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Polyamory - What it is (Part 1)

Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 6, Feb. 27, 2003

Polyamory - What it is and what it isn't.

Derek McCullough
David S. Hall, Ph.D.

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail"
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Polyamory - What it is..

"Your love is located within you. It is yours to nurture and savor, to give to others in any way you choose. Love must be without qualifications or demands. You must learn to find ecstasy in other peoples happiness. Once you feel love for yourself, it is quite normal to give it away." Wayne Dyer Gifts from Eykis

Polyamory has been defined as the philosophy and practice of loving more than one person at a time with honesty and integrity. Synonyms for polyamory are responsible, ethical, and intentional, non-monogamy. Because those descriptions are somewhat clumsy, the term Polyamory was coined in the late 80's by a pagan Priestess, Morning Glory Zell, and defines a range of different lifestyle alternatives. In most cases, but not all, this involves some sexual or at least intensely intimate sensual behavior.

There have been various polyamorous communities and communes, perhaps the most famous being the Onieda Community in New York State in the mid-1800's, but generally they are isolated and keep their heads down, given the prevailing moral climate.

What do Polyamorists, in general, say they believe?

Polyamorists say that their philosophy is nothing more than a straightforward acceptance and celebration of the realities of human nature.

Polyamorists say that sex is not the enemy, that the real enemy is the deceit and betrayal of trust that results from trying to shoehorn our natural selves into a rigid, unnatural social system.

Polyamorists say that sex is a positive force if applied with honesty, responsibility and trust.

Polyamorists do not have to individually meet every need of each partner; they have help. If your wife loves opera and you dislike it, maybe one of her lovers will enjoy taking her to hear it. If he is also a computer whiz, and helps fix your computers when they don't behave, you are a very lucky person.

Polyamorists say that love is an infinite, not a finite commodity. An example of this is with children. When my oldest daughter was born, I loved her with every ounce of my being. When my son was born, I found that I didn't have to give them half a love each, I could love them both fully. My third child is loved as much, if not more, than the other two.

This also applies to friends - when you meet someone new, you don't have to think about who you are going to drop off to make them fit. As a woman said when explaining why she chose polyamory - "I refuse to accept the myth that I have to stop loving one person before I start loving another."

Polyamorists say that loving someone does not give you the right to control that person's behavior.

Polyamorists say that jealousy is not innate, inevitable and impossible to overcome. But they deal with jealousy often, usually successfully. There is a new term for the opposite of jealousy. "Compersion" is the feeling of joy that comes from knowing that the one you love is well loved by someone else.

Polyamorists say that love should be unconditional, rather than the monogamous proposition that "I will love you on the condition that you will not love anyone else" - "forsaking all others" is how it usually is put. And as shown by history, monogamy and marriage are no safeguards against falling in love with someone else.

Polyamorists believe in long term emotional investment in relationships, and while the goal is not always achieved in poly, it is also not always achieved in monogamy.

Polyamorists believe they represent true "family values". They have the courage to live an alternative lifestyle that, while condemned by society, is satisfying and rewarding. Children having multiple parents are more likely to be better cared for, and less likely to feel abandoned if someone leaves the family.

The Contrast with Monogamy

One of the nearly universally accepted assumptions in our society is the assumption that the monogamous pair is the only valid structure of human sexual relationships, being so superior that it doesn't warrant scrutiny. In fact, our culture puts so much emphasis on it, through cultural norms, modern literature and films, that serious discussion on the subject of alternatives is rare. Monogamous marriage has even been incorporated into the law of our land in the section that specifies how money for sex education must be spent. It is a focus of the religious right when they talk about how to reduce welfare, how to reduce abortion, how to reduce single parent families, and many other issues.

The reasons given for monogamous marriage being the only acceptable form of couple relating, and the only place where sex is allowed, generally fall into two categories.

1. It is our natural state (i.e., hard-wired)

2. It is the only moral state, the one approved by God - all other options are inherently sinful.

It is interesting to note that these are essentially the same reasons given by the fundamentalist right for their condemnation of homosexuality, namely that it is unnatural and immoral, and explains the affinity of polyamorists to the GLBT community. There is an excellent Beacon Press book by E. J. Graff, "What is Marriage For". Graff's six reasons for marriage are: money, sex, babies, kin, order and heart. She provides an excellent historical review of marriage and convincing evidence that our view of marriage is a very culturally determined one, and not a "natural" condition of the human organism.

If intelligent life is about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning then it is apparent that unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions. Therefore, questioning monogamous marriage might be thought of as obligatory. Are we hard wired for it? Is it the only "moral" way of relating sexually to others?

It's only Natural.

"The complexity of a system is limited only if the system is rigid, inflexible and isolated from its environment. Self-organizing systems in continual interaction with their environment are capable of tremendously increasing their complexity by abandoning structural stability in favor of flexibility and open ended evolution."
Erich Jantsch. Design for Living.

In examining the natural structure of things, the binary system doesn't really stand out. The atomic structure has three parts; proton, electron, and neutron. These then combine to produce a complex array of atoms and thence molecules. Architectural structures generally, from the pyramids through to the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, are based on the triangle. In music, a three-note chord is more dynamic and powerful than one made up of two notes. I know these are not persuasive arguments, but the triad is also a very common poly arrangement.

The increasing evidence from animal research is that fewer and fewer species (once thought to be so) are really monogamous in the wild. In the animal kingdom, less than 5% of all animals are now thought to be monogamous.

The evolutionary biologists posit that there are many good reasons for nonmonogamy, but their theories are difficult, if not impossible, to test. The anthropology argument for monogamy, that a man would only protect his children if he was sure of their paternity, is being questioned, most recently in a book called "Cultures of Multiple Fathers". In this study, the authors found evidence that showed that the children of women who had sexual relationships with many men had better survival rates - because of "potential" paternity, they were less vulnerable.

Of the 1270 human societies catalogued in Murdoch's Ethnographic Atlas, about 85% indicate some form of multi-spouse relationships. Even the few societies that theoretically espouse monogamy, like ours, have trouble showing any evidence that it works. On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of evidence that Western humans don't do monogamy well in the high divorce rates, high rates of infidelity, the highest teen pregnancy rate in the western world, high single parent family numbers, and other indicators. We often see people leave an otherwise good marriage because they fell in love with someone new, in what might be called serial monogamy. In short, the argument that the human animal is "hard wired" for monogamy is difficult to support.

In any case, since we humans are so bad at monogamy, other freely chosen relationship structures should also be supported.

It is sinful - God doesn't like it.

"Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." Oscar Wilde Chameleon.

"Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error." George Bernard Shaw

The sinfulness and wickedness of sex is based on the assumption that God doesn't like sex. This poison has its roots in Ancient Assyria, and the religions of Mythra and Zoroastrianism, which first put forth the idea of "the obscenity of the flesh." The sex drive, being one that cannot be denied, becomes a rich source of implanted guilt and shame, used to manipulate and degrade the individual. Therefore any sexual (natural) feelings need to be accompanied by shame, and therefore kept secret.

Somehow this shameful, sinful act is transformed into sacred overnight if accompanied by the right words by someone with the appropriate qualifications to marry people. It does not seem to matter how the marriage was arranged, for what reasons the people are marrying, or even if they want to be married. The only requirement is that they go through the legal process.

Without going into it too deeply, a perusal of most mainstream religions show that

1. Many of the ancient texts were written by polygamists, and

2. Most of the rules were based on considering women as property, rather than as a result of a solemn promise between equals.

It is also worth noting that no matter how strict the moral teachings, or how severe the punishments, be it from the Taliban, the Bible belt, Rome or Washington, human beings persist in trying to satisfy their sexual desires. A recent news article reported that 40% of nuns had a history of being sexually abused, either before or within the Roman church. The data on priests is slowly becoming public. The data on the general public is harder to obtain, given the resistance to admit to being abused, or being an abuser. It is clear that sex crimes put a lot of people in jail.

There is historical evidence of religions that embrace our sexual nature in a positive way, found on temple carvings from Asia, pottery from Europe and elsewhere, but it is not a feature of current Western mainstream religious practice.

Serial monogamy is perhaps an unconscious compromise between the cultural ideal of monogamy and the facts of human nature - in other words, we acknowledge that you can love more than one person, but only one at a time. The destructive effects of serial monogamy on children are well documented, with 8 million single parent families in the US, infidelity-fueled acrimonious divorces, through to the spate of spouse murdering lately. Much of the evidence seems to indicate that human attainment of the cultural ideal of monogamy is a myth.

The moral argument for monogamy is a weak position. A better moral argument can be made regarding what is best for each individual and for society, that is, do we make life better for each and all by insisting on sex only in monogamous marriage of heterosexual couples, or on letting individuals find responsible ways of relating that, in Pagan terms, "harm none". Liberal religion has taken a fine stance supporting homosexual and heterosexual couples, and unmarried couples as well. What is so hard about seeing the parallels to the "more than a couple" part?

It is a reality that there are many people now relating sexually in groups greater than two. The reason I keep referring to "relating sexually" is that this seems to be the stumbling block for many. If polyamorists were to keep it platonic, not be sexually involved with people they love in numbers greater than one, most would applaud their loving behavior. But when they admit that they not only love more than one, but have sexual relationships with more than one, all the red flags come flying out.

If you watch TV at all, you will know that polyamory is getting a lot of play, from episodes on Ally McBeal, talk shows like Montel Williams, John Walsh, Geraldo, and HBO's Real Sex. There are many poly friendly films available from Hollywood, and of course the Really Rich and Famous can do what they please about relationships and get lots of favorable press. What has brought polys out of the closet is the Internet, where people who thought they were the "only ones" find lots of company.
Continued in part 2 Here

Original Article -

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Tips for Safe Online Dating December 5, 2012 10:37 AM Deborah
But What About The Children? March 6, 2009 7:31 PM Deborah
Raising Kids Poly - an eye opening experience March 6, 2009 4:58 PM Deborah
Thinking about Children March 6, 2009 4:45 PM Deborah
Condom Compact January 4, 2013 5:48 PM Deborah
Books on Polyamory January 24, 2009 10:29 AM Deborah
A crazy little thing called.....Compersion October 3, 2008 7:42 PM Deborah
Polyamory Language September 28, 2008 3:27 PM Deborah
Polyamory - What it isn't (Part 2) September 28, 2008 1:28 PM Deborah
Polyamory - What it is (Part 1) September 28, 2008 1:29 PM Deborah
My lover just told me he or she wants other lovers June 22, 2008 9:36 PM Deborah
Coming Clean June 22, 2008 9:07 PM Deborah

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