"Would you like to sit in the middle?" a kindly-faced, long-haired man of about 40 whispered in my ear.
"I'm fine right here, thank you," I answered from my conveniently located aisle seat.
His friend kept leaning over to gawk at me, rubbernecking. He had a '70s swinger look if ever I saw one.
"My friend thinks you're gorgeous," said the kindly-faced guy.
I smiled and tried to focus on the opening speaker, but it was hard to pay attention due to the palpable orgy of expectations from a small percentage of the conference attendees. But what did I expect?
I have engaged in self-declared open relationships since I lost my virginity, and I am appalled at the secrets held by nuclear families and that is why I accepted this assignment: to find myself sitting in a U.C. Berkeley conference center experiencing the Loving More West Coast Conference opening ceremonies. Besides, there was only one girl there dressed sluttier than me.
Loving More is a community of relationship pioneers and explorers who practice responsible non-monogamy, which includes all forms of ethical and consensual multi-partner relating, but mostly group marriage. They are not against monogamy, exactly, but they feel our culture condones forced monogamy. They refer to our culture's tendency to go from one monogamous relationship to another as "serial monogamy."
"I was just wondering where you were, and then you appeared and sat next to me," the kindly-faced, quick-to-assume guy continued.
On stage, the coeditor of Loving More magazine voiced his concerns about how the press has generally misrepresented polyamory -- sometimes not honoring some members' wishes to remain anonymous.
Many people who engage in group marriages apparently must hide their arrangement for fear of losing their position or, in some states, even their children. In a recent case, a Tennessee triad lost their little girl to a judge who stated, "You can't have your cake and eat it too," a ruling handed down despite a case worker's report that the child was being raised in a healthy, nurturing atmosphere. The introductions continued with stories, politics and testimonials from the organizers. One long-time poly male tried to describe how it felt to have seven women break up with him at one time. Already I could see that my slightly libertine lifestyle could hold no candle to the sexual adventurers here.
Next, the group of 170 people in the form of singles, couples, triads, etc. were all asked to form a giant circle which didn't quite fit within the confines of the conference hall. Thus, we were all smashed together, appropriately enough. The girl dressed sluttier than me made an erotic beeline for my side, her partner saddling up beside her. They squirmed excitedly to my left while an ectomorphic triad cuddled and tickled each other to my right. I have to say that all the above-mentioned persons seemed exceedingly happy, and I found myself smiling, half-nervous and half-charmed. Then a Native American lady called "Manly-Hearted Woman" began pacing around with a huge staff making bold statements like, "I call the energies of jealousy, possessiveness and scarcity to leave this space -- NOW!"
Once the opening ritual was complete, the circle got cozy on the floor. The bright-eyed, cute, sexy girl to my left put her hand on my hand which was on my knee. Then her husband reached across her to put his hand on her hand on my hand on my knee. They both displayed clear eyes and tans, with matching spiky haircuts and turquoise ensembles. The ectomorphic triad continued to love amongst themselves. Thus began the entertainment segment of the event.
Gaia Consort was a partner duo consisting of a man, a woman, a guitar, and lots of lyrics about polyamory.
"Mama's got a girlfriend, Mama loves the ladies. Daddy has a boyfriend, Daddy is a man's man."
"Papa has a girlfriend, And mama loves her too, And they all have a heart that they can cling to, And we're all happy in a different kind of family."
During the break, I walked outside to call both my new lover and my boyfriend, and reaffirmed to myself that I had something to learn here. Next I had to choose a workshop.
In an effort to be brave, I decided to attend "Loving the Ones You're With and Others, Too: a Puja." First the women were asked to form a circle inside of and facing the men, who were asked to make a circle outside of the women, and facing in. This arrangement allowed for one full quickie rotation of eye-gazing with approximately 50 strangers. Now, moments such as these can be beautiful if you allow yourself to open to universal love, so I tried, but in this particular eye-gazing scenario, I was mostly on the receiving end of universal lust. Not totally, just mostly. To facilitate or rather confuse the already loaded situation, the workshop leader, Sasha, yelled out a different suggestion with each partner switch, such as, "Who's this? Could I be attracted to this person?", or "Show this person your compassion," or "Now show your openness" Yes, I did see openness and compassion, along with loneliness and confusion and quite a bit of horniness, but also total fear and anger from this one guy who seemed like he would have liked to dissect me with a paring knife. At some point Sasha yelled, "Now make an animal sound," so I squeaked like a mouse. I guess I was getting scared.
Then Sasha had to go and instruct us to rub noses. Why, Sasha, why? This is the point where my capacity for universal love became a bit strained. I began to feel like one of Dr. Evil's fembots at an Austin Powers soiree. This, at least, was a better feeling than the one from being the last person chosen for a team in gym class, which was the plight of the unpaired men for the next exercise. This is how at least one of them felt, because he later shared it with the group.
It went on from there, but let it suffice to say that one of the main goals of this workshop, (besides meeting other like-minded souls), was to help people overcome that ugly, self-sabotaging emotion: jealousy. If they can vanquish jealousy then they aspire to "compersion." Compersion is their word for the pleasure of watching your lover having pleasure with someone else. Yes, I have experienced compersion in my own experimental day, and yes, it felt beatific. As a matter of fact, it was probably the most enlightened feeling I've ever enjoyed, but it sure was fleeting. Oh, well. Enough of the workshops. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
The next day I skipped the workshops and met with two members of the Ravenheart family, an open polyamorous group marriage who are among the matriarchs and patriarchs of this embryonic movement. Although I had had my fill of stranger-love, and was beginning to question the validity of organizing polyamorists into a "community," I was happily surprised by this family, who actually seemed like examples of evolved consciousness.
At age 51, Morning Glory Zell Ravenheart is natural, beautiful and sexy -- one of those rare, sweet, voluptuous earth mamas who feels so incredible to hug that something in me silently peeped, "Mommy?!" She coined the term "polyamory" in 1991, defining it as "a peaceful and ethical lovestyle." She calls her own family of five "a conspiracy of hearts' desires," but for the uninitiated it's also something of a mindbender. Here is how it works.
Morning Glory Zell Ravenheart is the primary partner of Oberon Zell Ravenheart, 56, founder of the Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds, inspired by Robert Heinlein's wondrous science fiction novel "Stranger In A Strange Land." She is also lovers with Wolf Dean Stiles Ravenheart, 35, who is lovers with Wynter Rose Ravenheart, 20, who is also lovers with Morning Glory. The fifth member of the "nest" is Liza Gabriel Ravenheart, whose only lover within the family is Oberon.
Although all of these people are married, they do not have to be lovers; but they do have to be friends. "There are no erotic expectations for all the pairs, but the non-erotic relationships are critical to the success of the family," Morning Glory explains. This means that all the members of the family have to spend quality time together. Wow, that sounds time-consuming.
In addition to all the above, there are two more significant lovers living with and engaging in a courtship process with the Ravenhearts, but who have not taken on the family name. Each of the family members may also have lovers outside of the marriage, but they maintain a very strict commitment to use condoms with anyone outside of the nest.
"There is some debate over who the others will be, but not that there will be others," says Morning Glory. The group can veto a certain choice of lover for reasons such as drug problems or abusive behavior; however, in 25 years together Morning Glory has only exercised her right to veto twice and Oberon has only exercised his once.
To live harmoniously and intimately with so many, the Ravenhearts do have rules. Their first policy is total honesty. Yet they are also careful not to overdo the group controls. Another rule is: "Don't make unenforceable rules." Apparently, a huge group marriage commune existed from the early '60s to the late '80s called Kerista, and these people maintained that no one person could love any other person more than anyone else. The Ravenhearts are so much more reasonable. They do have a sleep schedule to assure equal nighttime attention; however, if someone takes a new lover, everyone understands that the intensity of a new relationship can be somewhat consuming, and time and space are allowed.
"And we get all the sex you could possibly hope for!" quipped both Morning Glory and her handsome young lover, Wolf, who couldn't look more like a wolf if he tried.
When asked if it is hard to give everyone in the family the attention that they need Wolf answered judiciously: "Love is infinite. Time and attention are not."
I mused about how hard it must be to keep so much love alive and still have time for yourself.
"Spend time together and spend time apart. It's like a heartbeat!" explained Morning Glory, while Wolf chimed in: "How can I miss you if you don't go away?"
They all have at least one room that is solely their own, and no one is allowed to enter that space without permission. Personal space. Yes, I have made the personal space mistake, and I knew it would be a mistake, but I did it anyway. These people do not make relationship mistakes anymore. They know what works, and they are disciplined.
"Do you ever fight?" I had to ask.
"Oh, yes, we get into it," Morning Glory assured me, and for a moment I felt better. But I knew this highly organized group-marriage stuff was beyond me. Was I just a lazy chick who couldn't live by any rules -- polyamorous or monogamous? "OK, let's say a person has two different lovers," I finally blurted, "but he or she has no desire to live with them both under the same roof or have them marry each other? What about that?"
"It's still critical that everyone be honest and that everyone be friends, to whatever degree they can," Morning Glory said, then added reassuringly: "An intimate network works in lieu of an actual poly relationship."
Though the workshop exercises were teaming with the kind of rapacious horndogging I try to steer clear of, the Ravenhearts were nothing short of wise and adorable. Compared to the deathgrip of so many nuclear families, I imagine being a child raised in such a family would be heaven. And while there were those attending the workshops that obviously aren't living the dream yet, I came away knowing that at least some of the people in this revolutionary community positively radiated confidence and love and joy.