The following article was printed in Just Out, Oregon's only queer news
and posted here with the editors permission. - Sherman Buck
Or four or more…polyamory in Portland is practically trendy. But does it work?
by Lisa Bradshaw - Arts & Culture Editor
“We go with this presumption that humans are monogamous, and it’s just not true. Our culture is monogamous.”
- Aaron, polyamorous for three years
Talking with your partner and figuring out the root cause of jealousy is common for polys. Most admit it’s not about the other lover so much as they themselves aren’t getting something they need.
“You used to have one person you had to keep happy—now you have two. So it’s twice as hard.”
- Will, whose wife has another partner
“I don’t think monogamy is better for society or polyamory is better for society. I think choices are better for society.”
- Amy, nonmonogamous for 10 years
In some cases, first names only are used in this article in order to protect the privacy of those interviewed. Some first names have been changed.
When Just Out decided to tackle polyamory, I thought I’d have to coax Portland families out of the woodwork; I thought I’d have to explain to friends about what the term even means and contend with their raised eyebrows. How foolish I was.
“Oh, yeah,” was a common response. “You know Jill who was at our party the other night? She has two husbands.” Or, “My girlfriend and I were at this club last weekend, and we both got dates!”
Why are more and more couples and individuals choosing to enter into relationships that appear (at least to the traditionally monogamous) to be emotionally difficult or, at the very least, more challenging that the status quo of one plus one equals true love?
According to Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt’s runaway hit book The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, the meaning of the term “polyamory” is “a bit vague.” While some use it to refer only to multiple committed relationships (also known as “polyfidelity”), others may use it to describe what is popularly known as an “open relationship”—couples who are committed to each other but enjoy casual sex and dating outside of that commitment.
Okay, a working definition. But as becomes evident, polyamory can be as fluid as, well, sex and gender.
“If you look at the poly community,” says Amy, perched at a table in Pete’s Coffee, “there are as many different ways of doing polyamory as there are people, practically.”
She and her partner, Tony, have been together on and off since meeting in Portland at college 10 years ago. They were long distance lovers during graduate school then lived together in California’s bay area before moving back to Portland together in 2000. Both identify as bisexual, and from the beginning, they’ve been polyamorous.
“For me, polyamory always seemed like the reasonable way to go,” says Tony, 32. “Monogamy always seemed like kind of a weird thing to do.”
Although they’re a long-term couple with no plans to end that, they refuse to get legally married. “If same sex partners can’t be married, then it’s not very reasonable for opposite sex partners to be married,” Tony asserts. “It’s taking advantage of something that not everyone can do.”
This kind of pragmatism creates the basis for the couple’s successful polyamorous relationship. “I usually say ‘negotiated nonmonogamy,’ ” Amy notes, “because it is such a process.” After coming out as bisexual years ago, she became more interested in women and less interested in men. “But, then, part of that is I also have this…longstanding commitment. Him being a man didn’t seem like a good enough reason for us to not be together,” she laughs.
Tony laughs back. “I lucked out.”
Having “negotiated nonmonogamy” allows Amy to see women while keeping her primary partnership intact. “It’s just nice,” the 30-year old remarks, for both of them “to be able to go to a party and flirt with someone and maybe kiss someone and not have to worry [about the other] finding out.”
But that doesn’t mean they just mess around willy nilly. “We’ve got some ground rules in place,” she continues, “where if either of us meets somebody we can go up to a certain point without checking in.” Then if he or she wants to see someone again, “We end up talking,” she explains. “I want to know more about this person. What’s this person’s situation? Also, it would be really important for me to meet anyone.”
Although they both come to consensus on their ground rules, they didn’t come to polyamory in the same way. Tony is more nature, and Amy is more nurture. “I feel it’s been more of a choice,” she says. “and a conscious choice, to explore this particular way of doing a relationship.”
Whether monogamous couples are naturally doing what’s right for them or are affected by culture is an ongoing poly debate. “I think that people who are monogamous just out of it being society’s expectation miss a lot,” insists Tony, saying he’s “very much interested in not assuming anything about our relationship…or ignoring difficulties because they’re all polished over by thinking ‘this is my girlfriend, this is my relationship.’ ” Polyamory, he continues “is a way to not be able to take those shortcuts; it’s a way to force yourself to talk about this stuff on an ongoing basis…to make sure everyone is given the things they need.”
Regardless of where you stand, though, says Amy, “I don’t think monogamy is better for society or polyamory is better for society. I think choices are better for society.”
Success at nonmonogamy, they both agree, is firmly rooted in excellent and honest communication. “Communication and be brave,” advises Tony. “Talk about the things that you want, not about the things you think people will want you to talk about…you have to be brave enough to talk about your real needs and ask for them.”
Amy concurs. “Just keeping the lines of communication about what’s going on. I mean, jealousy does happen.” She grins at her partner across the table. “I have to tell the olive story.”
As the legend goes, Amy was seeing a woman when her and Tony lived in California. “The olive story,” says Amy, “is a wonderful illustration of how strange jealousy is.” On one of their evenings, Amy’s girlfriend cooked dinner for her. “She bought all kinds of olives. Usually I’m not a big fan of olives. Tony gets them a lot, and he was always ‘do you want some olives?’ and I said ‘nah, I don’t really like olives.’ But for whatever reason…all these olives…they were great, and I ate a bunch.”
The next day she was telling Tony about her date and casually mentioned she had olives. “ ‘Olives?’ ” she recalls Tony saying, “ ‘But you don’t like olives.’ ” She said something like “ ‘Yeah, I didn’t, but I liked these olives; I don’t know, the olives were good.’ And he said ‘but you don’t like them, you never like olives when I give you olives.”
Tony laughs. “I didn’t care about the date or the sex or anything,” he says, “but the olives…”
Actually it makes a lot of sense. Her girlfriend was offering the exact same thing Tony had offered and had been turned down for. “Jealousy may be an expression of insecurity,” says The Ethical Slut, “of fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, feeling left out….Jealousy might actually be envy.”
Jealousy is certainly an ongoing topic at Portland’s Polyamory Circle. Founded three years ago by Laury Weiss and facilitated by Weiss and Theresa Reed (aka Portland sex writer Darklady), the circle meets monthly and is a striking example of the variety of people and intentions going on in the poly world.
At its January meeting there were couples who came together, a few who came without their partners and a few singles. Of the 10 participants (which is low; the number generally ranges from 10 to 30), five identified as straight, four as bi and one as bi-curious. Ages appeared to range from late 20s to early 50s.
Two couples had never been before and were looking to meet other poly people. The others were old hands, returning to meetings to talk about their situations and various issues.
“Anybody who wants to can jump in and say ‘well, this is what I think’ or ask questions of the group,” explains Weiss. “Sometimes we may do topics that people are interested in…we’ll open a can of worms like jealousy or living together or taking responsibility for children or time issues….Who do you wake up with on Sunday morning, who goes to Thanksgiving dinner, how do you introduce that third person to your family—that sort of thing.”
The conversation is generally candid, and you can say as little or as much as you like. For participants it’s also just nice to hang out with people who lead a similar lifestyle. (Most Just Out readers, I’m sure, can relate to this.)
One male/female couple is looking for a woman they can both have a relationship with. Another male/female pair is looking for a woman just for the female to have a relationship with.
Other couples regularly engage in love and/or sex with people they’re attracted to. Some have more than one partner they’re committed to but do not pursue relationships or sex beyond that (polyfidelity). Weiss mentions a lesbian couple that has been coming to the group—one of them is looking for a boyfriend with the support of her partner. As many different ways of doing polyamory as there are people.
Weiss began the group to connect with other polys, who he calls a “very invisible minority.” He identifies as bi and finds polyamory specifically appealing to bisexuals. Like Tony, the lifestyle comes to him quite naturally.
“It came out of my experiences living communally with people. I developed a real taste for sharing space and idealism about that,” he explains, seeing monogamy as largely culturally influenced. “It’s very much a factor of environment. We don’t see collective role models in the media; we don’t see threesomes, even though we’re out there.”
Culture and monogamy is a big subject at the January meeting. One of the participants, Aaron, asserts, “One of the statistics I’ve seen is that 30 percent of the cultures in the world are non-monogamous. We go with this presumption that humans are monogamous, and it’s just not true. Our culture is monogamous.”
Weiss admits, though, that “it’s a matter of individual taste. I think it’s very culturally influenced, but I think that some people just naturally tend to monogamy—whether heterosexual or gay.”
So what about jealousy? The first question that pops into the minds of most monogamous-minded people (or “monos”) is “don’t they get jealous?”
The answer is: of course, sometimes. But talking with your partner and figuring out the root cause of that jealousy is common for polys. Most admit it’s not about the other lover so much as they themselves aren’t getting something they need. And then there’s compersion.
“Compersion can be defined as a feeling of happiness seeing your partner being fulfilled in a way that you’re not able to do,” explains Weiss. For instance, “if your partner plays chess and you don’t, you want to see them in that tournament—you want to see them do well—even though it might not be your interest, even though it might take up some of the time you would like to spend with them. It’s a matter of giving the other person space to do whatever they want knowing they will be back….knowing you’re not going to be abandoned just because your love interest has another love interest….taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure….We think of it as being the opposite of jealousy.”
Weiss says he would like to see himself in an intentional living situation with three or four other people. “I call it neo-tribalism. The advantages are just incredible. Multiple incomes, the ability for one person to stop working and go back to school or take care of a child—the flexibility that it offers. And companionship—I think we’ve really lost that a lot. People in what they call pre-history used to live in tribes, and I think that was a really more satisfying way of living together.”
He would argue, though, against polyamory becoming trendy. “I think it’s becoming more visible. As a concept, people are either more informed about it or more openly curious.”
Back at the coffee shop, a comment from Amy explains part of the importance of the Polyamory Circle to people in the community. “It’s really difficult,” she says, “to find someone who wants to get involved in a polyamorous relationship who’s not already polyamorous.”
And yet it doesn’t always turn out quite that way.
Portlanders Lisa and Will met back in the mid 80s, fell in love, got married and had a baby boy. With Will’s daughter from a previous marriage, they were a happy family of four. But they both knew that number could eventually get bigger.
“I prepped him early on,” Lisa, 35, smiles. She knew from the time she was four years old, she says, that she was bisexual, although she didn’t have a name for it. She also knew she was polyamorous, which she didn’t have a name for, either. But she knew when she grew up she wanted a husband—and a wife.
“I secretly in my heart of hearts saw myself in the future with [both]….Some little girls want a Cinderella story; that was my Cinderella story.”
Although she never had a physical relationship with a woman before she got married, she knew it would be in her future, and she and Will talked about it now and again. “After 10 years I finally said ‘you know what? I want to experience that.’ ”
Although Will, 44, didn’t know exactly what to expect, he did have 10 years to get used to the idea and, he says, he was “comfortable enough in our relationship” to decide the time had come. “She could leave me and go out and date girls or she could stay married and see how this worked….I didn’t really want to separate from my wife.”
So Lisa began “just showing up at the Egyptian alone,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody….it was kinda scary.” And meeting women is hard when you’re wearing a wedding ring. She wanted to be honest about her situation from the start, so she always told women right away she was married. “That turned a lot of girls off. Surprisingly, huh?” she laughs.
Then out of the blue she found someone it didn’t turn off. She and Kristen made eyes at each other six years ago at Embers, then started talking. “She immediately told me she was married.…I thought it was kind of cool. Most people would probably kind of feel you out before they said anything…but she’s really honest.”
They began seeing each other regularly in response to what Lisa calls “love at first sight.” Kristen, 30, wasn’t concerned about Lisa’s marital status because “I thought, ‘she’s really cute, and I’m single and not looking for a relationship. We’ll just date, we’ll have some fun…she’s married so I can be sure that it’s not going to be anything serious.’ That was six years ago,” she laughs.
After a few months, Kristen relates, “she told me she loved me and that she knows I love her too ‘cause she wouldn’t feel that way if I didn’t feel that way about her. I just started to cry ‘cause I knew it was true. And then, what do you do with that?”
You start a polyamorous relationship.
“As they got a little more involved, I could see that it was good for Lisa,” observes Will. “She was happier. I could see it was something that I couldn’t give her.”
But after a year, Lisa and Will were both tired of Lisa’s continual absences from home, and Kristen’s living situation was breaking down. They decided to have Kristen move into their southeast Portland home.
None of the three had done any research on polyamorous lifestyles or knew other poly people. “I had no frame of reference,” Kristen says. “If we were doing it right…you just kind of have to go with your gut.” But when she moved in, she admits, “I was just terrified.” But both Lisa and Will “were very accommodating,” she remembers and adds with a smile, “and I was very demanding.”
But when polyamory doesn’t come to you naturally and you don’t have 10 years to get used to the idea, there are bound to be problems. “You used to have one person you had to keep happy,” says Will. “Now you have two. So it’s twice as hard. Lisa had it the worst; she had to keep both of us happy.”
Kristen had jealousy problems right from the start. “I’m not jealous that she loves someone else…you realize that it doesn’t take any of the love that they feel for you away…it’s the socialization of the monogamy of the sexual act. That’s what gets a lot of people.”
Still, she stayed right where she was, learning to cope and becoming a complete member of the family. Lisa and Will’s son, now 14, saw her as sort of a second mom; Will’s daughter, now 19, thinks of her more as a “big sister.” They came out a little at a time to close friends and relatives, who accepted Kristen as Lisa’s partner.
As for Lisa, she admits the new family relationship was “difficult” but, ultimately worth it. “I wanted to all be together in one house; that was my family. This weird thing that I knew would happen to me one day,” she grins. “Six years later, she’s still my wife.”
But last year, Kristen and Lisa decided Kristen would move out.
“It’s a small house,” Lisa explains. “When you’re new in a relationship you can overlook a lot of stuff, but…we kept getting more crowded…We kept getting more cranky, we kept having less fun, we kept having more fights….we just felt like if we kept all living together, we [her and Kristen] were going to end up breaking up.”
They both agreed they didn’t want to break up. Kristen moved in with a friend across town. “It’s great,” Lisa says, “She’s got more freedom…she’s a student and needs privacy…We could give her love and fun and a big, happy family, but we couldn’t give her a nice, clean, quiet space of her own.”
Far from breaking up, Kristen is over at the house at least once a week, and Lisa spends the night at Kristen’s once a week. “I miss waking up next to her every morning, and I miss going to bed,” admits Kristen. “But it’s nice not to be owned and not own anybody and to try to let the other person be who they are.”
They both think the relationship will last, although Kristen is considering seeing other people, “which would be good ‘cause then you’d have a polyamory-polyamory type of branch off there,” she laughs. “Like a little neuron.”
So, as it turns out people don’t always choose polyamory; sometimes it chooses them. Does it always work? Of course not. Does monogamy? Of course not. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson: “Do what you feel.”
As long as you negotiate it.
The Ace of Hearts at Southeast 39th Ave. and Powell Blvd. caters to the swinging crowd
Swinging and polyamory
Don’t even think about saying it’s the same thing
You’ve seen the ambiguous sign and, if you’re new in town, you probably wonder what the heck it means. It’s the Ace of Hearts, and it’s where Portland swingers go for fun.
A mostly straight sex club, the Ace is a pretty no-nonsense wham-bam piece of the action. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t go calling it poly. Think of it as a subset.
“We dabbled a little bit,” says Rich, a participant in the January meeting of the Polyamory Circle. “but it’s a very, very different mindset.”
His partner, Daria, agrees. “They don’t care to know your name.”
They met another couple at the Ace of Hearts they liked once, but when they suggested meeting them outside its protective walls, they were rebuffed. Says Daria, “They’re like, ‘No….We want to be totally anonymous; we don’t want to know you out in the real world.’ ”
The next time they were there, she continues, “the guy ends up being in line behind us, and he was acting like he didn’t know us—until he couldn’t find his ID…he was like ‘They know me!’…I was like, ‘No, we don’t know you, you didn’t want to know us!”
Rich and Daria are ultimately looking for someone they can both connect with. “The definition of the word - ‘polyamory’, many loves. We’re looking for love,” she remarks.
It’s a difference between knowing someone or simply having sex. “The paths may cross,” notes Aaron at the same meeting, “but they’re different paths. If you put a label on it, swinging is about sex; polyamory is about relationship building.”
Aaron’s own family extends to “10 or 15” people, and that can include sex, but not solely. “We’re all family, and we all play together in every aspect of our lives.”
“And,” adds meeting participant George, “you know each other’s names.”
But wait! There’s more.
If you’re not quite ready for the Polyamory Circle, start here
The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities
By Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
Written by two bisexual women, this essential poly primer is appropriate for and inclusive of all genders and sexualities. Addresses health, social, philosophical, jealousy, practical and childcaring issues. Also good if you’re not romantically/sexually polyamorous but just have a lot of people in your life who are important to you.
The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Casual Sex
Edited by Marcia Munson and Judith P. Stelboum
Originally published as Volume 3, Numbers 1 and 2 of the Journal of Lesbian Studies, this book is full of well-written and thoughtful articles like “Patriarchal Monogamy,” “Turning Down the Jezebel Decibels,” and “Matriarchal Village.” Although obviously aimed at lesbians, the mix of personal essays, poetry, letters, confessions and academic musings are fun and informative for anyone exploring polyamory.
By Celeste West
This one includes a wealth of personal interviews and biography of the San Francisco author’s own poly experiences. A bit more hippie based using new-agey, earth-mother type language, it covers all the basics from a lot of different points of view.
Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits
By Deborah Anapol
there are more books to choose from now, this is a revised and updated version
of Deborah Anapol’s 1992 book Love Without Limits—the first real poly
primer. The author discusses her own interesting journey toward multiple
relationships, and chapters include Ethics, Is Polyamory Right for Me, 8 Steps
to Successful Polyamory, Jealousy as a Gatekeeper and Building your Family. This
book (and the others) is engaging reading even for those who aren’t interested
in polyamorous relationships and has a lot to teach about communication, honesty
www.LoveMore.com: Your one-stop shopping headquarters for poly issues on the Web. The national organization Polyfidelitous Educational Productions runs the site and is the publisher of Loving More magazine specifically for intentional, consensual non-monogamous readers. You can order the magazine, including back issues, and all the above books here, as well as learn poly terms and definitions, find out about conferences, peruse FAQs, place a personals ad and, most importantly, join the chat room with other poly families looking to give and receive advice. (Don’t confuse this with LovingMore.com, which is just a dating site.)
Local Yahoo listserves
Pdxgaypolyamory: “For gay guys in Portland to talk about polyamory, 3 ways and the wonderful world of gay poly dating!”
Polyamorypdx: “A public list for the polyamorous community in Portland to communicate and create community.” This one sends reminders about the Polyamory Circle meetings.
To sign up for either of these email lists, go to www.groups.yahoo.com. A search for “polyamory” lists a total of 126 poly listserves nationwide.