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How Did Polyamory Become So Popular?

Author: Jennifer Wilson Source: The New Yorker
December 30, 2023 at 10:12
Non-monogamy is increasingly being adopted not to threaten marriage but to save it.Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti
Non-monogamy is increasingly being adopted not to threaten marriage but to save it.Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti

Jennifer Wilson reviews new books on open relationships and non-monogamy: “American Poly,” by the historian Christopher M. Gleason, and “More,” a memoir by Molly Roden Winter.

On Season 1 of HBO’s “Succession,” the telecom heiress Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) shocked her social-climber partner, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), by sharing her misgivings about monogamy—on their wedding night. “I’m just wondering if there’s an opportunity for something different from the whole boxed-set death march,” she confesses, still in her gown. Committed to marrying up, Tom pretends to be down with the whole thing, but, a season later, he backs out of a threesome aboard the family yacht, and out of the arrangement altogether, claiming that Shiv “shanghaied” him “into an open-borders free-fuck trade deal.”

A brief scan of popular culture will tell you that Tom, save for his critique of laissez-faire capitalism, is behind the times. Marriage has been drafty lately. Everywhere you turn, the door couples close behind them when they enter the sanctum of matrimony is being left ajar. Bored with the old-fashioned affair, prestige TV has traded in adultery for a newer, younger model, mining open relationships for drama. In fiction, consensual non-monogamy has appeared in a spate of recent books, including “Luster” (2020), by Raven Leilani, “Acts of Service” (2022), by Lillian Fishman, and Maggie Millner’s “Couplets” (2023), a novel whose title plays with the overlapping nature of coupledom among polyamorous young Brooklynites. In cinema, the couple has been made passé by the au-courant throuple, with films like “Passages” (2023) and next year’s “Challengers” chasing the thrill of the third. In March of 2023, Gucci premièred a perfume ad featuring Julia Garner, Elliot Page, and A$AP Rocky all staring amorously into one another’s eyes to the fifties doo-wop tune “Life Is But a Dream.” The video is captioned “Co-create a world of openhearted bliss in the new Gucci Guilty campaign.” The ménage à trois has become so trendy that, in the fifth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Princess Diana’s famous quip to Martin Bashir regarding her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” misses the sting of the original. If anything, by today’s standards three’s not enoughcompany. “Riverdale,” the CW’s adaptation of the classic Archie Comics, ended its series run by revealing that Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Betty were all in a romantic “quad.”

What are all these open couples, throuples, and polycules suddenly doing in the culture, besides one another? To some extent, art is catching up with life. Fifty-one per cent of adults younger than thirty told Pew Research, in 2023, that open marriage was “acceptable,” and twenty per cent of all Americans report experimenting with some form of non-monogamy. The extramarital “entanglements” of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have been tabloid fodder for the past two years. (Pinkett Smith once clarified that their marriage is not “open”; rather, it is a “relationship of transparency.”) In 2020, the reality show “House Hunters,” on HGTV, saw a throuple trying to find their dream home—one with a triple-sink vanity. The same year, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, allowed domestic partnerships to be made up of “two or more” people.

Some, like the sex therapist (and author of “Open Monogamy, A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement,” 2021), Tammy Nelson, have attributed the acceptance of a greater number of partners to pandemic-born domestic ennui; after being stuck with one person all day every day, the thinking goes, couples are ready to open up more than their pods. Nelson is part of a cohort of therapists, counsellors, and advice writers, including Esther Perel and the “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage, who are encouraging married couples to think more flexibly about monogamy. Their advice has found an eager audience among the well-heeled attendees of the “ideas festival” circuit, featured in talks at Google, SXSW, and the Aspen Institute.

The new monogamy skepticism of the moneyed gets some screen time in the pandemic-era breakout hit “The White Lotus.” The show mocks the leisure class as they mope around five-star resorts in Hawaii and Sicily, stewing over love, money, and the impossibility, for people in their tax bracket, of separating the two. In the latest season, Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) are an attractive young couple stuck in a sexless marriage—until, that is, they go on vacation with the monogamish Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). After Cameron and Harper have some unaccounted-for time together in a hotel room, Ethan tracks down an unbothered Daphne, lounging on the beach, to share his suspicion that something has happened between their spouses. Some momentary concern on Daphne’s face quickly morphs—in a devastatingly subtle performance by Fahy—into a sly smile. “A little mystery? It’s kinda sexy,” she assures Ethan, before luring him into a seaside cove. That night Ethan and Harper have sex, the wounds of their marriage having been healed by a little something on the side.

“The White Lotus” is not the only recent cultural offering that shows the rich using non-monogamy as a vaccine against an expensive divorce. In the 2021 HBO remake of “Scenes from a Marriage,” Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), a high-powered executive for a tech company and a professor, respectively, are having dinner with their friends Peter (Corey Stoll) and Kate (Nicole Beharie), who are in an open marriage. When they were monogamous, Kate tells Mira, they barely made love, and now—“I wore him out,” Kate brags.

These shows, with their well-off couples ready to experiment with open relationships as a marital pick-me-up, depict the surprising fate of a radical social proposal. Non-monogamy, once the province of utopian communities like Oneida, which maligned matrimony as just another form of private ownership, is increasingly being presented not as a threat to bourgeois marriage but, rather, as a way to save the institution and all that it affords.

“American Poly,” a new book by the historian Christopher M. Gleason, offers some explanations for how this came to be the state of our affairs. (The term “polyamory” is thought to have been coined in 1990, but Gleason backdates to encompass various forms of consensual non-monogamy.) Gleason’s book does not purport to be a sweeping study of free love in the U.S., a history that would include more on its adoption by socialists, beatniks, and queer liberationists. Instead, “American Poly” focusses more narrowly on the post-nineteen-sixties polyamory movement. Gleason argues, persuasively, that contemporary polyamory as a set of ideas and practices was articulated by the kind of free-love advocates best positioned to survive conservative backlash in the nineteen-eighties. These tended to be socially liberal fiscal conservatives who wanted love to be as free as the market.

One such figure was Jud Presmont, the leader of Kerista, a free-love movement that grew to prominence in San Francisco in the sixties, attracting the admiration of Allen Ginsberg. Keristans were faithful, albeit in groups of up to twenty-four. To discourage romantic attachment and possessiveness, they referred to these love nests as “best friend identity clusters” (B.F.I.C.). There were two people to a bed, but on a rotational sleeping schedule, insuring equal bonding time among B.F.I.C. members of the opposite sex. (Reading about this, I recalled a friend telling me, “Poly people just have a scheduling fetish.”) Though the Keristans pooled their finances and shared child-care responsibilities, they were decidedly not socialists. Presmont’s passion for polyamory was matched only by his desire to defeat the Soviets, and to see America triumph over Communism. During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the group even started several businesses, including one that rented out Macintosh computers called Utopian Technologies. Its members believed “the freedom to do what they were doing was proof of America’s greatness,” Gleason writes.

As backlash to the sexual revolution took hold in the nineteen-eighties, polyamory adapted itself to the times. Gleason cites the impact of one person in particular, Ryam Nearing, a Keristan-curious woman who settled outside Eugene, Oregon, with her two “husbands.” Nearing had split off from the movement over the issues of organized religion (she found Kerista as dogmatic as the Catholicism she’d left behind) and romantic attachment. She didn’t want a best-friend identity cluster; she wanted a marriage, albeit one with two men. “Nearing was uniquely suited to fight for ethical non-monogamy within the cultural climate of the Reagan era,” Gleason explains. She was pro-family, pro-fidelity, and a fiscal conservative.

Nearing established a nonprofit called Polyfidelitous Educational Productions; in the summer of 1986, she organized a conference, pepcon,that was billed as a “networking weekend filled with workshops, films, games, dancing, and discussion groups.” The topics included “cooperative parenting,” “sharing money,” and “tantra.”

Joined by Deborah Anapol, a polyamorous clinical psychologist, Nearing made non-monogamy the kind of life style you could bring home to Mom and Dad. In 1994, Nearing and Anapol began putting out a magazine titled Loving More. Their aim was to wrap the project of polyamory in language that they thought would be well received by the mainstream. In messaging the benefits of polyamory, they emphasized its reliance on honesty, personal responsibility, and a structured code of ethics. This coalition of polyamorists “did not chide conservative reverence for family values,” Gleason writes. “Rather, they internalized the conservative emphasis on stability and commitment, reframing the sustainment of multiple intimate partners not as an undoing of family values but as a necessary evolution in familial dynamics that better safeguarded the family from the alienation, isolation, and economic hardships of the post-nuclear age.” Non-monogamy could be the loyal spouse’s help-meet, they argued, a release valve that might keep a frustrated wife or husband from blowing the roof off the entire institution.

As polyamory found greater acceptance in the nineteen-nineties, the movement shed its remaining countercultural trappings, Gleason argues, noting the shift away from New Age spirituality in favor of “ethics” and “rule-based” approaches to polyamory. These precepts were codified in “The Ethical Slut,” by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy (1997), a sex-positive guide colloquially known as “the poly bible.” It contains Keristan terminology (like “compersion”—the feeling of joy that comes from seeing your partner sexually happy with another person) and a list of do’s and don’ts, including “do refrain from fucking the guests until your lover is finished cooking and serving dinner,” and “don’t wander off with your lover, leaving your partner to make conversation with your lover’s spouse.”

So many rules! “American Poly” reveals Americans to be very American. Good Puritans, we made marriage into work and non-monogamy into even more work—something that requires scheduling software, self-help manuals, even networking events. Presumably, participants could at least skip the icebreakers.

Halfway through “More,” Molly Roden Winter’s memoir about her open marriage, the author picks up a copy of “The Ethical Slut” from the Strand, “a bookstore large enough to contain the embarrassment I feel,” she writes. By now, Roden Winter is writing in unstinting detail about the mechanics of her marriage’s transition from monogamous to open (some sex on the side) to fully polyamorous (in which couples are allowed to have full-fledged concurrent relationships). She holds nothing back, even when she should. At one point, she signs up for AshleyMadison.com (tagline: “Life is short, have an affair”) using the alias Mercedes Invierno, her surname in Spanish. “The twin sins of cultural appropriation and misrepresenting myself to men with Latina fetishes hardly seem important in the world of Ashley Madison,” she tells herself, eating up the attention she receives on the site “like a warm plate of churros.”

When the book opens, Roden Winter is the (monogamously) married stay-at-home mother of two small children, or, as she puts it, “the Wiper of Noses, the Doer of Dishes, the Nag in Residence.” She wants, well—more. One night, after her husband, Stewart, gets home late from work, yet again, she loses it. Out on a rage walk through the mean streets of Park Slope, she bumps into an old colleague from her teaching days who invites her out to a nearby bar, appropriately named the Gate, where she will first trespass the boundaries of monogamy.

Inside, she meets Matt, a younger man who buys her a few rounds of I.P.A.s. The description of him is generic: tall, jeans, hair. Their conversation is devoid of even the slimmest fragment of witty banter. This is a lust born of deprivation and desperation. She gives Matt her number, and by the time she’s home he’s sent her a text message, which Stewart spies. It turns out that he’s turned on. Matt becomes the couple’s marital lubricant. In bed, Stewart imagines that Matt is probably somewhere “thinking about what he wishes he’d done to you,” he tells his wife, before brushing his fingers across her panties. Roden Winter is riveted: “ ‘Fuck me’ I say, for perhaps the first time in our married life.”

At every turn, Roden Winter emphasizes that this experiment sustains and deepens her bond with her husband. “Sometimes, when Stewart does something new—moves his tongue differently, I freeze,” she writes. “Where did he learn to do that? I wonder,” she continues, before she has a powerful orgasm that recalls the early days of their courtship. Later, she goes to see “Get Out” with a man she met on OKCupid, and is breathlessly excited about decoding the film’s symbolism. “And the cotton in his ears was so cool!” she recalls telling her OKCupid date. “It’s like he’s using this symbol of slavery to escape the enslavers.” He compliments her on her insight, then grows quiet, not as eager as she imagines Stewart will be to go back and forth with “Mercedes Invierno” on race relations.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “More” is how closed-minded it feels about many things besides open marriage. Divorce, for instance. When the wife of one of Roden Winter’s lovers leaves him for another man, she derides the woman to her therapist: “I feel bad for him. Diana is being so impulsive. I mean, she’s planning on marrying this guy she met only a year ago.” It’s a startlingly judgmental pronouncement coming from someone who clearly thinks of herself as transgressive. But that kind of marital rupture is impossible in Roden Winter’s world. While I appreciated her lack of shame about desire (including the desire for validation), I couldn’t help wishing that she possessed the same candor around the economics of her marriage. Although she never directly addresses the matter in “More,” it is clear from her life style that Roden Winter and her husband are better off than most of their partners, who tend to be younger, single, and less financially secure than they are. One of their rules is that they cannot have sex in their home, and so, in the course of the book they spend untold amounts on New York City hotels, taxis, and co-working spaces. When Roden Winter first hooks up with Matt, she immediately notices his cramped living space: “There’s no foyer in his small studio apartment, no mudroom with four identical cubbies like I have in my house.” Who thinks about a mudroom during sex? Someone who writes a book called “More” is who.

The memoir takes a long time to finish, not unlike a bad Ashley Madison hookup, but not before Roden Winter offers closing remarks in defense of open marriage. She echoes the common refrain expressed by proponents of polyamory that the life style represents an abundance-oriented mind-set, whereas monogamy is a symptom of scarcity culture. “Because love is vast,” she tells us. “Abundant. Infinite, in fact. And the secret is this: love begets love. The more you love, the more love you have to give.” But there is no articulation of what that abundance might look like beyond her private life and the private spaces in which it unfolds. Ultimately, Roden Winter’s memoir represents a very specific, arguably very American version of polyamory—the extension of abundance culture to all corners of the bedroom, but nowhere beyond.

I want more for polyamory than “More.” As ethical non-monogamy becomes the stuff of Park Slope marriages and luxury perfume ads, it’s worth remembering that revolutions don’t fail; they get co-opted—often by people who can afford co-ops. You can understand why Roden Winter might believe that she is ushering in a bright, abundant future by opening up her marriage. A good love affair, when you’re inside it, feels like it could change the world. But changing the world takes more than spreading the love; you have to spread the wealth, too. Maybe that’s just utopian, hippie nonsense. But what can I say? I’m a romantic. 

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