Freethought and Polyamory on Campus
I found 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 (a) as natural allies and (b) for critical engagement.
Here i want to plug a lot of other people’s ideas and point readers in lots of 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 transpeople, 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, they 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 U.S. 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, though — 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 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, if we would, 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 find a polyamorist in your freethought group looking to start up a poly group at your college*, 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 we 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.