April 23, 2003
St. Mary’s College, CA
Polyamory, or “many loves” is a relatively new term for an arguably old practice. Some define it as including all types of sexual relationships, whereas others reserve the term for dedicated love-based relationships (Easton and Liszt 1997: 41). That it cannot be concretely defined is perhaps its greatest virtue; a lifestyle that celebrates the many facets love can take probably shouldn’t be confined to just one definition. I first heard the word “polyamorous” in the spring of 2002 when I was introduced through my friend Heather* to the Starry Plough and its community. Since then I have become more and more intrigued by the notion of “many loves”, in part because trying to understand it can challenge the mind; it is a radically different worldview to that of the mainstream, presenting a world where love is not a limited commodity, it is not restricted to one person and one person only “until death do you part”, and sex is recognized as a good and healthy expression of love and affection. This phrasing, I will admit, sounds utopian at first, but it is fairly accurate to the ideals that polyamory encapsulates.
This study was conducted over a period of approximately half a semester, which is approximately equal to 7 weeks. I have been attending Monday dance nights at the Starry Plough for a year now, so it could be said that much of that time was a prelude to this particular work. In addition to Monday nights, I also used parties as well as online public journals and bulletin boards as places of study, as several of my informants keep online journals where they will, on occasion, reflect on polyamorous matters.
The size of the polyamorous community at the Plough is rather small, and composed of 20-25 people, ranging in age from 20 to early 40s. The community in no way reflects polyamory as a whole, but represents one facet of a very diverse lifestyle. I have chosen to focus mainly on the dancers, as I have more interaction with them than I do the musicians.
Polyamory across the nation comes in many shapes and colors. Some form commune-style residences, with marriages creating a web of interrelations within the larger group. There are those communities who go in for group sex get-togethers. Some are like the Plough, where many people have dated each other at one point, but everyone lives in very mainstream ways (with their spouse, primary, or alone). It is impossible to stereotype polyamory or say, “that’s what we called ‘swinging’ in my day”, because quite simply, the range of variation is too broad (and in any case, swinging is its own subculture, separate from polyamory in several fundamental ways).
Much of my research was conducted by observation at the Starry Plough, Au Coquelet, and various gatherings and parties held by this community. I also used what others had written about polyamory in their online journals as a basis for some lines of questioning, as well as to get a feel for the subject matter. One or two of my informants have used their online journal as a forum for discussion of polyamory, and questions people might have regarding it. These questions provided a good grounding, to remind myself that others may not be as surrounded by an alternative lifestyle as I am, being a close friend to many in the community and having gotten used to much of the idiosyncrasies of it. I also conducted several interviews, both with individuals and with couples. Impromptu conversation also was a source of information.
One of my primary concerns lay with my own discomfort around broaching the topic. While many of my informants were eager to help, as were many others I did not have time to consult, I must admit to having some reservations about being able to ask the right questions in an effective manner. I am by nature a shy person, and treating in so objectively a manner a subject with which I’d already heard about informally was somewhat daunting. Much as I wanted to learn about the topic (because it was so prevalent around me), I was worried both about bringing it up and using my friends as subjects and teachers. I was also worried that, being young and female, I would be talked down to by the women, and hit on by the men (eventualities which could happen in any culture, not just this one). My age and sex has previously made me the target of some dislike, but it was resolved, and I do not think that it was at all an issue during my study.
I found, however, that most of the people I talked to, and some that I did not, wanted to find the answers to many of the same questions I had. Notably, Rose has used her online journal to answer questions people have about polyamory, as has Sunny, although to a lesser extent. Perry has used his technical skills in the audiovisual field to co-create videos about both dancing at the Plough and polyamory.
Most of the polyamorous people at the Plough are educated, having attended most if not all 4 years of college. Many work in technical fields, usually concerning computers and programming. This high level of education seemed to produce a fairly high level of eloquence, and the people with whom I spoke were fairly articulate in explaining things to me. I think that this level of education helped me, because my status as a college student reminded my informants of their own years as undergraduates, and encouraged them to be more willing to partake in the ethnography. Nearly everyone to whom I have mentioned this study has expressed an interest in reading the final draft, which I think has something to do with their own curiosity into the nature of their own culture.
Given the interesting press given to polyamory (HBO produced a segment for their series “Real Sex” about polyamory, in which a group house filled with middle-aged hippies basically had lots of group sex), I wanted to show a slightly more realistic and relatable version of polyamory. The polyamory practiced by Plough-goers is not one rooted in group sex, swinging, or predatory seduction. During the course of my fieldwork, I found that quite a few people shared this desire to see polyamory portrayed correctly, or at least correctly as they practiced it. I have endeavored to paint this community in a realistic light, however, and not one rooted in false positivism.
The Starry Plough is an Irish pub located on the corner of Shattuck and Prince in Berkeley. The front door opens onto the bar, and the side/back door opens next to the stage. There are two parts to the pub, which are separated by pillars and an overhang on the ceiling. On Mondays, the non-bar side is mostly cleared of tables to permit the Irish ceili dancing; on other nights there will occasionally be musical guests or poetry slams, which also suggests a more open space. There is no cover charge. When dancers get food, purchased at the kitchen next to the bar, they often eat it at the tables furthest from the bar (labeled on the map as tables 1-4), which is also where a lot of the dancer’s personal belongings are stowed. While people are encouraged to check small bags and valuables at the bar, many do not. I would imagine this has something to do not only with the presence of Mike at the back entrance (one of the musicians, he is close to 6 and a half feet tall and while playing the tin whistle serves as a deterrent to would-be troublemakers), but also because there is a general sense of trust among the dancers. Most people wouldn’t think about stealing from someone else there, and has a vested interest in making sure no one else gets such an idea. The reciprocal relationships, where everyone watches out for everyone’s stuff, prevents unknowns from coming in and going through things. People who only come in to use the pub’s bathroom are generally watched fairly closely as well. This is especially true after an incident where a musician’s backpack was stolen from neighboring La Peña in February.
While many dancers don’t drink a lot of alcohol when dancing, most will go to the bar to buy lemonade or root beer, as well as the occasional glass of beer. This is different for the musicians, who are paid in beer, not cash, for their services. Few dancers sit at the bar, as most want to dance as much as possible. Some people will sit at the tables on the bar side of the pub, although these people seem not to dance as much as those who sit next to the brick wall on the non-pub side of the bar.
Dance classes are held from 7-9pm, and come in three flavors. First, there is the beginning class, for those just starting out in Irish dance, as well as people who have learned it before but need a refresher course. In this class, the basic steps (what your feet do when you dance) are taught, as well as some basic figures that, when put together, form more complex dances. This class is held inside on the dance floor. The intermediate class, held outside in front of La Peña, assumes that the student knows how to set and travel in reel time, as well as have a basic understanding of the differences between reels and jigs. Some knowledge of basic dances like the traditional 4-hand reel is preferred, for many of the elements of that dance show up in other, harder dances. Across and down the street, advanced classes are held. The dancers must pass a test examining their footwork and knowledge of figures in order to participate. This class covers difficult dances like the Chutney and the Hallucination Jig, two nontraditional dances.
I have found it to be the case that many of the polyamorous people who attend the Plough seem to congregate around tables 1 and 2. This may have something to do with its proximity to the band; top sets, which are closest to the band, are usually the most skilled, and most of the polyamorous people in the community are intermediate and advanced dancers. This area is also well-lit due to the dart board over table 1 (which is not used much if at all, given the dance announcements taped up over it). Oftentimes, one of the regular dancers will read a book under this handy light, either to kill time before dancing, or because they are tired or injured. In between dancing, small groups will form inside and out, with many people (not necessarily poly) sometimes draping arms over each other or giving neck and back massages. It is a fairly flirty, but friendly, atmosphere, with casual hugs and bawdy jokes.
Polyamorous people who attend the Starry Plough also may attend gatherings after dancing at Au Coquelet, a café on University Avenue in Berkeley. Groups of around 6 to 15 will gather here for drinks and food, bought up front but consumed in the back dining room. Tables will be shoved together to accommodate the group, but given the café’s popularity, especially among UC students, a certain amount of chumminess is necessary because of the dearth of space. This is where a lot more gossip occurs, as the noise level is lower and there is not the distraction of dancing. There is also no distraction of having to go pick up food, as it is delivered to one’s table (as is not always the case at the Plough). With dancing stopping around 11:30, there is usually approximately 2 hours until Au Coquelet closes, and there have been occasions where the Plough group has stayed until closing and then some, standing outside talking for (sometimes) hours.
Many of the Plough’s poly people are active in Renaissance Faire guilds as well, where certain activities, like dancing, braiding, or cooking are the focuses. These faires take place all over California in such places as Marin, San Luis Obispo, and Casa de Fruita near Gilroy. There is a heavy concentration of what I term “alterna-people” at these events. By “alterna-people” I mean people whose lifestyles are different from the norm – women may not shave their armpits, men may grow their hair long, they’re vegan, they’re pagan, or any number of other subcultural traits. Besides, as these faires often require a substantial investment of time, especially on weekends, it would be hard to get your average football-watching man or Britney Spears-emulating girl to go and rough it for several weeks in a dirty camping environment. This is not to say that “alterna-people” do not like these things, it is just that they are more likely to have interests outside of these that are far from the societal norm. Given such a high concentration, it is not surprising to learn that there is also a goodly sized population of polyamorous people there as well, although all do not necessarily attend the Plough.
In my study, I have chosen to focus mainly on the Starry Plough as a central location, as it is a regular place of congregation for this community, and it is accessible to me on a regular basis, whereas Renaissance faires are not (as they occur mainly in the summer and fall). It also gives me a larger sample than Au Coquelet.
Ceili dancing is somewhat akin to American square dancing, in that there are (in some instances) two couples who dance in a set formation. It is a genre of dance that is often associated with celebrations and gatherings, and can be found in Scottish and English culture as well, albeit in different forms. The style danced at the Plough for over 20 years has been a fairly flirty variation; many of the dances have kisses as separate steps. The two main variations of dance are reels and jigs, both in four-four time, with the jig being the more bouncy, almost syncopated of the two. Some dances, like the Haymaker’s Jig, are set up in two lines, one male and one female. These lines are then broken down into smaller sets of 5-6 pairs. This particular dance is fairly simple, requiring very little in the way of dance knowledge, and is often promoted with the phrase, “If you can walk, you can do this dance!”
With advanced dances, more experience and knowledge of steps is required. Some dances, like the Reel-A-Thon (a combination of 3 shorter, 2-couple dances), 4-hand jig, and High Caul Cap are possible for intermediate dancers to perform during the night, assuming they have had enough instruction (and failing that, a partner willing to help them along through the dance). For the most part, however, it is easiest if everyone in the dance set knows the dance well, so the dance is seamless and energetic. This is especially true of polka sets – in between the repeated refrain of the dance (often called the body), the head couple will call figures. If one person in the set does not know a particular figure and the caller is unaware of this, confusion can ensure and the dance can fall apart. It takes a good caller to call figures before they are to be performed, and to gauge the skill level of everyone involved so no one is terribly out of their league.
Of the polyamorous people at the Plough, approximately 13 are officially advanced dancers, with 4 or so others being at the same skill level but not attending lessons. 5-6 others are intermediates, and the only polyamorous people who take the beginning lessons are significant others of either intermediate or advanced dancers, and are either just starting out or do not attend the Plough regularly. Because so many polyamorous people are advanced dancers, it is not surprising to find that many of them dance with other polyamorous people for intermediate and advanced dances.
The atmosphere in the Plough among the dancers is definitely a close and friendly one, and one that does not tolerate unwanted affection, either. Recently a couple of the teachers wanted to make it known to the newer dancers (as well as some of the more forward intermediate and advanced dancers) that kisses during such dances as the Haymaker’s Jig were not required. In that dance, there is a set of steps in which the ladies form a line facing a male line, and the two lines go forward towards each other, and then go back to their original places. It is customary for people who know each other to kiss the air next to their partner’s cheek, or sometimes even their partner’s cheek itself. I have recorded at least one occasion where a man kissed his partner’s cheek, apparently against her wishes, as she gave him a dirty look and gestured that should he do so again, he would be in trouble. It is very important that people’s boundaries be respected at the Plough, for without such respect fewer people would come back, and dancing events could gain a bad reputation.
Just as different individual churches have their own particular culture within the larger framework of their sect, so does the poly community at the Plough with regards to polyamory in general. Nowhere in this group do we find communal living arrangements, as with documented groups in Boston and the greater Bay Area. It is also a young group, composed mainly of 20somethings and people in their early to mid-30s, many of whom only learned about the polyamorous lifestyle within the past several years. There are fewer bisexual women in this group than in others, and while more bisexual men are found in polyamory than in swinging, it is not really the case here either.
To try to understand polyamory a little better, I read through The Ethical Slut (1997), written by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt. This book has been mentioned over and over by the people to whom I’ve spoken, and while not everyone agrees completely with the idea of polyamory as outlined within the text, nearly everyone stated some sort of identification with the book, and claimed it as one of the most important texts to polyamory as a whole. In reading it, I found a few ideas that stuck out. The first originally comes from one of the author’s bachelor’s thesis, entitled “Sex is Nice and Pleasure is Good For You”. The authors point out that our culture is one of self-denial, a culture that despite using sex to sell tells us constantly that sex is naughty and we mustn’t enjoy it too much. As long as we are responsible with both ourselves and others, they write, sex is very good indeed. Consent, honesty, and responsibility are all core issues (which leads to the titular idea of being an ethical slut). The negative ideas behind mainstream culture’s conceptions of hedonism and promiscuity serve to block the understanding of just what polyamory is about; namely, that (according to the authors) love is not necessarily a limited commodity, nor is sex an evil thing. Intimacy is just as possible with multiple people as it is with one person. Faithfulness is defined as “honoring your commitments and respecting your friends and lovers, … caring for their well-being as well as your own” (Easton and Liszt 1997: 63).
The book goes on to stress the importance of communication, something which every single one of my informants did as well. Everyone, polyamorous or no, must be willing to communicate with their partner(s) in order to make their relationships work. Simple as this idea may be, it can often be intensely difficult. Embarrassment and shame often surround communication, especially when it comes to sex, but this cultural conditioning must be overcome in order to at least attempt a successful relationship. Communication is also important when it comes to boundaries and jealousy, both of which are vital to healthy relationships. Being honest with yourself and your partner(s) regarding what is okay with you can help to stem the tide of jealousy – if you are not okay with your partner having sex with someone else, but are fine with their necking with someone else, then you need to tell them in a nonconfrontational manner, because otherwise you run the risk of being mad at them without their knowing why, or being jealous of them for having had sex with someone else.
Jealousy itself is still an issue for polyamorous people as well. The authors suggest that “jealousy may be an expression of insecurity, of fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, feeling left out, feeling not good enough, or feeling inadequate” (Easton and Liszt 1997: 134). We must try to disempower our jealousy, through the suggested method of accepting its presence and refusing to act on it, and not allowing it to destroy loving relationships. It is important get over feeling rotten about doing this, for it is better to recognize your feelings as a part of you, and that you are not a bad person for feeling this way. Telling your partner about the jealousy is also encouraged in the book, because they recognize that if people don’t know what’s going on, they tend to go with the worst-case scenario and build things up in their heads. The response to jealousy ought to be, as they write, one of validation and sympathy. The moment of vulnerability in telling someone that you are jealous can lead to more closeness, because your partner can respond in such a way as to make you feel loved and reassured. This is not a simple path, but a vital one in making any kind of relationship work.
Other topics broached include child-rearing, lies people tell themselves, and other forms of sexual play. Not everything in the book is applicable to everyone; quite a few people I have spoken with have displayed some trepidations over the group sex chapter, although most have gone on to say that while it may not be for them, it is probably helpful for someone. The idea of group sex certainly can be found elsewhere, and communal living arrangements often promote the practice to some extent. There is also an effort made to include various sexual preferences, by switching gender references and relating stories of polyamorous homosexuals (the authors themselves have both had heterosexual and homosexual experiences). The point of the book is to provide a basis for people who wish to give polyamory a go in their life, and are seeking some guidelines as to how to go about it. I believe the authors have accomplished this to some extent, if only from the number of people who have cited this work as a good start for those looking for more information on polyamory. There are other books on polyamory, but The Ethical Slut is the broadest and least lecturing of the group. It is generally agreed that in the future, better literature will be available on the subject of polyamory, if only because the lifestyle itself will have matured somewhat and had time to formulate such a tome.
It can be difficult for those new to polyamory to get used to how things are handled. One of the difficulties is in finding new partners; whereas monogamy is the societal norm and most people don’t think twice about it, polyamorous people must be careful who they approach. Not everyone is open to dating someone who is already involved with someone else, a few someone elses, or even married. Some choose not to chance the risk that the cute man in the bar is not okay with his lover having other lovers, and so date only within the poly community they know. Whether by chance or choice, this is the case at the Plough, where almost all of the members can point to at least one other person in the room that they have been involved with, if not more. The degrees of separation between my informants were tiny.
One couple, Ashley and Ryan, is new to polyamory. Ashley dated two men for a while, Ryan first and then Jack (not a Plough regular). Jack had been polyamorous for at least 5 years, and seemed to have few problems with beginning a relationship with Ashley. The two had met at a party and clicked fairly well. Ryan, who had been casually seeing Ashley, was at first uncomfortable with the sudden introduction of Jack, but decided that it was a worthwhile endeavor to continue seeing Ashley. Attempts at fairness were made, but for a few months Jack received the greater share of Ashley’s time. This is not to say she did not spend time with Ryan, but rather that it was differentiated: Ryan was associated with movies, the Plough, and goofy fun, whereas Jack was associated with fancy food, spas, and expensive gifts. After a few months, however, it became clear that the relationship with Jack was not working, and they broke it off, leaving Ashley and Ryan with their poly tendencies to sort out.
There is more to this, however. When Ryan chose to accept polyamory, he made sure to let Rose know of this. Rose, who has been poly for most of her life, albeit without always knowing the name for it, had been interested in Ryan for nearly 3 years. The two have since gone on a few dates, taking things slowly. This is not from lack of interest, however, and has more to do with Ryan’s relative newness to polyamory than anything else. This newness extends to Ryan and Ashley’s relationship, vis a vis new partners. Rose, who had been interested in finding a suitable partner for Westley (whom she feels has somewhat questionable taste), approved of Ashley and let Westley know it was ok to flirt more purposefully. At an impromptu get-together at their place, Rose and Westley flirted with Ryan and Ashley, respectively, and were later confused as to why neither of them responded very actively. Ryan tells me, “When I’m with Ashley, most of my attention is focused on her.” He is hesitant to react to advances because of this. Ashley says, “I don’t often know what I’m ‘allowed’ to do, what’s ok. I don’t want to hurt Ryan’s feelings because of attention I’m paying to someone else, nor do I want to ignore the pleasant advances of someone else.” Ashley is willing to accept another’s advances, but wants to make sure that everyone is ok with it first, something which is somewhat hard to establish right off and can sometimes be awkward at first. After the get-together, Rose and Westley decided that it would be better to approach the other pair singly, so as to avoid frustrating nights like the one described above.
New people to polyamory have much to learn. Communication, one of the most important aspects of polyamory, is not something that mainstream society encourages. Women are not encouraged to be assertive and communicative, especially in sexual matters. Men often get through life not being able to express their feelings coherently, and the national rape rate suggests that many can’t or won’t understand what “no” means. Poor communication skills are a detriment to anyone, polyamorous or no, but especially for polyamorous people, if only because of the logistics of having more than one partner. Someone new to polyamory, like Ryan or Ashley, has to get used to the higher standards of communication involved. One of the simplest (but most important) reasons for better communication is health; with a larger network of sexual partners, it is very important to be knowledgeable about STDs and get tested regularly. Ashley remembers being somewhat embarrassed when the topic of STD testing came up with Jack, but tells me that when she thought about it afterwards, “it actually took a weight off my mind that I hadn’t known was there”.
This degree of openness is somewhat applicable to the polyamorous community at the Plough in general. Sunny, for instance, is a self-proclaimed gossip, and shares some details of her personal life at the tables of Au Coquelet after dancing on Mondays. Many people who go there after dancing know about her unique relationship with Jack, even if they have never met him themselves. Most people in the group are aware of at least some of everyone else’s personal lives, and could probably name at least one or two other people someone else has dated in the past. Much of this is possible through online journals, many of which are in community-type set-ups. The largest of the ones used by the poly people at the Plough is LiveJournal, where users make diary-entry-like posts. Readers may comment on these posts, and users may add other users to their “friends” list and read their “friends” page, which has a certain number of recent posts on it from that user’s friends. There are polyamory groups on LiveJournal, which a user can add to their “friends” list such that they can read the posts of all the other people in this group, and the posts that they write are also sent out to this group and read by its members. Around two-thirds of the Plough’s polyamorous community has some sort of online journal, and most have each other on their “friends” list, or a similar list on a different journal site.
I do not wish to suggest, however, that excellent communication skills are found in every polyamorous person in this community. We’re only human, as the saying goes, and the people in this culture are no different. For example, misunderstandings between women have led to prolonged periods of hostility; a woman may think that someone else is moving in on her territory, as it were, and will respond with aloofness and glares. Rebecca and Marcus’ marriage was destroyed in part because he was unable to accept the idea of not being polyamorous for a short while, and kept practicing it against Rebecca’s wishes.
Communication within the group is very important. Equally important is how one negotiates with the outside world. Disclosing one’s polyamory can be a daunting task, one that many find too loaded to undertake. Perry recently told his father that he was polyamorous, after many years of avoiding the topic (despite bringing Rose with him on a few occasions and not entirely hiding her married status). His father seemed to take it fairly well, although it was a surprise to Perry that he hadn’t figured some of it out by that time, given Perry’s 8 years of polyamorous living.
Rose told her family fairly early on about her polyamorous relationship with Westley, although they do not necessarily approve of it being discussed or demonstrated (through boyfriends visiting) in front of their sons. Rose is fairly sure her parents have lied about her relationships to their friends; one 4th of July picnic was tense because of this precise dilemma. Rose had brought one of her partners, as had Westley, and as the four of them were all good friends they were comfortable around one another. Rose felt that as much as she wanted to, it was hard to, say, lean into her guest without someone getting a weird idea. As for her siblings, her sister is “hard-wired” for monogamy according to Rose and refuses to accept the idea of polyamory. Her brothers, on the other hand, do not seem to care either way.
Westley, on the other hand, feels fairly strongly that his mother would not take the news quite so well. Having gone through 3 divorces and 1 annulment, she also committed adultery while married but has a “classical Midwestern and Catholic mentality” which both Westley and his wife feel would impede her ability to understand polyamory. Her reactions to his romantic choices earlier in life, when he fell in love with someone she did not approve of and she promptly disowned him and left him in debt with school loans, suggest that she would not be forgiving of his announcement, and could lead to her taking legal action in the event of Westley having children. There has been precedent set in this instance, so Rose and Westley are firmly against telling his family of their polyamory. It reminded me of something I read in a political commentary column, where the author made the point that many politicians were firmly in favor of increasing family values, but were themselves nowhere near the paragon of virtue they sought to impose on everyone else, nor was this paragon of virtue necessarily applicable to everyone else. Family values are fine, said the author, but perhaps we disagree on what exactly those are.
Others simply do not want to deal with the hassle of telling their family. Ashley avoids conversation with her family that may lead to letting any hints slip, because she does not want to deal with the questions, the pressures, and any other aggravations that may arise from it. She tells me, “they would probably keep trying to change my mind, or want to know more in some voyeuristic fashion, or something like that. I don’t want to deal with it, so I don’t bring it up. It’s none of their business, anyway.” When she was dating Ryan and Jack at the same time, she says, she got so many questions asking why she couldn’t just pick one that it got to be very annoying, mainly because she would give her answer (“I can’t, I like them both”) and they did not seem to be able to accept it. As for potential partners outside of the community at the Plough, the issue has not come up yet for her.
Telling nonfamily members is also a big decision, because they may also have negative reactions. Westley has chosen not to tell most of his coworkers, mostly because it is “none of their business”. The danger of prejudice is very real; given the hazards of being an “outed” homosexual in today’s society (violence only the most obvious), it is not hard to understand why polyamorous people are wary of telling anyone they happen to meet. Polyamory is not accepted by mainstream society, something which must be taken into consideration by polyamorous people when they are trying to decide whether to disclose their lifestyle.
The interconnected nature of the polyamorous community at the Plough means that there are quite a few people to turn to when things go awry. For example, when Sunny was having problems with her secondary Jack, she would talk to Andrea if it was about how jealous she was of Ashley, or she would talk with Ashley if it was general griping about Jack and his foibles. Rose will turn to Westley if she is having some problem with Perry, and vice versa. Her ability to love both men gives her a larger support structure, because she has the ability to share with both of them. The fact that Westley and Perry are friends is an added bonus.
The fact that most people in this community can point to at least a few people they’ve dated or fooled around with means that there is usually at least some form of intimate connection between people (see appendix C for formalized connections). While she may not have dated him, Ashley has had enough interaction with Westley to be able to confide in him certain personal details that she would not normally share with some random man. The Plough community as a whole is fairly supportive (if someone falls and hurts themselves, for example, many people will check on that person over the course of the night regardless of their polyamorous/monogamous choice), and the polyamorous fraction is no less so. Because of the nature of the subgroup, it is necessary for some amount of social cohesion to exist, and in this case much of it is based in with whom a person has had relations previously.
However, connections based in sex are sometimes not enough. This feeling led Sunny to try to start a group, composed of women, who would get together and exchange ideas about polyamory. Since most people in this community are new to the lifestyle, many have questions that are often hard to ask. For women, it is often doubly difficult to talk about such things, because they are often sexual in nature and women are not encouraged by mainstream society to be articulate and educated about sex. The meeting did establish some stronger ties between the women of the community, which led to a somewhat more comfortable atmosphere and camaraderie.
One result of this is the better friendship that grew between Sunny and Emma. When Emma started seeing Duncan, Sunny’s husband, both women were comfortable with the idea of Emma bringing her daughter along. Emma’s daughter is only a year older than Sunny’s daughter (from a previous marriage), and the two girls get along well. Emma and Duncan can spend time together, and the job of childcare is shared and somewhat alleviated.
Many new and polyamorous people who come to the Plough are brought in by current attendees. Perry was introduced to the Plough by a girlfriend at the time, and Ashley was brought in by her friend Heather. Because of the tendency of polyamorous people to be interested in fairly alternative things, like Renaissance Faires, Irish dancing, and paganism, they are more likely to find other polyamorous people there than in, say, a Roman Catholic organization or an Elks Lodge. Of course, there are those like Sunny who try not to date people from the Plough, as she feels they know a bit too much about her. As she says, “I don’t date Plough people, for therein lies doom.”
The newly polyamorous at the Plough are somewhat influenced by the currently polyamorous people at the Plough. People who are contemplating polyamory can observe their friends while at the Plough, and consider whether or not it is the lifestyle for them. Life at the Plough has not always been rosy – there are several divorcees among the population, many of whom are actually fairly civil and sociable with their exes, but there are always the stories of messy breakups and people who no longer come to the Plough because of it. Newly polyamorous people can benefit from the experience of those who have spent more time polyamorous, but can also use their own judgment, as everyone’s take on polyamory is unique.
Sex is a very major part of polyamory, just as it is in monogamy. People negotiate it in different ways, which, it is said, adds to the fun. One of the ways polyamory opens new horizons is through its nature of “many loves”.
A prime example of this is in a boating trip made by four couples in the fall of 2002. The eight people were fairly comfortable with each other, having met and spent time together previously. The boat rented had a hot tub on the top deck, with several bedrooms on the bottom deck as well as a kitchen and bathroom. The first night featured everyone in the hot tub, with everyone ending up naked partway through the night. While no true group sex followed (although there was an instance of two couples having sex in the same room next to each other), the atmosphere was very open and casual, with one of the women going topless for the rest of the next day, oral sex, and necking occurring at various points over the three day trip. The idea that four monogamous couples would be able to have such a party is comical; certainly, four monogamous couples would be able to go on a boat trip and have sex by themselves. This requires little stretch of the imagination. It does, however, strike most as unlikely that monogamy would be supportive of such activities as necking between non-committed people, or sexual triads. One of the reasons this boat trip worked well was because everyone was comfortable with each other. Partners were shared in various ways, with Ashley’s partner helping Sunny and one of the other men tease and play with his partner.
Along these lines, an event fondly known as the Food Orgy can be placed as a time when group sex did not occur, but plenty of flirting and playing occurred. It was a fairly small event of approximately 15 people, most of whom visited the Plough on a regular basis. The rule of the food party was that no one could eat with their own hands – any food must be fed to someone by someone else. Foods included brownie squares, chicken wings, and cheese cubes. As the evening progressed, a game was developed where one person would sit blindfolded, and the rest of the group would choose someone to kiss that person. The blindfolded person would then have to guess who kissed them. It was an immensely popular game. However, even though the evening was very flirty (and also resulted in at least one hook-up, between Ashley and Jack), it never quite went where Sunny, the organizer, wanted it to. Despite everyone already knowing each other, the group was not quite right for some people to go one step further to more serious sexual play. This is one instance in which polyamory did not necessarily lead to anything resembling an orgy, although there was a higher comfort level and greater degree of sexual adventurousness than a party of monogamous people might have.
Some, like Ryan, have argued that polyamory is not the only stage upon which to act out these alternative sexual practices. Just as there are different degrees and types of polyamory, there are different degrees of monogamy, some being more relaxed and open and others being far more narrow and strict. While I agree with this interpretation, I must stand by the feeling that while these events are possible activities for monogamous couples, it is far more likely that they would occur and work with polyamorous communities, simply because of the nature of the play and the openness that is necessary for such play to occur. The opportunity for deeper relationships to grow out of such play, or help such play happen, is also more likely to occur in polyamorous situations than not.
One of the behaviors that is considered unacceptable is being dishonest. Polyamory is not a license to have meaningless sex without thinking about how it will affect your other partners. As one of my informants put it, “if you don’t tell your partner, it is cheating all the same,” because honesty and communication are paramount. Someone who is not honest cannot be trusted, and trust is vital, especially if sex is involved. A person who is dishonest about their sexual history leaves their partners open to STDs, among other things. One of the main goals of polyamory is trust and love among people, having someone who is dishonest ruins the whole point of the endeavor. Dishonesty with yourself is also inadvisable, because that can lead to dishonesty with others, only in a more subtle way. You have to know what your own boundaries are, says Rose, because if you don’t you run the risk of lying to yourself and your partner, which can lead to more distance and less contentedness within the relationship itself.
Along with dishonesty goes responsibility. The need to be forthright and honest may be difficult, and some argue that if a person can’t be responsible, especially regarding their sexual habits, then perhaps that person shouldn’t be having sex at all, much less on the larger scale of polyamory. Rose said that one of the reasons she outright refused to let Westley see one woman was because the woman in question was irresponsible and dishonest, something which Rose also took as disrespect to herself, because this woman’s bad behavior could directly harm Rose.
According to Ashley, the “slimy player” type is also undesirable. This type of person seems to hit on anyone who fits a certain description – in this case, she meant the men who hit on any female who looks to be at least of legal age (18 in the state of California), and who do so by asking them to dance at the first opportunity, giving them massages, flattering them, chitchatting with them, and generally doing this to as many young women as available over the course of one night. I believe she exaggerated this somewhat, as I have not seen quite the concerted effort that is addressed here, although I have seen men who seem drawn to whatever “pretty young thing” is new that night. Of course, this type of person, who pursues for pursuit’s sake seemingly, is found in both polyamory and monogamy, as well as their various subgroups. In observing discussions, I came to understand that not everyone is fair game, as those less-versed in the ideas behind polyamory might assume. A person ought to have standards when looking for potential partners, just as in monogamy, and people who consistently go after “pretty young things” are often perceived as being somewhat shallow. This reinforces the idea that polyamory is not made up of indiscriminant orgies, but rather fairly responsible people making informed choices about what feels good to them.
Polyamory as practiced by patrons of the Starry Plough is by no means the norm. This community is connected to others through interests like Renaissance Faires and role-playing gaming, so while it is somewhat isolated, it is also a subset of a larger whole. Its composition of young, mostly heterosexual, science-minded people is notable, and also serves to differentiate itself from societal norm. I found no overarching theme between the life histories of my informants, such as parental divorce or abuse, to substantiate a claim that polyamory is a response to unmet needs in childhood. Perhaps, as Rose suggested, some people are just “hard-wired” for monogamy, and others for polyamory.
When I started this study, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp of polyamory. I had spent time around polyamorous people, asked questions, observed interactions. I found, however, that there is quite a bit more to polyamory that I had not even conceived of before hearing about it. I can honestly say that this has challenged me in ways few other topics have; while learning about Anglo-Saxon burial rites or concepts of beauty in ancient China can be very mind-expanding, contemplating the way in which people love each other and recognizing the fundamental differences between lifestyles is a much more introspective and self-searching task. While examining how others negotiated relationships, I was forced to think about how I conducted myself in similar relationships. One of my largest personal questions surrounded the idea that polyamory is based in urges, urges that ought to be suppressed because of their base origins. I found instead that polyamory has much to do with negotiating these “urges” in such a way so as to avoid harm to others; this kind of restraint and responsibility is hardly associated with other “urges” like drug abuse and violence. My own outlook was tempered by the norms of the society in which I grew up, but is now tempered by having seen another facet of the human experience.
Easton, Dossie and Catherine A. Liszt (1997) The Ethical Slut. Greenery Press: San Francisco
Figure 1: Interior floorplan of the Starry Plough
Figure 2: Street map - Starry Plough and environs
Figure 3: Relationship map between polyamorous people at the Plough. NB: This is just a map between polyamorous dancers at the Plough, and does not (with one exception) take into account relationships outside the Plough.
* All people’s names have been changed.