Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

November 24, 2023

The best history yet of the polyamory movement's origins. Choosing if poly is right for you. And more.

Maybe Time magazine caught your attention last week with its web article The Surprising Political Evolution of American Polyamory by Christopher M. Gleason (online Nov. 13).

The occasion for the piece was Gleason's new book American Poly: A History, published November 1st by Oxford University Press. Following last year's Fifty Years of Polyamory in America by Glen W. Olson and Terry Lee Brussel-Rogers, this is the most extensive history yet of our movement's wildly colorful origins and growth, at least in the American context from the 1960s through the early 2000s.  

In the book and the Time article, Gleason emphasizes a provocative theme: the surprising variety of political and social viewpoints among the people who developed modern polyamory's ideas, ideals, and best practices and evangelized them into American awareness. Today most people associate poly with left-ish people and its enemies with the right. But the sorting used to be less predictable.

Here are chunks of Gleason's Time article:

Polyamory seems to have burst upon the American mainstream over the past two decades. The deluge of podcasts, TV shows, books, and magazine articles detailing polycules, metamores, throuples, threesomes, and moresomes testifies to the growing number of Americans willing to jettison monogamy.

...Though studies have shown that Americans from across the political spectrum have embraced forms of consensual non-monogamy, it tends to be liberal progressives who publicly laud polyamory as the next stage of the sexual revolution, while religious conservatives bemoan it as the next step in more than half a century of moral decline. Yet, setting polyamory within the longer history of American sexual dissent uncovers a complicated relationship between politics and sexual freedom that defies simplistic categorization.

Christopher M. Gleason
...Polyamory’s roots [in America] reach back at least a century to the Progressive Era, if not further, when Bohemian notions of free love breached major U.S. metropolises. The “Roaring Twenties” that ensued prefigured the sexual revolution of a half century later, as wars over birth control and the Equal Rights Amendment divided Americans....

The post-Depression era stifled sexual freedom. By the 1940s, the twin threats of nuclear annihilation and the spread of godless Communism exacerbated the return to sexual traditionalism, producing a cultural consensus on marriage and family that tolerated little dissent.

...[From the late 1940s through the 50s] the Beats were not the only Americans to chide mainstream mores, nor to use literature to do so. There was also Ayn Rand, the anti-statist Russian-born novelist bent on destroying all impediments to personal autonomy. Rand dabbled with ethical non-monogamy, believing that her and her protege's shared commitment to her philosophy of Objectivism provided sanction for their intimacy. Though they were honest about the relationship, it brought great emotional distress to both their spouses, and her disregard for the feelings of all others involved made it unlikely for polyamorists to claim her as an intellectual forebear.

The clearest link between polyamory and the first decades of the 20th century is traceable through the influence of acclaimed science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Referring to himself as a “child of the Torrid Twenties,” Heinlein was a sexual iconoclast. His first two marriages in 1929 and 1932 were both open, and he spent the 1930s and 1940s frequenting nudist clubs, and running in countercultural circles that included the occultic sex magician and Cal Tech rocket scientist Jack Parsons....

...Heinlein’s rightward turn [post-war] did little to temper his promotion of sexually transgressive ideas. If anything, it reinforced the notion that sexual freedom should be protected as a private right. He lamented monogamy and monotheism as the two sacred cows of western civilization and continued to take aim at both in his novels. The [first] of such efforts was his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The novel, which follows a human raised on Mars who returns to Earth and starts a church that rejects jealousy in lieu of ritualistic free love, took little time to become canonical within 1960s counterculture.

...The decisively conservative shift of the 1980s did much to halt the sexual revolution. Yet, it was within this conservative climate that disparate poly factions united. This [new,] predominately female-led coalition began publicly organizing, printing newsletters, planning conferences, and making media appearances.

In doing so, they rejected outdated versions of 1960s free love as wanton hedonism. In its place, they learned to speak the language of Reagan, arguing that when rooted in commitment, ethical non-monogamy was not antithetical to family values. In fact, it centered the family, providing greater emotional and financial stability in an age increasingly marred by political and economic uncertainty. Or as Ryam Nearing, the co-founder of the influential polyamory non-profit Loving More argued in 1984, committed multi-partner relationships were identical to monogamous relationships in that they were characterized by the joys and trials of navigating careers, childrearing, spirituality, and asset sharing. What they offered that monogamy could not was “far greater economic security, and an increase in loving parents and role models.” For Nearing, ethical non-monogamy meant “intimacy without nuclear couple isolation, multiplicity without shallowness.” Furthermore, those truly committed to the freedom afforded by limited government had no basis to deny such unions.

Many polyamorists no longer focus narrowly on commitment. Though their relationships may be lifelong, they tend to rest their sexual ethics on ideals of honesty, open communication, and mutual respect. For many of these Americans, polyamory remains a private matter. Others believe polyamory is a civil rights issue. Echoing their forebears, they claim that polyamory is not an assault on the American family, but rather a timely defense of it.  

Christopher M. Gleason is the Academic Director for the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, part-time Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University, and author of American Poly: A History.

Okay, I think he's stretching to make a point of those varied ideological backgrounds. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, was indeed an important inspiration for many in the 1960s and early 70s, including me, as word of it spread through the burgeoning youth movement (see my Polyamory, Robert Heinlein, and his definitive new biography). Heinlein was a committed New Dealer in the 1930s but had become a Goldwaterite right-winger with no intention to start a radical lefty movement. The model he set forth in Stranger was a dream impossible to live, since it depended entirely on magic psychic superpowers learned from Martians. More influential in practical terms were works like Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment and his other CNM-exploring novels set in contemporary reality. Rimmer also published books of letters sent to him by readers living in actual group relationships in the real world.

And the fact is, most of the people who created the 1960s counterculture, not just the proto-poly parts of it, came from a wide variety of political backgrounds or none at all — from classic Reds to New Deal progressives to Ayn Randers and former Goldwater supporters, but also millions of kids like me who made it up as we went. People with different political philosophies in those days intermixed and swapped ideas more easily than now. Trust me, I was there for many of those 2 a.m. dorm-room and housing-coop bull sessions.

Gleason also explores other divergences among the seminal polyfolks of those early days. Today's poly movement, as a movement, stems most distinctly from two tireless founding mothers in the early-mid 1980s through the 1990s: Ryam Nearing and Deborah Anapol. In the movement's complex family tree, the two of them formed a trunk that carried sap from the tangled 1960s-70s roots to the later, ever-widening branches. Among many other things, they wrote the two books that marked the beginning of the modern polyamory movement and set forth many of the ideas it has kept today, as the count of nonfiction print books about polyamory passes 80. But Nearing and Anapol did not exactly get along.

Nearing was firmly set on closed, homey, polyfidelitous polyfamily, especially with kids, and advocated for primary-secondary hierarchy when a previous couple was involved. Anapol was a sexual and romantic free-wheeler who went through three husbands and graphically shared her adventures in her newsletters and later, Loving More magazine. Although she and Nearing were always friends, their different approaches kept them working separately for a decade — until the crucial 1993 Kirkridge "Sex and Spirit" conference in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. The conference was organized by Father Robert T. Francoeur, a married, sex-positive Catholic priest. (The office of Pope Paul VI granted special recognition of his marriage, Francoeur later surmised, by accidentally rubber-stamping the wrong letter "Approved.") At the Kirkridge conference Francoeur, Rimmer, and others in the coalescing movement urged,  begged, implored Nearing and Anapol to combine forces. They did. The result was the full-fledged Loving More magazine and its conferences, which the two initially ran jointly.

Because of their continuing differences Anapol quit Loving More's management after one year, but she kept contributing frequently for many years more. Loving More was the poly movement's central nexus and growth driver through the 1990s. Its membership list grew to 10,000 under Nearing by 1999, before the internet enabled exponential spread.

A different type of early tension in the movement was what Gleason calls spiritualist: between sacred-sexuality people, including neo-Tantrics, Pagans, tarot readers, crystal believers, and New Agers generally, and less esoteric polys who often felt embarrassed by the former and dissed them as woo-woo. One example was the dispute about whether so many text-dense pages of Loving More magazine should be devoted to astrology. Members of a prominent quad who organized gatherings in Vermont set up a Yahoo discussion group called PolyWON, for Poly WithOut Newage, pronounced sewage.

Today those old conflicts are largely forgotten. But any of them could have derailed the movement when it was small and fragile. In facing the larger world, the movement indeed had a very tough sell. Its central revelation was that multi-intimate relationships can actually work among all parties — can blossom and thrive splendiferously — at least for some people, at least if they embrace hard-learned lessons about communication skills, caring, and honesty. Mainstream America mostly ridiculed the idea as impossible when it noticed us at all. But then the internet enabled the movement to find enough of its audience to take off.

And then so did serious media attention, after the dismissiveness and hostility that Nearing and Anapol often endured. This attitude shift in the media, happening in the mid and late 2000s, had much to do with the goal that Nearing's successor at Loving More, Robyn Trask, set for herself: to "make polyamory a household word." She was passionate about reaching people like her own former self: lost and ashamed in a monocentric wilderness, with no idea that another way is possible. She realized that this was something only the mass media could do, despite the movement's distrust of media exposure. Trask's indefatigable folksy friendliness made her a good interview catch, and she also made Loving More a trusted clearinghouse matching talkative out polys to interested journalists. It worked. By 2012 the media's fascination with us had become unstoppable.   

The butterfly effect is real. Any "chaotic system," such as the weather or human affairs, is marked by huge effects emerging from fluky little causes — whether a paperwork-stamping error in the Vatican, or a college freshman in Missouri noticing an ad for the Science Fiction Book Club. The freshman, Lance Christie, turned his friend Oberon Zell on to Stranger.  Zell became Stranger's most colorful 1960s evangelist, and his partner invented our defining word. 

One criticism of American Poly: It needed more readers pre-publication to catch careless mistakes. For instance, Morning Glory Zell's famous 1990 essay that birthed the word polyamory was "A Bouquet of Lovers," but Gleason calls it "A Banquet of Lovers" throughout the book. (Cannibalism?)  He misstates the name of this website. He repeatedly misspells the names of Robyn Trask and the early poly New Age skeptic Ken Olum. I have to wonder how many other details are off?

Still, this is a very impressive work. American Poly is the most comprehensive history yet of the inspirers, passionate early builders, and fluky bloodlines of modern polyamory's growth as a movement. It spans the era of Harrad, the Church of All Worlds, Haight-Ashbury, the Kerista commune (with its formative influence on the San Francisco counterculture and on Nearing and her husbands, though she was put off by Kerista's cultishness), Family Synergy, the Human Awareness Institute, the early PEPCONs, and the rest. These shaped the ideas and the fundamental good character of the movement we have today — which has at last propelled "the polyamorous possibility" (Elisabeth Sheff's term) into widespread American knowledge and understanding.

●  Rounding out the picture is the other poly-movement history book, the one that came out last year: Fifty Years of Polyamory in America by Glen W. Olson and Terry Lee Brussel-Rogers.
Glen Olson and Terry Brussel-Rogers
Whereas Gleason is an academic historian, Glen and Terry were there in the thick of it for many years, at least the California parts of it, as I previously wrote. Their narrative includes detail-rich chapters on life in Family Synergy, the neo-pagan influence, Live the Dream, Morehouse, HAI, and the origins of Loving More. It mostly spans 1971 to the early 2000s and has retrospectives from key players still living.

The authors' own roots are in 1960s California. The summer of 1967, they write,  

was the culmination of three dominant trends happening in America at the time. The civil rights movement had been changing people's hearts throughout the 1960s, making activism respectable. The Human Potential Movement [had been] quietly gaining momentum all decade with the message that you can change who you are for the better. ... And the literary Beat culture of the 1950, whose basic tenets included challenging your preconceptions, making a spiritual quest, and rejecting economic materialism, had turned into the popular and energetic hippie movement of the 1960s. ... The fervor of these secular movements infused the following decade with excitement about human potential and the ability to love.

These two books capture how the foundations of today's polyamory movement were built. The books round each other out. If you are moved to get one of them, do get the other one too.


Other Polyamory in the News:

●  Maybe you've spotted one difference between those poly-historic times and now. We're more down to earth. We've outgrown the heady early utopianism — which sometimes created unrealistic ideals and party lines, bred room elephants that no one dared talk about, and hence led to especially poignant failures.

Realism is good. Maturity is good. Maturity is a sign of success. If we hoped to normalize the poly relationship option, we have been succeeding, and guess what: Normal means... ordinary.

And that allows for more clear-headed assessments of whether or not this thing is right for you.

For instance, on Medium a lady in a triad that recently broke up assesses, Does the Polyamorous Model Work Better Than Monogamy? (reprinted on The Good Men Project Nov. 19).

Her answer is mixed. Here's the meat of it.

Choosing a path. The author's
caption: "Thank you, Dall-E"

By Marianna Zelichenko

In my last post, I shared how our polycule has fallen apart after James and Annie broke up. Thomas left a comment saying:

“The only thing that surprises me about the polyamorous community is how surprised they continue to be that their relationship model doesn’t work any better than the monogamy model.”

...So let’s discuss: Does the polyamorous model work better?...

When the polyamorous model works better:

  ...You have needs that are important to you and can’t be met in just one romantic relationship (for instance because you have conflicting needs)

  AND/OR you have a strong craving for freedom when it comes to relationships

  OR you don’t feel the need to date multiple people, but you don’t mind it when your partner does.

  AND you’re willing and capable to put in the work that is required to manage multiple relationships simultaneously, including dealing with jealousy and alone time, managing time, resources, and expectations, and communicating clearly and constructively.

If this is true for you, the polyamorous model likely works better, because it’s a better fit for your needs.

(Disclaimer: I’m not taking into account practical matters, such as the access to other polyam folks in your community, etc. — this is a separate matter entirely.)

When the monogamous model works better:

  ...You can have your important romantic needs met with just one partner.

  AND You don’t mind or are even happy being with one romantic partner.

  AND/OR The benefits of being exclusive with one partner matter to you (such benefits may include relative predictability/stability in your schedule, or acceptance from the outside world)
  AND you are willing and capable to put in the work that is required to find your way back to each other as both of you grow as human beings, so that you keep meeting each other’s romantic needs and don’t grow apart.


What if it’s neither?

You may have noticed that with both models, I’m focusing on the pull — the things that are appealing about each of them. But both models also come with their own challenges. 

...If you’re not willing to communicate with your partner about your needs, you might choose monogamy, but I question whether your relationship will still be happy and fulfilling down the line.

If you don’t want to take into account your partner’s needs, dating multiple people might bring you a short reprieve first, but is likely to bring you a whole lot of headache after.

In the end, relationships are human, and humans are messy. Polyamory doesn’t cure us from that (and neither does monogamy). But for a lot of us, I do believe polyamory is a ‘better’ model, leading to a life of more freedom and fun.

Last summer, we launched a deck of Polyamory Conversation Cards that help tackle the many different aspects of polyamorous relationships. In 49 prompts, you’ll explore topics such as emotional security, sexuality, and practical matters. Grab your deck in the webshop.

●  GQ (formerly Gentleman's Quarterly) published a snarky but not altogether inaccurate guide to various types of today's ENM. 11 Fundamental Forms of Ethical Non-Monogamy, Explained. "There's a big difference between Polyfidelity and Don't Ask, Don't Tell, after all." 

By Sophie Saint Thomas

...In this often-attempted relationship format, which genuinely does feel like coming home and works wonders for many proud poly people, you form romantic and sexual relationships with more than one partner. Many are called. Few can serve.

Hierarchical Poly
Hierarchical polyamory usually involves a couple. They're each other's number one, emergency contact, and "primary partner," but they can see other people (secondary partners). And those second partners better know their place. Kidding! But really....

...Relationship Anarchy
Screw your rules and reliance on romance. Relationship anarchists consider all their partnerships equally valid whether they bone or not. ... They're all equal, and they're so much more punk than the pumpkin spice latte sipping poly crowd. ...

●  How bad can an anti-poly therapist be? Here's one who got caught. From New Zealand, Counsellor named after failing woman in polyamorous relationship (1News, Nov. 15). "An Auckland counsellor who was found to have mishandled the case of a woman who was in a polyamorous relationship has been publicly named by the Health and Disability Commission. ..."

  The NPR radio station KCRW in Los Angeles produces a podcast called How's Your Sex Life? This just ran a segment called Polyamory for Beginners, in which host Myisha Battle interviews comedian Ashley Ray. They rave about Tristan Taormino's guidebook Opening Up and cover other good territory, including your need to find poly community. Transcript.

  You knew it would happen: OUTtv sets polyamorous dating series (Realscreen.com, Nov. 21). "OUTtv has commissioned a new original dating competition series, Looking for a Third, which is set for release on the network in late 2024."...

  From CNN Portugal: The Teatro Villare in Lisbon premieres “Baby, I want to kiss more people” (Nov. 4) "Diogo Varo and Joana Brito Silva made a show to talk about their non-monogamous relationship." Says Varo, 

People quickly assume that non-monogamy is about how many people you live with, but it’s actually a political way of living life. ... Non-monogamy is about being honest – first with ourselves. ... But it’s also about being honest with others, whether they’re like you’re the main partner or not. You need to respect others and know how to communicate with partners.


And still...

“History is coming at us fast right now.
 The geopolitical snow globe has been well and truly shaken.”
– Dominic Nichols, UK

Why, despite all, do I still end most posts to this polyamory news site with Ukraine?

Because I've seen many progressive movements die out because they failed to scan the wider world accurately and understand their position in it strategically.

We polyamorous people are a small, weird minority of social-rule breakers. Increasingly powerful people call us a threat to society — because by living successfully outside their worldview, we expose its incompleteness.

One couple, many hands. "A new mural painting in Kyiv dedicated
to Ukrainian volunteers. If you have helped Ukrainians during this
year and a half, you may consider yourself to be one of them."

Our freedom to choose our relationship structures, and to speak up for ourselves about the truth of ourselves, is just one way we depend on a free and pluralistic society that respects people's dignity to create their own lives, to access facts, and to speak of what they know.

Such a society is possible only where people have power to govern themselves, combined with legal structures that are at least supposed to guarantee the rights of all.

Innovative people, communities, and societies who create their own lives, and who insist on the democratic structures and legal rights that enable them to do so safely, infuriate and terrify the authoritarians who are growing in power around the world and in our own United States. Now with direct mutual support.

Such rulers and would-be rulers seek to stamp out other people's freedom to choose their lives — by intimidation, repressive laws, inflammatory disinformation and public incitement, abusive police power, or eventually, artillery.

For what it's worth, Polyamory in the News received more pagereads from pre-invasion Ukraine over the years (56,400) than from any other country in eastern Europe.

You can donate to Ukraine relief through this updated list of vetted organizations (Nov. 2023) or elsewhere. We're giving to a big one, Razom, and to a little informal one, Pizza for Ukraine in Kharkiv, the project of an old friend of my wife (story).

But that is only the start. For those of us born since World War II, this is the most consequential war of our lifetime. Because we have entered another time when calculating fascism, at home and abroad, is rising and sees freedom and liberalism and social tolerance as weak, degenerate, delusional  inviting easy pushovers. As Russia thought it saw in Ukraine. The whole world is watching what we will do about it.

The coming times may require hard things of us. We don't get to choose the time and place in history we are born into. We do get to choose how we respond to it. 

Need a little help bucking up? Take perspective. Play thisAnother version. More? Some people on the eastern front helping to hold onto an open society, a shrinking thing in the world. Maybe your granddad did this across a trench from Hitler's troops — for you, and us, because a world fascist movement was successfully defeated that time, opening the way for the rest of the 20th century.

Although the outcome didn't look good for a couple of years there, either. Popular history remembers the victory over the Nazis and the joyous homecoming in 1945. Much less remembered are the defeats and overall grim prospects from 1941 through early 1943.

Remember, these people say they are doing it for us too. They are correct. The global struggle between a free, open future and a fearful revival of the dark past that's shaping up, including in our own country, is still in its early stages. It's likely to get worse before it gets better. The outcome is again uncertain, and it will determine the 21st century and the handling of all its other problems.


PS: Ukraine should not be idealized as the paragon of an open democratic society. For instance, see If Ukraine Wants To Stand for Liberty and Democracy, It Should Rethink Some of Its Wartime Policies. And it has quite the history of being run by corrupt oligarchs — leading to the Maidan Uprising of 2013, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and Zelensky's overwhelming election in 2019 as the anti-corruption candidate. So they're working on that. And they're stamping hard on the old culture of petty, everyday corruption too.  MoreMore; "Ukraine shows that real development happens when people believe they have an ownership stake in their own societies."

Now, writes US war correspondent George Packer in The Atlantic, 

Here was a country with a tragic history that had at last begun to build, with great effort, a better society. What made Ukraine different from any other country I had ever seen—certainly from my own—was its spirit of constant self-improvement, which included frank self-criticism. For example, there’s no cult of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine—a number of Ukrainians told me that he had made mistakes, that they’d vote against him after the war was won. Maxim Prykupenko, a hospital director in Lviv, called Ukraine “a free country aspiring to be better all the time.” The Russians, he added, “are destroying a beautiful country for no logical reason to do it. Maybe they are destroying us just because we have a better life.”

They have a word there, with a deep history, for the horizontal, self-organized, mutual get-it-done that grows from community social trusthromada. Learn that word. It's been getting them through  to the extent they've been able. We polyfolks often dream of creating something like that community spirit in miniature, in our polycules and networks. Occasionally we succeed.


Social attitudes in Ukraine tend traditional, rooted in a thousand years of the Orthodox Church. But not bitterly so like often in the US; the ideal of modern European civil society is widely treasured, and social progressivism has room to thrive. The status of women is fast advancing, especially post-invasion (pre-invasion article). A reported 43,000 women volunteer in the armed forces, flooding traditionally male bastions — not just as staff but as combat officers, artillery gunners, tankers, battlefield medics, and snipers. (Intimidating video: "Thus the Witch has Spoken".)
Ukraine's LGBT military unicorn emblem
Ukraine's LGBT military unicorn.
The thorns and barbed wire
represent old restrictions
now being cut away. 
Some LGBT folx in the armed forces display symbols of LGBT pride on their uniforms, with official approval, whereas in Russia it's a prison-worthy crime for even a civilian to show a rainbow pin or "say gay." A report on Ukraine's LGBT+ and feminist acceptance revolutionsAnotherAnotherAnother. War changes things.

And in December 2022, Russia made it a crime not just to speak for LGBT recognition, but to speak for "non-traditional sexual relations." Until last year Russia had a visible polyamory education and awareness movement.

Polyfolks are like one ten-thousandth of what's at stake globally. Ukraine must have our full material backing for however long as it takes to succeed. Speak out for it.

A Russian writer grieves: "My country has fallen out of time."

Ukrainian women soldiers in dense undergrowth
Women fighters in a trench in the Donetsk region

PPS:  US authoritarians (such as Sen. Ted Cruz) are saying that allowing women in front-line roles is a woke plot to weaken America's armed forces. Ukraine puts that shit to bed. Do you have a relative who talks like that? Send them this video link to Vidma, who commands a mortar platoon, recounting the tale of one of their battles near Bakhmut – the Verdun of this war.

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