People who love (multiple) people

Newsweek delves into the ethics of polyamory


Amy Benfer
July 31, 2009 1:31AM (UTC)

It’s been a long, hot summer of sex scandals and musings on the pleasures and confines of life-long monogamous partnerships, so it seems now is as good a time as any to investigate those who consciously choose to subvert the whole mess. Yes, we’re talking about the polyamorists -- those darlings of ‘60s communes, ‘70s swinger parties, and ‘90s gender studies departments -- freshly discovered in a Newsweek cover story by reporter Jessica Bennett that has become the magazine’s most e-mailed story of the week.

Although Newsweek often can’t resist loading up their trend stories with a heavy dose of sensationalism, Bennett actually does a pretty good job of presenting a mostly fair, respectful portrait of a poly family, with no visible snickering. Terisa, Scott and Larry have lived together in “ethical non-monogamy” for more than a decade -- longer than some marriages -- with Terisa as the “vee” of the “triad” (i.e., she is involved with both men, who do not sleep with each other); recently they have added Vera and Matt, a couple they met on Facebook, who spend weekends with the family (Vera usually with Larry; Matt usually with Terisa, though they sometimes switch up; Scott is casually dating a woman on the side).

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The thing that wigs most practicing monogamists out about polyamory is the jealousy factor: How does one deal with not only knowing who one’s partner is sleeping with, but, as happens sometimes even in the triad described in this article, actually overhearing sex happening in the next bedroom in your shared home?

“I like to call it polyagony,” says Ken Haslam, who curates a polyamory library at the Kinsey Instititute and is himself polyamorous. “It works for some perfectly and for others it’s a f-king disaster.” But when it does work, says Terisa, there’s a ton of talking involved. “It’s about making sure that everybody’s needs are met, including your own. And that’s not always easy, but it’s part of the fun.”

Even those conservative scolds who see polyamory as an affront to traditional marriage would have to admit that there’s an age-old tradition of non-monogamy within marriage. The difference between a polyamorist and a powerful guy who has a wife and keeps a mistress may be as simple as this: the polyamorist is doing so with the full consent of all partners involved. If one is going to have more than one partner, it’s a hell of a lot more ethical to give everyone a choice in the matter than it is to maintain the fictional notion that a single person is one’s true love. Sure, one’s partner might quite reasonably choose to ditch you, but others might feel that there’s an awful lot more that goes into love than sexual fidelity. “The people I feel sorry for are the ones who don’t even realize they have any other choices beyond the traditional options society presents,” says Scott, a member of the triad. “To look at an option like polyamory and say, ‘That’s not for me’ is fine. To look at it and not even realize you can choose it is just sad.”

Polyamory, of course, is more than just permission to have sex with more than multiple people. As Terisa, Scott and Larry show, it’s often also about forging long-term committed partnerships. And as such, it can leaves the participants in legal limbo. Last year, Larry and Terisa married for tax purposes; Larry owns their house and Scott pays rent. None of them mention any drawbacks to the arrangement in the article, but one can certainly imagine all sorts of complications that might ensue should one of them leave. Does Scott have any investment in the house? Would Terisa have more as Larry’s legal wife? Do any of them care? We don’t know.

But it’s worse for people with children. One decade-long study has shown that poly families can do quite well, but the research is still too new to stand up in court. Bennett cites a case of a 22-year-old woman who lost custody of her daughter after outing herself as poly on an MTV documentary. The Polyamory Society posts a warning on its Web site: If your PolyFamily has children, please do not put your family at risk by coming out to the public or being interviewed [by] the press! In other words: Please stay closeted. Which, as we all know, will only feed the myth that poly families are exotic, and not worthy of raising children.

“Polys themselves are not visibly crusading for their civil rights,” says Bennett. And it’s easy to see why: During the past decade, as monogamous gay couples crusaded for their own, the conservatives went nuts: What will stop you from marrying your room mate? Your cat? What’s next? A quad-marriage? Gay activists rightly pointed out that there was a difference; as conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan wrote, “I believe that someone’s sexual orientation is a deeper issue than the number of people they wish to express that orientation with.” Nevertheless, it’s jarring to think that there are parents who risk losing their children solely on the basis of whom they choose as their partners.

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Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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