It Started With a KissOne night I was out drinking with my friend. As the night progressed we decided to join another group of friends to see a gig on the other side of town. As my friend and I walked we verbally stumbled onto the subject of polyamory – a lifestyle choice with which he identified. I was curious. A lot of people I know sleep with each other but I had never viewed their relationships as something beyond one-night stands. When my friend and I approached the group we were joining up with, he pointed out his girlfriend to me. He then proceeded to passionately hook up with a mutual friend of ours who was not his girlfriend. His girlfriend, however, didn’t even blink an eye.
Our culture is obsessed with how we label ourselves, particularly how we label ourselves sexually. When we “discover” a friend is gay, it warrants responses that claim either that our speculations have been confirmed, or that we had no idea. Another label to be stitched onto the collar of a particular open-minded group is “polyamory.” The concept of polyamory is as fluid as the sexual lives of those who go by this label.
In the book The Ethical Slut, which is seen by some as a manifesto of modern, liberal sexual identities, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Listz comment on the vagueness of the concept of polyamory. “Some feel that polyamory includes all forms of sexual relationships other than monogamy, others restrict it to committed love relationships (thereby excluding swinging, casual sexual contact and other forms of intimacy).”
Self-described polyamorist Matthew* describes it similarly. “Although people debate what the term actually means I wonder if polyamory even needs a name. It’s like atheism – it’s the absence of something and in this case, it’s the absence of monogamous fences or boundaries. Each person will have his or her own subjective interpretation about what polyamory is, but I have always understood it as that lack of physical ownership in a relationship. We’ve been conditioned by society to feel territorial over our partner’s body. It’s a removal of that body territorial idea. I had known about the concept for some time while at school and because I was young and in a full-on relationship I was very intrigued by the idea.”
Rebecca*, another practicing polyamorist, commented further on the topic. “We don’t view either polyamory or monogamy as better or worse, it is just about trying to conduct relationships in ways that are fulfilling and well-suited to different people. The concept of polyamory is well-suited for people who value independence and autonomy within relationships. For me, it was really nice being able to conduct myself independently from my boyfriend at times.
“Polyamory is really important for acceptance, open-mindedness and not projecting values about love and relationships and sexuality onto your partner. I also found it to be really helpful for me as well when I broke up with my boyfriend. His being with other women after we broke up held no symbolism for me of his moving on or being over our relationship.”
The RootsWhile the roots of polyamory are both intertwined and far-reaching, some view this lifestyle as first being practiced in between the late 1840s and 1870s. In a 300-large commune called Oneida, based in upstate New York, a Christian minister named John Noyes pushed the boundaries of both the law and the traditional ideas of marriage in an experiment known as a “complex marriage.” The complex aspect of the marriage involved all members of the commune being considered as married to each other.
As Libby Copeland wrote in an article for Slate magazine titled “Making Love and Trouble,” “Noyes believed that sex was a kind of worship, and that in order to live without sin, men and women had to be free to worship all over the place with whoever they wanted.” Practices in the Oneidan commune included older women teaching men how to practice spiritual sex, men establishing their own birth control mechanism by learning to physically resist orgasms during intercourse, and Oneidan women generally only having sex with who they wanted (a type of sexual liberation for women almost unheard of during the 1880s).
Despite Noyes’ many ideological flaws – which included fantasising about and acting on eugenics and incest – his experimentations with complex marriage amounted to what Copeland describes as “remarkable progress for the women who lived there.”
Rachel* explained to me how having multiple relationships can be linked to feminism. “When these ideas of polyamory and feminism are linked, the most pertinent things that come to mind for me [are] agency and a challenge to the idea of possession – agency in the sense that this is a framework that acknowledges the breadth of females’ sexual and emotional complexity by allowing us to conduct and explore a range of relationship dynamics.
“Possession ties into this too in that polyamory actively challenges the notion of women being entities that their romantic or sexual partners have some sort of claim over, [a notion] that overrides their right to pursue any other bond they may have or develop with another person. The idea of women as property, and their identities being forged mostly in relation to their partner (especially if that partner is male) is a pretty ancient notion that can still quietly permeate contemporary rhetoric.”
For Rebecca a polyamorous lifestyle is pro-feminist because it helped her “recognise and get over a lot of jealousy and female rivalry. I was in a longer-term relationship (and living together) and I felt pretty secure in both my relationship and the knowledge that my boyfriend loved me. I found that I stopped feeling threatened by many women, so it helped to foster better companionship and get rid of some competitiveness.”
These loose ideas of polyamory and free love danced around the fringes of society into the twentieth century and became more prominent as the fight for birth control and women’s sexual self-determination reached new levels. Sociologist Elisabeth Sheff identifies a second wave of romantic and sexual adventuring into non-monogamous territories as occurring during the 1970s. Whether or not the ideas practiced in the Oneida commune can be explicitly linked to the Bohemian free-love movements of the 1970s, there are threads of similar idealism running through both that involve self-determination of identity and sexual liberation.
A commune called Kerista was established in the 70s by a charismatic man called Jud the Prophet. Jud the Prophet founded a way of living that consisted of three large group marriages. In these groups sleeping schedules were regularly rotated to keep intimacy evenly distributed, and it was the entire community’s responsibility to care for the children that inevitably tended to pop up. While such polyamory movements were reduced to embers in the 1980s by the AIDS scare, a third wave was recently ignited by the Internet.
Dunedin: A Nest of Multiple LoversAlthough the history of polyamory seems to have taken place in faraway American lands, there is a range of people in Dunedin who currently identify (to varying extents) as polyamorous. Matthew started toying with the idea while in a long-term relationship at school. “Personally I was emotionally attracted to other girls and I didn’t consider that my attraction was something I had control over,” he says. “Polyamory is the active decision to act on attractions like that.”
When I asked Matthew if he told his girlfriend at the time about these thoughts running through his head he replied, “yeah but I didn’t state it bluntly. I wasn’t like, ‘listen sunshine I’m finding other girls attractive and I’d like to act on that.’ I talked about it in a more gentle and subtle way – expressing the very real concern that we were both still very young and these years are when we’re most sexually active before we make any big commitments to strong, serious relationships. She had been thinking the same thing but she was upset in that kind of hypocritical way to know that I had those thoughts too.”
In one of Matthew’s more recent relationships he dated a girl who had already experienced the polyamorous lifestyle, but it still took him time to literally and metaphorically find his roots. “When I was in my first real polyamorous relationship I wasn’t sleeping around at the beginning – I still very much had my mask on. But my girlfriend, who already had been in this type of the relationship, was going home with different people from the get go. Initially I felt competitive. I started making this tally chart in my head, which was bad.
“But as soon as I started sleeping with other people I got into the swing of things. What’s key to it working is to literally tell each other everything – communication is everything. The first time I slept with someone other than my girlfriend filled me with a sense of relief. I had been polyamorous on paper for so long but never acted on it. I got my boy scout badge.”
No JudgementAs research suggests, you haven’t truly partied until you’ve poly-partied. Matthew explained the distinction to me. “There is a huge difference between hanging out with people who all know that [you are] open-minded and polyamorous compared to hanging out at your average party. This might sound strange, but being young and foolish you always get that feeling that there will be someone at that gig or party that you can go home with at the end of the night in the right circumstances – that’s how your night will ideally end. But if you are at a gig or a party surrounded by people who don’t have that same understanding the process takes so much longer and the idea of going home with someone is more of a big deal – you have to be subtle.
“Hanging out with a bunch of people that feel similarly can be ridiculous because you feel so open and liberal and everyone knows that anything goes. You can just walk up to someone and start talking to them and you know that at the end of that conversation you will start making out or shoot off somewhere. You don’t have to be as subtle and you can openly express desire and attraction. This is what is attractive about it – no one is wearing any masks.”
As with any relationship, consent in sexual endeavours is fundamental. But in the case of polyamory. consent is not only required by those primarily involved but also from the chain of people who may be affected by your arrangements. I asked Matthew if this type of open-minded environment could be abused.
“Everyone still has his or her own way of pursuing someone and letting someone know if they are into them, but the idea is that people feel more comfortable in expressing that desire,” he replied. “There have been occasions where I have gone up to people in social situations and they have told me that they are not feeling it tonight or there is another person they are interested in. Initially you feel rejection but then you realise it’s fine, especially if you’ve been in a similar situation. There’s no judgement.”
It seems that as one embraces the lifestyle of polyamory, polyamory embraces one back – from multiple directions, naked. Matthew elaborated: “the first time I had a threesome was interesting and the performance anxiety came back. When you are sexually exploring new grounds the reason you get anxiety is based on a sense of obligation. But once you realise there are no rules and procedures and what you do is your choice it becomes okay.”
Threesomes and multiple lovers are pretty foreign ideas for most people, even though people seem to want them to happen. When I brought up this concern with Matthew he remarked, “I think people fetishise it, which is bad. If you are an outsider looking into the concept of polyamory you can start getting all these weird conceptions about it. Then if these ideas don’t turn out to be true then it can be really unhealthy for you, in the same way as [it is unhealthy for] someone who has been watching porn for years before having sex [to build] up all these expectations of what it will be like and what his female partner should look like. It’s hard to translate what being polyamorous is like because, say if you tried out a polyamorous relationship, you would have a completely different experience to what I’ve had.”
Are You A Slut?Underlying these liberal relationships is a controversial movement to reclaim the word “slut” as a term of “approval, even endearment.” Easton and Listz assert that to them, “a slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”
While Rachel is a supporter of Slutwalk and will use the world “slut” as a term of endearment with close friends, she also completely respects “the position of people who are opposed to its reappropriation. I’ve read some very heart-wrenching personal stories and social commentaries by people, especially women of colour, who by virtue of their identity have been exotified and hypersexualised throughout their lives, and therefore can’t see the word as anything but a weapon. Being a self-identified feminist, I of course try my best to conduct myself with a constant awareness of the intersection of gender with race and class, so utterly respect such opposition to reclamation.”
In another of Matthew’s relationships he encountered a girl who couldn’t do polyamory for the very reason of being called a “slut.” “A girl I was seeing believed we should be hetero-monogamous and I questioned that out of curiosity. She told me that society tells me if ‘I am sleeping with someone outside a hetero-monogamous relationship then I am a slut.’ I said ‘that’s insane, that’s ridiculous’ and I asked her if she agreed with that view.
“She told me she believed she should be able to act however she wanted and sleep with whomever she wanted. This was the worst thing for me to hear because this girl was aware but she was still following suit. She should have thought ‘fuck what other people think and fuck what I was brought up to think,’ but the way she had been conditioned and the whole slut-shaming thing meant that she didn’t.”