Three's company; so is four or five

For polyamorists, responsibility and commitment replace jealousy and distrust. As long as everyone remembers who's who.

By Jim Gerard
July 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Linda Casper and Stacey Shelton appear to be just like any other
plaid-shirted, plain-spoken, well-scrubbed Midwestern couple. Linda's
a buoyant, gregarious redhead with a thick helmet of hair and an expansive
smile. Stacey's boyishly handsome, bespectacled and taciturn, with a
shy smile -- the kind of guy women want to bake brownies for. She
sells log homes; he's a mechanical designer who retools muscle cars in his spare time. They're both volunteer firefighters in their hometown of
Exceland, Wisc., which boasts a grocery store, a Chevy dealership and two
bars. They have two daughters, ages 5 and 10 months, and about their
marriage, Linda says, "I love my husband, and would never leave him."

Yet once or twice a month, Linda, 25, and Stacey, 28, drive three hours
from their rural outpost to the Twin Cities, where Linda has sex with her
lover, Steve Adams, while Stacey and Steve's wife, Aleta --
who's involved with a man named Mark -- go to the mall. Linda,
who's bisexual, sometimes also goes to bed with her friend Mary
Anne. Also, she's shopping around for another female lover. Lest you think that
Stacey's a world-class cuckold, consider that he took a lover soon
after his marriage, he once did the nasty with their former roommate, Sarah,
while Linda was just a few feet away, "slaving outside" and
he's currently in the market for another woman for both he and Linda to bed.

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Know what? It's all OK.

Linda and Stacey practice polyamory, the policy of loving more
than one person at a time, and they're part of a growing number of
Americans quietly riffing new, post-monogamous arrangements on what they
consider a tired two-by-two tune.

They're not swingers! Or patriarchal, oppressive junior Mormons.
Nor are they trying to deface the Ozzie-and-Harriet domestic blueprint
stained by pandemic divorce and infidelity. Instead, their mantras are
responsibility and commitment.

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For example, Linda and Stacey have asked Steve and Aleta to live with them.
Linda says, "I don't think I could be monogamous. I tried it, and it
wasn't me. I think polyamory is very healthy; it promotes more
honesty and communication."

Polyamory is an umbrella term for such variations as group marriage (for a man, say, it would be you, your wife and your blond divorcie neighbor living together and sharing
resources equally); polygyny (the Mormon model: same cast, only
you're the sole provider); "intentional community" (you, your wife,
the blond, the blond's other lovers, all your friends and the
pizza delivery guy living in a big house in Boulder); and "intimate network"
(a kind of off-site commune with primary, secondary and tertiary levels
of intimacy in a kind of erotic farm system). Then you have your expanded
families, open marriages and line marriages, the latter concept far too
esoteric for such a venue as this.

It all gets very confusing, even to the participants. When asked how many
lovers she currently had, Deborah Anapol -- author of the book "Polyamory:
The New Love Without Limits" -- replied, "I
haven't kept count lately, but to round it off, I'll say
12."

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Since polyamorists themselves sometimes can't tell their players
without a score card, trying to estimate their national numbers gets even
dicier. Although no studies have been done, experts such as Ryam Nearing,
who claims to have started the polyamory movement in the mid-1980s,
estimate the number of American "polys" to be from 8 to 10 percent.
Anapol claims her Web site gets thousands of
hits daily, while her book is entering its fourth printing.

Brett Hill, Nearing's partner and editor of their magazine, Loving More, argues that "poly is the next wave of human relationships. First
there was blacks, women, gays, now us. When we started 15 years ago, there
were no support groups; now there are at least 50, in almost every major
city in the country."

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Polyamorists range in age from 20 to 70, with most in their 30s, 40s and 50s; most are
white, and they range professionally from laborers to CEOs to academics. They meet through personal ads ("Married ex bi-curious straight-again
crone seeking 2 M for MFM triad"); at regional workshops run by Nearing and
Anapol; at local PWP's (Poly Want a Potluck); in virtual polyland,
joining chat rooms such as the "lovelists" at Nearing's
Loving More site and live discussion groups, where the topics may
include: how to ask somebody for a date when you're already married
to six other people, how to prevent jealousy when your "primary" spends
every other night with his "secondary" (do the math) and how to explain to
neighbors that the strange man who just moved in with you is your
"wife's uncle from out of town."

One chilly Sunday afternoon in Greenwich Village, a dozen and a half people
shuffle into a back room of the Cafe Figaro. They're mostly in their
40s and 50s -- earth mothers and fathers in jeans, flannel shirts,
bandannas and love beads. It could be a board meeting of Ben &
Jerry's, rather than the monthly conclave of the Tri-State Poly
discussion group.

Joel Spector, a short, bearded man with a dry wit and leprechaun-ish mien,
founded the group in 1994. He's the only one present who lets me use his real name. Joel's married to Christina and involved
with Tracey, a married woman from West Virginia whose female lover will
soon move in with her and her husband. Marie, a young woman with a black
skullcap-like hat and a minister in training, is "married" to Suzanne and
involved with Ray. John says he's with several women and is a
private investigator, a "freedom freak" and into S&M.

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The topic is "What is polyamory?" and it inevitably leads to a critique of
monogamy. A woman named Paula -- whose husband George is involved with a woman he met at a Loving More conference -- asserts that "monogamy is fueled by fear and low self-esteem." A late-arriving woman announces, "The way most monogamy is practiced -- with everybody cheating -- is just a dishonest version of polyamory."

In contrast, polys claim that the bedrock of their faith is "radical
honesty," and the group discusses how far to take it. Bob, a white-haired, avuncular type, says, "My wife doesn't want to hear the details of my sex life." Others ask: Is she insecure? Is she bored? Bob doesn't know.

The polyphony continues, engaged but mellow -- until I'm asked
to identify myself, and the group suddenly turns paranoid and threatens to
turn me into fish food. Many want me to leave. Marie questions my
journalistic ethics, while Spector (who invited me without telling the
others) defends my presence. An uneasy truce is reached -- I have to
put my notebook down -- and, afterward, I learn the source of their
outrage: a fear of being outed.

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They may have good reason, based on a recent court decision in Tennessee.
Last December, MTV broadcast a documentary about polyamory and interviewed
April and Shane Divilbiss and Chris Littrell, who lived together in a
male-female-male triad. April Divilbiss had a 3-year-old child, who
was not mentioned on the show. The day after the show aired, the child's
paternal grandmother, Donna Olswing, showed a judge a tape of the show and
had the child taken into state custody due to the mother's "immoral"
lifestyle. The mother is contesting the decision, and Loving More --
with a feeling that the Divilbiss case may be the polyamorists'
Stonewall -- has set up a defense fund.

Despite the risk, some polys court publicity in an attempt to promote their
cause. Nearing has appeared on daytime talk shows such as Geraldo Rivera's
and Sally Jesse Raphael's, only to be castigated. "Geraldo attacked me for
being indecent even though he's had a kid out of wedlock and been
divorced three times," she says. Raphael blamed polys for the AIDS epidemic.

In the face of such hysteria, most polys stay fairly closeted, which might
be just as well; they have enough to do just keeping track. You see, polys
devote a LOT of time to what Wolfe calls "processing drama," the
often-exhaustive hashing out of relationship mechanics.

A poly family is like marriage squared; the more people involved, the more
complex the issues. "Let's say you're in a triad," Nearing
posits. "You might get along with persons A and B, but A isn't
getting along with B. A might want to spend more time with you than B. B
won't like that. All this brings disharmony to your relationship
circle, and you have to discuss it." (Don't feel bad if you're
confused; to help clarify matters, people such as Nearing have taken to
diagramming poly formations that resemble John Madden's depiction of
the nickel defense.)

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Since secrecy is verboten, polys also huddle to establish ground rules on
everything from who does the dishes to dating outside your
marriage/group/sacred circle.

Black Eagle, a 57-year-old retail store manager in Austin, Texas, lives with
two women, Silver Moon and Snow Bird (none of the three is Native
American). "Before I date a woman," he says, "she has to meet Snow Bird and
Silver Moon and get an OK."

Even if the newcomer survives that powwow, she may run up against a
logistical logjam. Black Eagle speaks: "We have a schedule for sex. Tuesday
I'm with Snow Bird, Wednesday with Silver Moon, Thursday, Snow Bird;
Friday, Silver Moon. Saturday night is family night; we stay up late and
watch a movie. Sunday's open, depending on who's horny. And
Monday's my night off."

As you might expect, even poly safe sex protocol can become awfully byzantine. Spector admits, "Our condom contract about sex
outside the group runs to six pages, and details what can be done with
whom, when and under what circumstances. I'm not pleased with it."

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If this internal red tape weren't enough, polys such as
Lynn Garcia of Portland, Ore., must also feint their way across a monogamy-rigged
U.S. legal system. "I'd already had a child with my legal husband,
Roger. Then myself and my co-husbands, Roger and Van, decided to have a
second child, and that Van would be the father. So for legality's
sake, I divorced Roger and married Van."

Polys aren't protected by property laws, either, an obstacle Casper
and Shelton circumvented by registering their family as a corporation
(legal in Wisconsin). This allows them to protect their assets in the
event of death.

All this -- societal ostracism, marathon group therapy, sex time sheets -- seems a high price to pay just to avoid the inevitable
entropy of marriage. So why do they do it?

One reason is sex. While polys won't admit to having more than the
rest of us, they're pretty sure it's better. Robert McGarey, a
"relationship coach" from Austin, attributes the added heat to
polys' deeper sense of emotional intimacy, and thinks the poly slogan
should be "It's the love, stupid."

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Linda Casper says poly affirms her inherent need for sexual freedom: "Why should
I give up my marriage just because I want to have a relationship with a
woman?" She adds that it spices up her marital sex: "After I'd been
with Mary Anne, Stacey would ask about it, and it would get him excited."

Pat Mathis, an Oklahoma City chiropractor, says, "Two things drive me
toward polyamory: One, I can't get enough sex with just one woman,
and two, it's hard to find a woman who shares all of my interests,"
which include tantra, a Heinlein-inspired religion called the Church of All
Worlds and ballroom dancing.

Polys also claim that their lifestyle offers a sense of extended family,
it's guilt- and jealousy-free, and it relieves the pressure of having
to satisfy all of your partner's needs. Anapol says, "If you're
married and your wife's too busy for you, you could feel rejected.
But if you're with 20 people and 10 are busy, there are 10 other
people around who love you and who you can do things with, sexual or
otherwise."

For many, poly's just doing what comes naturally. In Casper's
case, it may even be in her genes; her parents had an open marriage, and as
a child, she lived in a house with as many as five polyamorous adults.

Still, even its most devout adherents admit poly isn't for everybody.
Spector warns: "If you're gonna do poly, you've got to have
your relationship shit together or it's not going to work."

Ask Leanna Wolfe, who realized she wasn't prepared to cope when Don,
her partner of six years, suddenly acquired another lover. While most
American women would've thrown Don out or pulled the
interloper's hair on Jerry Springer, Wolfe, ever the anthropologist,
headed to Africa. "I went to study the Luo tribe in Kenya to find out how
women share men in traditional cultures."

What Wolfe discovered was that even to experts, poly is a bitch. "The
Africans had trouble with it, and they've been doing it for thousands
of years. Wives told me they had a hard time with jealousy and would get
into physical fights with each other."

This begs the question: Is poly the wave of the future or a human potential
movement backwater?

Dr. Susan Vaughan, a New York psychoanalyst and author of "Viagra: The Guide to the Phenomenal Potency-Promoting Drug," says,
"It sounds like a nice idea on the surface, but I think people have affairs
or do swinging because they want secrecy and adventure. Besides, with poly,
the jealousy and rivalry is exponentially multiplied."

Wolfe agrees that come the millennium, we won't all be "nesting" in
our communes: "Polys aren't spearheading any movement in this
country. They're just too wacky, and they're never going to go
over in the heartland."

She may be right. Back in Wisconsin, Stacey Shelton has decided he
doesn't want to live with Steve and Aleta Adams after all. And Aleta, at posting time, was breaking up with her lover, Mark. But Linda, ever optimistic, has
contacted a poly couple in North Carolina with the hope that maybe this one
will be the match made in heaven.


Jim Gerard

Jim Gerard is a freelance writer living in New York City whose work has appeared in Details, The New Republic and other publications. He teaches journalism at New School University.

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