Polygamy vs. Polyamory
By Cherie L. Ve Ard, March 10, 2006

Because mainstream America has associated the term polygamy with some extreme examples of relationship styles practices by some fairly extreme sects of Mormons, those who publicly call themselves polyamorous may find themselves explaining the differences. I was asked by some of my non-polyamorous friends about an A&E special Inside Polygamy on how that lifestyle is different from the lifestyle of polyamory, which prompted me to originally write this posting back in 2004. And HBO's new series Big Love will also be bringing more awareness to the term polygamy, and undoubtedly bring more similar types of questions.

I know that I have personally found that when I say or type the word "polyamory", what is heard sometimes is "polygamy" instead. And more precisely, what is heard is a very specific sub-type of polygamy that has been popularized in the American culture and media. It's what makes the news, after all. Polyamorists don't tend to do things that make the evening news, and I've not seen too many prime time TV shows entitled Inside Polyamory. I am often asked if I'm a polygamist, or if I'm doing 'What those people in Utah do?'

It's important to note that the polygamy presented in the documentary and in HBO's series is only one form of polygamy. The term technically means many spouses and can apply to any situation where more then two people are in a marriage type of commitment. Around the world, these forms of relationships can take many forms, with many different hierarchical structures. Many of them are well described in this Wikepedia entry. From a more general overview, the major difference between polyamory and polygamy is the marriage component.

Here in America however, the term polygamy is often used in the mainstream to refer to a specific kind form of group marriage that is practiced by some splinter groups of Mormonism. The documentary reference above was following some fairly extreme cases of this polygamy, and does not make reference to the broader scale that polygamy technically can be. Please also note that the Mormon church has officially banned polygamist marriages, and it is primarily practiced by religious organizations that are operating outside of the official The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For simplicity's sake, throughout this document I generally refer to this form of group marriage as 'Mormon Polygamy.'

For the purposes of the comparison below, I am primarily comparing polyamory to the Mormon polygamy. The reason for this is that I have found that this is the cultural knowledge that people are coming from when they ask me if polyamory is the same as polygamy. For better or worse, mainstream America seems to generally associate polygamy with the Mormon male dominated structure. Please keep in mind that this model is not the full definition of the term polygamy and actually represents a very small portion of people practicing polygamy across the world.

So what are the major differences?

1) Multiple Spouses vs Multiple Loves

Here is a topic that we can contrast the words at face value, and not just using the Mormon connotation of the word polygamy.

Polygamy technically means 'many spouses' and is focused on having marriage commitments with multiple people at a time. The term can refer to any combination of configurations. I have found, at least in my local community, that polyamorists with multiple spousal level commitments shy away from using the term polygamy to describe their relationship model because of the confusion of the term socially meaning something like what the documentary depicts.

Polyamory is a term that means 'many loves'. It does not imply that people are looking to marry multiple people (nor does it exclude that they may). Those loves may be explored in a variety of relationship styles - from dating, to living together, to raising kids together, group marriages or any combination thereof. I would even go so far to say that polygamy can be considered a form of polyamorous relationship. But the term polyamory itself does not set up a goal or ideal of marriage. Marriage commitments may or may not play a role in the practice of polyamory.

2) Religious Based

Mormon Polygamy, while polygamy technically meaning 'many spouses' and the term itself having no religious basis, in America it has taken on a connection to fundamental Mormonism. In Mormon Polygamy, especially in these fundamental and splinter sects, there's an expectation to reach spiritual gain in the afterlife for a man to have at least three wives in the physical realm. It's also referred to as Celestial Marriage. And it could also be technically called 'Polygyny' (or multiple-wives/women). Despite its technical meaning, polygamy has gained a societal description within mainstream America to refer to group marriages with dominant male and multiple wives. It's often synonymous with 'What those people in Utah do.'

Polyamory itself has no religious basis. Sure, the people who practice it may come from various religious backgrounds and there may be religious groups that are open to polyamorous configurations, but the pursuit of multiple relationships has no specific spiritual basis or goal. People practice it for their own reasons - which may widely vary. It's all personal choice (or should be, in my opinion). But LOVE is usually a strong reason for polyamory... and the freedom to love and pursue relationships with as many people as you choose. Not for a love of a god figure, or for entry into special status in the afterlife.

3) Male dominated vs. egalitarian

Mormon Polygamy, is male dominated. While 'many spouses' is non-gender specific, the term polygamy, used in context of the documentary, refers to a male dominated relationship with multiple submissive females (and not in a BDSM sense). Sometimes, the women have little say in when other wives are brought into the family, and the connections between the wives vary from not knowing each other to co-habitating and raising families together. One extreme is the Kingston family shown on the documentary, where the women are forced into marriage by age 16 (usually to an uncle or such), and expected to produce a child every year. Each wife in this family has their own house, and raises the kids on her own. But that's an extreme. In a less extreme Mormon polygamist family - there may be more choice on the part of the women coming into the family, and the existing wives having some say in the new bride. But it's still very male-dominated. None of the women are allowed other partners. And the male makes most decisions.

Polyamory can be described as gender egalitarian. Sure, a polyamorous relationships may be one man and multiple females - but it's by the choice of each involved, not because of lifestyle expectations or gender roles. In polyamory, women and men have the opportunity for equal status and choice in the matter of relationships. It's not uncommon at all for a woman to have multiple boyfriends (and/or girlfriends), for a guy to have boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. Or for a couple to date another couple or a single together. Sure, when you combine BDSM with polyamory, you may get a dominant figure with multiple submissives... but this is far from the "norm" in the polyamory I've encountered. And that dominant figure can just as easily be a female as it can a male. And yes, there may be hierarchy within the practice of polyamory, such as using labels like 'primary' partner to describe a partner(s) who gets priority over others - but there are not determined by gender roles alone.