Relationship Status: It's Complicated. Will Polyamory Come Out Of the Closet Next?
As the Supreme Court nears a historic decision on gay rights, I hear more and more about how we are about to win the battle for marriage equality. As a legal scholar I'm not entirely convinced that the court is going to do anything truly paradigm changing, but I'm cautiously optimistic. So, with gay marriage tentatively "in the bag," the big question on my mind is "what comes next?" I propose Polyamory.
Polyamory is a term that refers to having more than one romantic partner. While marriage is not a required component, Polyamory includes Polyandry (multiple husbands) and Polygyny (multiple wives) as well as elements from the older Swinger culture. However, lets ditch Polygyny and Polygamy as definitional components because they carry to much negative baggage. Polygamy in particular is associated with extreme wings of certain religious perspectives and often conjures images of child brides and rampant sexual abuse or inequality.
Polyamory carries none of that baggage. Instead, Polyamory, as a movement, is steeped in feminist tradition and focuses on sex-positive attitudes toward love and relationships. Coined in the middle of the last century, the polyamory movement didn't gain real steam until the late 1990s. Since then it's made a surprising amount of progress, perhaps in part because of the space created by the junction of secularism, LGBT campaigns, and the sex-positive movement all of which embrace a more open and individualized approach to sexuality and romance.
For anyone new to the term, Polyamory comes in as many varieties as there are participants. Relationship structure is not defined in the community, individuals do what works best for them. If there is any sweeping feature defining polyamory it's probably communication. In fact, while very little research has been done (though this is starting to change) the available data strongly suggests that polyamorous individuals are actually better at maintaining (and navigating) relationships than most monogamous people; and herein lies the golden egg behind the movements growing success.
The failure of monogamy as a social construct is perhaps conservatism's worst kept secret; the social-right's skeleton that's no longer "in the closet." Divorce in the United States is perhaps the most certain thing about marriage. In fact, marriage works out so poorly that it's somewhat surprising that anyone bothers to defend the institution these days. Moreover, the collateral damage from all these failing marriages is blowing holes in larges swaths of the population from stranded single mothers to abandoned children to expensive legal battles between "partners for life."
Ironically, however, there is something of a disconnect in the LGBT community when it comes to recognizing polyamory. Standing on the edge of success (or perhaps tipping into success) the gay rights movement has been hesitant to embrace other forms of relationship freedom for fear of tossing free ammunition to conservative opposition. While there is some merit to these fears, giving into them ultimately undermines the legitimacy of both movements. Some LGBT proponents have even gone so far as to suggest that polyamory is a "choice" while being gay is genetic. Oh how the tables turn ... There is of course no substance to the argument, research repeatedly shows that many sexual preferences are biological in origin and that most of the rest are shaped early, but its all too easy to look the other way once your particular group has achieved some measure of success.
Tirades against the LGBT movement aside, what the gay marriage movement shows most clearly is that American attitudes towards "traditional" marriage are finally starting to shift. Some surveys suggest that as much as 5% of the U.S. population practices some form of polyamory regularly, and so far as I know, these studies are not counting people who are simply sexually promiscuous.
We know that sexual monogamy is a fiction, both in biology and in common practice. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing limited sexual activity, forcing these limitations on others has turned out to be an abject failure. Faced with this reality, the gay-rights movement has sought to liberalize our culture with the understanding that alternatives exist and that these alternatives bring much needed new life to our romantic encounters. Polyamory is the next step in the right direction. Build your-own-relationship models are here to stay and this is a good thing.
The polyamory movement signals a new and profound change in our understanding of sexuality and romance. While the Feminist and LGBT movements each brought new sexual definitions into common usage, thereby expanding romantic conventions enormously, the polyamory movement is, even if unintentionally, seeking to blow the box wide open (as opposed to just building a bigger box). This is huge because no matter how many definitions we create, someone or something is always left out, however unintentional the oversight. In addition, definitions create damaging in-groups and out-groups (as can be seen in the LGBT movement's hesitation to embrace the polyamory movement). Sexual definitions have some utility, but tend to go awry when applied on a wide scale.
For more details on the numbers behind common polyamorous relationship structures and practices please visit this article.