Last episode we gave a deep history of relationships in early civilizations and the evolution of monogamy. In this episode we discuss the modern day concepts Polyamory. While the practice of having multiple partners is not new at all, Polyamory is a recent development in Western culture. We detail the differences between open relationships, polygamy and polyamory.
As well as the code of ethics and some of the terminology within the lifestyle. We also discuss the push to have polysexual listed as an orientation and the way this has affected the queer community. Join us for the conclusion of the History of Monogamy and Polyamory.
On our last episode we dove into the history of monogamy and nonmonogamy in civilizations past. We covered the four forms of monogamy; 1) Social monogamy – where two people commit to building a life together. 2) Marital monogamy – when two people enter into a lifelong commitment to one another as social partners. 3) Genetic Monogamy – two parents who have children only with each other. And 4) Sexual Monogamy – the practice of two people committing to only have sex with one another. We pointed out that in studies done in over 1,200 cultures and societies only 186 were monogamous in all 4 areas of monogamy. And in truth, full monogamy is a western practice developed and enforced by monotheistic religions – specifically Christianity.
However, the lack of monogamy in other cultures around the world is not the practice of Polyamory. While these cultures may be Polygyny (When one man has multiple female partners) or Polyandry (When on woman has multiple male partners) or both, the concept of Polyamory is a lifestyle created by and for Western culture. Because of the heavy emphasis and restrictions of a monogamous society, polysexual people have worked to create an ethical and safe culture to express their multi love desires. In other areas around the world this separate environment would not be necessary as most cultures are very fluid in terms of social, genetic, marital, and sexual experiences. However, Western society has forced poly people to define their lifestyle. And we want to add once again, that Polygamy (in all its current western forms) is a religious practice rooted in misogyny and sexism and is not part of the polyamourous lifestyle. While the term may simply mean a multi marriage, in its current expression it means something much different than Polyamory.
So what is Polyamory and when was this modern day lifestyle first presented to Western civilization? According to the website morethantwo.com the definition of Polyamory is:
The fact of having simultaneous close romantic relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.
Despite new laws and social prejudice against multi-partner relationships, people had continued to engage in polycentric romances throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However they had to do so underground, which was mostly due to the same-sex and queer individual pair ups rather than the fact that multiple people were in love. Anti-Sodomy and sexual deviancy laws played a strong part in keeping poly couples private.
In 1929 famous philosopher Bertrand Russell released the book Marriage and Morals. Russell was an incredibly complex and controversial figure and his book read the same. In one chapter he supported the abhorrent practice of Eugenics. Which is the process of eliminating those in society deemed undesirable, often through death or sterilization. The idea is that by removing these individuals abilities to reproduce – and thus eliminating their so-called defective genes – we will eventually achieve a master race. And if that term sounds familiar, that is because this concept was the basis of the Nazi extermination of Jews. So needless to say, Russell’s support of such a practice is heinous. On the other hand, he was known to be incredibly generous and charitable. In the book Marriage and Morals, Russell becomes one of the first men to openly oppose rape in marraige. And remember, marital rape was not made illegal in the US until 1993. But 64 years earlier Russell had written:
“Marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.”
Naturally his views on marital rape were not well received. Neither were his thoughts on non-monogamy. Where Russell proposed that it was not immoral for people to explore sexually outside or within the bonds of marriage. He believed that our monogamous society must evolve with the times. And continued to teach and elaborate on this point long after Marriage and Morals and his philosophical teachings had earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. Russell wrote in 1936:
The difficulty of arriving at a workable sexual ethic arises from the conflict between the impulse to jealousy and the impulse to polygamy. There is no doubt that jealousy, while in part instinctive, is to a very large degree conventional. In societies in which a man is considered a fit object for ridicule if his wife is unfaithful, he will be jealous where she is concerned, even if he no longer has any affection for her. Thus jealousy is intimately connected with the sense of property, and [jealousy] is less where the [idea of property] is absent…..In the meantime, if marriage and paternity are to survive as social institutions, some compromise is necessary between complete promiscuity and life-long monogamy. To decide on the best compromise at any given moment is not easy; and the decision should vary from time to time, according to the habits of the population and the reliability of birth-control methods.
Despite his efforts, Russell was eventually – and ironically – deemed “too immoral” to teach in schools and universities. Though he did continue to travel and speak . With the boom in sexual research spurred by Alfred Kinsey’s 1940’s and 1950’s publishings. Followed by the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the queer liberation fight of the 70’s and 80’s, one might think Poly couples were safe to come out of hiding. But sadly they had a new foe, the Gay and Lesbian movement. In an effort to prove they were quote-on-quote normal – white, middle class, gay and lesbian activists wanted to present a traditional front. Again and again transgender, gender non-conforming, queer people of color, leather/BDSM, and polysexual people were silenced and ignored. Fear and prejudice swept gay and lesbian alliances as they worried the movement would be seen as too radical if others had a voice. So it should not be much of a surprise that the term “Polyamorous” was not even be publicly introduced to the world until 1990. And it was coined by a witch! A witch named Morning Glory-Zell Ravenheart.
Ravenheart was born in1948 and given the name Diane Moore. A fitting Christian name for the baby of strict pentacostal parents. However, the religion was not for the young woman who rejected it when she was 17 after reading the book Diary of a Witch by Sybil Leek. Morning Glory changed her name and joined a local commune in Oregon. She began to study the dark arts and soon entered an open and pagan marriage to a hitchhiker she met. But the marriage ended in divorce a few years later when Morning Glory fell in love with a wizard named Tim Zell. The two also maintained an open and multi-partnered relationship. Usually with 5 to 6 lovers bonded together. After the Glory-Zell union, Morning Glory took over editorship of the groups Neopagan journal Green Egg around 1969. The priestess would oversee the journal off and on for the next 32 years. And it was through this magazine that the editor introduced the concept of Polyamory to the world in an article titled Bouquet of Lovers.
The article shot the magazine back into the public eye after it had been fairly dormant for over a decade. With new terminology and the budding internet, people were able to come ‘out’ as Polyamorous and the movement saw a breakthrough. One of the first online groups was established by Jennifer Wesp in 1992 under the Usenet forum atl.polyamory. By 1995 poly people were establishing so many connections that a flag representing the group had been created and the term “polyamory” had been submitted to the Oxford Dictionary. Further evidence came in the form of the popular book The Ethical Slut published in 1997 and written by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. However, we see the prejudice of the time as the authors felt safer using a pseudonym. Which is why the first edition bears the name Catherine A. Listz on the cover. The book discussed polyamory as more than the mere act of sleeping with multiple partners. It presented a moral and ethical lifestyle to the general public.
And that is what separates polyamory from any other form of non-monogamy. In 1999 the Oxford Dictionary did accept the proposal of the word polyamory and stated the definition as such:
The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved
Today the definition has simplified to read:
the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the agreement of all the people involved
With the added note:
*Open marriages and polyamory can work well for couples who communicate well.
The most commonly quoted ethics in Polyamory are; fidelity and loyalty, Communication and negotiation, Honesty and trust, dignity and respect, and non-possessiveness. Poly individuals understand that jealousy is a part of every relationship and work to combat that. One term used in the polyamorous world is Compersion. Which is used to express joy at a partners joy in another relationship. Every group of individuals may have their own terminology, but some other commonly used terms are such: Triad or Quad – this refers to the group. Triad means a relationship involving three people. Quad means the same only with four people. How the individuals date each other will vary from group to group. In some triads/quads everyone dates each one another. In other triads/quads the coupling may be more defined. Some individuals will date everyone in their group but only fluid-bond with specific people. Fluid-bonding is the act of not using protection during sex.
Some poly people use a hierarchical method for their lovers while other individuals may not use this method. Those who use the hierarchical levels rate their relationships in order of importance. For instance, a married couple would usually place their spouse as their primary partner. Then each individual would choose a secondary and sometimes a teitary partner. How couples navigate this again varies from group to group. Sometimes a primary partner will have veto power on their partners other relationships. Usually the term is simply used to establish boundaries and guidelines for other lovers. Another term used by both hierarchical and non-hierarchical quads and triads is nesting partner. This specifically refers to couples who live together. And while that fact may not establish a level of importance, it does exhibit a level of entanglement for all parties to be aware.
It is also important to note that sex is not the foundation of Polyamorous relationships. Like any other romantic relationship, polyamorous couples become involved for the same reason. The difference being that these couples are also involved with other people. And depending on the level of comfort and desire to explore, some people may continue to have casual sex while other will remain committed to their triad or quad. What is essential is honesty and communication. Whatever rules and guidelines the couple or group agrees upon the individuals involved should comply. As with any monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, what erodes a romance is not sex or dating; but rather, lying, cheating, and possessiveness.
Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion of information and exposure to polyamorous communities. And with this has come a mixed bag of reactions. Since its publication in 1997, The Ethical Slut has published 3 editions, several hundred thousand copies, and been adapted into the play Multiple O’s. In addition several more popular books on the subject have been written. Such as More Than Two and Opening Up along with a host of others. Television series have featured polyamorous relationships and dozens of movies have been made. One of the most recent and our favorite tells the true story of the creator of Wonder Woman. The movie Professor Martson and the Wonder Woman is excellent and is currently available on Hulu.
But of course there has been push back. In the fight for marriage equality, one of the most common arguments used by opponents was that same-sex marraige would open the door for polyamorous couples. Sadly, the queer community often dounced poly practices in an effort to protect and distance themselves from fall out around the issue. As a response many poly people have pushed to have polyamorous defined as an orientation. But even well known gay activists such as Dan Savage have declared “polyamory isn’t something you ARE, it’s something you DO.” An idea that once again reduces polyamory to nothing more than sex. Which further allows for the discrimination and limitation of polysexual people.
Vice media reported in 2016 the many obstacles poly people face in America and around the world. For instance in Connecticut, outdated zoning laws restrict the number of unmarried adults who can live together. In both Alabama and Florida laws are STILL in place which criminalize adultery making it dangerous for polyamorous married couples to engage with their quad or triad. In Australia a social worker was fired simply because she listed herself as a poly-friendly therapist. And of course this doesn’t touch on the social prejudice and discrimination that polysexual people face on a day to day basis. Which is why adding it as an orientation would be so beneficial in protecting the rights of poly people and poly couples.
However, even the polyamorous community is divided on whether to classify being polysexual as an orientation. Despite there being evidence that suggests non-monogamous people experience higher levels of testosterone and sex drive. Still, some suggest that establishing polysexual as an orientation would limit the concept of multi-love. The argument as a whole is very similar to the argument in the queer community about how marriage legalization might change LGBTQ lifestyle. And queer lifestyle has evolved, but that is not neccesarily a bad thing. Regardless of disagreements among poly people the fact remains that they deserve equality and protection. But still the argument is made in the LGBTQ movement that condoning or endorsing polyamory will cause other queer groups to suffer the conservative backlash. What we must ask ourselves is how long we will sacrifice the equality of others for our own gain.
As we bring this series to an end, we do want to point out that of course polyamory isn’t for everyone. Monogamy has worked for many people and societies throughout the centuries; though certainly not as well as some would have us believe. Ultimately an individual should have the right to explore and express themselves how they choose. Provided all parties are of age, informed, and fully consensual. Furthermore, we cannot stress enough the importance of open communication and honesty. If you believe you are polysexual but your partner is not, then it is not right nor fair to expect them to change for you. Our advice would be to go to counseling, educate yourself on the ethics of polyamory, and decide how to move forward.
Many of your recommended resources were listed throughout the episodes but we will list them again with even more! If you are single, we strongly recommend the 3rd edition of the book The Ethical Slut. If you are currently in a relationship and looking to open things up then we recommend the book More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert. Both of these books are very accessible. If you don’t like books then check out the long running podcast Polyamory Weekly available on most podcast platforms. Or you can watch the Amazon Prime series Poly Love. There’s also countless videos and even TedTalk panels on YouTube that are great to check out. Expert Esther Perel has several talks and also hosts a podcast. And if you just want to get hot and sweaty then make sure you watch Professor Martson and the Wonder Woman on Hulu. And as a side note; if you want to see the abuse and distinct differences of Polyamory versus Polygamy, there is an A&E series on Netflix titled Escaping Polygamy that really shows the neglect and realities of these misogynistic relationships.
- More Than Two – https://www.morethantwo.com/
- Morning Glory-Zell Ravenheart – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10980913/Morning-Glory-Zell-Ravenheart-obituary.html
- Wiki 1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyamory
- Wiki 2 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morning_Glory_Zell-Ravenheart
- Russell – https://www.utilitarian.org/texts/oursexethics.html
- Berkely – https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~geneq/docs/infoSheets/Polyamory.pdf
- Terms (Bustle) – https://www.bustle.com/articles/161962-7-poly-terms-everyone-should-know-whether-youre-new-to-polyamory-or-monogamous
- Ethical Slut (Rolling Stone) – https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/the-ethical-slut-inside-americas-growing-acceptance-of-polyamory-112319/
- Vice – https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9b8yp5/is-polyamory-a-sexual-orientation