I arrive at the Embassy Suites at Philadelphia International and drag my roller bag through the ground floor, well-appointed for an airport hotel, with a five-story-high skylight ceiling and not one but two large rock pools surrounded with jumbo ferns. The website goes so far as to call the atrium “a tropical paradise,” albeit a wall-to-wall carpeted one — which, if you use your imagination, makes it the perfect setting for the next 36 hours. I, along with 200-plus others, have decided to spend my weekend learning about consensual non-monogamy or love with multiple partners. In other words, polyamory. This is one of a handful of conferences and retreats organized each year by Loving More, a nonprofit that’s been promoting “openly and deeply loving more than one person at a time” for over 27 years.
I figure out where the registration table is — only about a dozen people stand around, with attendees trickling in through tomorrow morning. The sign-in-sheet lady, a perky, voluptuous fortysomething with shaggy blonde hair, wears a flouncy summer dress even though it’s February. She hands me my plastic bag of conference materials and makes sure I peruse the behavior guidelines. “The one thing is: no nudity in the lobby,” she says. “But that should be easy enough!”
Without looking up from her laptop, another volunteer chimes in: “Oh, you’d be surprised.”
In my room on the fifth and top floor, hovering over the entire complex, I check out the program guide. The cover sports an image that looks like late-night Philadelphia, massive fireworks exploding overhead, and, in tremendous, bold, all-caps font, “POLYAMORY: TAKING THE WORLD BY STORM.”
Many trace the origins of the “consensual non-monogamy” movement back to the late 1840s, at the moment when Christian minister John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida Community in upstate New York. There, for a three-decade run, he promoted his concept of “complex marriage”: sex was considered a spiritual act, and in order to cast off sin, men and women alike should be able to do it freely with as many in the community as they liked. The second wave of “free love” came with the ’60s and ’70s counterculture, which injected the idea of “open marriage” and “swinging” into the mainstream culture. After the AIDS panic of the ’80s, the ’90s internet explosion helped spark the modern-day polyamory movement. While the Kinsey Institute estimates that there are over 4 million swingers in America, the numbers in the poly movement are harder to calculate: in 2002, Loving More published an estimate of 50,000 self-identified polys in the U.S.; but some estimates, riffing off surveys of bisexuals and the BDSM community, are in the hundreds of thousands.
Polyamory often involves a chain of interconnected, long-term relationships—but it can come in other flavors, like a committed open marriage between two “primaries” who take on “secondary” partners when they feel like it; or something more like a group marriage. The lingo—and there’s a lot of it—goes like this: a three-person relationship is a “triad,” a four-person is a “quad,” and a five-some is a “W,” for the five points on the letter. And while many of the older folks in the poly community dabbled in “swing clubs” at some point in their personal battle against monogamy, poly is not swinging, which is more about a night of random party-sex. Poly is not, as some people think, an all-you-can-eat sex buffet—or it can be a sex buffet, if the sex comes with hours and hours of sensitive discussions and eventually introducing your new sex partner to your boyfriend over muffins at Starbucks.
This is to say: polys are into talking about feelings, and openness, and contractual agreements. As the Loving More pamphlet reads: “Polyamory requires a commitment to honesty, to sexual safety, to facing one’s own insecurities, to making difficult sacrifices when necessary, and a willingness to be with a partner through some very strong emotions.” Commitment, honesty, sacrifices—not “free” love at all. But some believe it’s worth it: “Despite good hearts and good intentions,” many “repeatedly fail at monogamy, or live miserable lives if they do manage to stay romantically exclusive.” This is why Loving More is sounding a clarion call for poly awareness. “In this way vast numbers of failed relationships might be avoided—and for some, new options for love, joy, and wonder will open.”
To be clear, I have no issue with the choice to have multiple partners: it’s something I’m personally curious about. Just as some men still exhibit symptoms of that centuries-old virgin/whore complex, I honestly wonder if I’ve had my own binary view of men. Over the years, I’ve been drawn to, on the one hand, creative men so intense and self-involved that the erotic attraction has always been packed with angst; or, on the other, men so supportive and kind-hearted that a vital tension was missing. But what if I — or all of us — could have it both ways? Now dating someone new, I’ve avoided the question of whether he’ll prove a more perfect balance — but it’s lurking in the background. That’s a lot of pressure, for one person to be all things — and it’s a pressure that, who knows, might be avoided with more than one partner. Maybe a primary and a secondary. Or a boyfriend and a male “mistress” (I’ve always been curious why there isn’t a male version of that word.) Because it seems to me that, over time, monogamy has a way of making many of us, unfairly, seem incomplete to each other. Lacking. Not quite enough. And where’s the romance in that?
In the evening, everyone gathers in the ballroom for a rah-rah keynote address. Predictably, the aging-hippie set is here in spades; as well as the “practical moms,” in professional slacks and running shoes, many of whom will turn out to be therapists, and the guys who will turn out to be computer programmers. The crowd is dotted with zippered sweaters and blouses with batik patterns, and countless pairs of Tevas with socks. There are tees and khakis and khaki shorts with sneakers; long denim skirts; hair cut in a practical bob or uncut for twenty years; lots of gray hair on the women, regardless of age. (As Loving More director Robyn Trask had told me over the phone, talking about their conference attendees: “Poly people tend to not get plastic surgery. Or wear a lot of makeup. Or color their hair. Or wear clothes that aren’t comfortable.”) I’m surprised by the mix of ages and races: while maybe half the attendees are over-50 and white, there are also a lot more Latinos in the crowd than I would have expected — I’m half-Latin myself, and we skew Catholic and maritally-inclined — plus a strong contingent of grad-student types in their late 20s and early 30s. By the end of the conference, I’ll have met, in my opinion, about 20 conventionally attractive poly folks — which, at 10 percent, strikes me as a decent average for an airport hotel conference.
The night starts with board president Jesus Garcia, who goes by “Chuy” (like chewy), giving a conference primer in “respecting boundaries,” especially around non-poly hotel guests. Chuy, a Mexican American, combines the sweet proportions of a teddy bear with the beard and wavy locks of the original Jesus. He pulls a friend out of the crowd — Julio, a Tai Chi instructor and energy healer — for a demonstration.
“Julio,” Chuy asks theatrically, “may I have a hug?”
“Yes, you may,” Julio says, loud and clear.
The pair lock in a civilized man-embrace.
Chuy turns to face the audience. “We are a community of asking for permission.” He breaks into a big bear grin. “I’m a consent slut!”
Chuy hands the floor over to Robyn and a man by the name of “Alan M.” Robyn, a stout, curly-haired blonde in black stretch pants and a sparkly blue top, has been running Loving More for a decade; Alan, who gives the impression of an even skinnier Mister Rogers, runs a poly news blog. He reminds us of the keynote’s topic — “Polyamory Is Here to Stay! Why We’re Excited, and Why You Should Be Too” — and is determined to drive this message home. “Certainly, this is the greatest time in the history of the polyamory movement — and it’s only going to get better!”
Here follows talk of how the poly community is “all about choice” (applause), and how the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned (more applause), as was Utah’s anti-polygamy cohabitation law (even louder now). This feels more like a rally than a lifestyle convention. At the same time, Alan, polished and politic, throws the normals a bone. “We should not let people put out the idea that we are against monogamy, or that we think monogamists are, well, limited, or primitive, or any of those things that people used to say.”
Eventually, as with any decent stump speech, it’s time for the Moving Personal Anecdote: the story of Robyn’s own poly awakening. Robyn was a 20-year-old college student in Texas, engaged to be married, when she soon found herself in love with another man at the same time. “I was fighting so much inside myself; I was totally torn; I was lying and cheating,” Robyn says. “All I heard from everyone around me was ‘That’s not okay, you can’t be in love with two people.’ And I thought, ‘I am!’” With no one to speak honestly to, and no poly community at the time, she lost both her partners. “I sat there thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why am I so broken?’” After a few more years went by, she accepted that she must be built differently than the other women she knew. “I remember going to my mother and saying ‘I just can’t be monogamous’”—incredibly, she had just broken up with her sixth fiancé. “I said, ‘I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life if I can’t be monogamous, but I’d rather be honest.’”
Predictably, no one understood her decision. “But now I can talk about sharing my bed with two men that I love — three men that I love, actually — and it’s okay, and my family’s okay with it, and I don’t have people telling me I can’t do that.”
“I don’t want it to be okay to be polyamorous,” Robyn corrects herself. “I want it to be celebrated — that I can stand up with three partners and make a commitment and have it be just as celebrated as a couple getting married.”
“Hallelujah!” a woman in the audience calls out, and people start clapping and hooting.
The hotel staff push back the accordion walls to reveal a cluster of small, cloth-covered tables and, in the far corner, a bar on wheels, complete with a bartender dressed like a butler, an older man who colors his hair a foxy brown. He quickly starts taking orders for gin-and-tonics and scotch-and-sodas. A black woman in a hip buzz cut — she runs the local poly meetup group—provides passionate Ani DiFranco-style music on acoustic guitar.
The reception has a familial air, and not just because entire packs of people here are dating one another: many have come to Loving More conferences five, six, even 10 times. The crowd is heavily cross-generational: I meet a few older folks who used to be involved in swing clubs, like a septuagenarian who introduces himself as “Dr. Honey.” Mostly bald, in a plaid shirt, high-waisted jeans, and Snoopy suspenders, the doctor’s been married to the same woman for 20-odd years, and has been in a W for fourteen. Even before all that, in the pre-poly era, he hit up swing clubs with his wife. He works at a Los Angeles college —“I teach sex!”— while the others in his W are psychologists.
I speak to a couple, likely in their late 50s, who live on a five-acre lot in small-town New Jersey. (So far there’s a lot of Jersey and New York, Philly, California, and Colorado.) She wears a “career woman” sweater and delicate gold necklace, her hair in a neat bob; he’s fit, in a checkered shirt that shouts “casual Friday.” Though they’ve been coming to the Loving More conferences for years, he wasn’t a huge fan of the politics of tonight’s talk. He’s experienced the cost of public polyamory firsthand: not long ago, his girlfriend was involuntarily outed to her family, which led to death threats from her Irish Catholic father. “Things finally seem to be quieting down a bit,” he says, though there’ll be no trips to Ireland in the immediate future.
Then, in quick succession, I meet Raul, Miguel, and Julio the energy healer, who cluster around me. Raul, originally from Mexico and wearing a sporty zip-up jacket, shares that, before he realized he was poly, “I’d had a hole in my heart.” Miguel, a computer consultant with a robust head of black hair, talks like a gender theory student: he’s going on about how terrific it is that words like “lover” and “slut” are being “taken back.” Julio tells me he’ll be leading something called a “sacred sex puja”— orgasmic breathing exercises with multiple partners — tomorrow night. Each is very happy to take a turn ragging on monogamy and listing all the reasons to join their club.
I realize it’s getting late, and the bar has been well used, and I’m standing with three Latin men, and we’re fast approaching the hunting hour. In order to avoid any confusion, I excuse myself and leave these gentlemen to their existing partners, wherever they are— probably around here somewhere, chatting up other men, creating a poly ripple effect throughout Embassy Suites.
Saturday morning, in the “tropical” atrium, I eat an omelette — a high-protein breakfast before poly boot camp — and eavesdrop on the table beside me: an L.L. Bean-clad couple with thick gold wedding bands. They’re choosing what sessions to attend, and planning the night ahead.
“John’s parties are more orgy-like,” she says.
“Peter’s parties have orgies all the time,” he says.
I hustle to workshop number one.
Chuy and Robyn’s session seems the best place for a newbie like myself to start: “Negotiating Boundaries and Polyamorous Relationship Agreements.” I find a seat, packed in with about fifty people (the workshops will all be about this size). Chuy and Robyn, I now learn, are a long-term couple; following an established pattern, he’s a computer guy,and she’s a counselor, specializing in polys and their families.
“When people come to me for counseling, I warn them that I’m not here to keep their marriage together,” she says, “but to help them live in a way that’s true to themselves.” Even years ago, when Robyn was running a wedding chapel—not the most intuitive line of work for a woman with six ex-fiancés—she’d ask couples if they were planning on being monogamous. “They would say, ‘Well, of course!’ And I’d say, ‘Well, have you sat down and discussed what that means?’ It’s amazing to me how many people make assumptions.”
Robyn tells us she currently has three male partners: her long-term live-in guy (and now husband) Chuy, plus two long-distance paramours. She also mentions a 30-year-long “Skype relationship with a man in Hong Kong.” All this has been made possible, she and Chuy explain, through the negotiation and re-negotiation of careful, mature-adult “agreements” — all outlined, in their case, in a written document they refer to now and again, in order to keep their personal boundaries clear. Establishing these needs and boundaries, whether physical (safe sex) or emotional (goodnight calls to other partners), can be what keeps a dizzying, multi-partner chain of open relationships from devolving into chaos. During a confrontation is not the time to rationally discuss your needs, says Chuy. “Because your inner two-year-old is in the background screaming, ‘Why?? I don’t want to do this!’” An agreement, every professional PowerPoint slide reads, “eliminates assumptions” and “can help overcome programmed responses.”
Robyn asks people to name some sensitive points of poly negotiation.
Someone calls out, “‘Who can sleep in my bed?’”
Robyn jumps in. “I’m very adamant about who sleeps in my bed and who doesn’t.” When one of her boyfriends was dating a 20-year-old friend of her teenage daughter, they had an understanding that having her in their bed was simply asking too much. “I just said, ‘She’s like a daughter to me, and that’s why we’re never going to go there.’” And that’s not the only time the poly lifestyle has created family tensions most monogamists would hopefully never encounter: Robyn’s poly sister had to be declared “off-limits” when she and Chuy first met; and Robyn and her Texan mother, now poly as well, “not knowingly dated the same man.” It was a little while before any of them figured it out. “Now he can’t be in a room with the two of us at the same time because it freaks him out.”
On a simpler level, but with just as much nuclear capacity, is the issue of PDA: who gets to make displays of affection, and when and where? A fiftysomething woman in an elegant shawl and Grace Kelly ‘do says, “For the wife to do that in front of me was okay, but she couldn’t see me do that with her husband.” Another middle-aged woman, this one in an elf-cartoon tee, points out, “For some people, PDAs are the opposite: it’s a way of showing that you’re not cheating.”
Robyn can relate to fear of PDA: she remembers, long ago, visiting a new boyfriend’s house and finding his girlfriend in the living room with her boyfriend, and all four of them just standing there, uncertain of where, politically, they should sit down on the two love seats. “So” — no surprise here — “we created a support group to figure that kind of thing out.”
As silly as it sounds to create a support group to navigate such burning issues as seating arrangements, I have to admit that all this frank talk — nothing’s too small, too trivial, too personal — reminds me of how often people censor their real desires, poly or no. And for women, as I’ve experienced, this can come from a dread of being seen as hysterical or needy or high-maintenance. In poly, however, both men and women seem a little more patient with these piddling negotiations because everyone wins: stomaching some extreme honesty gains you access to things previously unimaginable in a committed relationship.
Then things become even more explicit, as the question arises of when it’s okay to — for me, the gross-out term of the weekend — “fluid-bond.”
This means exactly what you think it does: to stop using condoms and, getting lofty about it, to “bond” through sexual fluids with one or more of your partners. The consensus in the room is that this is a super-delicate, kid-gloves decision, both for very real safety reasons and because it may incite that green devil: jealousy. After all, once you get into nitty-gritty talk of who gets to do exactly what to whom unprotected, all the 1969 romance of having an erotic village of sex partners is gone—poof!—into thin air, replaced by the all-too-real visualization of that other guy’s bare penis, and that other other guy’s cum, and the specific body-places where these body parts and emissions end up, linking you carnally to individuals with whom you were previously only expected to have the occasional Starbucks muffin. For instance, Robyn, our self-appointed poly poster girl, is fluid-bonded with Chuy, but not with her long-distance partner Ben; and, whenever she and Ben get together, they talk about who they’ve been with since their last visit, whether a condom ever broke, and whether they should get tested again.
Robyn was once in a fluid-bonded relationship with five people, in that her partners and their partners were all strung together through group-consensual unprotected sex. That said, she “would never fluid-bond in the throes of NRE”— a statement you will only hear at a polyamory conference. (“NRE,” I’d soon learn, is another of poly’s pseudo-scientific terms, for New Relationship Energy.)
Let’s take a moment here to acknowledge some other great poly terminology. An “NRE junkie” is someone addicted to that high, repeatedly forming new crushes. A “polywog” is a poly newbie, probably experiencing that rush of getting away with it all for the first time. A “metamour,” or “lover-in-law,” is your partner’s partner, while a “hinge” is the glue — the person in a multi-partner relationship who is involved with two others who are not, in turn, involved with each other. An “ambigusweetie” is a partner whose relationship to you isn’t clearly defined. A “cowboy,” or “cowgirl,” is a monogamist who dates a poly and tries to lasso them out of their multi-partner relationship. A “hot bi babe,” otherwise known as a “unicorn,” is the mythical creature some couples search for relentlessly — as in “they’re just looking for a hot bi babe” or “they’re chasing a unicorn.” She’s a completely uncomplicated, currently unattached, very attractive bisexual woman who’d be happy to date both you and your husband — i.e., she doesn’t really exist. And “polysaturated” is a joke term to describe when you’ve hit the limit of committed poly partners you (and your social schedule) can currently handle.
But we’ve yet to arrive at the most fraught term of them all. Putting aside the tensions of, say, fluid-bonding negotiations, there are the complicated emotions that can be stirred up by learning even mundane facts about your boyfriend’s girlfriends. “Some people are like, ‘I don’t want to hear about your other lovers,’” Robyn says, “and some people are like, ‘Tell me all the details!’” But if you don’t want to know, she advises, “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I not comfortable sharing?’” Here Chuy brings up “compersion,” poly language for a highly evolved level of human emotion, so finely pitched only the ultra-sensitive can hear it: it’s “the love you feel for another person’s happiness” at being with someone else.
Polys believe that, with a little work, compersion can eclipse jealousy. So when your partner of a few years finds himself “in the throes of NRE” with someone new, rather than let this spin your head around, you can instead grab a vicarious buzz through compersion.
Me, I’m not sure this feeling exists. Real compersion seems about as possible as true Marxism — i.e. not very — and for the same reason: humans are greedy animals. We can train ourselves to live with, and move beyond, feelings of jealousy; I think we can even begin to have positive associations with our partner taking on a new lover — but mostly because, in poly, this earns you something in return. Retraining yourself to be more open-minded, less possessive, buys you freedom. And this is different from “loving” the fact that your boyfriend spent all last night with his current crush.
Over the course of the conference, however, I see sides to being poly that are more than tit-for-tat — the lifestyle alternates between seeming self-serving and painfully generous. I’m surprised when I learn that, for some polys, no-win, one-sided crushes can still produce New Relationship Energy. A woman in her late 20s, with a round white face and pretty eyes, says something in a workshop that slays me. “One assumption I do not make is that a relationship has to be reciprocal,” she said. This strikes me as the sweetest, most vulnerable thing I’ve heard someone say in a long time, the kind of statement that can only be made by someone with the most resilient of hearts, and the most indefatigable belief in Romance.
There’s something in the air at the conference, as if the attendees have been tossing back a cocktail that’s equal parts delusion and chutzpah. At one point, my new friend Dr. Honey approaches me, still in his signature high-waisted jeans, and leans in very close. “This is flirting,” he announces, and tells me that, while sitting behind me, he’d been very taken with my hair. “I mean, there’s so much to find attractive about you.”
Apparently, regular doses of NRE give a septuagenarian a new lease on life. I have to admire his optimism.
Because there’s no end to negotiation with multiple partners, I decide I can’t miss a session dubbed “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! How to Talk It Over in Poly Relationships.” This workshop is led by the sixtysomething team of Jim Fleckenstein and Carol Morotti-Meeker, both researchers, activists, and therapists specializing in “open lifestyles.” With short, feathered hair and a scarf tied jauntily around her neck, Carol calls to mind a progressive grade school teacher. Jim, with his Carl Sagan eyewear and a perfect brown dome of hair, manages to seem stern even in puffy white sneakers.
Our main goal in life, as defined here today, is “intimacy,” and I sort of fall in love with Carol when she holds up a garden lantern and announces, “Intimacy: into me see you!”
She gives us a moment to let this sink in. “I’m not going to light this here because the hotel would go banana-bugs,” she says, “but it’s a symbol.”
If Carol’s all whimsy, Jim’s clearly the more exasperated of the two: they’ve developed an I Love Lucy dynamic between them — if much, much drier. Symbols and props aside, he tells us, intimacy is only achieved through hard work. You’d better focus: as an upstanding poly you’re not “thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner” when you could be facilitating productive dialogue with your partners. “Everyone,” he says, sort of ominously, “has to commit to carrying their share of the burden.”
Carol, however, wants to make sure we’re not too hard on ourselves when the pressures of non-monogamy drive us over the edge. “I’m Italian, and I’m willing to sometimes go and scream my head off: ‘I’m gonna kill this guy!’—yadda yadda. That’s what works for me.” Looking out across the room, she pronounces, “Always feel free to take an Italian moment.” That said, they’re determined to give us practical tools for engaging in “structured dialog” with our boyfriends and girlfriends.
To rally our spirits (I think) Jim compares poly self-discipline to that of Olympic figure skaters (the Winter Games opened that Friday). “Do you think they were doing all those twirls and lutzes right away? No!” Those triple lutzes, he promises, require practice and experience.
A PowerPoint slide hits the screen: it’s Jack Nicholson shouting on the witness stand in A Few Good Men with the caption “You can handle the truth!” Things have reached a new pitch.
“You are the king of You-topia!” Jim calls out. “‘Oh, I can’t help feeling this way’—yes, you can!”
Carol pulls out a new prop: a wooden salad bowl. “We’re trying to help you create a container,” she says, for our emotions and fears. She raises the bowl higher up—then lets it drop to the floor. (Some of the drama of the gesture is lost, thanks to the wall-to-wall carpeting.) Carol and Jim are getting high on their riffs—with their lanterns and triple lutzes and Jack Nicholson—and they’re riffing still. What is it Carol wants us to know? What is it she wants me to know? Is it that, no matter how touchy we naturally are, we canmake ourselves as indestructible as a salad bowl? Into me sees Carol.
Inevitably, everything culminates in us pairing off for a series of self-help exercises.
We’ll “mirror” our partner’s emotions back to him, “validate” those emotions, then finally “empathize” with where he’s coming from. (This is all drawn from ‘50s rational emotive behavior therapy. Jim’s “a big fan.”) Multi-page handouts show the way, including a “feelings list” with 243 adjectives to complete the statement “I imagine you must be feeling ___.”
“I know it sounds like we’re trying to create these Vulcan-like people,” Jim says. “But it’s not that rigid.”
He fails to convince me.
I personally recoil at the idea of this level of organization being graphed onto sex and romance — what quicker way to kill the thrill, drag your personal life into the zone of everyday chores? But I dive in. My partner — who’d volunteered, tapping me on the shoulder — is a tall, lanky guy named Gray, with thick eyebrows and shaggy hair. A 22-year-old senior at a local college, in a hipster tee and cardigan, he’s adorable as a hunky button.
We gamely run through some imagined, though poly-realistic scenarios. Him: “I met this girl at work, and I feel nervous to talk to you about it.” Me: “When you left the other night to see your new girlfriend without telling me it made me feel ignored.”
The exercises, understandably, start to weird Gray out. On the one hand, I have to respect those willing to put in the sizable effort to overcome jealousy and cultural “programming”; on the other hand, it seems like a life-sucking drag. We decide to talk like normal people.
Gray admits that he was nervous to come to the conference, “but after today I’m feeling really good: I met some people, made some contacts.” His sister is in a poly marriage — he thinks they have a primary thing with lovers on the side — but those were the only polys he knew before the weekend. He’s tried to dip his toes in the waters of consensual non-monogamy, but without success. “When I’ve asked girlfriends in the past, it’s been like, ‘No, no way.’ I find that most young people are pretty resistant. I think they think it means I want to be some kind of womanizer,” he says. “But it’s not that at all.”
Gray’s searingly earnest desire to be poly doesn’t come from the same pained place as Robyn’s. For him, non-monogamy just seems like a simpler, happier, more honest fit. And by honest, I mean something that extends beyond uptight “communication” exercises and feelings lists.I mean the guts to expose yourself — like Dr. Honey, and the girl with the one-sided love affairs, and all the other women here with their natural hair and bare faces.Earlier in the day, Gray went to a workshop on finding people online who are poly, or at least poly-curious. “I used to try to make myself more attractive on OKCupid, but now I can see that’s not a great idea: you have to be true to who you are.” He’s bright-eyed and confident in his newfound identity, as if he’s just caught view of the promised land. “I’m going to go home and put that I’m poly in, like, the first sentence of my profile.”
If Gray’s dream is to go simultaneously steady with multiple hipster cardigan-wearing nice girls, and he has the guts to be up front about it, then what is mine?
I think of the writer Gay Talese, and how, in an interview a few years ago, he told the reporter about his first love, in college, someone he’d been completely consumed with: a woman he referred to as “my Zelda Fitzgerald.” She’d dumped him, and he later met his future wife Nan: among other things, a solid, steady, monied socialite. “I just felt I could grow with her,” he said of Nan, while his Zelda, had he held onto her, would likely have given him a heart attack. And so Nan ends up married to the writer, famously supportive of him, even through his philandering “book research” in the ‘70s — the massage parlors and swing clubs and key parties and orgies — that fed his most notorious non-fiction work.
There are so many versions of this story of compromise, pick one. But what if both Gay and Nan could have had two partners? What if there’s a Zelda and a Nan for every one of us, man and woman alike? (Because I guarantee Nan wants to be Gay Talese to somebody, sometime.) Imagine having it both ways, and not even having to lie about it.
There remains that uncomfortable question of reciprocity, of course — since, unlike so many male writers of the old school, I wouldn’t expect my partner to accept the clean double standard of I can do what I like, but if you do, you’re out on your ass. There’s a scene in the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in which a Hollywood filmmaker (Robert Culp) confesses a one-night stand to his wife (Natalie Wood). A real California New Ager, she stops and asks herself aloud, “Let me see, how do I feel right this minute?” only to find that she’s not upset at all. It’s a pretty dated satire, but there’s a truth to this: so much of the torture we feel at the thought of a partner sleeping with someone else comes down to pride and not wanting to be disrespected in front of the people we know. Well, what if your friends and family and co-workers understood that you’d both decided not to be monogamous, without either of you being conned into it? And what if that were considered just another relationship choice?
Would that look like “polyamory?” Or the polyamory on display this weekend? Can you make this choice without finding yourself at a Loving More conference surrounded by people in Tevas with socks? Because this is the fundamental rub: the moment a desire becomes part of an official “lifestyle,” it becomes that much less desirable. If I were ever to try having more than one partner at a time — outside of a “community,” with all its exercises and special vocabulary — how could I explain myself to a man without sounding like I was asking for something far-out and totally without precedent? All the cheerleading and the lingo and the emotional-validation exercises — is this the only honest way out of monogamy?
If so, this is a real catch-22. Because, at least for me, an erotic attraction has to be spun in private, behind closed doors, outside of any kind of group or online community consensus; and real intimacy with another (or others) can only be improvised, carefully felt out. It requires an adult dosage of bravery, and it belongs only to you. Polyamory in this form — a growing identity-politics movement doling out basic training through retreats and conferences — feels like a cult of oversharing.Sure, Loving More is not the be-all, end-all of poly — there are plenty of online organizations and local meetup groups, somein major citieswith about a thousand members apiece — but it’s very representative of the community’s desire to be visible, beat a drum, and drill us in its standards and practices.
In trying to put this more simply, a recent conversation comes to mind: my friend Jessica told me over dinner about an older, married French couple she knows who take their respective girlfriend and boyfriend along with them on ski vacations. “I imagine them being chic, après ski, drinking wine and eating oysters together,” she said. “Basically doing things I would want to do” — i.e. nothing likely to take place right now at Embassy Suites. The French, we’d joked, would never need a tacky “identity” term for any of this. If they have a word for it at all, it likely translates to “living large.”
The members of every subculture love nothing more than to see their lifestyle choice reflected back at them. But publicly identifying with a lifestyle seems like equating your private life with membership to a gym — one with floor-to-ceiling windows. I am not a lifestyle statement. I’m a special snowflake, damn it, and it (cue Bessie Smith) ain’t nobody’s businesswhat I get up to. Maybe one day soon we’ll stop assuming that commitment involves only two partners — it’ll barely be a topic of conversation. But until then, freedom from monogamy leaves you exposed, holding a sign in a window, explaining yourself until the fun’s been drained out.
Happy hour at the hotel bar tonight is dominated, of course, by the non-monogamous. Not that you could tell: this looks like a cross-section of Americans you’d find at any of our finer airport hotels — if slightly giddier-looking, in clusters, leaning into each other more closely, asking for consent more explicitly.
I spot a familiar face — Miguel, this time in a matador-red shirt and black vest — and ask to join his table. Seated with him on bar stools are two other locals, a cuddly guy named Hutch, sporting a gentle blonde beard and a Soviet-style winter coat, and a sharp woman named April, who looks like she does a lot of aerobics. All three, I quickly learn, are connected in a poly daisy chain: Hutch is married to April who is dating Miguel who is married to another woman who is dating another married couple.
Hutch and April used to host a poly meetup in their home for about 30 people (a gaming meetup — Hutch used to play Dungeons & Dragons before moving on to “European” games like Settlers of Catan). He hadn’t dated anyone through his 20s and part of his 30s (“There were no women gamers!”), and then he met April. They went steady; they married; now it’s 25 years later.
April insists that Hutch had a lot going for him when they met, “like the ability to have intellectual conversation.”
“If only other women felt that way!” he says with heart.
I’m a little startled by Hutch’s response to his wife’s sweet compliment. Then I realize something: April, with her boyfriend on her left and her husband on her right, would probably find life a little bit easier if she could count on other women to pursue him. After all it was her idea, a year ago, to open up their relationship. “I’m retired now,” says Hutch. “With all this new free time, I thought why not?” It’s as if he’d chosen between polyamory and taking up golf.
Joining us at the table now is a soft-spoken guy in a pale pink shirt, David, who I recognize as having asked some of the most intent questions in Robyn and Chuy’s workshop. While he’s currently engaged to a woman, at home in Brooklyn, he tells us, “I’m feeling very needy in my relationship right now, so I’m searching for fulfillment.” We talk about how useful that morning session was for covering the basics, and Miguel interrupts to ask what I think of “agreements” and, if I were poly, would I write one up? “Because we don’t have one,” he says, gesturing to April and Hutch. To my surprise, Hutch says that making a laundry list for their relationship just felt counterintuitive — and I relate to that. But David cuts in, in a burst of passion.
“I’d definitely have an agreement! And it would be really, really long. But I’d emphasize the positive things, like setting times for checking in and ‘holding space’ together, and maybe movie night on Sundays. And we would definitely schedule sex.”
At these words, I instantly experience an intense sinking feeling. Poor David! He speaks with such hope and wonder and desire about the prospect of, what exactly? Scheduling sex into his iCal? To me, this fantasy is apocalyptically banal. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but even the Hutch-April-Miguel triad seems to have grown quiet, confronted with a newbie converted to the lifestyle for the most un-fun reasons. David seems like this conference’s quickest study, the straight-A student even the teachers don’t know what to do with.
Soon everyone finishes their complimentary drinks and gets ready to head to Julio’s Saturday nighttantric “sex puja.” I tell them I’m going to need a minute to consider the invitation.
Back in my room I imagine trolling the hotel to scope out one of those “orgy-like” parties — but I guess I’m less participatory a journalist than Mr. Talese. I’ve had enough; I’m getting some sleep. And in the morning, well-rested, I will sneak into a cab to meet my new beau at another, swankier hotel for a night in downtown Philadelphia, because, in poly terms, we are two singles with monogamist programming in the throes of NRE. And we will definitely not, no way, no chance in hell, be spending the evening talking things out.