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In Mainstream Media, Polyamory is Getting Attention

two couples sit in a living room

In the sordid world of reality TV, polyamory involves a lot of intense... talking. Image via Showtime.

Mainstream media appears to suddenly have an appetite for polyamory. The typical image of relationships in pop culture is firmly grounded in monogamy: myriad movies, TV shows, and news stories hinge on the idea that the ideal relationship is one where two people are loving, exclusive partners. In recent years, I’ve been surprised to find stories about happy people in non-monogamous, non-dyad relationships popping up pretty frequently in major newspapers, magazines, and on news sites.  

Our culture’s ideas about what’s a “conventional” relationship has been expanding for decades in many ways: queer families have become more visible, people are more likely now than ever to live together now before marriage, and the age when people first get married has risen considerably. Younger people are approaching marriage and relationship structures as self-determined, flexible, and negotiable. As part of that shift, non-monogamy appears to have entered the public sphere as something we can casually discuss over breakfast. Suddenly polyamory trend pieces are everywhere. For example, since 2012, Slate has run 17 articles that address polyamory and Salon has run 38.

It seems to me that this trend was helped by the publication of several landmark books on non-monogamous relationships, including Opening Up (2007), Sex at Dawn (2010), a new edition of The Ethical Slut (2009), and just-published title The Polyamorists Next Door. On TV, Showtime’s reality show Polyamory: Married and Dating debuted in 2012 and has made a bit of a splash. All of these works have introduced Americans to a broader spectrum of relationships and given reporters news hooks to write about real-world non-monogamous relationships. 

sex at dawn book cover

The tone of non-monogamy trend pieces in the news varies wildly depending on the outlet and the method of reporting, but in general there are a few broad consistencies. The coverage seems to be relegated mostly to the arena of lifestyle columns and, after reading through dozens of stories about non-monogamy published in the past few years, I found that three basic stories kept being repeated. I’ll refer to these three groupings as the Comfortable Distance story, the Personal Profile, and the Slippery Slope.

A 2009 Newsweek article exemplifies the “comfortable distance” framing of what they refer to as “the phenomenon.” The article by Jessica Bennett asks whether polyamory is “the next sexual revolution” and lays out a fairly neutral description of non-monogamous relationships for the uninitiated. But it sets off non-monogamy as something that most people would find bizarre. “It's enough to make any monogamist’s head spin. But traditionalists had better get used to it,” reads the piece, which was updated in 2011.

This framing of talking about non-monogamy from a comfortable distance is also seen in the June 27th, 2013 episode of Slate’s Double X Gabfest show, which covered “monogamish” relationship structures (a term coined by advice columnist Dan Savage, who was himself the subject of a 2011 New York Times Magazine cover story questioning monogamy). The Gabfest discussed a piece by Liza Mundy in The Atlantic from May of 2013 about the ways same-sex marriages may differ from the ways straight people treat marriage. I found the Gabfest segment frustrating in several ways, from the hosts’ assumptions that gay marriages are non-monogamous (obviously not all are) to conflating cheating with ethical non-monogamy. The segment ended with each of the hosts assuring listeners and each other that they couldn’t possibly imagine doing this for themselves. The hosts maintained a comfortable distance from the idea that they could explore non-monogamy themselves, which made me feel like they were treating non-monogamous relationships fearfully, as if the hosts themselves will be considered bizarre by association.

a nytimes magazine cover reading "infidelity kept us together"

At left, a 2011 New York Times Magazine cover dealing with non-monogamy and, at right, a still from a 2009 Newsweek video about polyamorous folks in Seattle.

The Double X Monogamish segment received considerable backlash, some of which they aired on their next episode. Several weeks later, the show had guest Sierra Black, who in July 2013 published a personal essay on Salon called “Our Successful Open Marriage.” This time around, the Gabfest group treated Black’s story with more nuance and asked her questions that gave her the opportunity to explain in her own words why this life choice works for her and her family.

Black’s essay nicely illustrates the second common way recent media frames non-monogamy: the personal profile. Many of the most complicated and humanist portrayals of non-monogamous relationships are done as interviews or profiles of an actual person who is trying some version of non-monogamy. These are typically compassionate, intimate stories that lay out why the subject has decided to incorporate non-monogamy into their lives and they’ve been gaining a lot of traction.

In her article, Black describes a scene that likely resonates with many people:

“My life sounds complicated, but in many ways it’s routine. The children are the main focus of our attention. My husband and I have three kids. We spend a lot of our time doing the things any parent does: picking the kids up from school, shuttling them to and from activities and birthday parties, cooking them dinner and reading them bedtime stories. Since we’ve always been poly, I often wonder how monogamous couples do it. I get so much support from my lovers.”

In November 2013, the New York Times published an op-ed by actress Maria Bello who wrote publicly about her unconventional family structure. While she never uses the term “polyamory,” she paints a portrait of her family structure—one of her own design—that mirrors the experiences many who identify as polyamorous. She describes taking the leap into uncertain relationship territory, “It’s hard for me even to define the term ‘partner.’...And I have never understood the distinction of ‘primary’ partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too?” Bello writes “Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, ‘love is love.’”

actress maria bello

Actress Maria Bello — image via Wiki Commons

These personal profiles tend to be the least sensationalized treatment poly families get. After all, they’re stories from the mouths of the people living them, so they can actually answer to a lot of the criticism and speculation in a way that’s practical and understandable. Often in these first-person pieces or profiles, the author spends much of the piece simply explaining how their style of non-monogamy works, and describing what their day-to-day looks like in the interest of combating misconceptions about their lives. The descriptions can sometimes read like celebrity lifestyle profiles, “Hey! They’re just like us!”

Slate has recently been publishing a series of first-hand-account blog posts, penned under pseudonym Michael Carey, about the author’s own exploration into polyamory. He writes about his own personal experience using it as a lens to examine wider issues such as whether polyamory is a choice and lexicons of alternative sexualities. The series has been getting some less-than-stellar reviews via the comments section. The main complaint? The posts are “boring.” It’s a good sign that we’ve reached the cultural acceptance point where it’s possible for writing about open relationships to be banal.

However, it’s clear that the stigma of talking about being non-monogamous is far from gone—the Slate column, like many other personal pieces about non-monogamy, are published anonymously or use pseudonyms for fear of repercussions that range from career damage to losing one’s children to protective custody. I was actually surprised to find that many people were using these articles as opportunities to come out or publishing their stories with their real names, given all the possible negative outcomes.

Some writers who are open about their identity are able to speak freely and without fear because their careers and personal lives can withstand their being “out” for one reason or another. Instead of leading with a wacky anecdote about her lifestyle, this Atlantic article from February 19, 2014 introduces us to Diana Adams by describing the personal journey that led her to choose to work as a lawyer defending the rights of those in non-heteronormative relationships and then goes into an interview about her openly polyamorous relationships.

While many recent articles view non-monogamy through an empathetic lens, there is a troubling trend in some news coverage of polyamory. The political right has been identifying non-monogamous relationships as part of a slippery slope that starts with marriage equality and leads not only to polyamory but to polygamy, child abuse, incest, and the right to marry anything.

In this piece from the June 13, 2013 Slate Double X blog, Jillian Keenan actually makes an interesting case for privatizing marriage so we can manage gay, poly, or other non-dyad, non-heterosexual marriages in the simplest way possible. But along the argument she adds this disclaimer: “And just to be totally clear, Twitterverse: Children, animals, and objects cannot sign any contracts and therefore could not sign private marriage contracts, either. OK?”

It seems absurd to have to articulate this but polyamorous folks shouldn't be lumped in with people who would seek to marry children, animals and (seriously?) inanimate objects. These are actual people—not Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl. With these sorts of attitudes prevailing it’s no wonder that politically active polyamorists find that they are discriminated against in housing, employment, and child custody.

Even within the slippery slope articles, some are more judicious in their approach than others. In this January 2012 article on Salon, author Jay Michaelson compares the slippery slope arguments that were used during Loving v. Virginia (the case that legalized interracial marriage) to the current debates surrounding marriage equality. His main premise is that it’s the wrong approach for liberal activists to distance themselves from the non-monogamous in order to prevail against the false assumption from the right that legalized same-sex marriage would lead to polyamory. With regard to Loving vs. Virginia, he writes, “The precedent it set led to various slippery slopes of subsequent court decisions. Yet the decision was right. The laws were racist.” Some of the scenarios envisioned by conservatives were realized and he argues that we shouldn’t let this stop us from making morally correct decisions. He concludes, “It may alarm some people not to totally shut the door to legitimized polyamory. Maybe it’s not a strong enough rebuke to curry favor with some conservatives. But it is the only intellectually responsible position for LGBT activists (and allies) to take.”

Others, like this piece from March 10, 2013 reprinted from John Corvino’s book What's Wrong with Homosexuality?, rebuke conservatives’ slippery slope arguments, pointing out that polyamorous people have had trouble getting their relationships legally recognized even in countries where same-sex marriages are legal. He points to a “polyamorous bisexual triad” who were unable to legally marry, but were able to get a “private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch notary public.” He assures us that, “The relationship was neither registered with nor sanctioned by the state; it was no more a legal polygamous marriage than a three-person lease agreement is a legal polygamous marriage.” So the argument against gay marriage is defended, but meanwhile the queer poly triad in Corvino’s example gets sidelined.

Though some of the writing above is phobic of LGBTQ relationships, it does seem that non-monogamy is becoming mainstream enough to discuss openly now. It helps that more people in open relationships are coming out and speaking up about their experiences. As coverage increases, reports on non-monogamy seem to be moving to a more positive place—one that dispels myths by encouraging polyamorous people at the center of the stories speak for themselves. However, thoughtlessly derisive comments still often seep into the reporting. At worst, that creates a tone of voyeurism when reporting on peoples’ personal, consensual relationship decisions. Non-monogamy is still being presented as a lifestyle on the fringes, but we all seem to be interested enough to keep reading about it.

Related Listening: Our podcast on monogamy digs into the logistics of open relationships and the legal history of monogamy

Erica Thomas is an artist, writer, filmmaker, project manager, and feminist (among other things) based in Portland, OR.


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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Also try:

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Dawn is a canadian writer living in the middle east and she has something to say. You guys should feature her sometime.

Heaps and heaps more poly in the media

Nice overview article. For readers who would like to browse lots more, have a look at my Polyamory in the News, http://polyinthemedia.blogspot.com , which I've been running since 2005. It covers about 2,000 items, with commentary -- browsable by topic, region, or date.

Overall trends I've seen:

1) Steadily increasing amount of coverage.

2) Journalists and media organizations have become less defensive or embarrassed to be writing about polyamory or other alt-relationships at all.

3) Broadly speaking, the frequent tone has shifted from "Look at these weirdos, are they hippie leftovers?" to "Maybe these people have something to say about relationships," to "Could this be America's next romantic revolution?" and now "This is where the Millennials are going."

4) Ignorant or careless reporting -- that just gets it wrong -- has nearly disappeared. This is a sign that a subject is being taken seriously. Even the religious hostiles are correctly reporting what polyamory is about.

Feminism, Polyamory, and Socio-Economic Accountability

I do think, however, structures of micro-patriarchy and anti-feminism often permeate polyamorous dynamics, an important critical element that needs further scrutiny in the community of people who choose this lifestyle, especially as inches further and further into mainstream view. These structures also beg the question of how classism, security, and economics play into polyamory. These are not popular perspectives, but ones that necessitate dialogue. I don't think monogamy is the answer, per say, but that poly communities do need to be more accountable when they begin to slide into socially acceptable patterns of patriarchal behavior - gas-lighting, women pitted against one another, theory vs human need for comfort and emotional safety - all of which perpetuate marginalization (largely for women, trans, and queer folks) in these dynamics.

Saying that, the sexual liberation, safety, knowledge, education, awareness, and anti-stigmatization of STI's in polyamorous relationships is a breath of fresh fucking air.

Can you please provide

Can you please provide examples of the "micro-patriarchy" and "anti-feminism" you claim "often permeate polyamorous dynamics?" Are these things you've observed yourself?

Also, I take issue with your framing poly as a "choice." For me, it's not a choice. It's what feels natural. Even when I have been in monogamous relationships, in my heart I have always been poly.

Sorry my initial comment

Sorry my initial comment posted twice.

First of all, an example of gas-lighting is selecting portions of my comment in quotes in an attempt to devalue my comment's "claim." You are writing on the defensive, exactly what I experience when I raise these deeper socioeconomic concerns.

To answer your question, I have observed them myself. I have experienced them myself. Since 2010, I have been dating openly (my preferred identifier) because I am not interested in confines, nor do I believe it is fully possible to love multiple people, or to be intimate with them, in the same way, and that's sometimes where the emotional and socioeconomic marginalization comes in.

Most people don't have that much expendable energy (emotional, physical, or mental) to make all parties feel secure or needed. I talk about anti-feminism from the perspective of women either being pitted against one another or pitting themselves against one another, competitively. Yes, this happens in the monogamous world, but I am going to raise this concern to higher standards in the poly world and ask women to be accountable and aware of how they may hurt other women, and for men to be aware of the role they play in creating these imbalanced hierarchies. In M/W/W dynamics, which is what I tend to date in, the primary female partner has so much control that sometimes it does, in fact, render the secondary female partner voiceless. That's oppression. On a micro level. It's why I don't want to be a primary with a male partner who has a secondary female partner. I would never want to make another women feel that way. I don't want that power. I don't want to continue feeling voiceless, either.

I chose to begin dating openly because monogamous dating was not working for me. Whenever I saw a person on a dating site looking for "the one" I cringed. Maybe polyamory is not a choice for you, but it was for me. That doesn't devalue my experience, nor does it negate yours.

I also stand by my last statement in the initial post: I think polyamory and open relationships are great for developing consensual safer sex partners, but I think there is a lot the community can work toward balancing jealousies, competitions, and micro-patriarchies. Micro-patriarchies being the way in which a man (again, in M/W/W dynamics) sticks up more for one partner over another. There's an imbalance.

This is an example of one polyamorous system, not all. Maybe it’s more balanced with an even number (4 instead of 3). Maybe polyandry is easier managed (W/M/M). But I see women hurt repeatedly in polyamorous dynamics and it makes our rights and needs very difficult to negotiate. I am glad it is making the news, but I am weary of its beautiful radicalism being warped to adhere to what is publicly (and media) palatable. Again, my experiences largely extend to M/W/W dynamics, which is where I am writing from.

You are generalizing a

You are generalizing a diverse population based on what you believe to be a qualifying sample of relationships and appear to yourself be on the defensive. You've even highlighted that your opinion is that humans cannot love multiple people; why continue writing? I understand that the comments section is for opinion and I appreciate the thought-provoking statements, but it is not for anyone else to decide what measures any relationship should take to be validated, especially when being constantly berated by preconceived notions of how the relationship works.

Polyamorous relationships are as diverse as any other relationship without including gender binary worship.

Re: Re: Re: Feminism, Polyamory, and Socio-Economic Accountabili

I agree, but the topics I raise are far too often overlooked. Male competition in poly relationships is something that does come up in media and in social conversations, but female competition does not, and that's part of my point. The discourse is suppressed. I have looked for resources and critical analysis of this occurrence and can find none, though it does happen (and not just to me). I am not dismissing polyamory, I am raising discussion. What is the definition of love? How big is it? Does it include security and safety for everyone? If not, should it? I think so, but that's my opinion. I am posting my opinion here to open dialogue. I think before a community can brag, it should look more closely at where it, itself, is mimicking the status quo.

Again, you clipped my statement for your own argumentative tool. My full sentence was: "...I am not interested in confines, nor do I believe it is fully possible to love multiple people, or to be intimate with them, in the same way..." The two clauses bracketing my statement clarify that A) I am not interested in confines (see: confining people to a role or agenda), and B) that I don't believe it is possible to love multiple people in the same way (because we are each unique little snowflakes).

My point is that polymory can be more expansive and inclusive if it didn't have the habit of naturally falling into traditional hetero-normative dating patterns and tropes. Look at the couples depicted in the image? White, middle class, cis, and palatable.

Feminism, Polyamory, and Socio-Economic Accountability

I do think, however, structures of micro-patriarchy and anti-feminism often permeate polyamorous dynamics, an important critical element that needs further scrutiny in the community of people who choose this lifestyle, especially as it inches further and further into mainstream view. These structures also beg the question of how classism, security, and economics play into polyamory. These are not popular perspectives, but ones that necessitate dialogue. I don't think monogamy is the answer, per say, but that poly communities do need to be more accountable when they begin to slide into socially acceptable patterns of patriarchal behavior - gas-lighting, women pitted against one another, theory vs human need for comfort and emotional safety - all of which perpetuate marginalization (largely for women, trans, and queer folks) in these dynamics.

Saying that, the sexual liberation, safety, knowledge, education, awareness, and anti-stigmatization of STI's in polyamorous relationships is a breath of fresh fucking air.

are these issues

are these issues significantly different on polyamorous relationships or are they addressable in general relationship discussions? because I don't feel like these things are discussed very much in talks of monogamous relationships either. obviously polyamory is not a cure for abuse in a relationship, but it is a way of dealing with issues of fidelity.

i do think thoigh that having more people in your life can also help you recognise certain abusive behaviours, especially things like gas lighting, but that may be just my experience.

Representation

I realize articles like this have an inherently limited scope, but it seems like a massive omission to not talk about *who* is being covered in the media, who is writing profiles and having profiles written about them, etc. Are these folks representative of the poly community at large, if not, how? Is the media doing its standard, "pretty white people" thing, not covering older poly people, heavier poly people, disabled poly people, poly people of color, kinky poly people, queer poly people, poor and working class poly people. ... and how can you write an article about polyamory without addressing bisexuality at all, when we make up a hugely disproportionate percentage of the overall poly population?

Re: Representation

Thank you for writing this.

Lisa Ling covered a few of

Lisa Ling covered a few of those bases in her Our America episode on poly. I'm in it briefly (the blue hair) representing the queer and kinky people in poly (though I am not suggesting I'm speaking for anyone else, my experience being my own). You can't find the whole episode online but they've got a few short segments available. http://www.oprah.com/own-our-america-lisa-ling/I-Love-You-and-You-and-Yo...

Poly news

It's good that polyamory is finally reaching the mainstream media, it really is a viable lifestyle that is looked down on so much!