When the new Canadian census figures were released this week, there was a lot of talk about the rise in single-person households, as well as same-sex pairings and unmarried couples with children. But another variety of domestic arrangement continues to fly below the radar of demographics: those that involve more than two adult romantic partners.
While statistics are hard to come by, the lifestyle – which many of its practitioners call polyamory – does not go totally unnoticed, for better or worse.
A three-way civic union between a man and two women sparked outrage in Brazil in August, with one lawyer telling the BBC that it was “something completely unacceptable, which goes against Brazilian values and morals.”
Meanwhile, U.S. conservatives such as Rick Santorum and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have included multiple marriage as one of the inevitable moral perversions that would follow legalizing gay marriage, on a par with incest and bestiality.
But a sunnier vision was aired this summer on the U.S. Showtime cable station’s series Polyamory: Married and Dating, which Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak called “trashy, profound, and the best reality show on TV.”
The show’s seven episodes (currently available in Canada on The Movie Network) follow two polyamorous families – a two-female, one-male “triad” of graduate students in Riverside, Calif., and a “quad” of two married couples living together in San Diego. Everyone (except the two men in the “quad”) is emotionally and sexually involved with everyone else, with graphic group-sex scenes included.
The Showtime series marks a step toward the mainstream for polyamory – and a new spin to the debate over whether a family comprises exactly one man and one woman.
The show’s creator and executive producer is Natalia Garcia from Montreal. “I made this show for monogamous, mainstream people who are in traditional relationships, who don’t know they have an option, who feel like they’re stuck – or they’re cheating secretly or they’re about to break up,” she says. “Why is it that we can only marry one person if we love multiple people? Who decided that?”
For the uninitiated, polyamory (also known as ethical non-monogamy) is the current incarnation of a subculture whose roots extend from 19th-century utopian communes to 1960s “free love,” 1970s “swinging” lifestyles and open marriages and 1990s fetish communities. In contrast to swinging, however, polyamory emphasizes transparency and emotional commitment to all romantic and sexual partners, and partners in a “poly” family may cohabit or raise children.
The practice has been elaborated by a growing library of self-help books with titles such as Opening Up and The Ethical Slut and endorsed by public figures such as sex columnist Dan Savage and actress Tilda Swinton.
Last December, polyamory earned some legal recognition in Canada after a B.C. Supreme Court ruling granted that multiple conjugal unions between live-in partners are legal so long as there has been no marriage ceremony.
Polyamory should not be confused with the patriarchal, polygamous marriages familiar from fundamentalist offshoots of Mormonism (and their TV reflections, Big Love or Sister Wives) and some other religious sects: In polyamory’s most common form, both women and men are free to seek multiple relationships, and partnerships need not be cemented by marriage.
Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who runs Sheff Consulting Group in Atlanta, has studied polyamorous families extensively since the mid-1990s.
She has found that women share sexual power more equally with men in polyamorous relationships than in polygamous ones – partly because women are generally more selective of sexual partners, and tend to find new ones more easily, which gives them leverage.
Earlier this year, an Internet survey of 1,100 polyamorists conducted by Melissa Mitchell at Simon Fraser University – the largest academic survey of polyamorists to date – found that majority of poly individuals (64 per cent) have two partners, with 61 per cent of the women identifying their two closest partners as both men and 86 per cent of men identifying their two closest partners as both women.