When Three Is Not a Crowd:

Polyamory as a Responsible Lifestyle

Copyright © 1999, 2005 c.e., Elizabeth Barrette

People have interesting ideas when it comes to love, life, and the socially acceptable arrangements thereof. One thing I hear a lot is people complaining about polyamory — a long-term romantic/sexual relationship between more than two people — on the grounds that it doesn’t work. They say they’ve seen too many disasters because of polyamory to believe it can ever succeed. So I’d like to take a look at the ups and downs of human relationships in this regard.

First of all, I think the problem isn’t so much the practices as it is the people. The modern American culture just doesn’t do a good job of teaching most people how to communicate, resolve conflicts, manage emotions, or other crucial social skills. For haven’s sake, the standard male/female marriage institution has a failure rate well over 50% in some areas, with much associated human wreckage. If people who know what they’re doing want to frolic, let them.

Those who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t realize the problem and work on it will run into trouble whether they’re living a poly lifestyle, a theoretically monogamous one, or even a celibate one. Mature, well-rounded folks with a good grasp of themselves can handle just about anything they can dream up. People who already lack a solid foundation and necessary skills aren’t going to have much luck juggling a dozen eggs or even just a few. I’ve seen people thrive in fascinatingly complex situations; I’ve seen them flounder in a simple one-on-one relationship. Heck, some don’t even get that far. It’s sad, really. I also know folks who are painstakingly working their way up from a rather patchy past to develop skills they’re missing.

So how does this polyamory thing work, anyway? People usually make their own arrangements through negotiation. They talk about what they want and need, and why, and how they’d like to go about getting it. Then they settle on agreements that everyone feels content with. Open communication lets them deal with issues of jealousy, health and safety, time management, favorite and unfavorite activities, trust, and so forth. Polyamory includes a wide range of options from open relationships where both partners occasionally have one-night stands with other people, to closed marriages of three or six or however many individuals, to couples who sometimes like to swap partners with other couples, and much more. Whatever you can imagine, somewhere out there is probably a family that’s figured out how to make it work for them.

A healthy society should be able to accommodate diversity. This includes diversity in family life. People may choose to be celibate, monogamous, or polyamorous according to their nature. Number and configuration of partners should, I believe, fall under the aegis of sexual orientation just as preference for a partner’s biological sex does. It is painfully obvious that social pressure produces no better effect on the former than it does on the latter.

This brings us to the issue of idolizing monogamy. Contrary to popular opinion, monogamy is not the only or necessarily best sexual arrangement for primates, mammals, or lifeforms in general. It works for some, not for others. The same is true of humans. When you try to force people into a situation that is not right for them, it tends to propagate disasters; you wind up with monogamous relationships in which one or both partners are miserable, or with “serial monogamy” where people have only one partner at a time but many sequentially, or with the ever-popular adultery — in which people do irresponsibly and secretly the kind of things that should be handled in a more mature, responsible, and open manner. It takes only a quick glimpse at the news to show how monogamy is not the answer to everything and, in its modern form, not particularly successful.

Now, I don’t feel that it’s fair to single out a particular lifestyle and say that it’s wrong or unworkable, just because people are currently having trouble making it work; this goes for both monogamy and polyamory. Start turning out better-equipped people, a more relaxed atmosphere, and improved living conditions … and relationships of all types will tend to work better. I worry more about the lack of relational skills than about which type of relation people are botching. And yes, I do what I can to move the world in a positive direction so that people have the strength and flexibility to express their creativity in relationships instead of struggling just to keep them afloat. Expression should be a matter of taste.

Polyamory is not for everyone. It requires a great deal of honesty, patience, and work. Monogamy is not for everyone either. It too requires a lot of honesty, patience, and work. This is why celibacy is a nice option for people who find the whole sexual question boring or too much trouble or the like. One size does not fit all. Historical cultures have explored pretty much the whole gamut, with varying degrees of success and sanity. Responsible persons and societies should look at their own needs and interests, and come up with an arrangement that works for them. Bugging someone else for living a life that you yourself wouldn’t enjoy is pointless and rude, both for individuals and societies. As long as the people involved are happy with their arrangement, and not actively making other folks miserable, we should be content to keep our noses out of their business. This is equally true whether they enjoy “missionary sex,” or threesomes, or orgies that go through a carton of condoms in an hour, or good old solitary sex in which the fingers do the walking.

It helps to know what you’re talking about. Reading is an excellent way to learn more about polyamory, and that includes everything from nonfiction guides to novels with polyamorous characters. There are newsgroups, websites, mailing lists, and many other online resources on this topic. I once participated in a fascinating panel on the subject of polyamory, for which I drafted a recommended reading list (see below), and we had a lot of fun debating the “what ifs” of complex sexual dynamics. Meeting and talking with people living a polyamorous lifestyle is the best way to learn about it, though. As long as you’re polite, a good number of them will be happy to talk with you; sometimes you can find parties or “munches” specializing in this kind of interaction. So before you run around calling the lifestyle immoral, or conversely decide it must be for you, do everybody a favor and research first. You are entitled to your informed opinion.

The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Sex Panel

Recommended Reading List
(by Elizabeth Barrette)

“The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Sex Panel” was part of the programming at WindyCon (a Chicago-based science fiction convention) in 1999. The panelists consisted of myself, R.J. Johnson, and Jim Rittenhouse, plus Stephen Leigh whom I convinced to join us at the last minute since I’d put his book on this list. Our moderator R.J. picked the theme “polyamory” and we spent a lively few days discussing possibilities via email before the con. So I worked up this list as part of my preparation for the panel. Polyamory is a lively component both of speculative fiction and of real life for some people.

Book CoverThe Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. Nonfiction. Explains the concept of ethical slutdom, describes alternative paradigms for healthy sexual relations, and gives some ideas on practice. Excellent resource section in back.

Click here for a Review by Deborah Lipp.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

Book CoverPolyamory, the New Love without Limits: Secrets of Sustainable Intimate Relationships by Dr. Deborah M. Anapol. Nonfiction. Defines sundry forms of polyamory, outlines the ethics, and offers techniques for successful practice. Excellent resource section in back.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

The Cage by S.M. Stirling and Shirley Meier. Fantasy novel. Set in a world where bisexual polyamory is the norm in most cultures, including those of the main characters; heavy emphasis on relationships.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

Dark Water’s Embrace by Stephen Leigh. Science fiction novel. Human culture is polyamorous by necessity, and must adapt to accommodate the evolution of a third sex; watch the sensible main characters get clobbered by their pig-headed relatives, nearly dooming the colony as a result. Relationships prominent.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

Fire Margins by Lisanne Norman. Science fantasy novel. Third in the Sholan Alliance series, this book introduces a third partner, Kaid, to the telepathic/sexual bond shared by the human Carrie and the felinoid Kusac. They get pretty good backup from some of their relatives; good attention to relationships.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Science fantasy novel. Explores human relationships and the art of revolution, stretched across some interesting linguistic and cultural barriers.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

Genderflex edited by Cecelia Tan. Circlet Books. Speculative fiction anthology. The story “Did You Get Your Answers Questioned?” by Elizabeth Barrette takes place in a culture that recognizes five different genders and consequently includes a lot of polyamory, although polyamory is not a dominant theme in the story.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

The Honor of the Queen by David Weber. Science fiction novel. Second in the Honor Harrington series, this book introduces the planet Grayson, where men commonly have two or three wives, by necessity. Relationships take a distinct back seat to the military- focused plot, but still play a key role in the setting.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

The Killing Dance by Laurell K. Hamilton. Horror novel. Sixth in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series this is the obligatory negative example; it covers how not to practice polyamory, catching a werewolf-necromancer-vampire relationship just as it begins to boil over.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman. Science fiction novel. Although the two main characters share a powerful bond, one of them is married to a whole lot of wives and the other dallies amiably with a variety of partners. Nice healthy relationships provide a solid backdrop for other activities.

Click here to buy it from Amazon.com!

XXXenophile by Phil Foglio. Erotic speculative fiction comic book series. Polyamory is a frequent theme appearing in many forms throughout this series, usually with an emphasis on sex but sometimes with fine attention to relationships.

Click here to buy Volume 1 (of 6+) from Amazon.com! (Adults only)

Copyright © 1999, 2005 c.e., Elizabeth Barrette; posted here with the author's permission. Her website is at <http://www.worthlink.net/~ysabet/index.html>.

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