Free love might sound like a euphemism for group sex, but to Boston's polyamory community, it's just like marriage -- only bigger
by Alicia Potter
Originally published -The Boston Phoenix Oct 15, 1998
Â© Alicia Potter / Boston Phoenix
On a crooked street in Somerville is a purple house that no doubt raises eyebrows every few Thursdays. That's when it becomes a meeting site for Love Without Bounds, a local organization for young believers in free love.
On a recent evening, members of the group arrive in boisterous trios and hand-holding twosomes. They greet each other with deep, lingering embraces -- no air kisses here -- before plunking onto pillows or curling up together in corners. If ever a crowd spelled "orgy," it's this one.
But two hours pass, and the gathering fails to erupt into any sort of carnal acrobatics. At least the conversation is provocative, but again, not in the way you might think.
"Sex is cheap," says a black-clad man, to nods of agreement. "I want relationships."
It feels like a big book club, with slightly different topics of conversation. The members talk about how to ask someone out if you're married. How to fend off jealousy if you're living with your lover and his lover. How to deal with a world of pairs when you're part of a trio. In short, they talk about what it's like to be polyamorous.Polyamory is the philosophy and practice of loving more than one person at a time. It's different from polygamy -- the practice of taking more than one wife -- in that polyamory is legal, has nothing to do with Mormonism, and spans a whole range of commitment levels besides marriage. The possibilities are endless; as one 32-year-old man, married, with a child and a lover, puts it, "You don't have to end a relationship to start a new one." Some polyamorists share a household with two or more common-law spouses; others have one "primary" partner, often a legal spouse, and one or more secondary relationships beyond that. There are triads and Vs. (See "Poly Lingo," right.) The only requirement is that all involved agree on the ground rules.
Polyamorists will point out that the practice has been around for much, if not all, of human history; in the Book of Genesis, for instance, Sarah lets Abraham beget children with her maid Hagar. Our own culture is steadfastly monogamous, but statistics hint that humans and monogamy can be an uneasy marriage: 25 to 60 percent of American men commit adultery, as do 15 to 40 percent of women. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Fourteen percent of all weddings include someone who's tying the knot for the third time.
For the people in this purple house, monogamy isn't a goal; it's a point of departure. And sex, while an important part of the equation, isn't the point. The point is to find an alternative to monogamy that's less restrictive, but just as stable. The Love Without Bounds members talk about commitment and communication and responsibility with the sort of earnestness that we associate with a couples-therapy session. And, as impossible as it may sound, they are hoping for mainstream recognition.
Boston may be just the place to find it. The area is already home to an active bisexual community, which intersects with the polyamory scene; it's also the birthplace of Family Tree, one of the nation's oldest polyamory support groups, founded in 1975 and still flourishing.
For now, though, the quest for recognition isn't primarily political. It's personal. "Coming out" is a hot topic among the 25 Love Without Bounds members crowded into this tiny living room.
"I can say I'm bisexual and everyone knows what that is," says Lisa, 26, who asked that only her first name be used. "People may not like it . . . but I don't have to spend 20 minutes defining it. One day, I'd just like to say, `Hi, I'm poly.' "
Poly lesson number one: the proper response to such an introduction is not "That's the same thing as swinging, right?"
"Swinging is impersonal sex," says Deborah M. Anapol of San Rafael, California, author of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits (Intinet Resource Center, 1997). "And while I'm not judging that, I don't consider it polyamory, because it doesn't focus on the relationship."
In fact, ask people why they became involved with polyamory and you won't hear much about spouse-swapping or other libidinal adventures (though, yes, threesomes and foursomes do occur). More likely, you'll hear love stories. Complex love stories.
"There are two people who I think are really special, who I want to spend a lot of time with," says a 32-year-old man who's involved with two women. "It's wonderful to have a way to do that."
Sean Sullivan, 26, agrees. A slight man who looks a little like Jesus, he's been involved for four and a half years with Tamara, a bespectacled redhead whom he met as a freshman at Amherst College. That same year, three of his friends entered into a polyamorous relationship, a triad made up of two women and one man. Their closeness intrigued him: currently, he's involved with one of the women, while Tamara has recently started dating a second man. Soon, Sullivan hopes to house all the relationships under one roof.
There doesn't seem to be a "typical" poly relationship. Triads and Vs are popular among the polys I spoke to, with a long-distance lover here or there. Foursomes -- say, a relationship with two married couples -- are reportedly the hardest to pull off: first, both spouses must find a couple they like that much, and second, the intensity is difficult to balance (the husband may be smitten with the other woman more than his wife is smitten with the other man, for example). In the poly world, four really can be a crowd. But when the relationships work, whether with three or four or (in Sullivan's case) six, there's a payoff.
"Poly can be a marriage plus more," says Sullivan. "It can be a lifelong partnership [in which] people live together, help raise children together, grow old together. All of the things people speak of when they speak of family values apply even more to polyamory."
Idealistic? Sure. But perhaps no more so than the talk of heart-eyed romantics bent on finding "the One." Data show, too, that Sullivan's vision isn't all that deluded: Arline M. Rubin, of Brooklyn College, has conducted a 20-year study of polyamorous couples and has found that their relationships last just as long as supposedly monogamous ones. Among Family Tree's 75 members are polyamorous grandparents who enjoy not only 40-year-old marriages but also secondary relationships spanning 15 years.
Such commitment is possible, polys say, because their lifestyle diffuses a lot of relationship pressures. Banish the concept of "my one and only," and you lift the burden of meeting all of a lover's emotional and intellectual needs. In essence, polys are free to choose their paramours as most of us choose our friends: as complements to different sides of their personalities. One lover may share a spiritual outlook, another an ironic sense of humor, another a passion for horror movies.
Says Sullivan: "It allows for stronger emotional bonds than I'd have otherwise. I think if I was in a single relationship there would probably be aspects of myself that I wouldn't really be able to share with just one person. Additional relationships mean there's more of myself I can express."
He scratches his thick beard and shrugs. "There's just more companionship."
Sullivan first encountered polyamory as many others do: through science fiction. The summer before college, he read Fallway, by Paula Johnson, a novel in which six humans are raised in an alien world where group marriage is the norm. Something clicked.
"I realized that felt very, very comfortable to me," Sullivan recalls. "It portrayed a group of people in a serious, committed relationship, similar to what a relationship would ordinarily be, but with more people, more personalities, more interests, and more dynamics possible. And that just stuck in my mind as something that felt right to me in a way that other [traditional] relationships didn't."
Early poly primers were books such as the 1970s bestseller Open Marriage, by George and Nena O'Neill. But it's science-fiction works, most notably Robert Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment (1966), that polys credit with sustaining polyamory beyond the Aquarian Age. Both novels uphold multiple commitments as the love life of the future.
As a result, the poly subculture -- which at this point eludes accurate population figures -- doesn't look quite like what you might expect. Sure, there are some polys who could have driven the last van out of Woodstock. Most, however, are cerebral and articulate -- more geeky than granola. An uncanny number of polys I met work in high tech, as well as in "helping professions" such as health care (which, according to Anapol, attract people who connect with others easily).
The preponderance of techies is no coincidence. At least in the Boston area, polyamorists tend to build communities via the Internet. The year-old Love Without Bounds started when two polys put up a Web page and sent out e-mails encouraging attendance at a new poly support group.
Poly dating, as you can imagine, doesn't usually start out with a couple of drinks at the Wonder Bar ("Yeah, that's my husband over there, but he wouldn't mind if we got together. No, really, he wouldn't mind. . . . "). Polys meet at poly parties, at polyamorist gatherings like Love Without Bounds meetings, and at other events that attract a poly crowd, such as science-fiction conventions. (Polyamorists also overlap with a few other subcultures: pagans, goths, nudists.) They meet through online personal ads and through ads in the poly magazine Loving More, which recently sponsored a conference that featured relationship-building workshops and social events in New York. Many entertain long-distance relationships with a lover, as the Boston poly scene can get pretty small pretty fast. "It gets a little incestuous around here," admits Lisa, with a laugh.
Recent events should help to widen the local circle. In April, 900 people attended the Fifth International Conference on Bisexuality -- at which the workshops on polyamory were among the most popular. Likewise, in the last month, the poly-Boston e-mail list, which keeps polys informed of parties and events, spun off a second list to publicize poly activities in the Southeastern Massachusetts and Providence area.
Polys I spoke to insist that even without panel discussions or Heinlein novels or jobs in computer programming, they'd still be polyamorous. They talk about "relationship orientation" -- a propensity for handling multiple commitments that varies from person to person, like the spectrum of sexual orientation. Some people are monogamous; most are in the middle; some are hard-wired polyamorous.
"For me it's not a question of loving polyamory," says Alan Wexelblat, 36, who in 18 years of dating has always had poly relationships. "It's who I am. Even if I were only in one relationship and following monogamous rules, that doesn't change me, just like a bisexual person can be in a relationship with any one person and yet still be identified as bisexual."
It's an interesting idea, especially given the inability of many people to stay reliably within the constraints of monogamy: could it be that those cheating louts are polyamorous but just don't know it?
Likely so, says anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (W.W. Norton, 1992). But they're not the only ones: we're all potentially polyamorous.
"You would think that more people would be [practicing] polyamory, because, evolutionarily, we're built to have multiple relationships," she says. "We're built to fool around."
Anthropologists now believe that, at the most, 2 percent of all species are completely faithful sexually (among them the Nile crocodile, the American toad, the dung beetle, and some desert wood lice). In her book, Fisher points out that anthropological studies of 853 human societies showed only 16 percent practicing monogamy as we typically define it. And, as we know, even monogamy doesn't guarantee fidelity; in many of the monogamous cultures, researchers discovered covert or tolerated affairs.
Fisher has an explanation for our longings: she says that our brain circuitry has evolved so that the chemical reactions associated with different kinds of love -- attachment, infatuation, lust -- function independently of one another. In other words, we can find comfort with an old lover, flirt with a cute coworker, and fantasize about that beautiful stranger on the T -- all in the course of an hour.
"However," Fisher cautions, "we're not built to share. We get jealous. That puts the human animal in a pickle."
Polyamorists, she says, have found a way out. "They're honestly dealing with the fact that we're not built to be faithful," she explains. "They accept that inevitability and channel it in ways that minimize pain and maximize joy. They attempt paradise."
This paradise, though, can be very unfamiliar territory. Take this scene, for example: Rob Mohns, 25, nuzzles his girlfriend Aileen, 22, while two feet away, knitting a scarf, is his fiancÃ©e, 26-year-old Megan O'Neal. As Mohns and his new love practically roll off the couch, O'Neal's face is serene.
"I don't usually get jealous," says O'Neal. "And when I do, it takes me by surprise. It's kind of good, because it usually means that something in this situation isn't working for me, that I need to figure out what it is and go talk to the person."
Spend some time with polyamorists and you realize that communication is what keeps their relationships alive. Polys talk about everything: who they want to go out with, what they do on their dates, how their relationships are progressing.
Poly commitments give new meaning to "the Rules." To the average monogamist, some of these relationship statutes might seem mind-boggling: as a polyamorist, for example, you might negotiate whether or not your lover can sleep with another in your bed. Other rules are kind of silly: one man's girlfriend asked that he accompany only her to first-run movies. Safe sex -- condoms, dental dams -- is a given; a long-time Family Tree member reports that in nearly 25 years, there has been only one sexually-transmitted-disease scare, and that was a false alarm. But many guidelines are simple and practical: no surprises, no keeping secrets with secondary lovers, and no cheating, which in this context means you don't get involved with someone new without apprising the others.
"No, we're not running around doing whatever we damn well please," says Aileen. "We have to talk about things and be open. If we don't, it's disastrous." In that respect, monogamy and polyamory have a lot in common.
In another respect -- public acceptance -- they have very little in common. However widely practiced polyamory is in other societies, Helen Fisher doesn't think our own culture will ever embrace the idea of Rob and Aileen and Megan.
Americans, says Fisher, are "wedded to the notion of lifelong pair bonding and fidelity. We'll see more divorce and adultery rather than an attempt to channel our urges in an honest way. The majority of Americans will not endorse polyamory -- ever."
Our culture, Fisher says, won't try what it doesn't know. Though she believes marrying for life will become rarer and rarer as we live longer, monogamy itself won't likely come into question. In other words, our allegiance to the idea of commitment will far outlast the commitments themselves.
In his book Monogamy (Pantheon, 1996), a collection of thoughts on the subject, British author Adam Phillips puts it this way: "Our belief in the couple -- in good couplings -- is a measure of our sense of hope." No matter how high the divorce rate spikes, the Sunday paper promises to abound with beaming brides and grooms. Monogamy is like religion, says Phillips: it's a leap of faith we're happy to take.
Polyamory, by contrast, just seems to make people feel uncomfortable, threatened, and maybe even a little guilty. When I mentioned to a friend -- a friend with a history of overlapping relationships -- that many of us have brushed with polyamory, whether by dating multiple people or by just cheating outright, she replied: "Not me."
And for those who have endured the pain of infidelity, the reaction to the idea of polyamory can be virulent. One polyamorous woman tells of being accosted by a divorcÃ©e whose husband had strayed: "She was very condemning and accusatory. She said [polyamory] is wrong, that she'd been really hurt by someone who slept with someone else. I thought, Hey, I didn't sleep with your husband, ma'am!"
Then there's that little problem of sex. No matter how many safety guidelines people obey, society still tsk-tsks at multiple partners as a manifestation of promiscuity and ambivalence about commitment. Katherine Reeder, a Cambridge therapist, admits that she'd question a couple with outside relationships: "I don't think it's necessarily pathological, but [multiple relationships] still break a bond and prevent the deepest possible connection. I'd try to show [the couple] there's a deeper meaning of love."
This type of talk riles polys like Rob Mohns. "People just don't get that it's not about lack of commitment," he says. "It's ironic considering what our culture does accept. Serial monogamy -- one [relationship] after another after another -- that's okay. Cheating, while it's not nice and you don't want to get caught, is tacitly accepted because it's the norm. But being seriously involved with [two women]? Now, that's not okay!"
Despite such reactions, polyamorists see hope. Brett Hill, editor of Loving More magazine, compares the poly movement now to the gay movement 25 years ago, when many Americans were just learning that friends, coworkers, and other "normal" people were gay.
"One of the reasons I've chosen to be out," says Alan Wexelblat, who's a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, "is because . . . I am an example, whether I like it or not, of who poly people are and how they behave."
One day soon, says Hill, you may learn that your cubicle-mate has not only a fiancÃ© but a boyfriend, too.
But it might not be that simple. Gay relationships are becoming more accepted partly because they're proving stable and committed -- that is, they can be just as monogamous as straight relationships. As a result, in spite of the furor over Heather Has Two Mommies, a lot of Americans are proving able to cope with the conceptual leap from the traditional definition of the nuclear family -- a man and a woman -- to a family structure that revolves around two men or two women. But two men and one woman? That's another story.
"[Polyamory] is just weirder," says Teddy, 23, who's monogamous. "I just wasn't raised seeing that type of relationship. At least with gay and straight marriages, everyone's on the same wavelength."
Wexelblat refuses to buy it. "I think the [relationship] configuration is less important than the answers to such questions as: Is it a committed relationship? Do they share accommodations? Do they share financial responsibilities? Are they working on raising kids together?
"Those are things that are really important issues for the poly community," he continues, "and to the extent that the gay-rights movement makes headway on those issues, they make headway for us."
The polyamory movement does show signs of advancing into the public consciousness. Both MTV and ABC's 20/20 are preparing segments on polyamory to air later this fall, and a couple of documentaries are in the works. Meanwhile, political initiatives to change zoning laws (some towns won't let more than two unrelated people live together) and partner benefits are inching along.
Most promising for polys is that some report they have come out to coworkers and family with little controversy; they even feel comfortable decorating their desks with, yes, pictures of both their primary partner and their lovers.
And that will continue, says Wexelblat. "Even if the country as a whole enters into a collective denial and says, 'No, there are no poly people, we refuse to acknowledge your existence,' that doesn't prevent us from existing," he explains. "It doesn't prevent more people from discovering who they are and how they want to live."
Wexelblat -- who'll be married next spring, with his lover of eight years in attendance -- shakes his head: "You might as well shovel sand against the tide."