While polyamory is a sub-category of non-monogamy and the two are not synonymous, they are closely linked enough to share a common history in the United States. Polyamory is a fairly recent addition to a litany of non-monogamous relationships, some of which have directly influenced the evolution of polyamorous communities. In this post, I divide non-monogamy and polyamory in the Unites States into three “waves” occurring in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
FIRST WAVE: NINETEENTH CENTURY TRANSCENDENTALISM
Polyamorous identity did not exist during the nineteenth century, but this initial expression of non-monogamy had a profound influence on later poly/non-mono thinking and communities. There were several groups of people who practiced a multiple partner relationship style in the United States in the mid-to-late 1800s, most influenced by the Nineteenth Century transcendental movement (Hutchins, 2001). Brook Farm was an “experimental free love community” (Hutchins, 2001:72) populated by “Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, and other charismatic leaders who roamed up and down the east coast preaching” a doctrine that “challenged conventional Christian doctrines of sin and human unworthiness.”
John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida community in 1848. Noyes established a system of “complex marriage” in which “each male was theoretically married to each female, and where each regarded the other as either a brother or a sister” (Muncy 1973:160). This rejection of monogamous marriage was intended to offer an alternative to “the monogamous relation [which] fostered exclusiveness and selfishness, and worked to counter communism” (Muncy 1973:168). Children similarly lived together in a communal children’s house. Parents were not permitted to show special affection to their own children, but were instead mandated to treat all children of the community equally.
Finally, Nashoba was a free-love community established in 1862 by Frances Wright, a wealthy Scottish immigrant (Hutchins 2001:72). Wright formed a large communal farm “bringing together both free blacks and whites to work and make love.” She opposed the racist trend at the time, and declared “sexual passion the best source of human happiness” (Hutchins 2001:72).
SECOND WAVE: TWENTIETH CENTURY COUNTERCULTURES
The 1960s and 1970s represented an important period in the evolution of identities that allowed increasing sexual and gender latitude. Feminists included sexual issues such as the repeal of abortion laws and access to safe, legal birth control to their larger agenda of gender equity (Hutchins, 2001). Gays and lesbians began to question the hegemony of heterosexuality (Weeks, 1985), and, together with feminists, exposed gender roles as socially constructed. Transgendered people began to emphasize the performative nature of gender (Bornstein 1994; Butler 1990). Bisexuals further destabilized the blend of gender and sexuality by minimizing the importance of their romantic partners’ genders (Udis-Kessler 1996). Finally, social and economic conditions contributed to an increase in autonomy for women and sexual minorities, especially gays and lesbians. Industrialization, shrinking families, and the separation of sexuality from procreation enabled women to bear fewer children and gays and lesbians to develop urban enclaves (D’ Emilio 1983; Weeks 1985). Polyamory evolved as a direct result of the sexual revolution and intertwined with the alternative sexual forms previously discussed, especially the bisexual and free love movements. Like other aspects of polyamorous community, the history of the movement has some points of contention.
One form of countercultural group was the commune. The community movement, which had declined in the United States during the late nineteenth century, re-emerged in the form of communes in 1960s and ‘70s. This second iteration maintained a focus on creating a chosen family for people who were “…establishment dropouts, disillusioned with the dominant lifestyles in America; they are people who believe they can find a better way of life in a group living experience with like-minded persons” (Stinnett and Birdsong 1978:104). Communes often emphasized the value of intimate relationships, personal growth, spiritual rebirth, and cooperation over competition, return to nature, and rebellion against the establishment. Many communities included some form of atypical sexuality, from celibacy to free-love (Stinnett and Birdsong, 1978:107), though only a minority of contemporary communes endorsed sexually nonexclusive relationships (Buunk and van Driel, 1989:134).
“Multilateral” Marriage and Swinging
Two more countercultural groups involved “multilateral” or group marriage and swinging. Research into these non-monogamous relationships peaked in the early 1970s. By that time, the sexual revolution had popularized sexual experimentation, and the concepts of open and group marriages had gained notoriety. American culture was more sexually permissive than ever before, and the specter of AIDS had not yet destroyed the playful sense of sexual experimentation. Researchers such as Constantine and Constantine (1973:49) studied those involved in “multilateral marriages,” which they defined as “three or more partners, each of whom considers him/herself to be married (or committed in a functionally analogous way) to more than one of the other partners.” Smith and Smith (1974) compiled studies of “sexual alternatives in marriage” in an edited collection that examined such diverse topics as co-marital sex (the open incorporation of extramarital sex into marital unions) (Smith and Smith, 1973), group sex (Bartell, 1970), infidelity (Bernard, 1972), and group marriage (Ellis, 1970).
Research on swinging similarly flourished in the sexually adventurous 1960s and 1970s, documenting new trends in extra-marital or co-marital sexual involvement (Bartell 1971; Breedlove and Breedlove 1964; Denfield and Gordon 1972; Fang 1976; Henshel 1973). Studies examined swingers’ race and ethnicity (Bartell 1970; Jenks 1985), social class (Flanigan and Zingdal 1991), education (Gilmartin 1975; Jenks 1985, Levitt 1988), and political perspectives (Bartell 1970; Jenks 1986). This research created a profile of a swinger as a “White, middle to upper middle class person in his or her late 30s who is fairly conventional in all ways except for her or his lack of religious participation/identification and participates in swinging” (Jenks, 1998:507). Once the sexual revolution collided with the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections in the 1980s — a time that Peterson (1999) characterized as “the great repression” — research on sexually non-exclusive relationships dwindled. Although very few such studies were published during the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of non-monogamous relationships endured.
Specifically polyamorous communes evolved in the late 1960s and early 1970s. John and Barbara Williamson established the Sandstone community in Los Angeles after the Kirkridge Sexuality Conferences which “served to network polyamorous clergy, researchers, writers, and artists on the East coast” (Anapol, 1997:97; see also Francoeur and Francoeur, 1974). Sandstone was “the encounter-group oriented love community in Topanga Canyon,” California, and included such eminent counterculturalists as Betty Dodson and Sally Binford (Hutchins, 2001:82).
Kerista, possibly the most influential non-monogamous, proto-polyamorous intentional community, was based in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1971 and 1991. Strassberg (2003:457) noted:
During the twenty-year existence of the community, the approximately twenty-five adult members lived either in separate group marriages or in a single group marriage … [Kerista] was based on an experimental lifestyle that included group marriage, shared parenting, total economic sharing, a group growth process, and a utopian plan for improving life around the world by replicating their model of community living.
Members owned and operated a computer sales business. During her tenure there, Ryam Nearing reported living in a community that attempted to provide emotional support for everyone. Nearing participated in seeking a Keristan vision which, “started with twelve but later amped it up to twenty-four adults per family in their ideal – the goal they wanted to aim for” (Nearing, personal communication, 2003).
Informal and organized proto-typical polyamorous support groups began to spread in the 1970s, the best known of which were Family Synergy in Los Angeles and Family Tree in Boston. Inspired by Heinlein’s (1961) Stranger in a Strange Land, Oberon Zell founded the Church of all Worlds and its related Ravenheart clan, still influential in the polyamorous movement today. Individuals started organizations focused on polyamory or polyfidelity, such as Ryam Nearing’s Polyfidelitous Educational Productions (PEP), a group in Denver called “Beyond Monogamy” that met regularly and published an edited volume, and Deborah Anapol’s IntiNet. Nearing and Anapol later teamed up to create Loving More magazine (which subsequently became Nearing’s solo project and has since then transitioned through several editors) that published articles, poetry, and personal advertisements for, by, and about polyamorous people.
THIRD WAVE: IMPACT OF THE INTERNET
Contemporary research (Bargh and McKenna, 2004; Jenks 1998; Wellman et al. 1996) indicates that alternative sexual styles such as polyamory have increased with the advent of Internet technology, which facilitates communication between geographically disparate people seeking support for alternative relationships. In recent years, the Internet has proved an especially important site for community building among marginalized populations. Sexual non-conformists have populated the Internet in droves, forming personal and sexual connections online (Bargh and McKenna, 2004). The impact of the worldwide web on the polyamorous community would be difficult to overstate. From dating, to discussing jealousy, to asking for advice, much polyamorous relating occurs “online.” The extensive network of Internet communication spawned an impressive number of polyamorous websites, some of which I list at the end of this piece.
In addition to providing polys with a convenient way to create community, give each other advice, and find partners, the Internet has also significantly impacted how polys interact with other sexual minorities. Specifically, polyamorists intersect significantly with bisexuals and kinksters, or people who practice BDSM (formerly known as sadomasochism), and overlap with both groups online and in person. Where most second wave polyamorists tended to have a more singular identity focused on “swapping” within heterosexual relationships, third wave polys tend towards bi/multisexual relationships that involve not only non-monogamy, but sometimes other forms of unconventional sexuality like BDSM as well. My own research (Sheff and Hammers 2011) indicates that if someone is both poly and kinky then their dominant identity is likely to be that of a kinkster, whereas someone whose is poly but not kinky will tend to have polyamory as their dominant sexual identity.
While polyamorous websites are too numerous to adequately list here, I have included some of the more important ones as examples of online community. Lovemore.com is Loving More magazine’s website. It includes not only a bulletin board, but also a chat room, frequently asked questions (FAQ), stories, advice, events, “the love list” (a summary of conversations that transpired on the electronic discussion board that was emailed to list subscribers), and personal ads for those seeking others to engage in polyamorous relationships. Yahoo lists over 100 polyamorous groups by region and interest, accessible through their “romance and relationships” section or simply by entering the key search word “polyamory.”
Alt.polyamory contains an extensive list of polyamorous information including six different FAQ pages, a glossary of acronyms, abbreviations, and new words found on polyamorous sites, a list of polyamorous resources including fiction, non-fiction, music, movies, “poly-friendly” professionals such as mental health counselors and ministers willing to perform group marriages, art, and paraphernalia such as T-shirts and mugs. Alt.polyamory also hosts numerous topical email lists for specific sub-groups including activists, parents, triads, and those seeking intentional community. Those who wish to post or read personal ads are directed to alt.personals, soc.personals, or alt.personals.poly. The “poly ring” is for members only, and links diverse polyamorous sites across the web. PolyMatchMaker.com lists personal ads for those seeking polyamorous relationships. It too is open to members only, though memberships are free. Finally, numerous polyamorists’ personal web sites include stories of their polyamorous lifestyles, links to other pages, pictures, poetry, journal entries, artwork, information about upcoming events, and calls to activism.
Polyamorists also linked to other related, but not explicitly polyamorous, websites. Janesguide.com, a guide to alternative sex-oriented sites on the web, is a favorite among web-savvy polyamorists, as is LiveJournal.com – a free site that allows writers to create journals online and choose to make their writing available to select others or to anyone visiting the site. LiveJournal lists over 100 relevant “community” matches, and over 1300 users interested in polyamory. Sites that contain information about swinging may overlap with polyamorous sites, and the communities share personal ads at http://www.altdot.com. The polyamorous presence on the web is diverse, and serves as a vital component of community formation and participation.
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