The Polycrisis

Why can’t we stop talking about nonmonogamy?

Brandy Jensen

Polyamory sometimes seems like a practice made to generate conversations, writes Brandy Jensen. Getty Images

Too often these days I find myself in the position of defending someone I think is annoying from someone I know is dangerous. Most recently this happened with polyamorous people, the existence and behaviors of whom many readers claim to be tired of talking about, only to gleefully comb through every new book or magazine profile. The latest round was precipitated by Molly Roden Winter’s More: A Memoir of Open Marriage, a cover feature on polycules for New York, and, earlier this month, a profile in The New York Times of a 20-person polycule based in Boston. I’m guilty of participating in the endless chatter: these too-deep dives are very easy to make fun of. Plus I’m not straight and live in New Orleans, and you can only go on so many dates with people who say things like, “I separated from my nesting partner to go solo poly, although lately I’ve been thinking I’m actually more of a relationship anarchist,” before you build up sufficient resentment to want to get a few jokes in.

This isn’t the fault of the polyamory community as a whole. It’s easy to have your scene ruined by annoying rich people (for example, San Francisco) or to make something cool sound uncool by talking about it too much (for example, weed) or to be right and yet still be embarrassing about it (for example, atheism). The lighthearted mockery of terms like “compersion” is mostly a harmless good time, until it inevitably provides cover for reactionary sexual politics. Suddenly someone is writing an essay in The Atlantic about how polyamory is bourgeois, and before I can even think, “That doesn’t seem right,” a bunch of revanchist weirdos eager to roll back the Sexual Revolution are chiming in on X to call polyamory both bourgeois and morally degenerate, and all the fun has been sucked out of my eye-rolling. And so I end up back in bed with the polyamorists, wishing they could figure out how to make having sex sound sexier.

Billed as one woman’s frank account of empowerment and sexual adventure, More reads instead like a cry for help from inside an open marriage. Unsatisfied by the unequal distribution of domestic labor in her relationship, Winter, a former teacher turned musician and essayist, finds herself in a bar in Brooklyn one night flirting with a younger man. When she later tells her husband about the encounter, he is into it. Really into it. So far so girlpower, but trouble arises when Winter agrees that if she’s allowed to sleep with other people, then he should be, too. The rest of the book details a series of grim sexual encounters with dreadful men, her own hysterical misery about her husband having sex with other women, and the eventual solace she takes in platitudes about learning and growing. It would make for a very funny satire about a white Park Slope marriage on the rocks, but as a memoir it mainly made me feel dejected. What is clear to the reader, if not to the author, is that Winter didn’t embark on nonmonogamy to expand the horizons of her relationship but rather to shore them up. In her own way, she is more fiercely committed to the idea of not divorcing than are her conservative detractors, who believe that sexual decadence undermines not merely the sacred institution of marriage, but all Western values.

If marriage is a secret, polyamory is gossip.

Writing about open marriage isn’t an inevitably doomed undertaking, though Winter’s book gives that impression; Jean Garnett, for example, did so gorgeously in a 2022 essay for The Paris Review. Where Winter offers a kind of unearned self-aggrandizement—learn from my journey, she seems to say, despite the fact that I’ve failed to learn anything important—Garnett is interested in self-knowledge, which seems to me one of polyamory’s most persuasive virtues. Garnett’s more exploratory, searching, and tender essay is not just a better approach to writing about nonmonogamy, but a better way to practice it. After all, sexual encounters can be sites of meaningful discovery, if we’re willing to be open to the many forms they might take.

The first time I slept with a couple it felt like it happened by accident. I don’t mean that it was farcical, but simply that there wasn’t any planning beforehand. Had they told me in advance that they were interested in sleeping together, I probably would have laughed. As I remember it, we were in a big room full of people at a party, and then somehow we were in a bathroom doing drugs, and then somehow we were in a bed doing things I’d never done before. Partly I did it to make the man I was seeing at the time, who refused to officially become my boyfriend, jealous. It didn’t work.

Sex has often been a matter of “somehow” in my life. My own desires tend to come as a surprise. Whatever knowledge I have was gained through experience, my needs formulated in the act of articulating them. I often find myself confused when people want to have a discussion beforehand in which everyone says exactly what they like and don’t like, as though desire were something to satiate rather than create.

A classic critique of polyamorists: these people appear to like talking about sex more than they like having it. Perhaps that’s unfair, but polyamory sometimes seems to me like a practice made to generate conversations. Conversations between partners about the possibility of new lovers and between new lovers about prior partners, meta-conversations about how well or poorly all these conversations are going—and, of course, conversations between people who aren’t in any way involved.

There’s no getting around how important communication is to the polyamorous lifestyle. They are always communicating. This ardor for talking may be, in part, what inspires so much chatter among outside observers. When a couple opens a relationship, the rest of the world tends to take that as an invitation to make judgments. Monogamous marriages are famously inscrutable to outsiders — you never know what really happens behind closed doors. How thrilling to feel that one’s nosiness is justified. Don’t you think this is a sign they’re going to break up? Is she really okay with it, or is she just doing it to make him happy? Do they think we’re prudes now? Can you believe they think they’re better than us? If marriage is a secret, polyamory is gossip.

And then there is the content of the communication between polyamorous people about the practice itself, which can come off as smug. In January’s New York feature, a member of a polycule named Nick described his relationship like this: “Some people like to run marathons. We like to do polyamory, complex relationship stuff. Sarah’s favorite activity for the two of us to do is couples therapy.” A member of the Boston polycule featured in The New York Times had this to say: “We learned a strategy from the Multiamory podcast called ‘agile scrum,’ which was adapted from business-meeting models. We utilized that format. We did that for a year and a half, at least once a month, sometimes six to 10 hours of hard poly-processing. That gave us great communication tactics.” I have no interest in going to grad school for relationships, especially when the other students sound so keen to be best in class.

This keenness to study, and schedule, and have discussion groups, goes some way to explaining the moniker sex nerds, which my friends and I began using a few years ago to express our benign derision, and a long way to explaining the temptation to bully them. Nerds have spent the past few decades triumphing in almost every aspect of American popular culture, and it’s impossible to make them feel bad about it. It’s futile to complain about more superhero movies being made. But the classic tactic of saying they are doing sex in a weird way remains available—especially when they’re so eager to tell you about how they play Catan with their polycule every Wednesday.

Polyamory, in this country at least, has pretty much always been the domain of nerds, as another recent (and much better) book, Christopher Gleason’s American Poly: A History, makes clear. Gleason traces the genealogy of contemporary polyamorous practices back through a series of strange figures with strange views, including sci-fi-obsessed hippie libertarians, woo-woo neo-pagans, and straight-up right-wingers who thought family values could best be propagated through larger families. In the early 1960s, for example, Oberon Zell became so enamored of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land that he founded the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds to promote the precepts of free love and personal divinity. Heinlein also inspired the religious community Kerista, which established branches in multiple major US cities. In the 1980s and 1990s, secular forms of polyamory evangelism were undertaken through newsletter subscriptions, anticipating the recent explosion of polyamory talk enabled by the internet.

All of these earnest weirdos thought they could remake the world, and insofar as they succeeded, the results have been unevenly distributed. Gleason draws a convincing line from the previous century’s idiosyncratic experiments to our current moment, in which you might still lose your job or your kids if you’re polyamorous in the wrong state but are free to write shitty memoirs about it if you’re in Brooklyn. American Poly helps us recognize this not wholly revolutionary shift in sexual politics as a particularly acute facet of the persistent hangover of the Sixties. What irks people most about modern polyamorists might be their unwillingness to concede to the stories that most of us have accepted about that brief flourishing of radical possibility in American life. The sexual revolutionaries of past decades either grew up or sold out, depending on your political orientation, and eventually got jobs and houses in the suburbs. The war for sexual freedom ended in compromise; whatever new latitude we enjoy in youth, monogamous marriage remains our destination.

Like most compromises, the war for sexual freedom also ended in disillusionment. Liberationists and free lovers had hoped that remaking sex might remake the world, but the relationship between sex and other terrains of political struggle has turned out to be far more complicated. In a recent London Review of Books piece about Alex Comfort, whose book The Joy of Sex (1972) exemplifies the post-1960s mainstreaming of sexual liberation, the historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (who is herself in an open relationship) stated the most sensible objections to any sexual subculture that is too sure of its own righteousness, critiquing “Comfort’s frankly naive hope that sex is going to usher in a political revolution.” Instead, she argues, “Free healthcare—or free childcare—seems more radical today than free love.” Nonmonogamy does not automatically bring about the structural changes which might materially improve intimate life for everyone; as it becomes increasingly popular, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite cautions, it may also become more easily “sublimated into simple lifestyle politics.” It can therefore be maddening when some polyamorists insist that a day job making surveillance technology does not preclude them from considering themselves politically radical, as long as they spend their weekends having orgies.


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In the face of such compromises and disappointments, it’s embarrassing to remain utopian or even very optimistic about sex. This may be the real reason that polyamorists are so easy to bully. The idea that the pursuit of pleasure—that something as fraught and indulgent and vulnerable as sex—might repair the world is laughably out of vogue. Particularly when that sex is heterosexual, where the primary focus of late has been on, at best, reducing its harms.

I take Sutcliffe-Braithwaite to be offering a warning, and a persuasive one: a retreat into the narcissistic pursuit of eroticized self-fulfillment will never be adequate to the task of social change in a system that seeks to atomize and isolate us. Some threshold number of polycules will never bring down a government, and in truth I don’t think a survey of most American polyamorists would reveal that they believe it could, either. If what one wants is revolution, of course it isn’t enough to be a revolutionary of sex—but neither does that mean that we shouldn’t be. The answer to any critique which distinguishes between sexual and material freedom must be to claim both. In a system that seeks to atomize and isolate, there is still some emancipatory potential in exploring different styles of living. For all the magazine covers and memoirs lately devoted to its alternatives, the dominant lifestyle in America remains monogamy, and the dominant means of maintaining that order remains compulsion.

Perhaps the standard by which we evaluate polyamory or open marriage should not be its ability to remake the world but the possibility of remaking each other. After all, who hasn’t left the bed of a lover feeling undone? Feeling new, in some promising and terrible way that demands your attention? Alive to the possibility that you are not the person you thought you were, and that this will have consequences for how you live your life?

This insight alone may not be enough ground on which to build a transformative political program, but it’s something. And if the people who are willing to cultivate rather than disavow it are annoying nerds, then so be it. Better that than a cynic or a scold. Perhaps it will always remain too earnest, too unbearably uncool, to admit you might believe that pleasure and care and devotion can exist in abundance.

I believe it.

Brandy Jensen lives in New Orleans with her two dogs. She offers advice at irregular intervals.
Originally published:
April 24, 2024


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