Like a quiet storm, she enters the café silently wearing a shy smile. The sun is peaking through the heavy windows on one of the warmest days of spring in Oakland, illuminating her freckled cheeks, each freckle resembling a speck of light. She offers a warm hug and a long, threadlike braid falls from her part-coifed and part-shaved head, down the left side of her face. The aroma of grinding coffee beans hangs in the air. After she sucks her iced coffee through a straw, Marisa Manriquez pauses and says, “Polyamory highly threatens the way society is organized.”
Polyamory, or non-monogamy, is a controversial friend of monogamy. Polyamory, the idea that you can have more than one lover or romantic partner at a time, is a term that was formally coined in 1992 on the Internet and attributed to a woman named Jennifer Wesp. In the past, other terms like complex marriage and polyfidelity have been used to describe different multi-partner relationships. Polyamory has been gaining popularity in the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco, for over a decade. There has been an increased awareness surrounding it in multiple communities, from the queer community to the academic community.
Slight references to polyamory are visible in popular culture in TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives but this has reinforced inaccurate definitions of polyamory, making the term interchangeable with polygyny or polygamy, which contain the root words “many” and “marriages.” The image that often enters the popular imagination is of one man married to multiple wives. According to Xeromag.com, “The word ‘polyamory’ is based on the Greek and Latin word for ‘many loves’ (literally, polymeans many and amore means love). A polyamorous relationship is a romantic relationship that involves more than two people.” There are, however, various definitions and practices of polyamory.
Manriquez, 27, is a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) where she is writing her thesis on polyamory for her graduate program, “Women’s Spirituality: Women’s Wisdom and Body Healing.” She was compelled to research and write about polyamory after her five-year monogamous relationship began to plateau. She and her partner were still in love, but both began to grow separately.
“I became interested in the natural ways relationships change and the fact that love lasts a long time and changes form,” Manriquez says. “Polyamory is an approach to relationships that takes into consideration that you can love more than one person in different ways.”
According to Manriquez, the history of polyamory is rich. At the turn of the nineteenth century in the United States, religious communes attempting to manifest utopian communities on the East Coast started to develop. In 1848, the Oneida community in New York practiced communalism, or the idea of shared property, as well as group marriage and multiple-partner relationships. A Yale theologian named John Humphrey Noyes, one of the founders of the Oneida community, and his followers believed in abolishing the idea of monogamous marriage and private property, because they felt that these ideas contributed to exclusivity and jealousy.
“Resistance to monogamy challenges the status quo,” Manriquez says. “Non-monogamy forces people to face ingrained emotional habits that have come with social conditioning, like jealousy and possession.”
It is debatable, however, whether jealousy results from social conditioning or if is inherent in human nature. Biologists, philosophers, and psychologists have studied jealousy for a long time. According to a Staten Island Advance article from March 14, 2006, “Jealousy is an inevitable, universal feeling,” a psychotherapist and professor at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York named Miles Groth says, “jealousy is rooted in infancy.” He draws from the work of Sigmund Freud and adds that jealousy is a natural and even necessary response. This complex emotion has contributed to resistance toward non-monogamy.
According to Loving More, an online community and magazine dedicated to educating others about polyamory, although non-monogamy has been marginalized from mainstream culture, it is actually being practiced by large segments in the United States.
“Researchers are just beginning to study the phenomenon, but the few who do estimate that openly polyamorous families in the United States number more than half a million, with thriving contingents in nearly every major city,” according to a Newsweek article from July 29, 2009, “Only You. And You. And You,” by Jessica Bennett.
“Only about twenty percent of American adults…are married, living with their spouse, and, together, bringing up a child or children to which they both have a biological connection,” according to a February 1 2011 article in the Baystate Parent Magazine by Doug Page.
“There is a biological foundation for polyamory, as nature is inherently polyamorous,” Manriquez says. “Non-monogamy is ancient, and it arises in cultures all over the world, in Abrahamic traditions in the Old Testament, in parts of Africa, and in the Arab world.”
According to a Salon.com article from June 27, 2010, about the book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, “Before the advent of agriculture…prehistoric humans lived in a much less sexually possessive culture, without the kind of lifelong coupling that currently exists in most countries.” The authors use Bonobos as an example of inherent non-monogamy in nature. Bonobos, human beings’ closest relatives, practice non-monogamous coupling and live in a very peaceful and egalitarian group setting, which has been attributed to their multi-partner sexual relationships.
According to Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, the article, “Monogamy and polygyny in Greece, Rome, and world history,” aspects of monogamy were institutionalized into the Greco-Roman social structure. The concept of monogamy has been challenged for quite some time and continues to be critiqued by those who believe that loving more than one person is acceptable, liberating, and even radical.
Feminism and Free Love
After one knock, she opens the front door and her green eyes squint under thin, square-framed eyeglasses as the sun briefly warms her electric magenta hair. Jen Day enthusiastically introduces Pepper Mint, her male partner of eight years. Mint is tall and lanky sitting in a rotating computer chair and looks upward to say hello with a sharp but kind stare. Day’s eggplant purple tank top matches Mint’s curly, shoulder-length hair. They make eye contact and smile at each other warmly as the two of them introduce Day’s other male partner, Ari Litton, whose wavy turquoise blue hair comes into view as he waves hello from their kitchen.
Day, 31, an accounting major at SF State, defines polyamory as having multiple romantic relationships at once, and emphasizes that everybody in the relationship approves. She laughs a little as she begins her story about getting involved in polyamory and mentions her high-school sweetheart with whom she remained in a relationship for about ten years. As their relationship progressed, Day and her then-partner decided to begin having threesomes until she realized that she was interested in open relationships that did not revolve around sex. They both began having intimate relationships with other people and eventually the pair split up.
“The person you’re with at fourteen is not the same person at twenty-six,” Day says.
Unlike Day and the majority of people in the United States, Mint, 36, grew up in a household where monogamy was not established as the norm.
“I had parents who had an open relationship,” Mint says. “It was the seventies and they were open, certainly the entire time I was growing up.”
Litton, 27, sits on the floor between Day and Mint, listening intently to the both of them. He playfully rubs his head against Day’s thigh and begins to giggle as he tells his story about getting involved in a polyamorous relationship with Day.
“I got into it three years ago, about as long as I’ve been dating Jen,” Litton says.
Day says that Litton met her and Mint as a couple, adding that Litton was the last man standing at the end of the night. The two claim they really engaged with each other.
According to Mint, the poly community overlaps with several others, such as the bi community and the kink community. Mint adds that people in the goth, rave, and board- gaming communities have gravitated toward non-monogamy. The three of them agree that the polyamory community, which is growing rapidly in San Francisco, is very women-friendly and gender equitable, marking the distinction between polyamory and the more negative notions of polygamy that are commonplace.
From a feminist perspective, the liberation of women and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s largely contributed to the developing consciousness around love and sexuality.
“Free love was a response to conservative social models of the 1950s, which began deconstructing the idea of the nuclear family and later evolved into the idea of swinging, which is different than polyamory,” Manriquez says. “My understanding of it is that swinging is sex-driven, with love as a sometimes-added factor.” Mint adds that swinging is primarily geared toward heterosexual married couples to experiment sexually with other couples like them.
According to the article, “Feminism and Free Love,” free love is defined as a self-conscious reform tradition. It was part of the women’s rights movement and gave both men and women a choice to experiment with their sexuality, which usually translated into free and rampant sexual relationships. “The nineteenth-century free- love movement was a distinct reform tradition, running from the utopian socialist thinkers of the 1820s and 1830s through the center of American anarchism to the anti-Comstock sex radicals of the 1890s and 1900s and from there into the birth control movement of the twentieth century.”
The Gay Rights movement in New York and San Francisco also contributed to the developing idea of polyamory, where clubs and bathhouses became popular and accessible to people—queer and straight identified—who desired multiple sexual partners and experiences. The term “queer” gained popularity as a self-affirming umbrella term for people who felt the need to define themselves outside of the definitions of bi, gay, or lesbian. Unfortunately, the AIDS epidemic began to spread in the 1980s and mainstream culture began to point the finger at the queer community. This revealed that the free-love movement had consequences, forcing the generations that followed to shift their consciousness about love, sex, and responsibility. According to Mint, the term polyamory was introduced in the early 1990s, in response to the changing landscape of non-monogamy in the United States.
Sustaining Healthy Relationships
At the shaky wooden table in the crowded Whole Foods café in a black t-shirt, cap, and messenger bag, Jack De Jesus grins shyly upon the mention of polyamory, then his lips curl into a tight smile, revealing deep dimples in both cheeks.
“Polyamory to me means having intimate relationships with more than one person in a responsible way,” says De Jesus, 36, also known as Kiwi, a popular rapper in the Bay Area.
De Jesus, who has been divorced, realized that marriage reinforced the same social systems he and his ex-wife—both of whom are activists—wanted to dismantle. He says that once you involve the state in your relationship, the legality of love becomes problematic because the state’s definition of marriage is very rigid. He adds that in his own experience, monogamous relationships and the institution of marriage perpetuate patriarchy and ownership.
“I don’t want to own anybody and I don’t want anybody to own me,” De Jesus says. “Non-monogamy has allowed me to look at things in different ways, like communication, boundaries, and sex.”
Boundaries, guidelines, and rules play an important role in non-monogamous relationships. According to an excerpt from the book, Redefining Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships, by Wendy-O Matik, all relationships should include honesty, communication, and consent. “When you respect mutually agreed upon boundaries, you build upon the foundation of lasting trust, which is the key ingredient in an open relationship.”
According to Ivy Chen, 38, a master in Public Health and an SF State lecturer for the course, “Sex and Relationships,” couples must establish rules early on in the relationship to avoid unrealistic expectations. Chen says that in monogamous relationships, the agreement is to be exclusive, but often, expectations to be exclusive conflict with other feelings and may cause jealousy.
“In Western culture, we have a tendency to own things so we lock our bike, car, house,” Chen says. “We become vigilant, because we feel like someone will take it. The idea of property is a mindset that extends into relationships, too.”
The top components that contribute to a healthy relationship that Chen brings up in her class every semester include respect, similarities, good communication, and the acceptance of your partner and yourself. Although every couple can and should create their own boundaries and rules, Matik outlines a few guidelines, which include practicing safe sex, respecting space boundaries, treating others as you wish to be treated, and practicing self-love.
According to Day and Mint, boundaries were set early on in the relationship. After eight years, they have relaxed the boundaries, but Mint jokes that two rules for Day remain: “Always use condoms and don’t get married!” Day laughs and adds, “Don’t leave sex toys on the bed, don’t date my sister, and don’t wear my ducky bathrobe.”
Mint says that because we live in a monogamous world, we are well trained in monogamy from the minute we are born all the way through our teenage years. There is a certain process of deprogramming from the standard, which is from monogamy to non-monogamy. “One way to do it is to create rules to make you feel safe,” he says.
For monogamous couples, certain guidelines play a role in sustaining a healthy relationship, and marriage clearly defines that for many people. According to Chen, marriage can offer a needed sense of security, whether for economic reasons or legal reasons.
Although the idea surrounding monogamy as a social system and the institution of marriage is continually challenged, advocates of a so-called dying institution offer their own perspective.
The Institution of Marriage
His handshake is firm but the shy smirk on his face reveals a gentleness that belies his over six-foot-build. John Baker, 39, a graduate student in Public Administration at SF State, talks about what it takes to sustain a healthy marriage while raising a child. With subtle enthusiasm, Baker reminisces about the first time he met his wife at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) as a journalism major.
“She was talking about Star Trek with her brother, who was the editor of the paper, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool girl,’” he laughs. “We didn’t actually start dating until the summer after.”
After CCSF, Baker applied to both SF State and Humboldt State University and was accepted and enrolled in both colleges, but stayed in San Francisco to build the relationship. He eventually transferred to Humboldt State to receive his Bachelor’s degree in journalism. He admits that he and his wife experienced tough times because of the long distance. He eventually proposed to her in 1999 after he graduated and when he felt that marriage was the next natural step in their relationship, particularly after he stayed with her one summer and felt integrated into her family.
Although Baker and his wife have been married for nearly eleven years, they have had their fair share of problems, just like any other couple—married or unmarried. The two of them briefly separated for an entire summer in 2006.
“I had been working odd hours as a police dispatcher at the time,” he says. “We also found out that our son, who is now seven, is autistic. We had trouble raising him,” adding that any couple who has a child together begins to experience external stressors that result in several problems. Despite their struggle to make their marriage work, Baker and his wife got back together after some needed time apart. Everything they went through together only made him appreciate her more.
“The best advice I can give to a newly married couple is don’t be afraid to fight,” Baker says. “The suppression of emotions will just add up. When we have an issue, we try to resolve it quickly, but sometimes it takes time. People say don’t go to bed mad, but sometimes, you go to bed mad and that’s okay.”
Within the institution of marriage, Baker feels that there is already so much going on in exclusive partnerships that it leaves little room to none for anything outside of that one person.
“I do think that going the extra step of getting married is a huge symbolic commitment,” he says. “Not to say people can’t have healthy relationships if they’re not married. You don’t need a piece of paper, but it definitely helps.”
According to Braden Paule, 28, a Child and Adolescent Development major at SF State, humans may be naturally non-monogamous. However, he feels that the rules of marriage, which include exclusivity and monogamy, allow two people to commit to each other in a deeper way. Paule and his wife married last year in June after five years of being in a monogamous relationship. He says that he never felt pressured to marry and that he and his wife talked about marriage for a very long time until they decided it was right for the two of them.
“One benefit of marriage is making the tax situation a lot better,” Paule laughs. “But it did negatively affect our financial aid,” he laments. Both he and his wife are students at SF State.
He lightly pinches his orange-brown beard, and his eyes look genuine as he squints a little, smiling wide as he begins talking about his wife.
“The exclusivity with each other makes me feel comfortable that I don’t have competition,” Paule says. “We are each other’s top priorities.”
Paule adds that the social recognition of their relationship changed drastically in ordinary conversation.People react very differently when he says “wife” instead of “girlfriend.” He feels as if people respect their relationship more, because they are married.
When De Jesus hears people talk about polyamory, it is spoken about in a sex-driven manner, but he argues that it is not only about sex; the root of it is love and building with people. De Jesus prefers to use the term “responsible non-monogamy” rather than polyamory.
“I got into it, or was sort of forced into it, when I was dating somebody who was dating somebody,” he laughs. “I had just got out of my marriage so that first poly relationship wasn’t healthy, because it was still very new to me, and I had to deal with jealousy.”
He did not understand it for a long time, so he decided to study it intellectually by reading books like The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, by Catherine Liszt and Dossie Easton; Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino; and Redefining Our Relationships: Guidelines For Responsible Open Relationships, by Wendy-O Matik.
“There are a lot of assumptions being made in relationships, and I’ve had to learn to have awkward and uncomfortable conversations that ended up being transformative,” De Jesus says, affirming that polyamory is all about honesty.
A few of Manriquez’s research questions for her graduate thesis touch on these ideas of honesty, open communication, and transformation. These questions include, “How can a shift from the idea of monogamy to polyamory provide healing and a sense of community?” and “Can polyamory provide a framework for intimate relationships that empower human beings to grow, nurture, and sustain love in abundant ways?”
“I feel lucky that the communities I’m in—the intellectual community and the queer community—have a real understanding of how transient relationships can be,” Manriquez says. “I’m Latina from a traditional Catholic community. They are less receptive to different ideas about love.”
De Jesus has had a very different experience as a straight-identified man of color who practices polyamory, as women and men close to him have reluctantly asked him about what it all means. In the beginning, he was afraid people would label him a player or womanizer.
“My ex-partner makes fun of me all the time,” he laughs. “In different degrees, she’s calling me a ho.”
Mint adds that there is a certain suspicion of men because they have abused their power around sexuality for so long. He adds that because there is a long history of religious conservatism, monogamy was the standard because it essentially kept women in line.
Although De Jesus is a straight-identified male, he says that he does not feel the pressure to fit into that man box and admits to sometimes feeling uncomfortable around other men who exhibit Machismo, or hyper-masculinity. He feels that he belongs to multiple communities, but feels most comfortable around the queer community, particularly queer women of color, who are part of spaces he has made a conscious effort to seek out.
As a community organizer and activist, De Jesus sees the concrete connection between polyamory and his political ideals that include anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. He feels that polyamory is liberating, because it crushes the ideas the West has enforced about ownership and the language we use around marriage and monogamy.
“Monogamy and marriage reinforces capitalism because it is rooted in capitalism,” he asserts. He adds that instead of sharing with others, we become attached and possessive to the things we own. “Being in non-monogamous situations lends itself to sharing things, dismantling the idea of ownership, and allowing people to be more autonomous.”
De Jesus also discusses the expectations inherent in the discourse surrounding monogamy as a social system. He speaks from personal experience that in other monogamous relationships and in his marriage, he really struggled with ethics when he would develop crushes and the pressure to provide everything to one person. One of his current partners recently told him, “You can’t be everything to everybody.”
He compares different situations to polyamory as a way to start healthy dialogue about the subject, giving examples of soldiers who must leave their families—partners and children—for long periods at a time in the care of other families or friends. He also provides an example of having multiple friends who serve multiple needs in different ways, or people who have multiple kids and who love their kids equally, not one child more or less than the other children.
“There is a culture of conformity and there is no framework for [non-monogamy],” Litton says. “In fact, the framework supports just the opposite.”
Monogamy vs. Non-Monogamy
Her small fingers run slowly along the pointed hairs on her bald head in the dimly lit room. Her voice is a thin whisper recalling her past relationships. “Polyamory means loving everyone and everything spiritually, physically, and emotionally,” Sunshine Velasco, 33, says. The small voice suddenly erupts into long, rhythmic laughter upon her confession that some of the greatest sex she has ever had has been in poly relationships, even the relationships unfortunately gone bad because of dishonesty and lack of communication. She admits that the polyamorous relationships she was involved in were unhealthy because certain boundaries and rules were not set.
“Non-monogamy takes a lot of work, commitment, and emotional maturity, and it is often easier to conform, rather than face all your fears and deal with the criticism and misunderstandings from others who may not support or understand you,” Matik writes. “I’ll be the last one to advocate one type of relationship over another, monogamy versus non-monogamy. What I am most interested in is planting the seeds of autonomy. We have choices. We have options. Just because monogamy is the popular prescribed relationship model doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.”
According to Manriquez, there is a real lack of role models for young people when it comes to healthy relationships if their only models come from popular culture.
“SF State has such a history in student mobilizing and activism,” Manriquez says. “With our privilege to access higher education, we all have to tap into this potential to be visionary. As students, we have a special opportunity to think critically and engage critically about how our relationships play into larger social structures.”