Freethought and Polyamory on Campus
August 23, 2011
I find the word polyamory0 — and the myriad relationship structures it can refer to — to be gratifyingly familiar to the freethought1 community: Friday night at the CFI Leadership Conference conversations pivoted excitedly about that evening’s same-sex marriage victory. As several took turns toward other widely demonized relationship models I suppose it was inevitable that open marriages and group marriages (very different things) would come to the fore. People were curious and skeptical but supportive nonetheless. I felt validated — inasmuch as a white, middle-class, straight cis male might be able to recognize it. (At Uni I’ve sensed less offense from my religious friends at my criticism of religion than from my conventional friends at my unconventional relationships.)
In celebration and encouragement, I’d like to use my little podium to call on campus freethinkers to reach out to polyamorists both as natural allies and for critical engagement.
Here I want to plug a lot of other people’s ideas and point readers in helpful directions, so I hope you’ll pardon the excessive link/text ratio. Other excellent websites are devoted to the issues — familiar and peculiar — facing polyamorists in various relationship configurations. I’m not a spokesperson for the movement and my experiences and opinions are precisely that. I should also emphasize that I see room only for us to step up outreach to women, people of color, queer and transindividuals, and other marginalized demographics. I see confluence here, not competition.
The freethought blogosphere has been largely passive about perceptions and rights of polyamorists (though with increasingly frequent exceptions), and I get the feeling that the same is true of the freethought community generally, in contrast to the ringing consensus in solidarity with the LGB (and, admittedly to a lesser extent, T) demographics. Also in contrast, some of the most popular and prolific voices in the poly blogosphere are nonreligious or atheist. (If you’re looking to round out your atheist blogroll I recommend Joreth and Shaun.) Our own local polyamory and freethought groups overlap at about ten people — a tenth or so of the freethinkers but more than half of the polyamorists! While the poly community at large seems to be predominantly spiritual, members tend to reside on the liberal end of the spectrum of organized religions, and the cultish communes of the popular imagination are rare.
What, by the way, is polyamory? Valerie White, in her 2004 piece for The Humanist, describes it as “living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal.” (Transhumanist Franklin Veaux takes care of some of the nitty gritty.) If you don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to these ideas then there’s a case to be made that you weren’t brought up proper. Every discussion of consensual multiple lovers seems eventually to draw out the charge that lovers more naturally, stably, or morally come in pairs. Advocates of polyamory typically draw in response a comparison to love of another kind. (“Are you not in love with all of your children?”) While the conversation shouldn’t end here, it can’t begin until we get past this point.
So polyamory begins, perhaps, with skepticism at the assumption that the capacity for plural love is compromised by sexual intimacy. It posits instead loving others — in any context — both for who they are and for whom they love. Humanism isn’t rich with proverbs but I submit this one for consideration.
Self-identified polyamorists2 appear to be nearly universal in our embrace of gender and LGBT equality, sex-positivity, informed choice, and self-realization. (Many of us take these precepts to be definitional.) We parallel freethinkers in our skepticism of cultural and religious norms, and it shouldn’t be contentious to say that rejection of the monogamous norm can follow directly from freethinking about relationships.
So where are we? Openly polyamorous n-tuples are estimated to number as many as half a million3 in the United States, and singles and not-so-public “tuples” might plausibly double that figure. For comprising perhaps a solid percent of the US population, we’ve been until recently nearly invisible and remarkably apolitical. Many of us fear persecution (familiar to atheist and nonheterosexual people), and some of us bemoan less-than-enthusiastic support by prominent gay, lesbian, and feminist organizations (familiar to bisexual4 and transgender people).
We freethinkers might be more familiar with polyamory as the jagged ravine at the bottom of the slippery slope that begins with same-sex marriage. This is not an entirely absurd idea — and it makes understanding polyamory critical to the discussion of equal marriage rights. While we aren’t in the streets demanding legalized polygamy — yet — we are (like nonheterosexuals) subject to archaic legislation that criminalizes our sex lives, living arrangements, and family structures. We also deal with pervasive disgust with our lifestyles, though perceptions, as with atheists, often fall far from the mark.
As a freethinker and a polyamorist I see much to be gained from reaching out between our respective communities. Foremost, poly groups are often plugged into bi, trans, kink, and other communities sometimes underrepresented in (or orthogonal to) LGBT groups. They provide another venue through which freethinkers might become better (and, especially in my case, better-educated) allies.
Whereas atheist activists have taken on the unenviable aim of getting people to talk and think about sacred (and, in polite society, unobjectionable) beliefs, polyamorous activists probe very personal areas in some ways more sacrosanct still: intimate relationships and family environments. Studies suggest that we—college students included—need more sensible relationship ethics, and of course this means discussing freely the shortcomings in those we’ve inherited.
Along a different route, poly networking and context might bring us into more constructive engagement with (some) Muslims and Mormons. From one angle, much as equal access to divorce left Christianity incrementally more benign, so might equal access to plural marriage come to intertwine with the liberalization of Islam. From another, the fall of the Texas sodomy law has exposed the violation of privacy inherent in anti-bigamy statutes, allowing Mormons to challenge them in secular terms. I see this as a case we might support, as humanists who value personal liberty and nurturing families, if not for the superficial resemblance of its plaintiffs to certain isolationist cults.
The community offers wide opportunity for engagement with spiritualism as well. Polyamory is especially entangled with paganism, and many poly communities are infused with New Age conceptions of spirituality.5 (One pagan friend of mine identified as monogamous on OkCupid after receiving several messages presuming her to be polyamorous.) It is not implausible even that the selective appeal of disorganized religions is having the converse effect on would-be monogamists that monogamous norms (reinforced by organized religions) have had on would-be polyamorists. (Another friend of mine became gradually disillusioned with the free-love stance that many in her spiritual circles encouraged.)
Don’t worry—there’s no shortage of contempt for fundamentalist, faith-based, and militant atheism in polyamorous circles, if responses to one controversial podcast provide any indication. What’s more important, I think, is that polyamorous culture champions honesty and open communication. The emotional interconnections that develop within polyamorous relationships require both an accurate understanding of others’ positions and an awareness of our own biases. This doesn’t directly inspire polys to question faith or respect atheists, but I’d call it a good start. And as Valerie White suggests, polyamorists both secular and spiritual are primed to take humanist values to heart.
We freethinkers are well-situated to engage polyamorists constructively and supportively — and polyamorists may be unusually receptive to our inquiries and share our skepticism.
Furthermore, college students are uniquely positioned to make these connections. While poly groups and poly-positive resources have appeared in most major cities, colleges and universities are just beginning to see an uptick. On some campuses, freethought groups may be more ready to receive them than campus counselors or even LGBT groups. Meanwhile, regional poly groups that endorse spirituality can be off-putting to the irreligious, and even to the religiously-affiliated. On many campuses we might be the only resource available to students engaged in unconventional relationships they may want to discuss but aren’t quite ready to publicize.
How, then, do we find local poly groups? The Modern Poly group registry is a good place to start. Alternatively, in case you can’t find a polyamorist in your freethought group, it has become common practice to send a call for interest to the Polyamory Weekly podcast.
We have much in common and many dangerous ideas to exchange! And the connections we make may prove more educational and enduring than eyou might expect.
0 I adopt “polyamory” as a catch-all for ethical non-monogamy, but it is important to note that not every ethical non-monogamist knows this term or identifies with it, much as not every non-believer in gods identifies as atheist. The term may also refer specifically to multiple consensual simultaneous committed intimate relationships. Other uses of the term that include cheating or coerced polygamy, or that include only uncommitted relationships (possibly outside a dyad), are not in common use and generally considered misuses.
1 I adopt “freethought” as an umbrella term for skepticism, humanism, atheism, agnosticism, secularism, rationalism, and naturalism.
2 For simplicity I distinguish “polyamorists” (advocates for polygamy though they may be) from “polygamists” (of a more fundamental, usually religious bent).
3 This figure traces back to the Newsweek article but evidently not further.
4 The same applies to pansexual and otherwise non-monosexual people. I refer to bisexuality and transgender for their broader and acronymic familiarity.
5 Deborah Anapol’s book Polyamory in the 21st Century has much to say on this confluence. While it is arguably a confounding of founder effects, the multitude of such founders suggests deeper reasons.
About the Author: Cory BrunsonCory is a graduate student at Virginia Tech who studies algebraic geometry in the Department of Mathematics and network analysis at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. He is an active member of the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech and takes particular interest in alternative sexualities, sustainable living, and coffee.
#1 Terrey (Guest) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 at 12:52pm
In order to better understand polyamory, we have to look at the origin of monogamy as a societal norm.
Polyamory is still quite common across the world, however, it is usually practiced in women-as-chattel nations/groups, and as such, is an entirely different entity from what we are currently discussing.
Monogamy arose as a social norm as societies became increasingly settled, and as agriculture became the mainstay activity for the people. The idea of communal property began to become much more important, rather than communal property, and as a natural consequence, humans began to change their inter-personal relationships, and to redefine how people were treated so that it could begin to line up with how our properties were being maintained.
With the modern western worldview, the idea of humans as distinct from possessions has aided in the rise of the modern polyamorous relationship.
In the end, we are gregarious mammals, and our relationships will inevitably mirror our sexual behavioral patterns. What we need to address in the next few generations, are the common misconceptions about this behavior.
First, we need to continue to counter the idea that monogamy is natural.
Second, we need to hold our ground on the incorrect preconceived notion of the ubiquity of STIs (Sexually transmitted infections) in the poly community.
Third, we need to address the definition of the family unit, and the titles, duties, and privileges of those within. Particularly on a legal level. As the movement gains more ground, there will be more need for this.
And finally, we need to cast off the cloak of secrecy, and damn the consequences of being outed. Until we have a society that is able to see through their preconceived notions by comparison of traits and behaviors of outed, public, upstanding members of the community, we cannot hope to climb out of the shadows WE provide society with to further their own ignorance.
I must note however, about my third necessity, that it is imperative that our organization and exchange of ideas must be wholly separate from acts of sexual indulgence, or "cruising" for partners. If our attempts to organize are nothing more than "play parties", we do ourselves a disservice by excluding any outside party from attending and taking away a positive experience. So often, I see groups like this arise, only to be taken over by beer-swilling frat boys and 40-something men looking to "hook up". When these groups gain public praise or standing, it is all the more detrimental when their standards fall, because the name has been elevated, and the new image will only further propagate the idea that the polyamorous community is amoral and sex crazed.
#2 Joreth (Guest) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 at 2:20pm
"Polyamory is still quite common across the world, however, it is usually practiced in women-as-chattel nations/groups,"
You are referring to polygyny, not polyamory. In relationships where women are chattel, there is no love, hence the word "polyAMORY" is not applicable. Polygamy is multiple spouses, polygyny is multiple wives, polyandry is multiple husbands. Polygamy is multiple marriages, there may or may not be love. Polyamory is multiple loves, there may or may not be marriage.
But otherwise, as a polyamorous atheist freethinking humanist, I'd agree with the above comment.
#3 JulietEcho (Guest) on Sunday August 28, 2011 at 10:42am
Great article - you covered a lot of ground without getting bogged down in any particular area, and you offered a lot of resources in your links (always a plus when you're trying to raise awareness).
I would love to live in a world where my family (two adult men, one adult woman, all happily committed to one another for life) could live openly and without half-truths and omissions. Perhaps in a few decades, with enough education and demystification, we'll live in such a world.
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