Diversity and Polyamory

Polyamory is a form of non-monogamy in which both women and men maintain openly conducted romantic, sexual, and/or emotionally intimate relationships. While it has been around in various forms for far longer, polyamory has burst on to the social scene in the last 10 years like never before. In my 15-year study of polyamorists, I have found that diversity can mean three things. First, as an element of social diversity, polys join the ever-increasing cadre of what used to be called alternative families but are now rapidly becoming the norm. Second, poly relationships are quite diverse in the ways people structure their relationships and lead their lives. Third, diversity among poly people is a complex issue: they are quite varied in some ways, and homogenous in others.

Familial diversity has risen dramatically in the last 75 years. Longer life-spans, increasing financial independence for women, and a far broader array of racial, ethnic, and sexual identities are only a few of the social trends that are contributing to these significant shifts. Amidst this shifting social landscape, polyamorous families are largely unrecognized in the diversity pantheon. Most diversity programs – even those that include people in same-sex relationships – do not incorporate polyamorists simply because they have not been well known enough for long enough to make their presence felt in diversity curricula. If current trends continue, the number of poly relationships will rise dramatically as members of the general public discover what I call the polyamorous possibility, or the option of adding openly conducted non-monogamy to the relational menu that used to only include being single, being monogamous, or cheating (and now also includes hooking up for certain age groups). As the poly population rises and becomes more visible, including polyamory in diversity trainings and curricula is becoming increasingly important.

While polyamory is a coherent relationship style in that polys share a common focus on honesty, emotional intimacy, gender equality, and openness to multiple partners, the ways in which people actually practice polyamory vary dramatically. People in polyfidelitous relationships maintain sexual exclusivity among a group larger than two, while people in polyamorous relationships do not generally expect sexual exclusivity from their partners. Some are coupled with or even legally married to a primary partner with whom they share a domicile, finances, and co-parent children, all the while dating and/or loving people in addition to their spouse, or secondary partners. Others reject the hierarchy of the primary/secondary model and emphasize nesting (cohabitation) versus non-nesting (living separately). Group relationships like triads (three-person relationships) or quads (four partners) connect multiple adults that may or may not have children or co-reside. Moresomes are group relationships with five or more, and at some point merge to intimate networks that connect groups of people who share common lovers, exs, and friends.

Although there is wide variation among poly relationships themselves, the people in mainstream poly communities share some significant similarities. The vast majority are white, middle or upper middle class people in their early 30s to mid 60s with high levels of education, who typically live in urban or suburban areas, and often work at professional jobs in information technology, education, or healthcare. As a whole they tend to be either non-religious or practice uncommon religions like Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism (although there are a smattering of Christians and a few Jews, too). While the absence of religion may signal the lack of a conventional moral framework, most polyamorists invest themselves in developing extensive ethical frameworks that structure their interactions and provide them (and their children) with guidelines for how to treat other people and live their lives.
Does this mean that there are no people of color, working class people, or Christians practicing polyamory? Certainly not. But it does mean that they do not appear in large numbers in mainstream poly communities. More diverse people might have poly relationships and not label them as such, or establish their own poly social groups independent from the mainstream communities. While I have definitely seen the numbers of people of color at poly events rise in the past few years, only more research will answer questions about the true diversity of non-monogamous people.

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, CASA, CSE

One of a handful of global experts on polyamory and the foremost international expert on children in polyamorous families, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff has studied gender and
families of sexual minorities for the last 16 years. Sheff’s television appearances include CNN, and the National Geographic, and she has given more than 20 radio, podcast, print, and television interviews with sources from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek. By emphasizing research methodology and findings in her discussions, Dr. Sheff presents the kind of public intellectualism that encourages audience members to think critically regarding gender, sexualities, and families.

You may also like...

Popular Posts


  1. I’m looking forward to your book, and would love to review it on my blog about solo polyamory.

    I’m curious: does your book specifically discuss solo polyamory at all? Is the perspective of poly people who do not have (and perhaps don’t want) a primary- or nesting-style partnership represented?

    I ask because in the vast majority of media about polyamory, including books by/about poly people, often solo poly people are overlooked or misrepresented. I’m hoping your book will help correct for this.

    1. Hi Aggiesez,

      I do talk a little bit about single poly people, but mostly focus on families with children because that is the focus of the book. The first half of the book introduces the concept of polyamory and describes the relationship forms, levels of commitment, and issues facing poly relationships and that is the half of the book where the discussion of poly singles appears. It is more of a mention than an in-depth discussion because the singles were not the focus of the book unless they had kids (which one does and is prominently featured in the book, with the emphasis on her as a parent more so than as a poly single). Her pseudonym is Joya Starr and you can look for her specifically, where she talks about not wanting a primary partnership.

      Thanks for being willing to review the book on your website, I appreciate it!

      If you want a 20% discount on the book, you can order it directly from the publisher at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442222953 you can get a 20% discount on The Polyamorists Next Door.

      Use promotion code 4M14SHEFF at checkout for 20% off – this promotion is valid until December 31, 2014. This offer excludes eBooks and cannot be combined with any other promo or discount offers.

      Cheers, Eli

  2. […] full support.  Now, we all work and support the family.   Dr. Elisabeth Sheff in “Diversity and Polyamory” states, “The vast majority (of polyamorists) are middle or upper middle class people […]

Leave a Reply