Love All: The Art Of Polyamory

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As polyamory enters the mainstream, could a relationship revolution be under way?

By Rowan Pelling

One bright spring day last year I was idly browsing Facebook when my friend Dr Kate Devlin (a lecturer in artificial intelligence at Goldsmiths) updated her status from “single” to “in an open relationship”. Since I’m 49 and live in uptight, windswept Cambridge, rather than a sex-positive community in San Diego, this was a social-media first for me. It seemed clear the polyamory movement in Britain had finally achieved critical mass. There had been plenty of portents. First, the fact that the term polyamory, coined in 1992, entered the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2006, defined as “having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals… the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned”. Meanwhile, female friends on Tinder kept being asked if they’d consider forming part of a love quadrangle. And I noticed people in my circle citing Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (the bible for consensual non-monogamists).

Then there were the celebrity polyamorists. Author Neil Gaiman and his musician wife Amanda Palmer have never made a secret of the fact that they both took lovers, with each other’s consent; although their set-up has reportedly become more conventional since they have had a child. Will Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith once posted on Facebook, “Will and I both can do whatever we want, because we trust each other to do so. This does not mean we have an open relationship… this means we have a grown one.” Which sounds pretty much like your average polyamorist explaining why their ménage is an expansive, loving set of mutually agreeable arrangements, rather than a free-for-all. And Tilda Swinton became the poster girl for every mother who feels that, much as she loves the father of her children, she wouldn’t mind shifting him to another part of the house while she moves in her drop-dead sexy lover.

When news of Swinton’s unconventional domestic arrangements first broke, my husband said: “That’s the life you’d like, isn’t it?” I pointed out that John Byrne, the father of Swinton’s twins, has a croft he can escape to on his own, to read books and write: “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” It seemed an excellent quid pro quo – especially for couples who aren’t each other’s gatekeeper and don’t give a fig what curtain-twitching moralists think. Throughout our 24-year relationship, my husband has never attempted to curtail my movements, and confesses himself “infinitely puzzled by men who are physically possessive”. Indeed, I’ve only been able to pursue my line of work (delving into erotic literature and sexuality) because he’s totally unruffled if I say, “I’ve got to go to San Francisco to interview the leader of the Orgasmic Meditation movement.” In similar spirit, I don’t question my spouse’s deeply entrenched desire to do no socialising whatsoever, to eschew travel and to potter round the house pondering metaphysical dilemmas as well as the contents of our two boys’ school lunch boxes. We have lost four parents and a beloved step-parent between us, as well as our first pregnancy (a baby with a terrible chromosomal disorder), so we know what heartbreak means and that profound love entails a level of kindness and support that goes way beyond sex.

But then nobody is too surprised when editors of erotic magazines, aristos or bohemians lead unconventional lives. For me, the significant thing about my friend Kate Devlin’s post was that it marked the moment when I first witnessed a bunch of well-heeled professionals all nod and say, “Good for you!”, rather than falling silent or expressing surprise. I sent her a message offering congratulations and suggesting polyamory would make a great article for my magazine The Amorist, which explores passion and sexuality. She replied, “I’m already halfway through.” The finished piece caused a bit of a stir, and a version was reprinted in The Times. Kate explained that she had one lover who occupied more space in her life than the other, who she saw once a month (both men also had at least one other regular partner), but that it worked for all of them, and she concluded, “I am content though. Happy, definitely, in a way that I couldn’t be if I were with just one person. I am fascinated by people and delight in learning more about each one… I know polyamory is not for everyone. There are degrees of it that are not for me. I’m tentatively feeling my way blindly because the familiar social structures aren’t in place, but it’s OK. It’s OK. I remind myself that it’s OK. For every pang of insecurity, I have an equal and opposite panic about being trapped. Then my heart lifts as I remember: I’m not.”

For decades, the notion of a complex, open-sided set of mostly heterosexual relationships has been associated with the more baroque excesses of the 1970s – along with key parties, pampas grass, shag-pile carpets and the bearded man from The Joy of Sex. It’s no surprise that this is viewed as the decade of carefree sexual exploration. Lovers benefited from the advent of the contraceptive pill: the first time an entire generation of women had been freed from fear of pregnancy. It was also an age of relative innocence, before the Aids pandemic and doomy sexual-health ads terrified the populace back into serial monogamy. But it was also an age when the bearded man had the upper hand. The general consensus was that “free love” was imposed by randy men on unwilling women, and that it never really worked; someone was always left sobbing and abandoned in the corner. Joni Mitchell spoke for many when she said, “It’s a ruse for guys.”

The only problem with that point of view is that monogamy clearly doesn’t work either. One-on-one is clearly the best way to proceed when you’re in those electrifying early years of love: the space when you’re so narcotically in thrall to your beloved that everyone else seems faintly repugnant. And monogamy certainly works while your cultural inhibitions, religious sensibilities, or sense of loyalty and duty to shared family, friends or children outweigh all other considerations. But, eventually, so the statistics tell us, only the fortunate minority feel a deep, abiding, unconflicted contentment in one person’s arms over an entire lifetime. The other 70 or so per cent of humans in the Western world will be unfaithful at least once in their lifetime. Divorce rates now run at well over 40 per cent in Britain and America. The certainty of adultery, heartbreak and pain is the other great inconvenient truth of our times. Which is why New York-based relationship guru Esther Perel recently published The State of Affairs, which attempts to explore the myriad reasons for infidelity and to look at how couples can not only survive betrayal but learn from it and even become stronger. The prevalent myth Perel seeks to dispel is the notion that one person can be everything to another: soul mate, lover, best friend, fellow adventurer and co-parent. In her view, adultery is often about the desire to reinvent the self and become fresh and fascinating in another’s eyes, rather than an active wish to reject the best beloved.

So what does a pragmatic, ethical individual do if they don’t ever want to behave like a lying, cheating love rat to the person they adore? For increasing numbers of people admitting to an enduring libido, the logical answer is polyamory. Now if, like me, you’ve knocked about a bit, you’re going to find the concept far older and more familiar than something supposedly invented at the tail end of the 20th century. Many in the LGBT community laugh at polyamory being some form of novel arrangement. The gay writer and comedian Rosie Wilby, whose book Is Monogamy Dead? was published last year, told me, “The LGBT community has experimented with forms of non-monogamy for decades. If you’re already doing something that has been widely viewed as ‘deviant’, then trying out another deviance from the norm has never felt like too big a jump. So it’s hardly a new concept for us.”

Indeed not. Think of the sexually fluid Bloomsbury set, who Dorothy Parker famously described as having “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”. Many Edwardians – generally intellectuals, radicals and the upper classes – thought a free and open pass on fidelity was a practical way to go about things. After all, this was an era where the king himself – Victoria’s playboy son, Edward VII – was known to have taken many mistresses, including actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry. It was also an idyll, a long-skirted, Arts and Crafts summer of love, which followed the more fixed morality of the Victorian era and flourished before the terrible devastation of the First World War. Proponents of unusual erotic arrangements were everywhere, from Vita Sackville-West (lover of Virginia Woolf) and her husband Harold Nicolson to the children’s author Edith Nesbit, who shared a house with spouse Hubert Bland and his mistress Alice Hoatson. Nesbit even raised Hoatson’s two children by Bland. Sexual experimentation started at the top. Meanwhile, last winter’s arthouse cinema hit Professor Marston and the Wonder Women dramatised the story of psychologist William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who lived with wife Elizabeth and mistress Olive Byrne.

Complete Article HERE!

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