixer called “Tableaux.” The space is predominantly white, cis, and middle-class. To that end, polyamorists here “have no problem with consumerism,” and the political roots behind cisgender polyamory practices remain an ongoing undercurrent throughout the piece.
To a certain extent, polyamory is becoming more popular among cisgender heterosexual couples, and there’s a lengthy history to tackle there. But polyamory isn’t just a straight white person’s phenomenon. More than anything, I’m reminded of this line spoken by one source, a Black polyamorous Brooklyn resident named Chaele: “We don’t live in a vacuum utopia. White people get centered in everything.”
...Whiteness is seen as a default, and most interviews are with white people. Goldhill tackles racism to a certain extent, but it’s a passing thought....
Then, Goldhill writes as if polyamory is a niche that was largely relegated to fringe communes in the ’60s and ’70s, where “the few who openly practiced polyamory” gathered. In actuality, queer and trans spaces have practiced polyamory for a very long time. ...
One anonymous queer poly practitioner from Brooklyn reached out to me about the Quartz article, calling it “really weird and a bit disgusting” for largely focusing on “frivolous rich white straight people” over the queer and trans folks that spearhead modern polyamory practices.
I spoke to a trans woman named Jessie, who has practiced polyamory for around a decade. She believes the Quartz piece is hyperfixated on “assimilation” and not the social circumstances around polyamory. In other words, Goldhill ignores how polyamory gives queer people room to create their own family structures, as “being excluded from so-called ‘traditional’ family configurations leaves the door open to finding something else different that works.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s just the extent of [Goldhill’s] own bubble,” Jessie explained. ...
...To Goldhill’s credit, she doesn’t outright ignore queerness, racism, and discrimination in poly circles. She interviews a queer non-binary demigirl, notes that most poly women she spoke to identify as queer, tackles misogyny and homophobia among poly men, explores ableism against those who are neurodivergent, and touches on segregation in poly spaces.
But Quartz’s piece on polyamory is half-baked. It’s missing key sources and perspectives, ones that make room for American polyamory beyond a cis, white, middle-class lens. ... Where are the queer and trans stories? Where are the poly folks of color? Marginalized Americans were doing poly relationships long before it became cool, and they’ll be doing it long after Brooklyn hipsters start to leave polyamory behind. ...
● Snarking from Out.com: You Have to Try This New Thing Straight People Discovered (Dec. 21)
The straights are leading the sexual revolution, and the gays could really learn a thing or two.
...If the fundamental structures of society — that is, the nuclear, patriarchal, heterosexual family — are what have harmed us, why do we continue to slouch towards it? Perhaps, we should take a page out of the heterosexuals’ book and give this whole “polyamory” thing a try. Two partners! Can you imagine? Wish I’d thought of that.
● On a Twitter thread: "Sex [used in the article's title] is seriously the least radical part of polyamory. More worth talking about are how polyamory emphasizes the importance of communication, normalizes feelings like jealousy, and prioritizes community over the “just the two of us” mentality encouraged by monogamy."
And: "Poly love is revolutionary, poly sex is not."
● A more positive thread on Polyamory.com.
Misreporting of facts is always inexcusable. So are misquotes of people. Misjudging the nuances of a situation is an error of judgment; these come in degrees. As for the writer describing the impressions people made on her? Fair game; that's the writer's job, and other people always see you differently than you see yourself. If you put yourself out there, get used to seeing yourself described the way someone else sees you.
As for the article's big thesis? The headline overstates it at least two ways: Poly is not politically revolutionary, even if you grant that the personal is political. Political revolution is about overthrowing ruling powers by mass action.
Poly is socially revolutionary, and importantly so; it violates and subverts some accepted (conservatives say fundamental) social norms, and it frees an important part of some people's lives. But the idea of well-functioning multi-relationships is not new, just new to today's Western white overculture — something the writer never saw, or worse, didn't think worth mentioning. I see this as a "Yes, and" problem with the story, which was interesting and thoughtful within its own narrow confines.
As for the "Polyamorous Sex" in the headline? Inflammatory clickbait by a headline writer. The article barely mentions anyone's sex life and says nothing at all about the intricacies of polyamorous sex. The false clickbait headline reflects badly on Quartz, which touts itself as a high-quality site (it's owned by The Atlantic's parent company), and the headline's wild overclaim about revolutionary political force sets the article up for failure.