What Will the Land of Liberty Make of Polyamory?

22/10/2013 10:42 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

All of a sudden, polyamory is everywhere.

Articles flood the internet, many of them opinion pieces written by people who (so far) identify as monogamous. One of the reasons this is happening is to keep the news cycle churning now that gay marriage seems to be approaching normalcy. The clue is in the name; news is characterized by an obsession with the "new".

But in the process of giving polyamory a make-over that everyone can identify with, the only truly radical thing about the ideology is completely lost. To sugar-coat an unspoken truth: polyamory seeks to upend a many thousand-year-old narrative about ownership. We don't own our daughter's virginity. Husbands don't own their wives. Wives don't own their husbands. We may seek to avoid hurting those we love -- any healthy person (poly or otherwise) with a conscience does - but we do not own one another, and at the end of the day, our decisions, and our lives, are our own.

The prevalent made-over polyamory picture for the mainstream is of a hetero-normative couple that likes to swing on the weekends as shown in US Showtime series "Polyamory: Married and Dating". This is arguably one version of poly depending on your definition of 'love'. But so are many other versions. So much so that there is no true picture of polyamory because every instance is as unique as we are, and unique as our most intimate relations can be. We are no longer mere commodities.

In recognizing that we cannot own others, we give up our claim on other's bodies, but at the same time gain a new claim on our own freedom. The radical potential of polyamory is actually that might shift our entire societal structure. Because with polyamory, our lives will no longer be lived out in a linear fashion of birth, marriage, children-rearing and death.

The "end of history" that hearkens postmodernism is easily reflected in a skeptical attitude towards these patterns; hierarchical methods of time and behaviour categorization are replaced with more fluid nonlinear approaches. The jumble can remain a jumble, chaos is striated through its own self organizing principles, and our task becomes simply being wherever we are, recognizing, responding, seeking to be aware-- sometimes to suffer and fail miserably but, we hope, fearlessly -- rather than trying to organize the process of our lives through an imposed order that comes from without. Life is a series of flows. Modern Mythology

In nature, organisms rearrange, collapse and reform both deterministically (innate programming) and voluntarily (as a response to outward stimuli). The idealism of polyamory demands that we do the same.  This is a surprising and terrifying challenge for us,  and is what is potentially radical about polyamory. Otherwise, it is simply a revision to the old dating guidebook, for those that are at least progressive enough to recognize that serial monogamy is no solution, and that it is perverse -- but in all the wrong ways (!) -- for Atheists to build their morals atop Christian bedrock.

The cultural legacy of the United States

If you haven't heard of polyamory, you might immediately think of polygamy, which is practiced to this day by many Mormons.

But Mormon polygamy has long been a contentious topic, in no small part due to the sexually conservative, often Puritanical roots of US culture. It is interesting that two ideologies that frequently see individuals as commodities that can be owned couldn't see eye-to-eye on this matter, but the sexual liberalism that seems to underlie polygamy is simply too much for conservatives to bear.

In some part this has been a reaction specifically to Mormon polygamy in particular, though there are few alternatives within the mainstream to compare. Indeed, polygamy is very different animal depending on the culture it arises in. So the practice that follows from the ideal is going to be quite different in a Buddhist context than in a Mormon one.

But regardless, most critics of polygamy cite it as a perfect model of precisely what polyamory supposedly abhors: marriage as a form of ownership.

So while polygamy is frequently considered merely a more specific form of polyamory, the underlying ideology might be -- if the critics are correct -- diametrically opposite. Hierarchies, ownership. Territory and categorization. All these things are no stranger to a culture that arose out of an estranged desire to name and thereby claim ownership not only over the land and animals of the world, but also one another.

And even in supposedly liberal polyamorous environments, it is fairly common for hierarchies to impinge upon this ideal of "no ownership." You see "primary" and "secondary" relationships. Back to the easy-to-comprehend image of polyamory as the hetero- couple looking for variety.

Whilst there are many couple and group marriages amongst polyamorists, the institution of marriage is not a useful model for understanding the ideology of polyamory, culturally. After all, though it can be deterrialized, much of the culture of marriage relates back to the concept of commodity and ownership.

No. For that, we have to look not to the culture, but instead to the counter-culture.

Polyamory as Counter culture

Supposing you didn't first think of polygamy, the next most likely thought might be of the counterculture of the sixties, typified by the motto of "free love".

Of course, this sort of countercultural reaction against the mainstream is not so much an isolated incident as part of the very nature of American culture. In their own way, many of the first settlers were a counter-culture, even if their ideals were not those of the 60s hippie movement. We can also see a more familiar, if less popular counterculture in the Transcendental movement, which included many attempts at communal living and -- in some cases -- "free love".

Though none of things are unique to the United States, there is nevertheless a unique sort of hot-house for such reactionary conservatism on the one hand and idealistic utopianism on the other.

Looking at them as a whole, what can we say identifies the ideology of such counter-cultures?

  • A recognition of the failures of the mainstream culture.
  • An attempt at using that analysis to create a "new way".
  • A sort of stubborn individualism only rivaled by their mirror-image opposites, (such as Libertarianism.)
  • A movement that is most strongly peopled not by the truly disenfranchised, but rather by those that are instead peripheral to the mainstream.

Yes, there are indeed many commonalities between counter-culture and the cultural impulse that has led to poly. And in both cases, though these ideologies might be most useful to more disenfranchised groups, it seems to be an alienated but otherwise fairly privileged core demographic that keeps such movements alive.

Not surprisingly, the failure of 60s ideals in many ways mirror the perceived failures of polyamory. Communes frequently splinter due to personal differences, or flip-flop, and are so opposed to ownership that, much like hard-line communism, suddenly freedom from ownership turns into its own unique form of fascism. The central failing of all ideologies comes down, quite simply, to the people attempting to bring them into practice. Much as it's absurd to blame your friends failed marriage on monogamy, it is equally absurd to blame polyamory for the same. Relationships are structures that sometimes collapse.

Instead, we should look not to our potential failures but instead to our dreams.

I had a dream...

Polyamory is a call for the deterrialization of relationships, the deconstruction of ownership, and even more terror-inducing: the undoing of the roots of our fear in our isolation from one another. But pure forms of ideologies don't exist in this world - whether capitalist, communist, monogamous, or polyamorous - which means that ideals never play out quite the same in practice.

In its ideal polyamory is a model for allowing relationships to be as unique as we are, which then needs to adapt to the individual and unique needs of all people involved -- and the varying degrees of compromise involved in relating to the emotions of more than one person. In practice it is, quite simply, the attempt at letting relationships be what they are; seeking to relate intimately with other human beings without the structure of ownership.

Because polyamory is an ideology. It is a dream.

Which makes it sound insubstantial, or even silly. And maybe it is. But dreams have been one of the only things that have ever changed the world.

Co-written with author and blogger James Curcio, manager of Modern Mythology & cross-posted at Multiple