Why Does Polyamory Freak People Out?

A recent History Channel documentary examined a swingers' retreat, and Jessica Bennett has a piece on polyamorists in this week's Newsweek. This sort of lifestyle has been covered before, so why does it still ruffle so many feathers?

The video above discusses a retreat called Sandstone, which began as a response to the baby boom of the 1950s, as a way of decoupling sex from procreation. And in today's baby-obsessed times, perhaps it makes sense that relationships that fall outside the nuclear family are viewed as shocking — and as ideal fodder for a trend piece.

Many polyamorists make a distinction between their lifestyle and swinging, but both do involve a rejection of the traditions of monogamy. Jessica Bennett profiles Terisa Greenan, her partners Larry and Scott, her boyfriend Matt, Matt's wife Vera, and Matt and Vera's six-year-old son. They all live in Seattle and identify as heterosexual polyamorists. Terisa and Scott started dating first, then added Larry, and later met Matt and Vera, who is now also dating Larry. Their relationship choices are accepted enough that Larry's polyamory club was once listed on Microsoft's internal website — but stigmatized enough that the Polyamory Society warns, "If your PolyFamily has children, please do not put your children and family at risk by coming out to the public or by being interviewed [by] the press!" At least one woman has lost custody of her child after outing herself as poly.


Bennett mentions Tilda Swinton as a celebrity proponent of the polyamorous lifestyle, but in a Double X interview, Swinton shies away from being a poster child for polyamory. She says,

I find it really interesting and slightly sad that it would be considered exotic to have children with one person, and remain very close friends with them, and to have a relationship with someone else. It has somehow morphed into some sort of polyamorous orgiastic experience. I mean, it's sad if it's exotic to be friends with someone one is so, so closely tied to and that he would be friends with, you know, my sweetheart. I mean, that seems to me really sad that people find it exotic. I think people are really into marriages these days.

Whether or not Swinton is truly poly, and whether or not "people are into marriages these days," many do seem to find polyamory "exotic" or even threatening. One reason is practical: Bennett writes, "Gay-marriage advocates have become leery of public association with the poly cause-lest it give their enemies ammunition." But another is more emotional. Allena Gabosch, the director of the Center for Sex Positive Culture, says, "Polyamory scares people-it shakes up their world view."

I always find myself simultaneously drawn to and disturbed by stories about polyamory. Drawn to them because polyamorists are doing something out of the ordinary and perhaps even feminist (Bennett points out that Terisa is the center of her particular group). But disturbed because of statements like the one Terisa's partner Scott makes: "I think if we were all given a choice, everyone would choose some form of open relationship." Polyamorists are usually careful to point out that their lifestyle isn't for everyone, but they and the people who write about them sometimes seem to be implying that polyamory is the wave of the future, the truly enlightened way to handle the restlessness and boredom that can creep into monogamous relationships. But while polyamorists say they have techniques for dealing with jealousy, I can't imagine those techniques ever working for me. So if polyamory is the true solution to the problems of monogamy, where does that leave people like me?


However, I'm starting to recognize this response as kind of a misguided one. At the end of the article, Scott softens his stance a bit. He says,

The people I feel sorry for are the ones who don't ever realize they have any other choices beyond the traditional options society presents. To look at an option like polyamory and say 'That's not for me' is fine. To look at it and not realize you can choose it is just sad.


Just as gay couples aren't forcing conservatives to become gay, polyamorists aren't trying to force me or anybody else to be poly. Nor are they necessarily saying it's more enlightened ("I like to call it polyagony," says polyamorist Ken Haslam). My negative reaction to the practice may be rooted more in outdated gender stereotypes (that women only open up their relationships to please variety-seeking men, for instance) and in my personal preferences than in anything actual polyamorists say or do. Of making her relationships work, Terisa says,

It's one of those things that sounds really basic, but I think a lot of people in conventional relationships don't take the time to actually tell their partner when they're feeling dissatisfied in some way. And sometimes it's as simple as saying, 'Hey, Larry,' or 'Hey, Scott, I really want to have dinner alone with you tonight-I'm feeling neglected.' We really don't let anything go unsaid.


Sounds like good advice, whether you're polyamorous or not.

Only You. And You. And You. [Newsweek]
The Feminist Roots Of Polyamory [Double X]

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It ruffles feathers because it's one of the oldest-standing taboos—infidelity—turned into something open and supposedly workable. It fulfills the fantasy of having a supercool and varied sex life while still having the stability and benefits of monogamy.

I have never, ever seen it actually work long-term. Maybe I'm just bitter because every dude I knew (and a fair chunk of the women) in the Bay Area all claimed to be polyamorous/in open relationships/etc., and Great Ceiling Cat did it get exhausting to keep track of it all. There was also the endless debate about what "real" poly meant, which basically boiled down to how much the other part(ies) knew about what was actually going on and how pissed they got about it.

I also found that when I was associating with a lot of poly people, my self-esteem was shot to hell. I spent a lot of time going on forums loudly validating my choices and perceived freedoms, but at the end of the day, I mostly felt confused and miserable that nobody loved me enough to make a commitment to just me. Thank you, I'll stay monogamous from now on.