Polyamory: What It Is and What It Ain't

Harlan White
Sunday, July 10, 1994
An Address to the
First Unitarian Church of Honolulu


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I must admit I'm not sure what to make of what I'm about to do here this morning. It's one thing to be asked, as I have been before, to speak to a room full of your fellow Unitarians about something that falls within your realm of professional expertise. It's quite something else to be prepared to speak about your own personal lifestyle choice, particularly when that lifestyle choice is unconventional. Even more particularly when it involves sex.

I'm up here this morning because for the past six months or so I've been leading a discussion group on the subject of polyamory which meets upstairs in one of the church classrooms every Thursday night. The group has not been one of the officially sponsored programs of the church, though I've been grateful to the Adult Program Committee for letting us use the room at a very nominal rental. There have been several church members who have attended the group more or less regularly, and there have also been a few people from outside the church who seem to have developed a serious interest in Unitarianism through their exposure from attending the group. This has really pleased me, because, as a life long Unitarian and a new member of the church board, I'm concerned with seeing the church grow. I also think that one of the most important functions a Unitarian church can serve in its community is that of a haven for provocative people--a place where they can continue to be provocative yet experience a sense of belonging and community. I know that's what this church meant to my parents and what it has meant to me.

In any case, there seems to have been some curiosity building in the congregation as to what polyamory is and what goes on upstairs every Thursday night. And so the summer program committee has asked me to talk this morning on the topic: Polyamory--What It Is and What It Ain't.

First, and most obviously, polyamory is a word. For most of us it's a new and unfamiliar word; it was certainly so for me as recently as about a year and a half ago when I stumbled on it while browsing certain computer networks. The idea behind the word was not new; the idea had been alive in my heart and mind since I first started philosophizing about intimate relationships at the age of eleven or twelve. The word itself was new to me, however, and in fact I think it is absolutely new, having been coined in just the last few years by a man with the unlikely name of Otter G'Zell about whom more later.

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Polyamory can be defined as the philosophy and practice of loving more than one other person at a time. Synonyms for polyamory are responsible, ethical, and intentional non-monogamy. Love, in this context, is a close, serious, intimate, more or less stable, sensuous, affectionate bond which exists between one person and another person or group of people. In almost all cases this kind of love involves some sexual or at least some intense physically sensuous behavior.

Besides love, two other words which stand out in the definition of polyamory are philosophy and practice. Now, there's a lot of non-monogamous behavior being practiced in our society. There are single people out playing the field and married people out cheating on their spouses. This is not polyamory. Responsible non-monogamy involves a conscious philosophical commitment to an alternative style of living and loving. It involves conscious and consensual agreements between and amongst loving people, and not just the breaking loose of frustrated hormones.

As so defined, polyamory is really a quite generic term. It covers a wide range of different lifestyle alternatives. At the center of that spectrum is the fairly well-known idea of the open marriage, or open couple. In this case, there are two people who have established a long-term commitment to each other. They may or may not be legally married but they think of each other as spouses, life partners, primary lovers, or whatever other term they might use. There is, however, an agreement between the two of them that each can pursue and experience love and sex outside their relationship without destroying their own commitment. These outside relationships are often referred to as secondaries.

At one end of the polyamory spectrum are the arrangements known as group marriages. In a group marriage there are more than two people--three, four, or more--who all consider themselves essentially married to each other. These arrangements are obviously not legal marriages in the United States at this time, yet people in group marriages consider themselves collective spouses--cohusbands, sisterwives--and usually live together, sharing household expenses, chores, and parenting duties. Group marriages can be "closed" or "open" depending on whether or not the agreements within the group allow for sexual and loving relationships outside the committed group. People in closed group marriages have made up another special "poly" word for themselves. They call what they do "polyfidelity," and refer to themselves as "polyfides."

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The other end of the spectrum contains less formal and structured arrangements called intimate networks. These are flexible but more or less stable "expanded families" made up of erotic friends who have relationships of varying intimacy, intensity, and commitment. Intimate networks may include mixtures of open couples, open group marriages, and singles. People in intimate networks often talk about "primary, secondary, and tertiary partners" to describe the varying levels of intimacy and commitment in their relationships.

So, that covers the range of practices included in polyamory. But, what about the philosophical underpinnings of what polyamorists do? The philosophies also cover something of a range, and to tell you about them I'll have to give you a bit of a list.

First of all, some polys would say that their polyamorous philosophy is nothing more than a straightforward rational acceptance of the realities of human nature. These polys would say that American culture is perpetrating a fraud on the people. The culture would like us to think that human beings, along with bald eagles, gibbons, and whooping cranes, are among the tiny fraction of animal species who are naturally and biologically monogamous in their mating habits. The facts are that the vast majority of human cultures studied by anthropologists and sociologists allow for some form of polygamy or other sanctioned polyamorous relating, and over 90% of mammalian and primate species are non-monogamous in their mating patterns--including our closest genetic cousins, the great apes. Even in our own culture the statistics on divorce and marital infidelity make it clear that the isolated nuclear family built around a lifelong monogamous couple as a norm and standard in our society is pretty much a myth.

The phenomenon of so called "serial monogamy" may be an unconscious compromise between the cultural ideal of monogamy and the facts of human nature. Yet, recently I encountered a polyamorist woman on a computer network who was pondering what set her apart from her monogamous and serial monogamous neighbors. She said she finally decided that the essential element that makes her polyamorous is that "I refuse to accept the myth that I have to stop loving one person before I start loving another."

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There are other polys who view their polyamory as a look backward toward better times in the history of human society. Some of them look no further back than to the late nineteenth century in upstate New York, where there existed an intriguing social experiment called the Oneida Community. The Oneidas were a heretical Christian sect who established an agrarian commune in rural New York and coexisted peaceably with their conventional neighbors for about forty years. In the context of nineteenth century America, the Oneidas practiced some concepts which even today would be considered futuristic in some circles. As best they could conceive it given their cultural background, they practiced equality between the sexes. They practiced family planning and contraception, and sex for recreation and pleasure-bonding as well as reproduction. They also practiced a concept called "complex marriage" in which every adult member of the community was considered essentially married to every other member.

Some of these polys look back considerably further than the Oneidas to find their inspiration, back to a much more ancient, and perhaps even mythological time. This was a time before Christ, before Moses, before the rise of patriarchy, and before the subjugation and chattelization of women. In those times, it is said, no one cared or even knew about paternity and lines of inheritance, and the sexual ownership of one person by another was unknown. Women were then independent agents revered as creators of life and empowered to bestow their favors and pleasures when and where they saw fit.

Yet another group of polys look not to the past for their inspiration but toward the future. These are the speculators and projectors, who are concerned not so much with how things are or were but with how they might be the possible futures of human society. Many of these people draw their inspiration from the writings of science fiction authors, and, in fact, organized science fiction fandom appears to be one of the richest veins of polyamory in America today. These people would say, look, science fiction authors have given us the ideas for space travel, nuclear submarines, communication satellites, and robots--and we have picked up those ideas and run with them and see what marvelous things we have created in our world. See what even more marvelous things we expect to create in the near future. Then these people would say, look, science-fiction authors don't just give us ideas for physics, biology, and engineering; they also give us ideas for new ways we could relate to each other, new ways we could love each other, new family structures and new ways our society could be for us. It's about time we picked up those ideas and ran with them; these are the really exciting possibilities science-fiction offers us. We don't even have to wait for Western Electric or General Dynamics to do it for us--these ideas are things we can put into effect in our own lives. All we need is the courage and determination to, as the song says, "try something new."

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Finally, a last group of polyamorists view their polyamory not as a look toward the past or the future, but as a tenet of their religion. We know, of course, that there is some uncounted number of unreconstructed Mormons living on the back roads of Utah, and an uncountable number of Muslims and others all over the world who practice some form of religiously sanctioned polygamy. In my experience, however, most of the conscious religious polyamorists in America today are not Mormons or Muslims but Humanists or Pagans--or, in the case of people like myself, both at once. Christianity tells us that sex is sin. For many Pagans, sex is the great cosmic creative power of the Universe working itself out on the human level. For us, the joining of a man and a woman in sexual passion is a symbolic reenactment of the joining of the God and the Goddess in a continuous cosmic copulation out of which flows the creation of all things. For us, sex is a religious ritual, an item of magickal practice, a meditative discipline--at the very least it is a celebration of the divine spark in ourselves and our partners and the link between us and Mother Nature and the infinite.

Pagans have a spiritual equivalent of marriage called handfasting. Since it is not a legal contract, handfasting does not involve some of the arbitrary restrictions of licensed marriage. Handfasting can occur between members of the same sex, members of the opposite sex, or amongst groups of people in polyamorous arrangements. The details of the handfasting agreement, such as its duration and its degree of exclusivity, are open to negotiation based on the individual needs and desires of the people involved.

One of the largest and oldest incorporated Pagan organizations in America is called the Church of All Worlds. It was founded in the late 1960's and is still led by the aforementioned Otter G'Zell, the coiner of the term polyamory. CAW holds the distinction of being the only organized American denomination I know of which explicitly supports polyamorous relating amongst its members. The church is organized into small congregations called "Nests," and some, though apparently not all, of these Nests have been intentionally set up not only as religious fellowships but also as functioning intimate networks.

So, I have discussed at some length some of the things polyamory is, and its foundations in science and religion, the past and the future. I will now turn my attention to some of the things that polyamory "ain't."

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One of the first things that most polys would tell you that polyamory ain't is--it ain't swinging. Swinging has sometimes been called sport sex or spouse swapping. I would define it as more or less organized recreational sexual activities for married couples and singles. Now, certainly, from a strictly sexual point of view that would constitute non-monogamous behavior; and, I have no reason to doubt that many swingers approach what they do with a sincere sense of responsibility and philosophical commitment. I know that a number of polys I have met have engaged in swinging in the past and may be continuing to do so; and, I expect that there are swingers who have, over a period of time, developed some genuine supportive and intimate friendships among their fellow swingers. So, there is undoubtedly some overlap between the world of swinging and the world of poly. But insofar as swinging focuses on casual sexual pleasure while polyamory aims at enduring intimate relationships, the two philosophies and practices are significantly different and should be kept separate in our minds.

Another thing that polyamory ain't is, it ain't "free love" in the 1960s sense of the term. It's true that many of the polys I know are people who grew up through the '60s, and lots of them probably still hold dear some of the values of that turbulent and inspired era. Still, I think a fair amount of maturation has taken place in the intervening decades. Just as it would take a fair level of financial maturity to shell out the $135.00 a ticket to attend the return to Woodstock scheduled for later this year, so it takes a fair level of personal and emotional maturity to practice polyamory in the 1990s. Polyamory is about real enduring intimate relationships among real individuals, not some ethereal notion that everyone should love everyone else and sex should be free as a sneeze.

The last and most important thing that I'm going to say polyamory ain't is this--it ain't "THE ANSWER." If you are looking for a quick and easy answer to all your personal and relationship problems, polyamory ain't it. I you are looking for a quick and easy answer to all your personal and relationship problems, you can't look to polyamory; you can't look, for that matter, to monogamy; in fact if you are looking anywhere except deep inside yourself you are looking in the wrong place, and even if you are looking inside you're not likely to find quick and easy answers--life isn't that way. Polyamory is a complex and challenging lifestyle, a path which, in the words of ObiWan Kenobi, is "not to be traveled lightly." I wish I could, but I can not guarantee that the handsome and charming person who invites you into a polyamorous relationship necessarily has your best interest at heart. There are horror stories in the annals of polyamory, some of which we have heard told in our Thursday discussion group and some of which I have lived through in my own life. They must be owned and acknowledged, though we may console ourselves with the thought that the annals of monogamy are at least as horrific.

If you listen to me or to someone else or you read a book and a voice inside you says, "I think I may be polyamorous," well, maybe you are, and maybe that's worth exploring for you. I want to clarify, though, what I mean by explore. I mean read; I mean listen; I mean discuss; I mean consider. Don't jump into this lifestyle because it looks like an attractive practice. You need to be clear that you have a philosophical commitment to what you're about to do before you do it. If you are now in a committed monogamous relationship you must be extremely clear about that philosophical commitment and how important it is to you, because before long it may well be all that you have. Polys, like any group who live on the outskirts of our society's moral village, can live lonely and frustrating lives.

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If you listen to me or to someone else or you read a book and a voice inside you says, "I think I'm monogamous," well, probably you are, and probably you should let it stand at that. I don't know, and I don't think anyone does, whether polys are born or made; I do know that I have no desire to set myself up in the business of manufacturing them. I lead discussion groups and give talks and write articles on polyamory because I believe in freedom of choice, and because I believe in the importance of taking informed responsibility for the choices we make. I believe that a free and open society--of the sort that I believe Unitarianism is and that we all hope America can become--values diversity and has room in it for responsible people of all stripes, from Christian to Pagan, from celibate to libertine, from monogamist to polyfide to intimate networker. These are choices to be made seriously and soberly and not to be palmed off on our gods, our society, or the ghosts of our parents. As a poet I know recently said while pondering the conundrums of sex and relationships:

Let it always be your pleasure,
Though your greatest pleasure be
To see another pleased.

Let it always be your choice,
Though your choice may be
To throw yourself on the winds of passion.

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