Sex by Numbers 

Polyamory has gone from being a fringe scene to a veritable subculture. But can having multiple partners ever be widely accepted?

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At the end of the day, though, it remains marginal. And if you buy into Ryan's argument that an ownership-based society organizes itself around monogamous relationships, then polyamory may never really become mainstream. It's a fringe movement by its very definition, and some adherents would prefer that it stay that way.


In fact, there are two main obstacles facing the polyamory movement. One is that, like it or not, we're a morality-obsessed culture, and in many ways we're still a doctrinal culture. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 92 percent of Americans think that having an extramarital affair is morally wrong. That's about twice as many as those who condemn gay and lesbian relationships, and three times as many as those who oppose the death penalty. Which is to say that as a culture, we're intractably wedded to the idea of a solid matrimonial bond. We're more amenable to the idea of legally killing someone than the idea of wrecking a marriage.

Thus, open relationships have a long way to go before becoming socially acceptable, let alone part of the status quo. Bigots who still find the idea of gay marriage unsavory probably won't cotton to nonmonogamy anytime soon.

Most of the people interviewed for this article wanted to conceal their identities, either because they feared repercussions at work — Kate, for instance, is an elementary school teacher; Ned asked that the name of his university be redacted, to avoid raising the attention of administrators — or because they hadn't "come out" to their families. Jessica said her mom mildly disapproves of open relationships and tends to dodge the subject when Jessica brings it up. A woman named Jess Young, who grew up in Texas and moved to the Bay Area after college, said her parents threw her out of the house when she was in high school for being a lesbian. "I think that polyamory would be beyond the scope of their understanding," she said.

The other problem is that humans are jealous creatures, whether or not you throw the concept of ownership into the equation. Asked if we can ever overcome jealousy, Dan Savage had a pretty straightforward answer: "No," he wrote, in an email interview. "And I say that as someone who has been in a monogamish relationship for a dozen years. Jealousy is a control, I think, a natural human emotion — just like the desire for variety and other partners."

And the truth is that polyamorous relationships are hard. Those who practice them say there's no set way of doing it. Levkoff and Whittaker are loose enough and trusting enough to let each other spend entire weekends with their respective lovers. Whittaker said she usually likes to meet the people her partner dates, particularly if it's more than just a casual romance, but she's not always interested in hearing all the details.

Jessica and John have a more hands-on approach, meaning they pretty much tell each other everything. Jessica confessed that she finds herself getting jealous in unexpected ways, and not always about sex. "I'll be like, 'Hey, you made dinner with her? No fair.'" Ned describes his relationship with Maggie as "polyfuckerous" rather than polyamorous, and says that largely owes to time constraints; he's a full-time student, she has a day job, and neither of them has the energy for endless "processing."

Some polyamorists subscribe to the idea of "compersion," which is basically a way of being happy that your partner is happy, even if that means allowing your partner to see other people. Oft-described as "the inverse of jealousy," it's defined both as an enlightened, empathic state, and a tool to surmount the feelings of possessiveness and insecurity that normally crop up in romantic relationships. Some polyamory scholars argue that compersion can be learned. Easton discusses it at length in The Ethical Slut. Jessica says she's been able to implement it sometimes. "Really," she said, "nobody's immune to jealousy."

And then, well, there's the problem of some people being liars, no matter what situation you put them in — closed, open, whatever. People in monogamous relationships cheat, but so do people in polyamorous relationships. Some people "open up" relationships in order to sabotage rather than enhance them. Savage put it bluntly: "Some people convince their partners to open their relationships, and promise them that it's not because they're not attracted to 'em anymore, but they're really done and want out of the relationship, and 'openness' for them means 'I'm out there auditioning potential new partners and as soon as I find one I'm going to dump the person I'm with."

Kate agreed. "Nonmonogamous people can cheat," she said. "It's just about being a dishonest schmuck. If you do it right, it's supposed to be thoughtful. You're supposed to do a lot of 'checking in' and talking things to death."

And, granted, people in polyamorous relationships deal with their fair share of dishonest schmucks. "The first guy I dated in New York, I think he wanted to rescue me from John," Jessica said. "He was super emotionally intimate with me, listened to me talk about my relationships, sort of alluded to the fact that he wasn't really down with the program. After two months he disappeared." She sighed. "I feel like dudes think that because you already have a boyfriend, they don't have to actually break things off."

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