Thursday, May 17, 2001
When 3 (or More) Is Not a Crowd
By AJAY SINGH, Special to The Times
If Terry Gibbons came home one day and found her husband Paul in bed with
one of his close female friends, it wouldn't be an occasion for divorce.
According to Gibbons, it would be an opportunity for an impromptu dinner
party. It's not that Gibbons, 48, has some perverse penchant for rewarding
her husband's infidelity. Rather, she's part of a lifestyle, some call it a
"lovestyle", in which engaging with more than one significant partner is
Polyamory, from the Greek and Latin root meaning "many loves"in its most
ideal form isn't about casual sex or extramarital affairs. Instead, its
proponents say, it is an intimate social network that combines sex and love.
One recent Sunday, the Gibbonses were soaking in a hot tub in their
backyard in Sylmar along with three poly friends. "As we are in a new
millennium, we need new skills," says Paul, 47, expounding on his
worldview. "And one of the new skills is to bond with as many people as we
can." The Gibbonses, who head an alternative lifestyles organization called
Live the Dream, have several polyamorous connections.
Even a cursory look at how the Gibbonses manage their love life makes it
clear that polyamory is not in the cultural mainstream. Both Terry and Paul
have a lover each, whom they meet on a regular basis. Every once in a
while, they get together with a poly couple. They share their home with
Marcus Jenkins, 41, a neon-sign artist who, in turn, has poly relationships
with people other than Terry and Paul. "We are there for each other in
times of joy and sorrow and all the things that are there in marriage as
well," says Terry.
Like many alternative groups, polyamory has benefited from communication
via the Internet. Not long ago, only a handful of Web sites were dedicated
to polyamory. Today, there are hundreds.
A magazine about polyamory, called Loving More, was launched as a
newsletter in 1984 and is now a glossy quarterly with a circulation of
10,000. A number of books on polyamory have achieved guidebook status
within the poly community. Paperback titles include "The Ethical Slut"
(Greenery Press), so called because it's about how to love more than one
person without cheating, and "Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits"
(IntiNet Resource Center).
While social commentators might find much to object to in polyamory's
living arrangement, those within poly groups say it is working for them and
that it is just a variation on a theme that has long had a place at the
edge, if not at the center, of society. Meanwhile, new U.S. Census data
shows fewer households than ever fall into the traditional structure of a
married couple with children, and, in a highly publicized case, a man with
five wives has become the first person in 50 years to be charged with
bigamy in Utah.
"A lot of Americans think polyamory is absolutely horrendous and that it's
putting us on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah," says Bob Francoeur, a
biology professor who is part of a "Lifestyles Study Group" at Fairleigh
Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. "But the traditional Victorian
family doesn't work anymore [and] experiments like polyamory are part of a
trend to find new models of human intimacy."
A Form of Union Dating to 19th Century
Polyamory represents a form of togetherness rooted in the communes of the
19th century as well as the 1950s and the 1960s.
Those movements, however, were different from polyamory in that they were
largely characterized by casual pairing for sex without emotional
closeness. The size of the typical poly family is generally smaller than
the communes of yesteryear, and bisexuality is common. Also distinguishing
polyamory from earlier movements is "the degree of public knowledge about
its arrangements and the willingness of [poly] aficionados to talk and
write about them," says Timothy Perper, an editor of the Journal of Sex
Education and Therapy, published by the American Assn. of Sex Educators,
Counselors and Therapists.
"What is significant is not the sexual acts themselves, but the work of
writers, TV producers, filmmakers and so on who have brought lifestyles
like polyamory poundingly to the attention of Americans."
Polyamorists say they uphold the same values deemed essential to the
success of conventional monogamy: love, mutual respect, integrity,
commitment, passion. Still, polyamory has yet to gain social acceptability,
which is one reason why a large number of its proponents are unprepared to
come out of the metaphorical closet. "It's like being gay 30 years ago,"
says a young L.A.-based entertainment-industry assistant, a woman, who is
in a relationship with a man and his wife, none of whom wish to be identified.
The trio formed a union after they met at a party. The single woman began
flirting with the husband and then his wife. When the husband approached
her and said, "You know, you're hitting on my wife," she replied, "She's
your wife? That's convenient." The three then discussed menage a trois,
which blossomed into a polyamorous union. Since then, the single woman, who
lives with relatives, has been visiting her "husband and wife" every weekend.
The threesome say they have kept their yearlong relationship free of
conflict by relying on a self-composed list of "Thou Shalts" and "Thou
Shalt Nots" that govern the relationship. For example, if the wife leaves
the house to run an errand, the husband cannot start up sexual relations
with their friend. All three partners must be present before any sexual
activity can occur. If they decide to add another male partner to the mix,
the husband will have the final say about any prospective candidate.
Some observers believe that many people embrace polyamory less for its
ideal of free love than out of a desire to escape the responsibilities of a
"The movement, if you can call it that, is said to be about ethics," says a
polyamorous art teacher in East L.A. who came of age in the 1960s. "But
many people figure, 'I don't want to get into trouble in
a monogamous relationship, so I'll become poly.' "
Such people tend to underestimate the perils of polyamory.
Take jealousy, considered to be the lifestyle's greatest enemy. Although
there's no dearth of polyamorists who insist they have conquered the
emotion, "whatever people do to tackle it, it's just a strategy that
doesn't work," says Leanna Wolfe, an anthropologist who teaches at L.A.
Valley College and is currently working a book on polyamory.
Wolfe, 47, is currently living with a man who has been in a relationship
with a second woman for many years. Wolfe admits she feels jealous
sometimes. And there are times, says Wolfe, when "I have a fantasy of
meeting a one-and-only partner so that I'd be done with it all."
About a year ago, Wolfe was in a relationship with three men. It wasn't a
very happy situation. Two of the men wanted to be monogamous; the third
wanted to find another woman. Most people, she says, have a problem with
being as open as polyamorists are.
Emphasis on 'Spirituality and Emotionality'
Few people have tested the boundaries of polyamory as successfully as the
Ravenhearts, a "family" of six in Sonoma County. The Ravenhearts range in
age from 22 to 58. Two of the men and a woman were informally married in a
private ceremony not legally recognized and, therefore, they say, not in
violation of laws against polygamy. The woman is "senior wife" Morning
Glory, 52, who is also informally married to Wynter Rose, 22. Glory, who
created the family name as a symbol of the raven's mythical ability to
communicate secrets, is also believed to have coined the term polyamory in
a magazine article in 1990.
The Ravenhearts live in a fenced enclave of Craftsman-style cottages, where
they also run Mythic Images, a statuary business. The family's oldest
member, Oberon Zell, has been legally wedded to Glory, his "primary"
partner, for the past 27 years. "We don't live within a Christian
context," Zell announces.
His "secondary" partner, Liza Gabriel, is a self-proclaimed product of the
'60s who went through two wrecked marriages before realizing that her
natural inclination is really to be on the "quirky side." Twice a year,
Gabriel organizes what she calls "sacred sexuality groups"four-day-long
erotic congregations of no more than 60 stark naked people by invitation
only. 'It's a sexually free space in which consenting people can do pretty
much what they want to," she says. "The emphasis is on spirituality and
emotionality." In other words, finding one's soul through sex. Although
the Ravenhearts have lovers outside the family, their main commitment is to
their primary partners within the commune. To avoid competing for
partners, everyone sticks to a schedule in which specified partners plan to
sleep in the same bed.
Not every pairing ends up working, and, say members of the group,
satisfying multiple lovers isn't easy. Rose, for example, has been in love
for many years with a man who recently broke up with another woman.
When Rose rushed to comfort him, her other loved ones, including her
husband, Wilson Stiles, felt neglected. "When you open yourself to shared
love, you also open yourself to shared grief," says Stiles, 37. "The
hardest part about polyamory is watching your wife or lover get heartbroken."
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