Let’s face it: Marriage and monogamy is not for everyone. In 2017, the idea of a relationship model beyond mating for life sparked the interest of Google users. The topic of polyamory - or the practice of having concurrent sexual and/or romantic partners with the knowledge and consent of everyone - was the search engine’s fourth most-searched topic in the Relationships category, reports CNN Money. (In case you’re wondering, the top three topics were how to make long distance relationships work, how to change relationship status on Facebook and how to build trust in a relationship, respectively.)
Jessi Leader, a couples' and family therapist in Minneapolis, says that conversations with her clients corroborate this stat. “The expectation to be your partner’s one-stop shop for everything related to their needs, wants and desires is not only unrealistic, but suffocating as well,” she says.
Yet monogamy is the default relationship model, and alternatives are rarely considered. Even so, roughly 5% of Americans, myself included, live a non-monogamous lifestyle. The style I practice is polyamory (often abbreviated as “poly”). It stands apart from many monogamous relationships in that it involves carefully negotiated rules and boundaries and steers clear of romantic, emotional and sexual exclusivity. Think more framework and communication and less of a free-for-all fuck fest.
The mere fact that folks are curious enough to consider something beyond the spoon-fed fairy tales of “happily ever after”makes my multi-loving heart happy. But why the sudden surge in public interest?
Why Interest in Polyamory Is Rising
“We’ve lived in a society trying to deal with the question of open vs. closed relationships since at least the 1960s – there’s nothing unusual about this uptick in poly awareness except perhaps the name (which is close to 30 years old) and the fact that each new generation grapples with these questions anew,” says Carol Queen, PhD and Good Vibrations Staff Sexologist. Queen notes an emergent “critical mass” – including supportive therapists, conferences and mainstream media mentions. “All of this matters enormously for a formerly mainstream-unacceptable way of life,” she says.
Sex educator Kenna Cook attributes the public's interest in polyamory to two factors – pop culture and vocabulary visibility. "This year, we had a huge film come out that connected polyamory, BDSM and comic books – 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,'" she says. “Unlike films that have alluded to polyamory before, this film showed three consenting adults engaging in ethical non-monogamy. It wasn't about cheating lovers, fetishizing bisexuality for the male gaze, or kink shaming. This film had a lot of people asking about how polyamory worked in the 1950s and if they could explore the same relationship orientation today.”
Christopher McKenzie, adjunct film instructor at Boston University, adds that other stories, including “Easy” and especially “Unicornland” are stepping in a new direction where we have established poly couples with narrative difficulties and dramatic needs that don’t directly stem from their lifestyle choice, but from the same aspects of human nature that bedevil their monogamous counterparts. “But none of these next-level stories has caught fire in the popular zeitgeist,” he says. “Until they do, we will be in the giggle-giggle-look-at-the-poly-people-having-all-the-sex phase of this very welcome wave.”
2017 - The Year of Vocabulary Visibility
Next, 2017 was also the year of vocabulary visibility. “More people came out as bisexual, pansexual, agender, gender non-binary, panromantic, and many other descriptors that we hadn't heard of or used in years prior,” says Cook. “Many of the people who claim one of these newer orientations often identify with multiple categories – a common one being polyamory or non-monogamy.” The more people who talk about polyamory online, in articles and in pop culture, the more common it is for that word to wind up in a Google search.
Page Turner, author of "Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory," agrees that technology plays a role. “It's become easier than ever to connect with people on the other side of the world and to find multiple people who have a lot in common with us,” she says.
Millennials, in particular, are increasingly open to consensual non-monogamy. “What I see a lot in working with polyamorous folks are people foregoing the traditional nuclear family with 2.4 children and instead focusing on building a network of chosen family: friends, partners, metamours (a word that polyamorous folks use to describe their partner's other partner). And yes, sometimes this also includes child-rearing,” says Turner. “But the idea of what ‘family’ can mean has expanded alongside of a change in what commitment can look like (understanding that loyalty can exist without sexual fidelity).”
But are more people actually practicing poly relationships? Maybe not ...
Nicole Prause, Ph.D., studies human sexuality (neuroscience). She isn’t convinced that openness actually has increased, so much as these are the current cultural popular topics. “The funny thing about all this poly attention is there is really no evidence that actual poly relationships have increased,” she says. “They remain a tiny fraction of relationships in representative surveys (typically less than 3%).”
The bottom line is that most of us were raised to think of intimacy in a very particular way. But there are countless ways to love and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality. “As the patriarchy dies, so will its cherished institutions,” says Jesse Smith of Seattle. “Monogamy is one of them.”
Leader suggests less antiquated avenues, such as family, friends, support groups, community and, yes, even a carefully negotiated polyamorous partnership to support and honor your needs.
“It takes all kinds, and as an early poly theorist, the late Deborah Anapol implied that it’s important for the options to be right out there, able to be talked about, so that we find the people who are right for us,” says Queen.
Given the choice between a piece of paper and a promise or an intentional, albeit more libertine, lifestyle, I emphatically choose the latter. After all, isn’t love a human experience best shared?
A Few Resources to Learn More
Search popularity indicates a rise in interest, but not necessarily a rise in useful resources to actually learn about polyamory, says Amy Gahran, author of "Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life." If you’re interested in polyamory, here are a few resources to learn more:
- "More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory" by Franklin Veaux
- "Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships" by Tristan Taormino
- Poly in the Media blog
- Poly.Land, a daily polyamory website
- "Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
- "The Ethical Slut, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love" by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton
- "When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and Relationships" by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff
- (NSFW) An Open Invitation and Marriage 2.0 (Erotic films by Magnus Sullivanthat focus on open/poly relationships)
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