Free love grows up
Free love might sound like a euphemism for group sex, but to Boston's polyamory
community, it's just like marriage -- only bigger
by Alicia Potter
On a crooked street in Somerville is a purple house that no doubt raises
eyebrows every few Thursdays. That's when it becomes a meeting site for Love
Without Bounds, a local organization for young believers in free love.
On a recent evening, members of the group arrive in boisterous trios and
hand-holding twosomes. They greet each other with deep, lingering embraces --
no air kisses here -- before plunking onto pillows or curling up together in
corners. If ever a crowd spelled "orgy," it's this one.
But two hours pass, and the gathering fails to erupt into any sort of carnal
acrobatics. At least the conversation is provocative, but again, not in the way
you might think.
"Sex is cheap," says a black-clad man, to nods of agreement. "I want
It feels like a big book club, with slightly different topics of
conversation. The members talk about how to ask someone out if you're married.
How to fend off jealousy if you're living with your lover and his lover.
How to deal with a world of pairs when you're part of a trio. In short, they
talk about what it's like to be polyamorous.
Polyamory is the philosophy and practice of loving more than one person at a
time. It's different from polygamy -- the practice of taking more than one wife
-- in that polyamory is legal, has nothing to do with Mormonism, and spans a
whole range of commitment levels besides marriage. The possibilities are
endless; as one 32-year-old man, married, with a child and a lover, puts it,
"You don't have to end a relationship to start a new one." Some polyamorists
share a household with two or more common-law spouses; others have one
"primary" partner, often a legal spouse, and one or more secondary
relationships beyond that. There are triads and Vs. (See "Poly Lingo," right.)
The only requirement is that all involved agree on the ground rules.
A glossary for the would-be polyglot
couple-centrism -- The predominant belief that the pair is the only
fluid monogamy -- An agreement to confine the exchange of bodily fluids
to a closed group that has been screened for sexually transmitted diseases.
line -- The members of a polyamorous relationship, similar in theory to
a family tree.
open -- Nonmonogamous; a relationship that is not restricted to just two
members of a couple.
poly -- Short for polyamory, polyamorous, or one who
polyamory -- The philosophy and practice of loving more than one person
at the same time.
polyfidelity -- A synonym for polyamory, implying that the
relationships are committed.
primary -- In a hierarchical relationship structure, the main lover,
e.g., a spouse.
secondary -- In a hierarchical relationship structure, a lover other
than the primary lover.
swinging -- Recreational sexual activity in which participants swap
partners, usually without forming lasting relationships; though not considered
"true" polyamory, this falls under the open-relationship umbrella.
triad -- A polyamorous relationship in which all three lovers are
involved with one another, sometimes without hierarchical distinction.
V -- A polyamorous relationship in which one person has two lovers but
the lovers are not involved with each other.
Polyamorists will point out that the practice has been around for much, if not
all, of human history; in the Book of Genesis, for instance, Sarah lets Abraham
beget children with her maid Hagar. Our own culture is steadfastly monogamous,
but statistics hint that humans and monogamy can be an uneasy marriage: 25 to
60 percent of American men commit adultery, as do 15 to 40 percent of
women. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Fourteen percent of all weddings
include someone who's tying the knot for the third time.
For the people in this purple house, monogamy isn't a goal; it's a point of
departure. And sex, while an important part of the equation, isn't the point.
The point is to find an alternative to monogamy that's less restrictive, but
just as stable. The Love Without Bounds members talk about commitment and
communication and responsibility with the sort of earnestness that we associate
with a couples-therapy session. And, as impossible as it may sound, they are
hoping for mainstream recognition.
Boston may be just the place to find it. The area is already home to an active
bisexual community, which intersects with the polyamory scene; it's also the
birthplace of Family Tree, one of the nation's oldest polyamory support groups,
founded in 1975 and still flourishing.
For now, though, the quest for recognition isn't primarily political. It's
personal. "Coming out" is a hot topic among the 25 Love Without Bounds members
crowded into this tiny living room.
"I can say I'm bisexual and everyone knows what that is," says Lisa, 26, who
asked that only her first name be used. "People may not like it . . .
but I don't have to spend 20 minutes defining it. One day, I'd just like to
say, `Hi, I'm poly.' "
Poly lesson number one: the proper response to such an introduction is
not "That's the same thing as swinging, right?"
"Swinging is impersonal sex," says Deborah M. Anapol of San Rafael,
California, author of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits (Intinet
Resource Center, 1997). "And while I'm not judging that, I don't consider it
polyamory, because it doesn't focus on the relationship."
In fact, ask people why they became involved with polyamory and you won't hear
much about spouse-swapping or other libidinal adventures (though, yes,
threesomes and foursomes do occur). More likely, you'll hear love stories.
Complex love stories.
"There are two people who I think are really special, who I want to spend a
lot of time with," says a 32-year-old man who's involved with two women. "It's
wonderful to have a way to do that."
Sean Sullivan, 26, agrees. A slight man who looks a little like Jesus, he's
been involved for four and a half years with Tamara, a bespectacled redhead
whom he met as a freshman at Amherst College. That same year, three of his
friends entered into a polyamorous relationship, a triad made up of two women
and one man. Their closeness intrigued him: currently, he's involved with one
of the women, while Tamara has recently started dating a second man. Soon,
Sullivan hopes to house all the relationships under one roof.
There doesn't seem to be a "typical" poly relationship. Triads and Vs are
popular among the polys I spoke to, with a long-distance lover here or there.
Foursomes -- say, a relationship with two married couples -- are reportedly the
hardest to pull off: first, both spouses must find a couple they like
that much, and second, the intensity is difficult to balance (the
husband may be smitten with the other woman more than his wife is smitten with
the other man, for example). In the poly world, four really can be a crowd. But
when the relationships work, whether with three or four or (in Sullivan's case)
six, there's a payoff.
"Poly can be a marriage plus more," says Sullivan. "It can be a lifelong
partnership [in which] people live together, help raise children together, grow
old together. All of the things people speak of when they speak of family
values apply even more to polyamory."
Idealistic? Sure. But perhaps no more so than the talk of heart-eyed
romantics bent on finding "the One." Data show, too, that Sullivan's vision
isn't all that deluded: Arline M. Rubin, of Brooklyn College, has conducted a
20-year study of polyamorous couples and has found that their relationships
last just as long as supposedly monogamous ones. Among Family Tree's 75 members
are polyamorous grandparents who enjoy not only 40-year-old marriages but also
secondary relationships spanning 15 years.
Such commitment is possible, polys say, because their lifestyle diffuses a lot
of relationship pressures. Banish the concept of "my one and only," and you
lift the burden of meeting all of a lover's emotional and intellectual needs.
In essence, polys are free to choose their paramours as most of us choose our
friends: as complements to different sides of their personalities. One lover
may share a spiritual outlook, another an ironic sense of humor, another a
passion for horror movies.
Says Sullivan: "It allows for stronger emotional bonds than I'd have
otherwise. I think if I was in a single relationship there would probably be
aspects of myself that I wouldn't really be able to share with just one person.
Additional relationships mean there's more of myself I can express."
He scratches his thick beard and shrugs. "There's just more
Sullivan first encountered polyamory as many others do: through science
fiction. The summer before college, he read Fallway, by Paula Johnson, a
novel in which six humans are raised in an alien world where group marriage is
the norm. Something clicked.
"I realized that felt very, very comfortable to me," Sullivan recalls. "It
portrayed a group of people in a serious, committed relationship, similar to
what a relationship would ordinarily be, but with more people, more
personalities, more interests, and more dynamics possible. And that just stuck
in my mind as something that felt right to me in a way that other [traditional]
Early poly primers were books such as the 1970s bestseller Open
Marriage, by George and Nena O'Neill. But it's science-fiction works, most
notably Robert Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land
(1961) and Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment (1966), that
polys credit with sustaining polyamory beyond the Aquarian Age. Both novels
uphold multiple commitments as the love life of the future.
As a result, the poly subculture -- which at this point eludes accurate
population figures -- doesn't look quite like what you might expect. Sure,
there are some polys who could have driven the last van out of Woodstock. Most,
however, are cerebral and articulate -- more geeky than granola. An uncanny
number of polys I met work in high tech, as well as in "helping professions"
such as health care (which, according to Anapol, attract people who connect
with others easily).
The preponderance of techies is no coincidence. At least in the Boston area,
polyamorists tend to build communities via the Internet. The year-old Love
Without Bounds started when two polys put up a Web page and sent out e-mails
encouraging attendance at a new poly support group.
Poly dating, as you can imagine, doesn't usually start out with a couple of
drinks at the Wonder Bar ("Yeah, that's my husband over there, but he wouldn't
mind if we got together. No, really, he wouldn't mind. . . . ").
Polys meet at poly parties, at polyamorist gatherings like Love Without Bounds
meetings, and at other events that attract a poly crowd, such as
science-fiction conventions. (Polyamorists also overlap with a few other
subcultures: pagans, goths, nudists.) They meet through online personal ads and
through ads in the poly magazine Loving More, which recently sponsored a
conference that featured relationship-building workshops and social events in
New York. Many entertain long-distance relationships with a lover, as the
Boston poly scene can get pretty small pretty fast. "It gets a little
incestuous around here," admits Lisa, with a laugh.
Recent events should help to widen the local circle. In April, 900 people
attended the Fifth International Conference on Bisexuality -- at which the
workshops on polyamory were among the most popular. Likewise, in the last
month, the poly-Boston e-mail
list, which keeps polys informed of parties and events, spun off a second list
to publicize poly activities in the Southeastern Massachusetts and Providence
Polys I spoke to insist that even without panel discussions or Heinlein novels
or jobs in computer programming, they'd still be polyamorous. They talk about
"relationship orientation" -- a propensity for handling multiple commitments
that varies from person to person, like the spectrum of sexual orientation.
Some people are monogamous; most are in the middle; some are hard-wired
"For me it's not a question of loving polyamory," says Alan Wexelblat, 36, who
in 18 years of dating has always had poly relationships. "It's who I am. Even
if I were only in one relationship and following monogamous rules, that doesn't
change me, just like a bisexual person can be in a relationship with any one
person and yet still be identified as bisexual."
It's an interesting idea, especially given the inability of many people to
stay reliably within the constraints of monogamy: could it be that those
cheating louts are polyamorous but just don't know it?
Likely so, says anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love: A
Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (W.W. Norton, 1992).
But they're not the only ones: we're all potentially polyamorous.
"You would think that more people would be [practicing] polyamory, because,
evolutionarily, we're built to have multiple relationships," she says. "We're
built to fool around."
Anthropologists now believe that, at the most, 2 percent of all species
are completely faithful sexually (among them the Nile crocodile, the American
toad, the dung beetle, and some desert wood lice). In her book, Fisher points
out that anthropological studies of 853 human societies showed only
16 percent practicing monogamy as we typically define it. And, as we know,
even monogamy doesn't guarantee fidelity; in many of the monogamous cultures,
researchers discovered covert or tolerated affairs.
Fisher has an explanation for our longings: she says that our brain
circuitry has evolved so that the chemical reactions associated with different
kinds of love -- attachment, infatuation, lust -- function independently of one
another. In other words, we can find comfort with an old lover, flirt with a
cute coworker, and fantasize about that beautiful stranger on the T -- all in
the course of an hour.
"However," Fisher cautions, "we're not built to share. We get jealous. That
puts the human animal in a pickle."
Polyamorists, she says, have found a way out. "They're honestly dealing with
the fact that we're not built to be faithful," she explains. "They accept that
inevitability and channel it in ways that minimize pain and maximize joy. They
This paradise, though, can be very unfamiliar territory. Take this scene, for
example: Rob Mohns, 25, nuzzles his girlfriend Aileen, 22, while two feet away,
knitting a scarf, is his fiancée, 26-year-old Megan O'Neal. As Mohns and
his new love practically roll off the couch, O'Neal's face is serene.
"I don't usually get jealous," says O'Neal. "And when I do, it takes me by
surprise. It's kind of good, because it usually means that something in this
situation isn't working for me, that I need to figure out what it is and go
talk to the person."
Spend some time with polyamorists and you realize that communication is what
keeps their relationships alive. Polys talk about everything: who they
want to go out with, what they do on their dates, how their relationships are
Poly commitments give new meaning to "the Rules." To the average monogamist,
some of these relationship statutes might seem mind-boggling: as a polyamorist,
for example, you might negotiate whether or not your lover can sleep with
another in your bed. Other rules are kind of silly: one man's girlfriend asked
that he accompany only her to first-run movies. Safe sex -- condoms, dental
dams -- is a given; a long-time Family Tree member reports that in nearly 25
years, there has been only one sexually-transmitted-disease scare, and that was
a false alarm. But many guidelines are simple and practical: no surprises, no
keeping secrets with secondary lovers, and no cheating, which in this context
means you don't get involved with someone new without apprising the others.
"No, we're not running around doing whatever we damn well please," says
Aileen. "We have to talk about things and be open. If we don't, it's
disastrous." In that respect, monogamy and polyamory have a lot in common.
In another respect -- public acceptance -- they have very little in common.
However widely practiced polyamory is in other societies, Helen Fisher doesn't
think our own culture will ever embrace the idea of Rob and Aileen and Megan.
Americans, says Fisher, are "wedded to the notion of lifelong pair bonding and
fidelity. We'll see more divorce and adultery rather than an attempt to channel
our urges in an honest way. The majority of Americans will not endorse
polyamory -- ever."
Our culture, Fisher says, won't try what it doesn't know. Though she believes
marrying for life will become rarer and rarer as we live longer, monogamy
itself won't likely come into question. In other words, our allegiance to the
idea of commitment will far outlast the commitments themselves.
In his book Monogamy (Pantheon, 1996), a collection of thoughts on the
subject, British author Adam Phillips puts it this way: "Our belief in the
couple -- in good couplings -- is a measure of our sense of hope." No matter
how high the divorce rate spikes, the Sunday paper promises to abound with
beaming brides and grooms. Monogamy is like religion, says Phillips: it's a
leap of faith we're happy to take.
Polyamory, by contrast, just seems to make people feel uncomfortable,
threatened, and maybe even a little guilty. When I mentioned to a friend -- a
friend with a history of overlapping relationships -- that many of us have
brushed with polyamory, whether by dating multiple people or by just cheating
outright, she replied: "Not me."
And for those who have endured the pain of infidelity, the reaction to the
idea of polyamory can be virulent. One polyamorous woman tells of being
accosted by a divorcée whose husband had strayed: "She was very
condemning and accusatory. She said [polyamory] is wrong, that she'd been
really hurt by someone who slept with someone else. I thought, Hey, I didn't
sleep with your husband, ma'am!"
Then there's that little problem of sex. No matter how many safety guidelines
people obey, society still tsk-tsks at multiple partners as a manifestation of
promiscuity and ambivalence about commitment. Katherine Reeder, a Cambridge
therapist, admits that she'd question a couple with outside relationships: "I
don't think it's necessarily pathological, but [multiple relationships] still
break a bond and prevent the deepest possible connection. I'd try to show [the
couple] there's a deeper meaning of love."
This type of talk riles polys like Rob Mohns. "People just don't get that it's
not about lack of commitment," he says. "It's ironic considering what our
culture does accept. Serial monogamy -- one [relationship] after another after
another -- that's okay. Cheating, while it's not nice and you don't want to get
caught, is tacitly accepted because it's the norm. But being seriously involved
with [two women]? Now, that's not okay!"
Despite such reactions, polyamorists see hope. Brett Hill, editor of Loving
More magazine, compares the poly movement now to the gay movement 25 years
ago, when many Americans were just learning that friends, coworkers, and other
"normal" people were gay.
"One of the reasons I've chosen to be out," says Alan Wexelblat, who's a PhD
candidate at the MIT Media Lab, "is because . . . I am an example,
whether I like it or not, of who poly people are and how they behave."
One day soon, says Hill, you may learn that your cubicle-mate has not only a
fiancé but a boyfriend, too.
But it might not be that simple. Gay relationships are becoming more accepted
partly because they're proving stable and committed -- that is, they can be
just as monogamous as straight relationships. As a result, in spite of the
furor over Heather Has Two Mommies, a lot of Americans are proving able
to cope with the conceptual leap from the traditional definition of the nuclear
family -- a man and a woman -- to a family structure that revolves around two
men or two women. But two men and one woman? That's another story.
"[Polyamory] is just weirder," says Teddy, 23, who's monogamous. "I just
wasn't raised seeing that type of relationship. At least with gay and straight
marriages, everyone's on the same wavelength."
Wexelblat refuses to buy it. "I think the [relationship] configuration is less
important than the answers to such questions as: Is it a committed
relationship? Do they share accommodations? Do they share financial
responsibilities? Are they working on raising kids together?
"Those are things that are really important issues for the poly community," he
continues, "and to the extent that the gay-rights movement makes headway on
those issues, they make headway for us."
The polyamory movement does show signs of advancing into the public
consciousness. Both MTV and ABC's 20/20 are preparing segments on
polyamory to air later this fall, and a couple of documentaries are in the
works. Meanwhile, political initiatives to change zoning laws (some towns won't
let more than two unrelated people live together) and partner benefits are
Most promising for polys is that some report they have come out to coworkers
and family with little controversy; they even feel comfortable decorating their
desks with, yes, pictures of both their primary partner and their lovers.
And that will continue, says Wexelblat. "Even if the country as a whole enters
into a collective denial and says, 'No, there are no poly people, we refuse to
acknowledge your existence,' that doesn't prevent us from existing," he
explains. "It doesn't prevent more people from discovering who they are and how
they want to live."
Wexelblat -- who'll be married next spring, with his lover of eight years in
attendance -- shakes his head: "You might as well shovel sand against the
Alicia Potter can be reached at email@example.com.