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