LET ME step in as your editor to fill a lacuna that I perceive in an issue devoted to “alternative sexualities,” to wit, something on polyamory, which has been variously described as a sexual orientation, a lifestyle, and a movement. Two regular writers for this magazine, Cassandra Langer and Jean Roberta, independently approached me a few years ago and urged me to cover this topic, which seems to have been hot soon after marriage equality was granted in June 2015—and which has certainly not gone away in the interim.
The relevance of polyamory for an LGBT magazine is either perfectly obvious or not at all apparent. On the one hand, this being an age when we add letters promiscuously to what is now “the LGBTTQQIAAP community” (the “P” is for pansexual), surely there’s room for one more. On the other hand, does polyamory constitute a “sexual identity” analogous to those in the current lineup? Polyamory is all about relationships and participation in an arrangement that exceeds the customary two parties, but do the people so engaged comprise a “community”? What one finds in the literature, such as it were, is that definitions vary greatly for what counts as polyamory, with some insisting on marriage-like commitment (in the absence of legal marriage) and others willing to allow for open relationships, spousal swapping, and the like. This being the case, it’s not surprising that the long-anticipated polyamory movement hasn’t quite materialized, even if the social reality of group relationships is probably on the rise.
At this point an important distinction must be made between polyamory and garden variety “free love” or open marriage or the old ménage à trois. The former is understood as an arrangement of “consensual non-monogamy” among three or more individuals in a stable relationship. Its philosophical underpinnings are sometimes traced back to a 1997 book titled The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities—one of which was polyamory. It was the “ethical” part that distinguished this approach, and theoreticians of polyamory have stressed above all the importance of agreements and living up to them, even if their terms are ones of the parties’ own choosing rather than the fixed terms of a state-sanctioned institution.
The best estimates are that polyamory is practiced by a small but lively minority—around four or five percent of U.S. adults according to one survey,* though