Sex by Numbers

Polyamory has gone from being a fringe scene to a veritable subculture. But can having multiple partners ever be widely accepted?

Jessica, John, and Kate (not their real names) sat together at Cafe Van Kleef recently, looking more like three long-time friends than three people involved in a love triangle — or, as they’d put it, a love polygonal. Jessica had an arm casually draped around John, who leaned against her contentedly. The two of them met on OKCupid about three years ago, started an email correspondence, and hooked up, for the first time, at a friend’s Christmas party — John says they spent most of it making out in the bathroom. They started seeing each other “in a fling capacity,” he says, and fell in love against their better interests. John clearly remembers the day it struck him: “We were outside a Virgin Megastore in New York,” he recalled, “next to two guys who were laying asphalt. I suddenly turned to her and I was like, ‘Hey, I love you.’ And she started crying.”

About a year into their relationship, Kate entered the picture. She and John had actually known each other for a long time, and John said they’d always had a lot of chemistry. Both were warm and loquacious, identified as ‘queer,’ and saw themselves as part of the Bay Area’s sexual underground. They’d actually met at a drag show. One day, Kate showed up at a music event that John had produced in Oakland’s Mosswood Park. (By day, he works as a freelance lighting designer for rock shows.) Kate marched straight up to Jessica. “Full disclosure,” she said. “I’m only here to get in your boyfriend’s pants.”

Weirdly enough, it worked. It turns out Jessica is one of the few people in the world who would take kindly to someone trying to steal her man. Because she doesn’t think of it as stealing; it’s more like sharing. A good boyfriend shouldn’t be squandered on one person, right? At this point, Kate and John have been sleeping together for a full year. They use condoms. John and Jessica are still “primary” partners. Jessica, in the meantime, started seeing three other guys. It’s not about getting even, she says; it’s about sharing the love. She and Kate are best friends. And Kate has a fiancé of her own.

Confused yet? Jessica explains it this way: “So here’s a conventional relationship,” she said. “You meet someone, you date, after six months, you use the ‘L’ word.” She paused and glanced over at Kate, who nodded approvingly. “Then you wait for him to ask you to marry him. Then you have a baby.”

That isn’t what she ever wanted. In fact, since reading Dossie Easton’s polyamory primer, The Ethical Slut, in college, Jessica decided that she wanted to impose a cooperative, communal model on her own romantic life, without being a total freak. Although her current relationship with John is her first real foray into polyamory, Jessica said it’s something she always wanted. She’s certainly not inured to jealousy — no one is, she argues — but she’s found ways to sublimate it. And she feels that the returns are well worth the sacrifice, adding that she’ll probably never go back to old one-on-one style partnership. “I like being a slut,” she insisted.

And Jessica’s not alone. Over the past decade, polyamory has gone from being a fringe trend to a bona fide scene to a relationship model that’s widespread enough to almost be socially acceptable. The scene has its own canon, which includes texts like The Ethical Slut and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn (co-authored with his partner, Cacilda Jetha). Plus it’s got celebrities like alt-weekly sex columnist Dan Savage, who coined the word “monogamish” and turned open relationships into a cause célèbre. He’s currently shooting a late-night advice show for MTV. Some would even argue that the proliferation of social networks and dating sites — namely, Facebook and OKCupid — has turned us into a more open culture. The Bay Area in particular, with its long history of free love, its vast network of Burning Man enthusiasts, and its overall progressive ethos, is a natural hotbed for the alternative sex scene. It’s a place where avid polyamorists can bring just about anyone into their fold.

Sort of. It turns out that, no matter how successful they’ve been at negotiating relationships, many polyamorists still have one foot in the closet. And in a world where monogamy is not only well-entrenched but vital to the workings of a property-based society, their scene may always remain marginal.

That realization has caused many “ethical sluts” to treat open relationships not only as a lifestyle but as a social cause.

Christopher Ryan has spent most of the last ten years combating what he calls “the standard narrative”: that man’s nature is to always be concerned about paternity. He started writing Sex at Dawn about eleven years ago as a PhD dissertation. At that time, Ryan was studying psychology at Saybrook University and working at a San Francisco nonprofit called Women in Community Service. “It was all women, except for me and one other guy,” Ryan said, “and they were all lesbian-feminist Berkeley types.”

Ryan was in the midst of reading Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which uses evolutionary psychology to figure out whether men are congenital cheaters. Ryan had a major hard-on for the book. He’d recap Wright’s theories for anyone who would listen, including the women at his nonprofit — who mostly dismissed them. “They said, ‘That sounds really Victorian and phallocentric,'” Ryan recalled. He didn’t take their criticisms as insult. Rather, he decided to go back and explore some of Wright’s original research.

And that led him to the bonobos. Ryan contends that if you want to challenge the standard narrative of human sexuality, you can’t just start at the beginning of civilization — you have to go all the way back to our primate ancestors. He explained it thus to a crowd of roughly a dozen acolytes at San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture: “If your dog shits on your bed, and you want to know why, you’re not going to study birds. You’re going to look at wolves, and foxes, and coyotes.” Similarly, if your girlfriend sleeps around, and you want to know why, take a look at the female bonobos at the San Diego Zoo. As Ryan’s friend Carol Queen pointed out, you’ll see a lot of parents at the zoo covering their children’s eyes: Bonobos love to hump.

There’s really no way to answer an essential question about human evolution without resorting to conjecture, so Ryan and his co-author (and wife) Jetha tried to have some humility about it. They also tried to incorporate data from as many disciplines as possible — primatology, archaeology, nutritional biology, psychology, contemporary sexuality, pornography, you name it. They drew some interesting conclusions: first and foremost, that monogamy really began with the advent of agriculture. That’s when we became concerned about ownership and possession. That’s when men decided that the only way to uphold a property-based society was to control women’s bodies. In Ryan’s estimation, it didn’t take that long — evolutionarily speaking — for us to invent the phrase “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

But there’s more. Ryan and Jetha also discovered some interesting and oft-maligned facets of female sexuality that was borne out in bonobo research. Namely, that women are raving perverts, that they’re way more “bisexual” than men, and that they make a lot more noise during sex. Even more importantly: We’re all perverts. Or, as Ryan would put it, we’re “promiscuous” beings — promiscuous not in the sense of prurience, but in the sense of wanting to mix, being fiercely egalitarian, and wanting to have sex with as many different people as possible.

We’ve been taught to think in terms of competition and scarcity, Ryan says, meaning that we’re told if we don’t ensnare one partner within a certain time frame, our chance at reproduction will run out. He contends that this line of thinking is culturally imposed, and that in reality, we’re not thinking about procreation every time we have sex — we’re doing it for pleasure. “Think about the number of times you’ve had sex,” Ryan said to the audience at Center for Sex and Culture. He paused, allowing us to mentally calculate. “Now divide that by the number of kids you have.” A few people chortled, though some hid their faces uncomfortably. Point taken.

Ryan isn’t particularly doctrinal — he purposefully left the pedagogical, thumb-sucking, “Where to go from here” chapter out of Sex at Dawn. But his book, which quickly landed on The New York Times bestseller list, has become a de facto Bible in the polyamory community. John and Jessica both invoke his theories when trying to define their relationship. “Monogamy automatically assumes all these rules,” Jessica said. That’s why, when you desire someone besides your one life partner, it’s called “cheating.”

John would venture even farther, arguing that open relationships are actually a more natural state than marriage and the nuclear family. “Okay, like 10 percent of people in this society say they’re gay, right? I think about the same amount of people are naturally born monogamous.” He continued: “But from day one, as a society, we’re immediately routed towards monogamy. This shit starts right when you get out of the womb, man. Wrap that colored blanket around them, put the mother and father on the birth certificate. Boom.”

He’s rankled about that. “The whole ‘It takes a village’ thing? It shouldn’t be a foreign concept.” John added that Ryan’s book merely validated feelings he’s had for years. “It helped me find words to express how I function.” John will readily admit that his parents were monogamous, and that he grew up without any kind of progressive, open relationship model to use as a reference point. Nonetheless, he’s says he’s been poly his whole life.

One of the people who attended Ryan’s lecture was Polly Whittaker, a slender, freckled blond who is a veritable Johnny Appleseed of the local polyamory community. Whittaker is one of those rare people who can flaunt her sexual preferences without compunction, since she works in the alt-sex world full time. Born in the UK and raised in a fairly permissive family — her parents were both sex therapists, and her mother “turned a blind eye” to her father’s multiple affairs — she started going to fetish clubs as a teenager, immersed herself in the “sex underground,” and entered her first open relationship after immigrating to the US in 1999. “The first weekend I came was the Folsom Street Fair,” she said. “It was amazing. I was like, ‘Yay, this is my town, I’ve arrived.'”

Some people only recognize Whittaker by the costumes she wears at sex parties, which involve a lot of pink wigs and corsets. In person, though, she’s polite and down-to-business, and exudes a surprisingly small amount of sexual energy. In fact, she looks like a grown-up version of the Swiss Miss hot chocolate logo: cute, fair-skinned, and much younger in appearance than her 36 years. She says that by day she’s focused on writing; her partner, Scott Levkoff, is a puppeteer.

The couple launched their organization, Mission Control, in January 2001, after leasing a second-floor walk-up in the Mission. Whittaker already had her own fetish party, but she wanted to increase the clientele. “I was inviting some raver-Burner types, as well,” she said, indicating that the idea of mixing those subcultures was still a little outré at that time. “Those communities really hadn’t crossed yet. It was like the Goths were the fetish people and the ravers were the ecstasy people. There was no crossover.”

Whittaker took it upon herself to bring the disparate tribes together, if only for the sake of throwing better parties. The result, she said, was fantastic: “colorful, costumed, sex-positive, Burning Man-oriented (but not Burning Man). We just created this space where people felt like they could explore.”

The club now hosts seven different play parties, in addition to a monthly art salon. John said it runs the gamut: fairy nights, lady’s nights, heavier play nights, lighter play nights, trans nights, fetish nights, sex club-oriented nights. Most events cost $30-$35 and entail a mandatory dress code. Some require all participants to bring a buddy. “You know,” he said, “they want to keep the riff-raff out.”

John explained that when sex parties aren’t properly policed, they can attract a bad element — i.e., “dudes in sweatpants who like to jerk off while watching trannies fuck. I mean, not that it’s bad to watch trannies fuck — that’s hot,” he said. “Sweat pants? Not so hot.”

Mission Control’s flagship party is called Kinky Salon, which is kind of an omnisexual catch-all. It’s not polyamorous per se, but you have to be poly-friendly to go, given all the exchanging of partners that happens there. According to people who go, it looks nondescript from the outside — just a grate and a doortender. But the inside is all razzle-dazzle: wood paneling, a smokers’ porch, tapestries, a dance floor with a stripper pole and mirrored disco ball, bartenders who hold your drinks (Kinky Salon has a BYOB policy and no liquor license), baskets full of condoms and lube, a back room full of beds and boxsprings and futons, people walking around in various stage of undress. Every iteration of the party has a theme (e.g., “woodland creatures,” “superheroes,” or “San Fransexual”).

John has a fairly sunny view of Kinky Salon, at least in terms of its ability to attract a wide and representative swath of the polyamory subculture. Yes, more than half of the folks who attend are white, college-educated people in their thirties, he said. But they constitute the scene’s demographic majority. “It’s definitely a have-your-life-together-but-are-still-having-tons-of-fun kind of crowd,” he said, adding that in general, the racial makeup pretty much mirrors that of San Francisco.

Jessica’s read is a little more cynical. She’s been to two Mission Control parties and says they definitely stand out in a scene that’s become larger and more diffuse — in the last decade, so-called “pansexual” and “alternative adult” clubs have cropped up all over San Francisco, and many of them are a little less discriminating, in terms of the crowds they draw. All the same, she finds the crowd to be pretty specific, not so much in an elitist way as in an isolationist way. And generally, it’s dominated by nerds. “You know, Burning Man people, Renn Faire people, people who are really costumed,” she said. “They’re older. They’re not really people I’m interested in fucking.”

She continued: “There’s this back room where you go to have sex, and there’s always this weird pile of people going at it in the middle of the room. But it’s way less creepy than it could be.”

Ned Mayhem, a PhD student in the sciences and second-generation polyamorist (his father also has an open marriage), would agree with that assessment. He and his partner, Maggie Mayhem, have a porn website based around their “sex geek” personae. They even invented something called a PSIgasm, which uses sensory devices to measure the strength of orgasms. (They’re trying to get money to develop it, but haven’t been able to work within normal fund-raising apparati — Kickstarter snubbed them.) Mayhem said that a lot of the people he meets in the so-called “sexual underground” are nerds in other parts of their lives — grad students, engineers, costume-party types, bookworms, live-action role players. They tend to be open-minded and well-educated, but always a little to the left of what mainstream society would consider “sexy.”

Perhaps that explains why polyamory has formed such a flourishing, albeit circumscribed subculture. It’s a scene where square pegs and misfits can reinvent themselves as Lotharios, where a self-described “socially well-adjusted” person like Jessica feels like an outlier.

Certainly, not all polyamorists attend sex parties or engage in kink — many who subscribe to the “open relationship” philosophy still consider themselves fairly vanilla. But the fact that San Francisco has such a vast and well-networked sexual underground benefits them, too, since it makes for a more tolerant environment. It also shows that the alt-sex scene, and by extension, the polyamory scene, isn’t just a countercultural fluke.

At the end of the day, though, it remains marginal. And if you buy into Ryan’s argument that an ownership-based society organizes itself around monogamous relationships, then polyamory may never really become mainstream. It’s a fringe movement by its very definition, and some adherents would prefer that it stay that way.

In fact, there are two main obstacles facing the polyamory movement. One is that, like it or not, we’re a morality-obsessed culture, and in many ways we’re still a doctrinal culture. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 92 percent of Americans think that having an extramarital affair is morally wrong. That’s about twice as many as those who condemn gay and lesbian relationships, and three times as many as those who oppose the death penalty. Which is to say that as a culture, we’re intractably wedded to the idea of a solid matrimonial bond. We’re more amenable to the idea of legally killing someone than the idea of wrecking a marriage.

Thus, open relationships have a long way to go before becoming socially acceptable, let alone part of the status quo. Bigots who still find the idea of gay marriage unsavory probably won’t cotton to nonmonogamy anytime soon.

Most of the people interviewed for this article wanted to conceal their identities, either because they feared repercussions at work — Kate, for instance, is an elementary school teacher; Ned asked that the name of his university be redacted, to avoid raising the attention of administrators — or because they hadn’t “come out” to their families. Jessica said her mom mildly disapproves of open relationships and tends to dodge the subject when Jessica brings it up. A woman named Jess Young, who grew up in Texas and moved to the Bay Area after college, said her parents threw her out of the house when she was in high school for being a lesbian. “I think that polyamory would be beyond the scope of their understanding,” she said.

The other problem is that humans are jealous creatures, whether or not you throw the concept of ownership into the equation. Asked if we can ever overcome jealousy, Dan Savage had a pretty straightforward answer: “No,” he wrote, in an email interview. “And I say that as someone who has been in a monogamish relationship for a dozen years. Jealousy is a control, I think, a natural human emotion — just like the desire for variety and other partners.”

And the truth is that polyamorous relationships are hard. Those who practice them say there’s no set way of doing it. Levkoff and Whittaker are loose enough and trusting enough to let each other spend entire weekends with their respective lovers. Whittaker said she usually likes to meet the people her partner dates, particularly if it’s more than just a casual romance, but she’s not always interested in hearing all the details.

Jessica and John have a more hands-on approach, meaning they pretty much tell each other everything. Jessica confessed that she finds herself getting jealous in unexpected ways, and not always about sex. “I’ll be like, ‘Hey, you made dinner with her? No fair.'” Ned describes his relationship with Maggie as “polyfuckerous” rather than polyamorous, and says that largely owes to time constraints; he’s a full-time student, she has a day job, and neither of them has the energy for endless “processing.”

Some polyamorists subscribe to the idea of “compersion,” which is basically a way of being happy that your partner is happy, even if that means allowing your partner to see other people. Oft-described as “the inverse of jealousy,” it’s defined both as an enlightened, empathic state, and a tool to surmount the feelings of possessiveness and insecurity that normally crop up in romantic relationships. Some polyamory scholars argue that compersion can be learned. Easton discusses it at length in The Ethical Slut. Jessica says she’s been able to implement it sometimes. “Really,” she said, “nobody’s immune to jealousy.”

And then, well, there’s the problem of some people being liars, no matter what situation you put them in — closed, open, whatever. People in monogamous relationships cheat, but so do people in polyamorous relationships. Some people “open up” relationships in order to sabotage rather than enhance them. Savage put it bluntly: “Some people convince their partners to open their relationships, and promise them that it’s not because they’re not attracted to ’em anymore, but they’re really done and want out of the relationship, and ‘openness’ for them means ‘I’m out there auditioning potential new partners and as soon as I find one I’m going to dump the person I’m with.”

Kate agreed. “Nonmonogamous people can cheat,” she said. “It’s just about being a dishonest schmuck. If you do it right, it’s supposed to be thoughtful. You’re supposed to do a lot of ‘checking in’ and talking things to death.”

And, granted, people in polyamorous relationships deal with their fair share of dishonest schmucks. “The first guy I dated in New York, I think he wanted to rescue me from John,” Jessica said. “He was super emotionally intimate with me, listened to me talk about my relationships, sort of alluded to the fact that he wasn’t really down with the program. After two months he disappeared.” She sighed. “I feel like dudes think that because you already have a boyfriend, they don’t have to actually break things off.”

John’s been jilted, too. “There was a girl I was dating for a month or two, the sex was really hot, and she was down with the fact that I had another partner,” he said. “Then I went off to New York for a few weeks, and she basically started dating someone who wanted to be monogamous.” So the girl just bounced, leaving John in the lurch. “It really hurts when someone starts dating you, and then they have to stop because they’re not actually poly.” He explained that even though most people are theoretically born nonmonogamous, few people can actually practice nonmonogamy in a healthy, fair, fully communicative way. We’re so habituated to think of romance in terms of competition and scarcity that it becomes nearly impossible to break away from that model. John said one would think that his and Jessica’s pool of potential partners is a lot bigger than that of the average person, but it’s actually more limited.

In the end, it’s hard to say which model is better, given our social circumstances. “I think monogamy has certain pressures and discontents that complicate relationships,” Savage wrote. “And I think polyamory does, too. You get to pick your poison.”

It’s possible to make a serious mess of a polyamorous relationship, be an unthinking, uncaring jerk, and alienate the people around you. Then again, it’s also possible to create the kind of romance that John and Jessica apparently have, in which everything seems beautiful and clean.


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