A Humanist looks at polyamory
By Valerie White
Copyright © 2004 American Humanist Association
Copyright © 2005 Gale Group
There are two words that I apply to myself which, considered together, probably place me in one of the smallest categories of humanity. Those are polyamorous and Humanist. There is no way of knowing what percentage of the population engages in an open, responsible, and respectful multi-partner lifestyle, although it is likely that the number runs quite high and accounts for hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. But let's estimate that it's 2 percent (a number I found bruited about on the Internet), and that Humanists comprise less than 10 percent. That would put me in the class polyamorous Humanist, which comprises 0.2 percent of the general population. Of course, I think there is a correlation: I think it's probable that Humanists are more likely to be polyamorous and that polyamorists are more likely to be Humanist than the rest of the population.
I knew I was polyamorous and I knew I was Humanist before I knew the words.
Raised by atheist parents, I never had any god belief to lose and I've never acquired any, either. Being churchless in the 1950s wasn't an easy thing for a child to cope with, though, and it was with a sigh of homecoming that I discovered Unitarian Universalism when in college in 1962. I don't remember hearing the word Humanism until the mid 1980s, when my mother, who lived with me then, was a subscriber to the Humanist. I joined the American Humanist Association, publisher of the Humanist, on my own soon afterward. Ever since then that's what I've called myself.
I learned the word polyamory a few years later in 1994.
Among this readership I shouldn't need to explain what Humanism is (but an apt definition appears on the inside front cover of the magazine). But I expect it would be useful for me to define polyamory, which is living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal.
I've known since my late teens that monogamy wasn't natural to me. Judging from the amount of garden variety cheating, swinging, and serial monogamy that goes on in our society, many many other people aren't naturally monogamous, either. I understand there may be people who, after they commit themselves to a partner, never feel a stirring of romantic or erotic interest in anyone else, but I'm not one of them. Heck, even Jimmy Carter admitted to lusting after other women in his heart.
"Well, of course" you say. "You can feel an attraction to someone besides your partner but you don't have to act on it? Maybe. An awful lot of people do act on it, however, and consequently a lot of marriages break up over adultery.
Without polyamory my choices would be:
1. cheat, lie, betray, deceive.
2. engage in agreed-upon recreational sex,
swapping with other couples
3. eschew committed relationships
4. embrace celibacy
5. chafe in resentful frustration.
I find all five of these alternatives unacceptable. I live my life in a relationship in which each of us accepts that the other may have additional loving relationships. I can't imagine living any other way. This lifestyle is predicated upon the assumption espoused by Humanist science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that "love doesn't subtract; it multiplies" It is perhaps most melodically expressed in Humanist Malvina Reynolds' beloved song:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away;
You end up having more.
It's just like a magic penny;
Hold it tight, and you won't have any;
Lend and spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
Poly people believe that the deep, mutual love that glows in a longstanding relationship isn't necessarily destroyed by the energy that kindles in a new one.
What is the biology of polyamory? Is it hardwired in the genes? Nobody knows. I suspect that many, perhaps most people, have the capacity to love multiple partners. An awful lot of people have had more than one lover. Many other species in the animal kingdom are poly, including humans' close cousins the bonobo chimpanzees. Even supposedly monogamous animals like swans turn out to hatch eggs fathered by multiple males.
In humans, however, is an instinctual drive for multiple partners only hardwired for males? Can it be true that the evolutionary advantage for men is to spread their seed as widely as possible and for women to cleave only to one? I doubt it. Why wouldn't it be evolutionarily advantageous for a woman to have more than one man who was willing to beat off saber-tooth tigers from her and her baby--and have a selection of men to mate with in pursuit of better offspring?
To polyfolk, loving more than one partner comes as naturally as loving more than one child: you don't stop loving your firstborn when your next child comes along. In fact, you may feel that your first love is given new dimension when a new love enriches your life.
But a life of this kind requires honesty, openness, respect, self-confidence, trust, and, above all, communication. It's hard work. It can be painful. But I find it worthwhile. And it is completely congruent with my Humanist values. Doesn't choosing to love more than one person honestly and responsibly derive from these core Humanist principles found in Humanist Manifesto II of 1973?
We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience....
Happiness and the creative realization of human
needs and desires, individually and in shared
enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism.... We
believe in maximum individual autonomy
consonant with social responsibility.... While
we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms
of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit,
by law or social sanction, sexual behavior
between consenting adults. The many varieties of
sexual exploration should not in themselves be
considered "evil".... Short of harming others or
compelling them to do likewise, individuals
should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities
and pursue their lifestyles as they desire.
We wish to cultivate the development of a responsible
attitude toward sexuality, in which humans
are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which
intimacy, sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal
relations are encouraged.
Humanist Manifesto III, published in 2003, adds:
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in
relationships. Humanists long for and strive
toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of
cruelty and its consequences, where differences
are resolved cooperatively without resorting to
violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence
enriches our lives, encourages us to
enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of
attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
To answer the question that everyone asks: yes, polyamorous people can get jealous. But we know that jealousy is the fear of losing something valued and so, when jealousy arises, all parties rally round to reassure the jealous one. Polyamorous people can also feel "compersion," taking joy from a beloved partner's pleasure with another love.
There are almost as many ways to practice polyamory as there are polyamorous people. Lots of people have one primary partner and one or more "secondary." Groups of people form an intimate network or a "group marriage" Poly people live in triads and quads and larger assemblies that are similar to the way traditional couples live. Popular mythology to the contrary notwithstanding, it appears there are as many male-female-male triads as the other way around.
A subset of polyamory is polyfidelity, which is just what it sounds like; people practicing polyfidelity are sexually exclusive within their group. Polyamorous people can be heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. There are people practicing polyamory who are in their seventies and in their teens. In fact, there is some reason to believe that poly-style multi-partnering is the norm in the younger cohort.
There are almost as many reasons to be polyamorous as there are polyamorous people. Some people are poly simply because they want to have more sex. Some are poly because they want to have less. Some are poly because they love the excitement and energy of new relationships; some because they like the mutuality of group living. Some are poly because they don't find that one person can meet their emotional needs while others are poly because they don't want to be solely responsible for one person's emotional needs.
How did this movement (and it is a movement, with several national organizations, local support groups in most major cities, e-mail lists, matchmaking websites, and even a denominational UU group) get started and how did it get its name? The word polyamorous was coined by Morning Glory Zell in 1990 and is a hybrid of a Greek root meaning "many" and a Latin root meaning "love." Zell said she could have been consistently Latin or Greek and called it omniamory or polyphilia, but they sounded like diseases.
In 1961 American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a novel entitled Stranger in a Strange Land. Its premise is that it's possible to love more than one person at a time: openly, honestly, spiritually, and sexually. While that idea wasn't exactly new (after all, there have been menages a trois in real life, in fiction, and in the movies for a long time), the concept fired the imaginations of lots of people in those years leading up to the 1967 summer of love, and a movement was born. Other novels by Heinlein, such as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Friday, and Time Enough for Love are also cited by polyfolk as inspirational.
However, Heinlein and his fans weren't the only ones to be suggesting or advocating new ways of looking at relationships. Robert Rimmer's 1965 novel, The Harrod Experiment, and other novels also suggested that loving, committed, and respectful relationships don't have to be sexually exclusive. Rimmer himself lived in a quad for many years with his wife and another couple. I had the honor once of meeting him and his wife; I discovered from talking to him that he valued his role as one of the fathers of the poly movement. When he died recently he was remembered as one of the founders of polyamory. Many people seized on Rimmer's premise and tried to create working multipartner relationships. The 1972 self-help book, Open Marriage, by George and Nina O'Neill contributed to the trend, even though many people found it curiously asexual.
In 1983 a study by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz reported that 15 to 28 percent of married couples in the sample group had "an understanding that allows nonmonogamy" but weren't aware that other people were doing the same thing. It took the invention of the Internet to create the current explosive growth of the poly movement, as people who knew they wanted multiple relationships could finally find each other. (If you were to do a Google search on "polyamory" today you would get 75,000 hits.)
Naturally, the thing most people think about when they learn of multipartner relationships is sex. When I was interviewed recently by a British women's magazine, the resulting article was balanced and fair but all the highlighted quotes were about sex. Intercourse is not the primary reason people seek polyamorous relationships. As a friend of mine once remarked, "Polyamory is about more love, not more sex." In fact, poly folk quip that they are too busy communicating and scheduling to have time for sex.
Sometimes it's easier to understand a concept by learning what it is not. Polyamory is not infidelity. Polyamory is not promiscuous superficial, unthinking irresponsible sex. Polyamory is not swinging. In my mind swinging is a perfectly responsible choice when neither party is coerced. But when swingers agree that they won't develop loving relationships with the people they swing with, swingers aren't polyamorous. When swingers do develop lasting, loving friendship with their swing partners I would say that what they're doing is indistinguishable from polyamory.
If you look for polyamory on the Internet you'll find that, like Humanism, there have been many attempts to define it. Most of them utilize words like ethical, responsible, honorable, open honest intentional and principled.
I am a Humanist and I am polyamorous. I was both of these things before I had terms for them. I find my Humanism and my polyamory Congruent and satisfying and I wouldn't part with either of them.
Valerie White is executive director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. She was the first president of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Aware ness and was formerly vice president of the AHA and consulting editor to the Humanist.