Who among us hasn’t been thrown completely off-kilter by a mad attraction to someone who (damn!) isn’t our partner? If you’re like most people, you (a) spend a season obsessing to your friends or a shrink in an awkward attempt to diffuse your inconvenient passion or (b) get swept up in a clandestine affair that has about as much hope for the happy-ever-after as Bill Clinton’s Oval Office gropings with a certain beret-wearing intern. But what if you could trade all the sleepless should-I-stay-or-should-I-go nights for the possibility of bringing the new object of your affection home to be approved by your significant other?
Welcome to the world of polyamory. An outgrowth of both the group marriage and communal living movements of the ’60s and ’70s, the still-young polyamory movement (and it is a movement, with literature that rails against “the serial monogamous monopoly”) espouses the value of committed, loving, relationships with more than one partner. These are not sex-obsessed groupies without a life outside the boudoir, either. As the Polyamory Society Web site (www.polyamorysociety.org) points out, “very unscientific impressions would suggest that polyamorists tend to be professionals, artists, academics, and other highly educated people with a rather strong showing among computer professionals or others with computer interests.”
While the veterans of today’s polyamory movement certainly fit into the graying ponytail category (that is, if you don’t count what’s been going on in the state of Utah since Joseph Smith settled there) an increasing number of twentysomethings are giving the lifestyle a try. Take Heather Nicoll, a 20-year-old paralegal from Quincy, Massachusetts, who tells Jane (Aug. 1998), “I’m watching my parents go through divorce proceedings right now because of problems that have been festering for 25 years. But when you’re in a poly relationship, you have to have a higher baseline of communication–you have to deal with problems right away.”
Problems like sexually transmitted diseases, right? Not necessarily. Many polyamorists make the point that, since their extramarital activities aren’t secrets, the likelihood of contracting an STD from their partner(s) is lower than that of many monogamous couples who may be unknowingly infected by a straying partner who never fesses up. But to be on the safe side, there are “safe-sex circles” where, according to Loving More magazine’s Web FAQ (www.lovemore.com) “each member is tested and new members are not admitted until a period of months go by and they still test negative.” And then there’s the fact that many polyamorous relationships are exclusive families whose composition may not change for decades, if ever.
Which begs the question: What happens to the children of these unconventional unions? The Loving More FAQ states that “children always know who their biological parents are. If they lived in a family with three women and three men, they would not once forget who their real mom was. In other parts of the world, people still live in tribes and large extended families. It’s not uncommon for [these] children to live with many different kinds of relatives and they don’t seem to turn into confused, relationship-crippled adults.” Just as people who are engaged in a polyamorous lifestyle are able to actively explore different parts of their personality through different partners, polyamorists argue, so too can children grow up with a range of role models.
What if you’re interested in having multiple sex partners but the idea of fighting about housework with more than one other person isn’t exactly a turn-on? Then you may want to check out the commitment-free swing scene. More recreational than emotional–one polyamorist interviewed in Jane described the main purpose of swinging as gaining “dick points”–swinging is also gaining momentum across the country. Some 3 million Americans swap partners, according to the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA). And that doesn’t mean they’re all just pairing off in key parties á la The Ice Storm. In fact, Rolling Stone (Aug. 20, 1998) reports the latest trend in this already trendy activity is group sex.
While polyamorists clearly distinguish themselves from swingers, it’s not as if the rising popularity of swinging will hurt their movement in the long run. Casual sex is fun, sure. But it can also get pretty boring. And when the swing scene runs its course, there will be a growing number of polyamorists ready and waiting to take the former sex-as-sporters into their hearts.