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.
The majority of the women in the sample identified as bisexual (68 per cent), while bisexual men are less frequent (39 per cent) and exclusive homosexuals are rare (3.9 per cent for women and 2.9 per cent for men).
The study found that on average, polyamorists spend more time with and feel more committed to their primary partners than their secondary partners, though they may find secondary partners better satisfy their sexual needs. Seventy per cent of the sample live with their closest partner and 47 per cent are married to him/her. The average relationship length was nine years for closest partners and 2.5 years for second-closest partners.
The researchers note that because the survey is self-selected, it doesn’t provide a representative sample, but Dr. Sheff says the SFU results line up with those of other studies, such as the 71 focus interviews she conducted with Midwestern and Californian polyamorists from 1996 to 2009.
Dr. Sheff says that despite the pronounced importance of gender equality to polyamorists, it’s not unusual for men to be drawn to it because they believe that it will lead to easy sex or sex with multiple women.
But philanderers and pickup artists have a difficult time meeting the emotional demands of a polyamorous lifestyle and are eventually turned off – or ostracized – by the community.
“Ongoing poly relationships can be enough of a challenge, and require so much communication, that there is often less sex than talking,” Dr. Sheff said. “If the men come in thinking, ‘This is going to be a big free-for-all,’ and they’re not willing to put in the effort to maintaining the relationship part of it, they get a bad reputation.”
Polyamory: Married and Dating makes it clear that the advantages of open relationships come at a price: While the members of the cast have a lot of sex, they spend much more time deconstructing their emotions and debating each other’s rights and responsibilities.
What seem like common marital hiccups – for example, when Jen Gold gets angry that her husband, Tahl Gruer, has invited his ex to a party – spawn deep, emotional arguments.
Ms. Garcia, the producer, says she never wanted to give the impression that polyamorous families are perfect. “Truthfully, poly doesn't work for everyone, the way monogamy doesn't work for everyone,” she says. "To claim that polyamorous families don't argue and everything is perfect would be a lie."
On polyamorist websites such as Modern Poly and Polyamory in the News, reactions have been mixed – some fear that the show is exploitative and oversexualized, while others are just happy to have representation on TV.
Tim, a firefighter living in Toronto, says the constant relationship drama in the show seems close to what he has experienced in the two years since he and his partner, Lola, opened their relationship and became polyamorous. (They requested that their real names not be used.)
“We all struggled with things in the start – and we still are,” he says. “I didn't realize that I was going to have the problems of two relationships as well as the benefits.”
For Tim, polyamory as practised by the groups on the series is an ideal to strive for. “I like the way that everyone is open and honest, and they have civilized adult conversations about wanting to have sex with other people,” he says. “It’s funny, people seem to think that cheating is more acceptable than polyamory. It’s a strange idea, but that seems to be the way it is.”
However, Lola, Tim’s primary partner, doubts the realism of a large family in which all of the members are bisexual and involved with each other. While she is comfortable with Tim having another girlfriend, the two women have never met, and Lola does not see any chance of them developing into a live-in triad.
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.