Kamala Devi, one of the show’s protagonists, is the first to admit that her “pod,” which includes husband Michael McClure and married couple Jen and Tahl, as well as a periphery of other lovers, is atypical for poly families. “I’m not representative of what polyamory looks like. I’ve been doing it for 15 years, I have a lot of lovers, and my life is devoted to it,” she says.
“There are lots of different ways of doing poly – not everyone’s married, and not everyone’s living together. I look at my life as an example of the extreme, as opposed to a real representation of what poly looks like in America.”
In other senses, however, the cast of Polyamory is typical of poly culture. According to a growing body of research, the community is dominated by white professionals and college students. Ninety per cent of the respondents to Ms. Mitchell’s study identified as Caucasian, and 94.5 per cent had some college education.
Of Dr. Sheff’s interview subjects, 89 per cent were white, 74 per cent were in professional jobs and 67 per cent had at least a bachelor’s degree.
A 2011 literature survey by Dr. Sheff and Corie Hammers, which compiled racial and class data on polyamorists and related groups from 36 independent studies, confirmed that sexual minorities are heavily weighted toward upper-middle-class whites.
It makes sense, Dr. Sheff says: People who face poverty or racism often cannot afford to take the risks associated with defying social norms, which could lead to losing their jobs, homes or kids. Legal protection is particularly scarce for polys, which is less of a problem for those with the financial resources to hire lawyers.
Yet the authors of poly self-help literature tend to characterize it as a choice that depends primarily on conviction, hard work and personal courage rather than social status and financial security.
“It’s easy to cast as a personal choice if that’s all it seems to you, devoid of social and political context,” Dr. Sheff says. “But some people can’t ignore that context.”
On the other hand, she says there are probably many individuals and families who are engaged in non-monogamous relationships, but who are uncomfortable “coming out” and adopting an identity that could lead to further social disadvantages. This is one of the reasons it is hard to estimate the size of the poly population in America – researchers are not sure whom they should include in the count.
Dr. Sheff says more public role models, like those provided by Polyamory: Married and Dating, may help to destigmatize polyamory and make it less risky.
Kamala Devi – a Latina woman of Jewish descent, and the only person of colour on the cast – says that many of the reactions to the show have expressed gratitude and relief. “I get letters from people in the Midwest who've been doing this for years in secret,” she says, “and they're like 'Finally, somebody out there is reassuring me that me and my husband and his girlfriends that we're not freaks.’”
She says she knows the feeling. “I spent most of my life stumbling around, trying to figure things out, because I didn't have any clear role models to show me how polyamory was done. If there was a show like this around when I came out, I would have saved myself a lot of headache, a lot of heartache.”
Editor's Note: Polyamory in the News is the name of a polyamorist blog. An incorrect website name appeared in an earlier version of this article.