Building the Polyamory Movement

Picture for article Building the Polyamory Movement
Polyamory Movement

What is the state of the polyamory movement today, and what’s its future? With these things in mind, what should we be doing? I gave a speech about this at the Rocky Mountain Poly Living Convention in Denver, USA, and I think its three main points are worth repeating.

First: It’s a great time to be a relationship revolutionary

We’re incredibly lucky to live in a time when ideas like ours can be noticed, take root, and thrive. Think what we are doing. We are confronting the world with deep new relationship values, new modes of formerly forbidden loving intimacy, new family structures, and new demands for self-determination — all with high ideals of ethics, honesty, and communication. That’s a pretty impressive offering. The world is noticing, and the world is fascinated. The wind is with us.

A whole lot of things in the world today look like they’re getting worse. But it warms me no end to see that public understanding of the possibility of multiple love and group relationships, and acceptance of relationship choice, is one thing that looks like it’s going to get better and better in the coming years.

I’ve been running a website called Polyamory in the News. In the last 11 years it has  reported on more than 2,500 newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV broadcasts, and new-media material of all kinds – spanning the decade when the poly movement really came onto the world’s radar. And most of the trends I’ve seen happening are really good.

This wide exposure of our ideas is beginning to affect the broader culture in America and the Western world. The media exposure that we’ve been getting is pretty favorable, by and large – partly because this movement is blessed with so many fine people who set good examples, and partly because we’ve been emphasizing things like how much polyfolks care for each other, and work to try to make their relationships good for everyone involved, and how this requires efforts to develop communication and relationship skills that monogamous people can learn from too. But most of all, healthy polyamorous relationships are just gradually becoming more familiar. Normalized.

The world is learning the word. The idea that happy multi-love relationships really exist, are actually happening, that they can be a rich, successful way of life for certain people – is much more out there than it used to be. It’s growing and it will keep growing. The world is increasingly ready to hear us, and see us, and consider our examples – to realize what Elisabeth Sheff-Stefanik calls the polyamorous possibility.

There will continue to be a lot of pain and discrimination. There will continue to be trouble from your birth families, and from hostile judges in child-custody cases, and from bosses who may fire you and landlords who may evict you. But gradually less with time.

In the last 5 or 10 years we’ve successfully defined ourselves to the public as what we know ourselves to be: ethical people who care deeply about good relationships — smart, interesting, friendly people — nonthreatening and respectful of all well-considered relationship choices, monogamy included — and by and large just kind of adorable. The longer we keep doing this, the firmer a defense we’re building against any future backlash or moral panic.

It is going to get easier. It’s going to get easier to be out. And when that happens, the dam will really burst.

Remember, the dam broke on gay issues when a flood of gay people finally got sick of the closet and came out all over the place in just a few years in the mid-1980s. We’re not quite there yet. But it’s going to happen.

Second: Preserve the meaning of “polyamory”

There is something you see in social movements throughout history: The people who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are often unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move.

No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.

And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.

I say this as a veteran of the 1960s. Think what happened to the psychedelic drug movement back then, for instance. It grew from something a few philosophers and intellectuals were originally doing in a creative, responsible way, picked up speed, and rolled downmarket to become, by about 1972, a disastrously simple, dumbed-down meme of “drugs are good.”

Could something like that happen to the polyamory movement?

I keep hearing disturbing ways that the word “polyamory,” as it spreads, is becoming used out there as just a hip-sounding new term for old-style screwing around without regard for other people. Without our defining values of communication, honesty, respect. And love, the great clarifier of values.

This is from Louisa Leontiades, a poly-community activist in Europe and author of The Husband Swap, in an article she titled “The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy”:

Despite the fact that the polyamorous community says it over and over again — polyamory is ‘not just about sex’ — the perception and focus on sex as the principal driver of polyamorous relationships is not only incorrect, but it has damaged the real meaning of polyamory to such an extent that I don’t know whether we can recover the word.

And, here’s something posted on the reddit/r/polyamory group (with 45,000 members) a while ago, in a discussion called “Is poly losing the amory?”

I’ve stopped using the label for myself, after attending events, and meeting hundreds of people who call themselves polyamorous [this sounds like the Poly Cocktails events in various cities] but seem to have very little concept of love, or concept of relationships being things that are worth working at.

I urge you to speak up and jump on that kind of misuse of the word polyamory whenever you see or hear it. It’s amazing how far the social influence of one forthright person speaking up can spread.

If we are to save our defining word from a loss of meaning – the very term by which we can find each other and identify each other – we should, in my opinion, be taking every opportunity to do several things:

  • Keep stressing that successful polyamory requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected.
  • Emphasize that poly is not for everyone, and that monogamy is right and best for many. Relationship choice is the mantra to repeat.
  • Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone, and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved.”
  • Expand that to not just “knowledge and consent,” but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of polyamory, I’m convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one’s metamours not as rivals to be resented, or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, reasonable friends or possibly extended family — for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that, of course, there’s no limit to how close you can become.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs: a sense that to some degree, “We’re all in this together.” When this happens, poly becomes a generalization of the particular magic of romantic love — into something wider, more widely applicable, than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.
  • Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, self-examination, tough personal growth, and a quick readiness to (as they say in the Marines) “choose the difficult right over the easy wrong.”

And I also think we have an opportunity here, with this new identity we’ve been creating, to cut across some of the divides between cultures and races and classes and other identifications that are all around us. These societal issues are huge and daunting and a lot bigger than us. But by gathering diverse people who share an interesting new way of thought, a new type of identity, we have a chance to intersect many differences to the strengthening of all. We will be weaker if we fail to do this.

So please — with the bandwagon now rolling fast on its own momentum, let’s not let it run away from us in the coming years to the point that “polyamory” goes mass-market as something careless or trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.

Third: We could be planting crucial long-term seeds

My third and last idea is a little farther out. I want to look ahead way into the future, where a lot of things in the world may get grim.

Barry Smiler has said,

I’m more than half convinced that in the future when historians look back on the poly movement, we’ll be remembered not so much for multiple partners, but rather as the cauldron in which was developed some powerful tools and frameworks for discussing and negotiating win-win in relationship situations.

In other words, we’re among the people developing powerful tools and frameworks for getting along well in close, complex social structures. Maybe you see where this is going.

150 or 200 years from now, I see surviving cultures spreading out and recolonizing over the climate-changed, resource-overshot wreckage of the 21st and 22nd centuries.

Getting to a sustainable world on the other side of whatever’s coming — “sustainable” meaning a world that is both good and able to last — will not happen without the emergence of genuinely attractive life alternatives to high material consumption.

A sustainable world will surely require more people sharing homes, kitchens, child-rearing, goods and resources of all kinds. Life in more crowded quarters, in a low-consumption economy of resource-sharing, is generally a worse way to live in the present culture. Americans strive hard all their lives to move in the opposite direction: to get bigger, emptier homes farther apart. Closer living, using less material goods, will truly attract people only in a new culture of very high interpersonal and group-living skills by today’s standards.

Forget sex and romance for a moment. I see today’s polyamory community gardening up sprouts of these next-level interpersonal and group-interaction skills – the practices, and ideology, and value system of a new culture. I really want these ideas and practices to take root well enough to survive through ugly times, if that’s what’s coming, and be there to seed the ground on the other side.

Back to sex and romance. A sustainable world is going to require attractive ways to pursue and acquire richness and purpose and meaning in life that do not involve Getting More Stuff. The ways that people find richness and value and meaning will need to have low resource costs. Which means, finding these things in each other. As the bumpersticker says: “The best things in life aren’t things.”

A culture offering wide possibilities for romance and sexual intimacy, or even just for deeply intimate socialization throughout life, can offer abundant richness and purpose. A materially simple life need not be simple in any other way.

I think that the polyamory paradigm will help to humanize societies. Thus helping to provide ways to lead rich, rewarding, meaning-filled lives without the Earth-killing pursuit of Ever More Stuff.

Also: Sexual repression in a culture is an accurate predictor (as the CIA is said to be very aware) of a culture’s tendency toward war hysterias, religious fanaticism, submission to authoritarian rule, and pathologies of denialism toward reality-based ways of thought. So, a safer world will have to be freer of it. And we’re on the intellectual cutting edge against sexual repression.

So then: Is this really the great future that the poly movement has ahead for us?

Well, as the computer pioneer Alan Kay said long ago:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Adapted for Polyamory Magazine by Alan M. from his original article.

German translation / Deutsche Übersetzung.

Articles about the situation of Polyamory in Germany

The above article is about the worldwide situation of Polyamory and especially in the USA. If you would like to find out about the situation of Polyamory in Germany, where Polyamory Magazine comes from, how about starting with these two articles:

Lots of Polyamory in german Media from March to April 2017

Polyamory in the Media, Suggestions how to do it better

Editor´s Note

This is an article by a Guest Author. Articles by a guest author do not necessarily represent the opinion of the editor or the operator of the site Polyamory Magazine. The profile of the author of this article can be found below this article.

Within the context of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press Polyamory Magazine provides guest authors the opportunity to publish articles to show a broad spectrum of representations and opinions about polyamory and open relations.

Would you like to Become a Guest Author at Polyamory Magazine?

Opinion articles on Polyamory

This article is part of the article series Opinion articles on Polyamory on Polyamory Magazine.

Other articles about polyamory

This article series is part of the article series about Polyamory, where you will find all articles on this topic. They are subdivided into various sub-areas, for example:

Coming-out as a polyamorous
Polyamory - one woman and several men
Interviews about Polyamory

You can find articles here that I have found all over the world, some in German and even more often in English.

More information about Polyamory

In the section "What is Polyamory" you will find information about what Polyamory is, how Polyamory works, where you can meet other polyamorous people, as well as other topics, for example (all coming soon, translation is in progress):

  • Prejudices about Polyamory describes common prejudices about Polyamory and presents you with the scientifically documented reality
  • Polyamory Events and Meetings
  • Polyamory dating websites
  • Polyamory Science with results from research about Polyamory

Please feel free to send your suggestions, they are welcome

If you have any suggestions, please send them via the contact form. You can also write comments on each page.

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About Alan MacDonald 2 Articles
Alan has run Polyinthemedia with over 2000 articles about polyamory from all over the world since 2005.

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