Pretty polys

500px-Love_Outside_The_Box_svg As a reborn opinion journal, Newsweek has to keep up with cultural trends. A few weeks ago, it announced to its readers that polyamory, the practice of multiple relationships in which each partner is aware of the other ones, is going, if not mainstream, than at least tributary.

Researchers are just beginning to study the phenomenon, but the few who do estimate that openly polyamorous families in the United States number more than half a million, with thriving contingents in nearly every major city. Over the past year, books like Open, by journalist Jenny Block; Opening Up, by sex columnist Tristan Taormino; and an updated version of The Ethical Slut" -- widely considered the modern "poly" Bible -- have helped publicize the concept. Today there are poly blogs and podcasts, local get-togethers, and an online polyamory magazine called Loving More with 15,000 regular readers. Celebrities like actress Tilda Swinton and Carla Bruni, the first lady of France, have voiced support for nonmonogamy, while Greenan herself has become somewhat of an unofficial spokesperson, as the creator of a comic Web series about the practice --called "Family" -- that's loosely based on her life. "There have always been some loud-mouthed ironclads talking about the labors of monogamy and multiple-partner relationships," says Ken Haslam, a retired anesthesiologist who curates a polyamory library at the Indiana University-based Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. "But finally, with the Internet, the thing has really come about."

I've been waiting for a story like this -- an article that bills polyamory as the trend to watch. A couple of years ago, I was hoping to write a polyamory story, researching the movement and interviewing practitioners (I got sidetracked). So, I confess, I was eager to see what Bennett would do with this topic.

While the article is easy to read, there were some big holes -- gaps that seem to me to trivialize the issues around polyamory and those who worry about it.

First of all -- what's this about a "coming-out party?" Yes, a few new books on polys have appeared this year. But Alan over at Polyamory in the News has been tracking media coverage, including mucho mainstream media coverage, for at least four years. What may be more novel about this story is that writer Jessicca Bennett was able to find polys in Seattle willing to let her use their real names. In fact, Greenan, the center of the triad, is quite good at promoting herself -- and has commercial motives for doing so. It would have been harder to find a less obvious profile choice, but it would have given the story more depth.

My impression, back when I was researching this subject, was that a triad with a filmaker/actress was more the exception than the rule. Instead, polys are schoolteachers, in law enforcement, administrative assistants -- many reside in conservative communities. Polys pretty much look like the rest of us (if you are a striking filmaker/actress, I apologize).

In other words, there's a strong "glamour" component to this story that disrespects the seriousness that polyamorous partners feel that they deserve -- and the strong feelings that they can evoke among conservatives. Check out Practical Polyamory, Anita Wagner's blog (she's quoted in the article) if you want to see a down-to-earth perspective on polyamory.

While this particular triad is not, polys are also engaged in religious communities. Among them are Unitarian Universalists, pagans and those who represent other faiths. There's no discussion of the religious connections here.

But does the existence of approximately half a million polyamorous families mean that "traditionalists better get used to it?" That's at least debatable. It's also snarky, distracting readers from taking the piece seriously.

Bennett does address a few of the difficult issues in polyamorous relationships: jealousy, parenting, and those who see acceptance of gay marriage as opening the window for polyamory (and who knows what else) to fly in. There is also, as she notes, tension between some polys and proponents of gay marriage, though it's not clear how many polys want to be married.

Striking in this article is the lack of conservative religious voices that address polyamory from a theological and doctrinal perspective, like that of R. Albert Mohler, Jr., (who did comment, in the Although I like Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family's quote (he gets your attention) it's got more of a political feel to it.

Even more disturbing to me, as a writer, is that nowhere in the article are there quotes from more traditional (and I'm not even talking conservative) therapists, some of whom take a rather dim view of polyamory. Why do we only hear from polyamory proponents in the therapeutic arena? A few peeps from anthropologist Helen Fisher (whose name is mispelled near the end of the article) isn't enough.

The writer doesn't really explain why polys are convinced that "more love" is possible -- or why some religious leaders and secular proponents of monogamous marriage are indeed watching with concern. How about a little gravitas, Newsweek? I'm still looking for the story that does justice to the many voices contending for dominance in American culture when it comes to relationships and marriage -- among which polyamory is one important, but by no means yet a dominant thread.

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