When I started internet dating, I was quite clear: “Jealous types need not apply. I like variety.” When I was younger and single this was simply called, “Playing the Field.” Having lived so long in a traditional marriage, alternative relationship styles weren’t even on my radar. Even my gay friends were traditionally partnered, shacked up and mortgaged to the hilt. It wasn’t until I started online dating that I came across the concept of polyamory.
I wanted to justify and celebrate my desire to happily copulate with several people concurrently (and sometimes at the same time). So, as we do, I looked around for someone to justify this for me. First I read The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, considered by most to be the poly community’s Bible. I came away from that read feeling as though there wasn’t enough time in the day to attend to so many (infinite, mind you) relationships. Then there was the issue of STI’s and the notion that I would become “fluid bonded” with more than one person and I’d have to trust them not to share their fluid with someone outside the bond. Crikey.
Then I read Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, where I became convinced that, because our closest ape relatives were the lusty bonobos, monogamy wasn’t natural. But after a string of casual partners and one night stands, I couldn’t bring myself to be a human bonobo. I was needing more cuddle time. I wanted a little bit of old-fashioned love. I just figured it didn’t need to all come from one person.
Just for kicks, I decided to see what the Oxford English Dictionary had to say about polyamory. The OED added the word ‘polyamory’ (and -ous and -ist) to its canon on September 14, 2006 after at least seven years of consideration. It was apparently coined by a female scientist who was an active contributor to the internet conversation around ethical non-monogamy and adopted the word one night in her lab because she was simply tired of the tediousness of repeatedly writing “ethical non-monogamy.” The definition starts out as follows:
“The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.“
The study of consensual non-monogamy is fairly new, but as noted in Scientific American, as many as 5% of Americans are experiencing love and sex outside their committed relationships with their partner’s permission. Statistics for polyamory in the UK are more vague, with one source saying simply “…there are thought to be several thousand enthusiasts.” Polyamorists aspire to maintain multiple loving relationships, sometimes while raising children (wouldn’t I love a village that took care of my sexual needs AND my kids). What polyamory doesn’t embrace is cheating, that is, where one partner steps out of the agreement: and almost everyone interviewed agreed there had to be lots of talking and lots of agreements. This seemed like an upstanding position to me and since I wasn’t looking for a big commitment, though I was open to love, I decided to meet these polyamorists and learn what it was about.
I tweaked my online profile to welcome the men who identified as polyamorists. I warned them, though, that there were going to be a lot of pointedly un-British questions spilling from my mouth. It didn’t take long for my inbox to light up. I chose carefully: a man who was my age, had grown kids and had once been married. He worked in a creative profession, practiced tantric massage and had gentle, dreamy eyes. I met Jeremy at the British Library and our pupils immediately dilated.
Dilated pupils notwithstanding, I began the interrogation. Bless this man for not walking away within fifteen minutes of meeting me. After explaining to me his history, his marginally open marriage that broke down for reasons other than sex, he put it this way:
“I believe we have the capacity to love more than one person, and that extends to sexuality.” I agreed, I told him. I loved my friends, many of whom were men. Sometimes I wanted to sleep with them.
“But you have a primary partner.” I countered. He and Elaine, his lover of six months, were on OK Cupid together in an ‘Open’ relationship. He also told me they were planning to move in together in a few months.
“I don’t like to label it that way. That makes another lover ‘secondary’.”
“But you guys are going to be living together. How can she not be your primary?”
“I don’t want to set up a hierarchy in love. Yes, we’ll be living together, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love and be a lover to more than one partner.”
I began to feel a bit testy. It wasn’t that I thought multiple sexual relationships weren’t possible. It’s just that I felt I needed to challenge the idea that they could be equal.
“Look, let’s say you and I become lovers. One day, the shit hits the fan for both me and Elaine. Who’s going to get your attention?”
He raised his shoulders and nodded his head. “Elaine, of course.”
“Right. So she’s your primary.” Then he smiled at me with his big, delicious eyes.
“Let’s get some wine.”
Jeremy and I did go on to be lovers. And I was absolutely fine with Elaine being his primary partner. But I wondered if polyamory was simply a nice way of saying ‘I get to fuck around and come back to you and a home-cooked meal’? Was this a community of cake eaters who weren’t willing to put what little energy they had left at the end of the day into one relationship? Was I, along with all the multiple relationship types, afraid of too much intimacy with one person or just convinced that monogamy was the road to sexual death?
Gradually, I pulled away from Jeremy. I wanted my own number one fan. We continue to be friends and when we see each other we still like to snog a bit. But he came off the dating site. Elaine remains active there because she is exploring many new facets of her sexuality after a long marriage, and Jeremy is happy to see her blossom. He enjoys it when he knows she’s having sex with another man. They explore group activities together. But are they polyamorous? Next time I see him, I’ll ask him for his updated definition.