The first woman I picked in the Portland, Ore., audience was straight up the middle, 20 rows back. Aside from shooting her hand in the air the moment I asked for questions, she tempted me with her huge, brown eyes.
"I'd like to know," she stammered, "if it's possible to love two people at the same time." She seemed on the verge of tears, as everyone around her craned their necks to see who was asking such a personal question.
There was a murmur through the crowd that would have been outright laughter if the questioner hadn't been so wetly earnest. I know the first questions that came to my mind were: How is it possible not to love more than one person in a lifetime? Who hasn't been torn by conflicting feelings for more than one lover?
But I didn't get the chance to answer her. Another woman, the same age and with the same dewy freshness as the first, popped up in the front row and recited a full-length public service message trumpeting the benefits and principles of polyamory. Then another voice interrupted hers, a middle-aged, self-described mom of three, who said she'd been in a polyamorous relationship for nine years. A couple in the back yelled, "We've been doing it for 15!" At which point the audience of 500 broke into wild applause.
Wow, what is up in Portland? "Is anyone here not in a polyamorous relationship?" I asked the crowd, and they laughed uproariously at the very thought. If you were wondering where the polyamory capital of North America might be, your search is over.
And that's "polyAMORY," not "polyGAMY," for those jargon neophytes like me who may be feeling that the song sounds familiar, although the words have changed. The polyamory crowd has nothing to do with the Mormon Church -- they don't even mess around with marriage vows.
These folks are committed to relationships that aren't defined by possession or jealousy. Such relationships could include threesomes, quads or a "V" (a triangle in which two of the lovers relate to the third, but not to each other). It also includes primary relationships in which secondary lovers play a long-distance or more occasional role. It doesn't have anything to do with being married, although some poly folks do sport wedding bands. Some are suburban and some are the original urban outlaws. Sometimes they're bisexual, but they're not necessarily so. In fact, nothing is required in current poly-thought, except that you reject -- even if it's only in your mind -- the idea that monogamy and couple-centrism are natural.
These beliefs used to be called, in early American sexual liberation movements, "free love." Feminist/spiritualist Victoria Woodhull was a such an activist in the late-1800s, and so was anarchist Emma Goldman. I love to read their fiery declarations of erotic independence, and their term, "free love," is still my favorite, with its unfettered focus on passion. Goldman said that it wasn't a revolution in her book if she couldn't dance, and I've always been sure in my heart that dancing was her euphemism for fucking.
I came of age in Southern California in the mid-'70s, a time when it was simply uncool to even think about "going steady" or to exact promises of monogamy from your boyfriends and girlfriends. I didn't go on dates when I was a teenager, or exchange any vows other than to smash the state. Marriage and monogamy were for square, stale, old people -- people who were afraid to live, to be themselves, to Be Here Now. "Why let the state be your pimp?" my friend Spain always said, and that pretty much summed up my peers' attitude toward wedding vows and similar engagements. From the feminist point of view, women's bodies had been the property of men for too long to even imagine putting your pussy under anyone's lock and key, even if it was a girlfriend this time instead of a guy.
Fortunately for me, this brand of radicalism suited my character splendidly. I'm just not wired for one-on-one fidelity, and I never have been. I could easily love two, three and four people at once, and I honestly did not suffer from the reflexive jealous reactions that I witnessed in those among my friends who yearned to be cool but were eaten up inside by all this "love-the-one-you're-with" bravado. Getting caught in such an emotional maelstrom made them anxious, too.
One year I lived in a commune where I loved and slept with two men, both Teamsters, one of whom worked the day shift while the other worked nights. I canoodled with Cary on the sofa for a couple hours in the afternoon, and with Marcus during the night. I loved them both, and I know they loved each other like brothers. But unlike the well-processed V's that polyfolk talk about today, we barely spoke of our set-up together beyond working out the bare practicalities.
I knew that neither of them liked our triangle, much to my disappointment. Each one felt like he couldn't pitch a fit over it because that would be so "bourgeois," the reaction of a patriarchal, jealous fool. I, on the other hand, agreed with this rhetoric in spirit as well as word, and I confess I did use counterculture peer pressure to keep our trio going because, frankly, I did like it!
I liked everything about being with two men I was crazy about -- everything except the tension between them. Each one feared that I liked the other more than him. I would linger with each one in bed (or on the sofa), telling him how much I loved him and how lucky I felt to be living with them both. But I could see the pain in their eyes, the suggestion that I was mouthing what, to them, seemed like just so much feel-good malarkey.
Once, I took the risk of suggesting that if we all went to bed together (during a swing shift) things might mellow out considerably. Cary surprised me by saying that he was up for it, but that Marcus would freak -- and he was right. I was too naive to understand that there was another source for his tension beyond the competition over who was fucking me the best. Marcus was so uncomfortable at the idea of our creeping bisexuality that he started avoiding us both. One night he left his cigar burning in our communal 1964 Chevy Nova II, right in the middle of the UPS employee parking lot. A fire ensued, and after the car burned up our wobbly V was never the same.
I'm sure today's polyamorous community, which extends way beyond Portland and is fueled by thriving Web sites, could have offered plenty of tips to our un-negotiated free-love-for-all. The poly scene today is very different from the scene during the first sexual revolution. As one woman wrote to me last week, "I'm sure you're familiar with the poly motto, 'Go as slow as the slowest person wants, and then a little bit slower than that.'" Man, I couldn't have imagined doing anything that slow when I was a teenage revolutionary commune member! But I can see via hindsight how her philosophy might have kept a perfectly good relationship -- or at least a perfectly good Chevy -- from going up in flames.