Dialogue on Power and Ethics: the Polyamory and Queer Movements

The following dialogue is conversation between Daniel Cardoso and myself, which took place over six months (on Fetlife of all places). Daniel is a Portuguese polyamory activist and an assistant professor at Universidade Lusófona in Lisbon. He is doing his PhD in Communication Sciences along with a Masters’ thesis on polyamory. As you probably know, I am a San Francisco polyamory event organizer and amateur social theorist.

I ask for your patience while reading this piece. It was not written with the public in mind, so we cover a lot of theoretical ground quickly at points and we were not particularly careful about softening or qualifying our descriptions of people or movements. Also, we have barely edited it for readability. If any part is confusing or bothers you, please bring it up in comments.

Daniel:

A big thank you for your reflections on polyamory and your Foucauldian perspective on sex, which were very useful when writing my thesis on polyamory.

Pepper:

I am very glad that my writing was useful to you! Was there some essay in particular that was helpful?

Your thesis probably has not been translated into English, but if it has I would be very interested in reading it.

Daniel:

Yes, the most central essay was “polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is”, as it helped me to present polyamory’s relation with monogamy, and with the sex/gender system and the whole field of sexuality.

Unfortunately you are correct, my thesis is probably bound to remain in Portuguese (although it will get published in book format, so maybe there’s a chance there? who knows…), but please see the English abstract below.

Loving Many – Individualization, Networks, Ethics and Polyamory
Daniel dos Santos Cardoso

This Thesis aims to determine if the users of the alt.polyamory mailing list, by telling their personal experiences in writing, are actually performing in a queer way, questioning mono-normativity and a heterocentric view on society, by being self-reflexive and caring for their self (gnothi seauton) through writing (as ethopoiesis) and reading of the self, instead of being driven by the technology of confession. This should allow us to determine, by analogy, if polyamory is a queer identity. Given that polyamory is an iteration of Giddens’ pure relationship, the challenges and contradictions it poses present specific problems to the subjects, and those need to be interpreted in the light of the interactions between the alliance and sexuality devices, as Foucault describes them. The meaning and nature of virtual communities was also a focal point of reflection, in order to contextualize data retrieval. To obtain answers to these problems, the email exchanges initiated by newcomers to the alt.polyamory list in 2009 were analyzed: statistically, by performing content and by discourse analysis. The results point to a differentiation between the core group of the newsgroup and the newcomers, where only the first ones do actually maintain practices that can potentially be identified as non-hegemonic in how they produce subjectivity. Polyamory is thusly identified as being, more than a sexual or emotional practice, a moral positioning that deeply imbibes the subject in his production of himself, and where parrhēsia (frankness) is the main element that allows a polyamorous person’s actions to be morally judged. This parrhēsia is a sine qua non condition to maintaining the Self’s autonomy, and so it is given but also demanded of the Other; equity in alterity is fundamental to the subject who, without the Other, cannot be constituted as such. And if all of the above enables the subject to question the possibility horizon of the elements that constitute him as a subject, it also opens the door to a possible hegemony of this moral standard to all intimate relationships.

KEYWORDS: polyamory, alt.polyamory, care of the self, writing of the self, parrhēsia, queer, intimacy, pure relationship, sexuality, individualization, virtual community

Pepper:

That does sound like an fascinating thesis, and I am glad it is being published in book form.

If you ever want to discuss any of the above concepts at length (polyamory as queer, pure relationships, the poly ethic of frankness, etc) drop me a line.

Daniel:

Currently, what interests me the most (and since you offered your brains for the picking, so to say ;) ) is the importance of parrhēsia (frankness) in performing polyamory, how parrhēsia is in the core of polyamory (the poly “mantra” is all about parrhēsia), and how, more than anything else, polyamory produces a certain kind of moral (not so much sexual, or even sentimental) subject, through means reminiscent of the ancient Greek practices of the care of the self. It strikes me as deeply interesting how something that is usually seen as a relationship-centered affair (polyamory) is actually something very individual in nature (care of the self), albeit in a good way, and where the Other is never denied its rightful place.

So, indeed, “polyamory isn’t about the sex, except when it is”, but sex is then utilized as a medium to reach a different morality, and it’s interesting to see that several authors, like Gayle Rubin, have specifically said that someday a new moral/ethical posture will arise to deal with contemporary and post-modern sexual and emotional practices. Could poly be an extreme/refined/fringe example of such a new moral positioning?

Does any of this make sense to you?

Pepper:

I am reading “parrhēsia” as “honesty, disclosure, and communication”. I agree that parrhēsia is central to polyamorous ideology and practice, emphasized almost to a fault.

I think it is important to consider the source of this focus on parrhēsia, however. I don’t think it necessarily comes from a desire to have better relationships, except perhaps tangentially. Rather, I think it is a direct response to mono-normativity’s insistence that nonmonogamy must be deceitful, just cheating in another form.

Classic monogamy itself encourages deceit: most people must at least pretend not to be attracted to people other than their partner. Within monogamy, most attempts at having multiple partners tend to involve deceit, namely cheating (because otherwise you get dumped).

But at the same time, mono-normativity sets up cheaters as the Other, creating a false duality of monogamy versus cheating. This tends to give any kind of nonmonogamy an air of deceit, even when it is entirely honest and upfront.

The project of polyamory is to create a third path, something that is not monogamy but also is not cheating. Distinguishing ourselves from monogamy is easy – having multiple partners does that. However, distinguishing ourselves from cheating is extremely difficult due to the mono-normative culture’s insistence that anything other than monogamy must be deceitful.

This not only plays out in ideology but also in practice. Because deceit is worked into our monogamous training, and associated with nonmonogamy, we end up with a lot of cultural encouragement to deceive in nonmonogamous relationship situations, which tends to be fatal to the relationship due to the lack of cultural support.

So I think we create a strong ethic of parrhēsia to counter both the ideological and pragmatic associations of nonmonogamy with deceit. Not only do our honesty tactics aid us in creating relationships that are strong enough to actually be nonmonogamous, but they serve as a bulwark against stigma and the encroachment of monogamous power dynamics.

In my region when monogamous people are told of a poly situation, the first thing they ask is usually “does your partner know?”, with the implication that the partner does not know or at least is not okay with it. If one can respond with “yes they do, and they are totally fine with it”, it performs an end run around one of the more common mono-normative attacks on nonmonogamy.

This extends to what you say about poly people self-constituting as moral subjects. I think this is a necessary response, given that mainstream culture constitutes any kind of nonmonogamy as inevitably immoral.

However just because these steps are a response to mono-normativity does not prevent them from also being moves towards Giddens’ and Rubin’s idealized relationships. I think relationship mores are definitely in flux, and forays into nonmonogamy may be a part of that process of refinement. I am not sure if there is an endpoint as envisioned by Giddens and Rubin, or if this is an ongoing process of change.

On the other hand, we may see a situation where the necessity to respond to mono-normativity with elevated moral practices actually decreases over time, as polyamory gains more acceptance in the mainstream. If polyamory were already fully accepted, I’m not sure people would adopt the ethic of parrhēsia because it would not be a mandatory step in becoming nonmonogamous.

Daniel:

I do agree generally with what you say, of course, although there are a few points I would like to make. I think you’re spot-on when you say that the centrality of parrhēsia isn’t about having better relationships. But I think that the questioning of mono-normative culture is also a by-product of why parrhēsia is actually important, in my point of view.

Ulrich Beck says that the contemporary subject is under an obligation to be free, to invent itself, to be original, different, individuated (not to be confused with individualism as the idea that we are fundamentally alone and isolated in our own autonomy). That is the normative and contemporary way of producing western, Caucasian and middle class subjects (pardon the sweeping statement). Now, Giddens talks about the intrinsic contradictions of the pure relationship, and Beck also says that this individuated subject, as s/he claims to be more her/himself, adds another layer of difficulty to establishing intimate interpersonal relationships (relationships are more of a meeting of two or more individuated subjects, rather than the monogamous fusing together of two half-persons, as is the case of codependent love).

So here we have the need or will we often feel of having intimate relationships as part of living a good life, and the problem that that will creates when attempted through a fully normative relationship. So the subject, in order to be a better subject, has to come up with a different way to make relationships.

Hence, I see polyamory as a sub-set of responses to that need we feel, societally determined, for us to ‘be ourselves’, be ‘true to ourselves’. And a new (as in ‘really old, but meanwhile totally forgotten’) way to do that, is to be frank – to use parrhēsia. That frankness is not something we do for the Other, but for ourselves – parrhēsia isn’t just ‘frankness’ or honesty by itself. Parrhēsia is a reflexive way of communicating. And the parrhēsiastes (the person who uses parrhēsia) does it because parrhēsia is a way s/he has of constructing her/himself, of becoming a moral person. To do that, s/he needs to communicate himself frankly, so that the Other can then communicate back with her/his view and reflection of what was originally communicated. Parrhēsia is a technique for the care of the self, and so the self’s main concern is the self itself.

I know it doesn’t sound good, but I don’t think polyamory institutes honest communication for the sake of ‘the Other person’, but for the sake of oneself. The catch-22 is that the Self needs the Other to reflect upon her/his life and the Other can’t do that unless that life is communicated in the fashion of parrhēsia. Also, the inverse is also true, as the Other is too a Self that needs everyone else, and so on… So even if polyamory were to be more accepted and practiced, parrhēsia in the context of polyamory is actually a sub-set of something larger, and would probably still be used as it serves a much bigger point than just managing relationships.

As for Giddens’ and Beck’s position, I don’t read them as an end-point, but more like a land-mark along a voyage (to nowhere, admittedly). Moral technologies and paradigms will always change to adapt the circumstances, but I think that in a few decades, the new normative posture will be quite closer to nowadays’ polyamory than nowadays’ straight monogamy. Not that poly will be mainstream, but I think that relationship structures will become somewhat more fluid. So, yes, I do agree with you about it all being an ongoing process of change.

PS – On the meaning of parrhēsia: here and here.

Pepper:

I agree on the current society’s drive towards individuation, and the conflict that that causes with actually having long-term relationships.

I also think that polyamory (and perhaps other forms of modern nonmonogamy to a lesser extent) are part of that trend of adapting relationships to individuation. As you say, polyamory combines an individual perspective with a group dynamic. I was at a play party Saturday where this was very clear: my entire poly network was present, and people were operating mainly on individual urges, but at the same time were embedded in a complex web of relations and their corresponding responsibilities.

If we look at the reasons people get into poly, it tends to be a combination of individuation and a certain frankness (which might be what you are getting at with parrhēsia). Which is to say, having individual desires to have sex or relationships with multiple people, and then acknowledging those desires aloud to their partner. Which is to say, individuation I think is involved at the root of the urge to be polyamorous.

However, you lose me a bit when talking about the reflexivity of parrhēsia. I think there is a certain reflexivity in the poly communication dynamic, but I am not so sure that it is the urge to be heard and have one’s speech reflected necessarily. Rather, it takes a roundabout route through power. Let me explain.

I generally see polyamory as a truce of sorts, a deal where both (or all) partners in a relationship agree to drop their culture-given right to demand monogamy in return for something else, usually the right to be nonmonogamous themselves.

So there is reflection, but it is in the power dynamic itself. The frankness of polyamory I think is an aspect of maintaining this truce. When stumbling against all the little roadblocks that monogamous culture puts in our way, keeping a live discourse is typically necessary in order to move the monogamous power dynamics from the implicit into the realm of discourse, and in doing so disarm them. One must be able to see that one’s partners agree to this truce, but that does not necessarily mean that they are reflecting oneself outside of the domain of the truce – indeed, poly people often date monogamous people.

So it is still about the care of the self, but in a roundabout way. In order to take care of oneself, one needs nonmonogamy, which requires that one practice that nonmonogamy with others, which demands that one engage in a two-way communication of inner emotional state in order to ward off the traps laid by monogamous power arrangements.

Is this parrhēsia? I’m not sure. It is reflection, and given that discourse and power are all mixed up (per Foucault), perhaps it qualifies. Certainly this is an example of Foucault’s urge towards confession, described as part of the advancement of sexual power techniques.

There is an additional urge towards reflexivity that I think is closer to what you describe. Poly people often want to be around others like them, and date others like them. It is possible to relax much more when one is surrounded by other poly people. This is not strictly a necessity like the dynamic I describe above, however it is a commonly desired luxury. Perhaps this is what you are describing? It is this urge that creates poly community but at the same time limits it – once people get comfortable in their nonmonogamous practice they often do not feel the need to see themselves in others, find poly technique instruction, and so on. Is this latter dynamic what you are describing by parrhēsia?

Daniel:

To answer your thoughts, I think that the reflexivity of parrhēsia has to do with how and why we like to talk so much, in polyamory. The reflexivity I was talking about is the subject itself. Meaning that there is that roundabout way to address power and the status quo of monogamy, but as we talk and discuss and negotiate frankly, we do so not to be simply heard (as you quite accurately pointed out) but more so to be commented upon. We converse, we say what we think, but then we sort of “demand” a reply. Were it a soliloquy, and it wouldn’t be polyamory.

And the reason for that is that the challenge we take upon ‘against’ polyamory, and the way we choose to change ourselves, is very dependent upon that reply, upon the effect of what the Other says has upon us, and vice-versa of course. So we see ourselves reflected about and upon the discourse that the Other has about our own discourse, even though (or especially so) if and when the Other replies from her/his own point of view, about her/himself. We ourselves use that discourse of the Other to reflect upon us and our relation to monogamy, polyamory, etc – in the end, a way of constructing ourselves. This happens both in that social situation where polys meet each other and seek each other to talk, and in private and intimate discussions inside poly families/constellations. We see a lot of that in several social networking sites.

Although, just to wrap it up, I’d like to point out one other thing. Unlike what you say, my thesis was built as an attempt to prove that actually the ‘poly mantra’ is fundamentally different from Foucault’s confession technology. Parrhēsia is presented by Foucault as a technique of the self, like confession, but he places it in a different light, as something totally different. Different because the way the subject relates to power and, more fundamentally, to truth is fundamentally different.

Let me elaborate.

When I started studying polyamory from a Foucauldian point of view, I had this ‘gut feeling’ that there had to be something different and non-normative about polyamory (besides the very obvious ‘it’s not monogamy’ aspect, that is). And there was the fist stumbling block for me: it seemed to be the confessional situation all over again, a pressure into rendering to speech everything and then some more. But still I felt something was different – it was about emotions, it wasn’t about having a punishment or diagnostic dictated, etc. And so parrhēsia came along.

In the confessional technology, you are pressed into talking about everything, so that the Other can then interpret you, read you, sort of unravel you and tell you who you really really really are, and then on how you must behave (be it religiously or clinically). So, the confessional subject goes into the confession to gain access to a finished interpretation of who s/he actually and ontologically is.

Parrhēsia works differently. The parrhēsiastes doesn’t want or need for the Other to tell her/him who s/he is. The parrhēsiastes wants to hear what the Other has to say about the Self, and about the Other’s self, and utilize that to change, shape and reflect upon her/his own self. While the confessional subject is null and recipient/dependent on the Other’s interpretation that delivers the Self to the Self, and has the full and uncontested power of interpretation, in the usage of parrhēsia, Self and Other are inter-related and at the same time, independent from each other, ontologically at the same level, in a more horizontal flow of power (versus the confessional power, which is wholly vertical, top-down). The Other has a fundamental role in this, in parrhēsia, but it is not the role of the truth-speaker, which is the role of the priest/psychologist in a confessional setting.

And in this rests the non-normativity of polyamory as a sub-section of a technological apparatus of construing subjects – or so my thesis goes – the queerness of polyamory, or part of it.

Pepper:

Thank you for adding all that. I agree fully, and now I see a lot more of what you are trying to say about the discourse that poly people tend to engage in.

You are correct that the discourse in polyamory is different and sets it apart. This is pretty easy to see if I compare poly to other recent forms of nonmonogamy in the U.S., such as swinging, open relationships in the 70’s and 80’s, gay men’s nonmonogamy in the 70’s, and so on. These other types of nonmonogamy did not involve nearly so much introspective discourse.

An exception might be free love in the 60’s and 70’s, which definitely started from an ideological position. But even then, I think the conversation was not deep in the same way. It was more an exercise in establishing a new cultural alternative than an exercise in self-analysis. When I read documents from that era, they seem oddly shallow, like people were throwing a lot of words and emotions around but not doing what I see as the real work.

This all begs the question: why now? What is the motivation of poly people that leads them into these very complex and nuanced dialogues? Why do we have incredibly active online forums and a whole host of books written? I am not sure as to the answer to this question, but I’ll take some guesses.

I’ve given one answer above, which is that we have pragmatic cause to do so: our practice of parrhēsia is an effective pragmatic deconstruction of the cultural apparatus of monogamy, giving people tools to practice nonmonogamy in whatever form. I’m not sure why earlier movements did not happen upon this technique – perhaps the overall culture was not ready for it, or perhaps the goals of these movements (i.e. recreational sex as opposed to multiple relationships) did not demand an extensive deconstruction.

There are other possibilities. Polyamory books are definitely located in the self-help genre, so it may be that the overall culture’s emphasis on self-improvement birthed the sort of moral subject you are describing, and polyamory is that subject operating in nonmonogamy. Similarly, much of early polyamory was located in the neo-pagan movement, with its emphasis on life improvement via individual spirituality.

I’m curious: where would you locate the source of this difference? In the mainstream culture’s slow move towards production of the subject via dialogue?

Also, I should not have use Foucault’s confessional dynamic as shorthand, sorry. I wasn’t talking about what he described (the confessional and the clinic) – as you say, those are examples of confession as a technique of unequal power.

Rather, something has happened to confession since then. It detached from specific power relationships and became a personal tool for (as you say) the production of the self. We see confession everywhere, from talk shows to blogs to coming out. People confess not just to be heard, but also to publicly establish the truth of themselves, which is a very powerful political technique. We can see this in the advance of queer rights over the last four decades, which was largely achieved via coming out. I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know in this paragraph, but I wanted to lay out my thinking.

Polyamory definitely shares this technique of power – it speaks loudly and from the self whereas previous nonmonogamy movements had been fairly closeted. That may be our difference right there: polyamory happened well into the coming out phase of queer rights, and so is following its model. It seems to be working, as polyamory is gaining mindshare fast, taking it from monogamy and other forms of nonmonogamy.

I don’t think these techniques of speaking are only useful at the macro political level, but that’s an easy place to see them in action. As you say, we seem to also be getting a lot of utility out of them in interpersonal interactions and the restructuring of the self.

All of the above (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) establishes polyamory as similar to queer movements, like you say. I think there’s a tricky political dance there, since polyamory in an individual instance isn’t necessarily queer at all, but I definitely see a lot of correspondence in queer and poly practices. This may explain the overlap: the attraction of poly to certain queer groups, the poly-positive queer movement and queer-positive poly movement, and so on.

Daniel:

I too think, as you do, that the free love thing is altogether different, as are several other forms of organized non-monogamy, and that it’s a risk just placing them as being chronologically related in a sort of cause-and-effect context.

I think the point you make about poly books being a lot about self-help is rather relevant. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Nikolas Rose, but he has a book called “Inventing Our Selves”, where he debates the role of what he calls the “psy sciences” (psychology, psychiatry, and so forth) in our understanding of ourselves. The rise of those psy sciences is directly liked with the rise of individuality and subjectivity as a central value in our society. We understand ourselves psychologically, and so turn to self-help books and the like to remake ourselves, shape us into what we can and want to be. Now parrhēsia can be thought of as a way to do the same, although as we’ve seen, it’s somewhat different in that psychology takes a defined subject for granted, one that can be objectified, whereas the act of parrhēsia does no such thing. Obviously we don’t do parrhēsia the way the Greeks did it; Foucault himself insisted that there is no turning back in time and pretending the interleaving 2000 years didn’t happen. Instead, we do a sort of a hybrid, where we indeed fall prey to the demands of society that we “be ourselves”, that we “be free”, that we “be unique”, but use that very same demand to, as you put it, engage in identity politics. And in those identity politics, at least some of us aren’t interested in defining poly as the One True Truth, or the polyamorous subject as morally superior, but as an ever-changing movement, although the danger of normativity is still present in polyamory (as is in any identity) – and it’s a fear that I feel looming closer as polyamory gains mindshare, but I’d like your input about this, since things here in Portugal are pathetically microscopic compared to the USA.

But here’s the funny thing – if one reads Giddens, Beck, Rose, they all say one and the same thing: they put the question you put (‘why is this happening?’) and then go on to say that it is an “answer to systemic contradictions” or other such term. [Note= «this», meaning the changes in individuality, subjectivity, intimate relationships, Giddens' pure relationship, and so on.] When I noticed that, I got the feeling that it needed further explaining. After all, from where does that systemic contradiction come from? What is in contradiction here? And where did I went to seek the answer? Well, Foucault, obviously.

There is, in Sexuality 1, a tiny passage where he says something like this: the sexuality device placed itself under the alliance device, thus supporting the alliance device and masquerading itself as the alliance device, but acting like itself nonetheless. So bear with me: visualize a web (of power) that is the alliance device, and that starts getting worn and weak. Now visualize another web growing under it, through it, inside it, supporting it for some time longer, but at the same time, being of a different nature, and thusly supporting-but-rupturing that pre-existing web. What is the end result? A systemic contradiction. Subjects who ‘see’ alliance (monogamy) but then are influenced and experience something altogether different (the sexuality device, id est, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, GLBT culture, queer movements, …). This, in my opinion, is the crux of the question, when it comes to changes in how we ‘do’ intimacy. We’re trying to reconcile ourselves with the functioning of the sexuality device, now that the mask of the alliance device is wearing too think, nearly going invisible, and we can no longer be fooled or fool ourselves (well, clearly the bible-thumpers can and do, but you get my point).

Also, it’s interesting to see that at last someone other than me shares my point on poly and queer, namely that poly-as-identity is in itself queer (as it queers the institution of mono-normativity) but poly-as-practice or polys-as-people aren’t inherently or necessarily queer. Usually that debate slides into the all-or-nothing model.

There is a lot of correspondence and more: statistics that I’ve seen point out that GLBT were spear-heading the pre-movement of consensual non-monogamy in a fashion much more like poly of nowadays.

Indeed this relation of the subject with truth in polyamory and other identitary movements is, I think, fundamental. It is only in asserting our own transience that we get to adapt and overcome (constantly, endlessly) the dangers of stagnation, of moral solidification. Interesting how having “solid morals” is seen as a good thing, when actually our ethical responses need to change and adapt to the circumstances, and so something too solid is inherently something incapable of dealing with change.

Pepper:

The free love movement was definitely distinct from the polyamory movement in the US, though some of the roots of polyamory can be found in free love ideology. Current polyamory is also significantly distinct from the various intervening systems that came after free love: open relationships, swinging, and group marriage/polyfidelity in the 80’s.

I agree with you that there’s a contradiction between the sexuality device and alliance device, though I think there may be some other things going on as well, which I will describe below. I read “alliance device” as economically-oriented marriage primarily, which was predominant in the Victorian era moving to the pre-war 1900’s. I read “sexuality device” as referring to romantic/sexual relationships, which have been gaining ground steadily against alliance marriage for some time now. (Stephanie Coontz does a good description of this advance in her history of marriage.) This was one of the things that came to a head in the 60’s and 70’s in the US, resulting in an ideological revolution in how people considered sexuality and relationships. So yes, this advance of sexuality and relationship concerns ahead of economic pairings is definitely leading us directly to a more individually-oriented concept of the self, along with relationship forms adapted to that self. It may simply be that the advance has hit a point where, as you say, old structures crumble. Certainly traditional monogamy qualifies for this, as it was originally produced to control the sexuality (and procreation) of women, and it depended upon highly unequal power arrangements to maintain.

I think there are other things going on here as well though. The rise of a strong middle class during the last century produced a situation where our web of social dependencies could be hidden, creating a strong sense of individuality. Similarly, the capitalism of the last forty years has tightened, killing the single-breadwinner family (still in its infancy) and creating a certain equality as companies end discrimination in order to compete better. The upshot is that relationships and marriages are rapidly losing their economic incentive, and so pleasures of various forms (love, sexuality, companionship, etc) are becoming more primary in relationship structures.

Also, I think the speaking-from-the-self individuation that we are describing (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) is perhaps a response to a certain form of power, namely the power of external authorities over the truth of one’s self. The confession gave priests and psychotherapists the ability to control people, but to do that it had to create this idea of inner truth (i.e. “be true to yourself” etc). But of course there was a certain rebellion after a time, or perhaps a commodification of the power of truth-telling, and so people wrested control of this mechanism away from authorities, and started telling truth all over the place, both diagnosing others and telling the truth of themselves.

In other words, we might be seeing a historically specific power response here, one which arose in response to a specific move by authorities and may recede once this technique of power is played out or deconstructed. I’m not entirely sure that we will be seeing forward progress on this moral subjectivity of the self.

This gets at my main point: systems of conceptual power always contain systemic contradictions, because they rely on ideological lattices (webs, as you describe them) of meaning. There are always points of weakness in those webs, which might take the form of internal contradictions, contradictions with other evolving power systems, points where power is insufficiently buttressed, and so on. Indeed, polyamorous people make these sorts of attacks on the system of mono-normativity as a matter of habit, engaging in a series of redefinitions, revaluations, and deprogramming techniques.

Is this what Giddens and others are referring to by “systemic contradictions”? I’m not sure. I think it is unfortunate that they have not explained what sort of contradiction they see. The clash between the mechanisms of sexuality and alliance is, as you state, definitely a big issue, which is obviously putting strain on the entire social system. But I think it is probably not the entire story.

Regarding identity politics and the danger of normativity in polyamory, I think that’s a good question. I think there is definitely a danger there. Indeed, I’ve cataloged one version of it (exclusion via definitional fiat) in a post to my blog. I would say that overall I am concerned that a more-mainstream group within polyamory may at some point attempt to take over the movement and start excluding others. Certainly I have seen individual attempts at this, though they have never gotten very far. And if we look at the way US queer movements have been diverted into the same-sex marriage battle recently, this sort of thing is clearly a danger.

But at the same time, that day may be very far off, specifically because of the power arrangements of mono-normativity. Compulsory monogamy has functioned via heavy stigmatization of any sort of nonmonogamy. Which means that having sex with more than one person in any context is considered by most people to be the same as having wild orgies all the time. There is no middle ground in the popular imagination, much as many poly people are trying to create one.

This creates an odd situation where the more normative polyamorous people are treated more or less the same as the less normative ones, which keeps them from having the sort of leverage required to create exclusion. Indeed, being less normative gives one certain advantages because one is not as beholden to mainstream concerns, while still laboring under a similar level of stigma.

I think this is why there is still a very sex-positive feeling within polyamory, for example. This is despite a steady influx of people who carry the strongly sex-negative attitudes of the mainstream. Being sex-positive is personally advantageous in nonmonogamy, and being sex-negative fails to confer advantage because people lose the backing of the culture as soon as they become nonmonogamous. Indeed, compulsory monogamy is arguably one of the prime purposes of mainstream sex-negativity, so there is a certain contradiction in being sex-negative and polyamorous.

We can see this in other areas as well. Poly groups in my area at least is still surprisingly friendly to the less popular queer groups (bi and trans people), along with sex workers. There is a certain white and middle-class hegemony within publicly announced polyamorous groups, but interestingly this seems to be reversing currently along lines of race: people of color are gaining ground.

However, I can definitely see this situation changing as polyamory gains acceptance. We may at some point create a situation where polyamory is acceptable enough that we end up with a class of “good polys”, who then make a bid for mainstream acceptance by enforcing stigma against “bad polys”.

Certainly I see people constantly trying to solidify polyamorous identity around their own personal practices. They are generally ineffective at this, but that may change as numbers get so large that people can segregate into sub-groups based on their practices.

I don’t think the current practice of parrhēsia insulates us from this necessarily. While it does create a certain level of understanding of others, that often does not extend to people from other groups or backgrounds. We can see this in the US queer movement, which is still heavily invested in parrhēsia but at the same time manages to exclude significant groups.

The good news is that I think we have some time before this all happens. If we were to draw a parallel with the queer movement, I would put us in the 70’s, during the period when radicals held sway. Which means that it will probably be around two decades before we see a situation where exclusion becomes common, and that is only if polyamory continues to gain positive mindshare.

As for poly-as-identity being queer, I agree, but that depends on us defining “queer” the way it generally is in academic circles. Outside of academia, “queer” generally translates to LGBT, which makes polyamory identity not queer. But in any case, it is a matter of semantics: polyamory definitely deconstructs mono-normativity in a manner similar to the way queer people end up deconstructing heterosexism.

Daniel:

I think you’re spot-on with your overall analysis of the situation, especially having to do with how we went from a setting based on rules (alliance) to a setting where what is produced is constant change itself, where there is a summons to focus on the body, on pleasure; but where a subject (an interiority) is also created and established.

Also, I agree that power in this situation (well, in all situations, as per Foucault) works not just focusing on what we call authorities, but in a microphysical way. But maybe the idea of wresting control away from those authorities isn’t the best way to address this. Nikolas Rose says that psychology is a very promiscuous discipline, and so our wresting away isn’t as clear-cut as I’d like it to be. This all relates to how Foucault sees power circulate: we can’t run away from power, we can’t just take control of it, we have to work with it, in it. So the claim to be able to speak the truth is still very much imbued of this notion of an interiority, something that is normatively produced still by those institutions.

This is, to relate to what you were saying, a systemic contradiction: the one encountered inside the escape of the normative system’s systemic contradiction. That normative system still acts upon us, and it’s been reproducing even inside our own attempts to find out other ways to subvert and contradict it. The blog post “defining polyamory”, which I’d read for my thesis, is a clear analysis on your part of this happening. All those sorts of definitions are attempts at normativizing something which is not normative from the get-go, and I fear I’ve seen that tendency grow, lately. But let’s not forget that this characteristic isn’t something that was added to polyamory after the fact, it was already there from the get-go (which you probably know better than I do): for instance, Jennifer Wesp’s first posts when she created alt.polyamory (on Usenet) where full of that “let’s not talk about sex, or STD’s, or anything bodily, please” attitude that is still quite common nowadays.

I believe that in Portugal there is some resistance to dissemination of polyamory, and the group has been growing, but slowly. Also, we’re a more conservative and catholic country, and that heavily influences acceptance and visibility; adding to that, we’re about 10 years behind the USA when it comes to awareness of polyamory’s existence. That stagnation may be dangerous, as it may lead to a solidification of specific kinds of polyamorous practices or views, something I try to avoid when giving interviews.

As for queerness: certainly, there is deconstruction, but lest we be careful, that deconstruction leads to yet another construction, and in that sense (which is actually what we’ve been talking about) it totally stops being queer in any sense whatsoever. And this is not a problem exclusive to poly, but to the LGBT movement as a whole – seeking acceptance has already made a lot of people think that trade-offs and selective discrimination are an OK thing to do, as long as it pushes a specific agenda. Case in point is the promiscuity/same-sex marriage debate. At least here in Portugal, the line of reasoning is something to this effect: one of the points that legitimizes same-sex marriage is that LGBT people aren’t necessarily as promiscuous as they’re assumed to be. Instead of deconstructing promiscuity as locus of discrimination, it is used, manipulated and its discriminatory power actually amplified in order to reach a certain goal.

Pepper:

I agree with you that the process of removing conceptual control from authorities (in this case, mental health authorities: therapists and psychologists) is always an incomplete process. Indeed it must be incomplete as you state. People may have started diagnosing each other in imitation of the authorities, but this only works because of the deference granted to those authorities in the first place. The diagnosis of others or oneself only works as long as one carries an internal truth that is diagnosable, and that internal truth is the linchpin of the power of mental health authorities.
This does mean that it is hard to see where this is all going. Will the system of diagnosis, internal knowledge, and speaking one’s truth remain so long as therapists and psychologists hold some power in the culture? Will the overall system be exposed as corrupt once people start rebelling against the diagnoses of their peers, or will that even happen? Will it continue to deepen and strengthen, with ever more complex and yet still diagnosable internal truths? I don’t know the answers here.

I was actually not aware that Wesp started alt.polyamory on a sex-negative note, so thank you for that. (In general I have not investigated the history of alt.polyamory in detail.) However, it does not surprise me in the slightest. As you say, bids for normativity have been present since the beginning of polyamory. People have generally taken the position that they should be able to access the privileges of being normative despite their nonmonogamy. As you say, the tactics of the mainstream are imported into polyamory in order to facilitate this maintenance of privilege. So a person might be engaged in the process of deconstructing monogamy, but at the same time upholding white privilege, sex-negativity, heteronormativity, and so on. This is I think what you mean when you say it is a systemic contradiction. These systems of power intertwine, and so challenging one while trying to uphold others leads to a certain set of conceptual deadlocks. Not that this prevents people from trying, and they are successful to some extent, as they get quite creative in their framing of concepts. But it definitely slows them down in comparison to people who lack or work against forms of privilege. Which again means the radicals hold sway and in some ways come more naturally to polyamory. Again, I think this will only continue so long as polyamory is condemned by the mainstream. Much like being gay or lesbian, there is nothing inherently radical about being polyamorous, and so cultural acceptance will open a space where a person can be openly poly and still maintain normativity on other axes of oppression.

Regarding privilege and group dynamics, heavily under-privileged groups are somewhat marginalized in poly communities: people of color, poor people, and so on. Radical sexual minority groups however have a lot of influence and are fairly central to the communities: queer women, sex workers, BDSM folks, bisexuals, transgender people, and so on.

It may be that the situation in your circles is different. Certainly I have seen poly groups harden around more privileged members, but eventually competing groups show up which do not have this issue. Which is to say, there are probably already people coming to polyamory outside of your group, and they may at some future point challenge it.

I agree with everything you’ve said in regards to issues in the queer movement. I think we can expect to see that in the polyamory movement at some point in the future (probably at least three decades away) once polyamory becomes accepted enough that people can actually succeed at bids for normativity. I would like to try to prevent that future, but I am not sure there is any way to do so.

Daniel:

I do wish that in a way that power of the psy-sciences (and of what is done in their name, or through them nowadays) would be contested, but it seems it’s getting harder to do so. Since to speak psychologically is, like you say, to posit an internal truth, then those who speak psychologically speak truthfully – they speak of a transcendent truth, a truth at the core of existence. Questioning psychological-type speeches is to question the possibility of truth-speaking, which is very threatening. Obviously I don’t have the answer as to what will happen, but it seems doubtful that it will just be matter of exposing the influence of psy-speech; it will probably evolve into something else, since we’re always, as a society, looking for a paradigm from within which to speak truthfully (or, to put it better, to understand what it means to ‘speak truthfully’).

The apt description you make of this our systemic contradiction touches a very sensitive issue for me. Discrimination and normativity are fought in a fragmented and niche-like manner, where each person has their own fighting field and that fighting field is equivalent to one form of discrimination and nothing more. But when we look at the rhetorical construction of discrimination, it’s all the same, everywhere. So in fact, fighting against one discrimination is fighting them all – or should be, from a logical point of view – and yet people pretend like it isn’t, and self-defeat their own arguments by discriminating while asking not to be discriminated, using the same rhetorical devices that they ask others not to use, only because the variables in the rethorical constructs are changed from something that affects them into something that (they feel) doesn’t.

And if indeed people who don’t work against special privileges are slowed down, I think it’s also true that the overall tendency is to favor that slowing down, as it is usually represented as maturity, as a coming-of-age, finding a middle ground, etc.

As for the differences between my experience of poly and yours, maybe it has to do with a matter of scale. Although people from radical sexual minorities are also very important around here, the fact is that it’s still a very white-and-middle-class thing. I do hope that things start to change for the better, but at the same time I need to remind myself of that 10-year delay over the USA. Which is to say, things around here, when it comes to polyamory, are just getting started. References in the media are sparse, and sometimes not quite done right, with a lot of that ancient catholic influence of centuries still peeking through.

Pepper:

Reading your description of the situation in your community, I was very much reminded of the situation in the San Francisco area a decade ago (or perhaps the late 90’s). There was a period after the early conventions and alt.polyamory but before the current (media, online, social group) explosion where people were very inward-focused in the way you describe. There are currently parts of the U.S. that have that dynamic, rural areas where poly has only barely taken root. So I think you are probably pretty accurate with your estimate of where things stand chronologically.

When I started doing organizing in this area eight years ago, there was a fairly settled group of people who had built out a social network together in the late 90’s. Most of them didn’t see much need to take it beyond that. While the email list was public-entry (and still exists today), the primary social venues were small dinners and discussion groups, people had their private social networks, and most folks did not see a reason to come out in public, engage with the media, or specifically create events to welcome new folks.

Within this group there was a certain established conformity, and at various points in the intervening decade when I have challenged this conformity, I have faced resistance, for example when creating a group for younger people or when setting up a poly speed dating event.
But at the same time, things were fomenting outside this group and their email list, and during the last decade I’ve seen a lot of other groups appear and in some cases become established: an explicitly political group, a set of discussion groups based on meetup.com, various social networks with regular parties and other events, a couple different communal living groups, and so on.

I think that you will likely see a similar progression. We can expect that there will be a certain steady flow of new people in your region who will start identifying as poly, and those who do not find your group or are not served by it will eventually start building their own structures.

This all isn’t to say that I don’t see a lot of closeting even today in the U.S. – most poly people here are still closeted at work, for example. But the ratios have shifted, and most people are out to at least some friends and family. Overall there is more of a spirit of openness, and the large public events in my area have been helping this. When people see a lot of people at an event, it tends to shake them out of the idea that they should be comfortable in their small social circle with their twenty poly friends. People realize that they might be trading too many experiences for the feeling of safety. Also, a series of media successes have helped. In general poly people here are starting to understand that there are a large number of people like them, and becoming more open as a result.

As for the situation with the current LGBT quest for normativity, I think you are largely correct. I do want to say that there is certainly a large and ongoing radical section to queer communities here, and these folks continue to be on the forefront of social justice campaigns of various sorts.
But at the same time there are also large numbers of folks who mostly just want to get their marriage rights and then to get on with a fairly standard American-dream lifestyle. Being revolutionary, while fulfilling in many ways, is at best uncomfortable and at worst life-destroying, and so I think some people turn away from it as soon as they can. Certainly, the main thing that gets people to attack normativity is when they themselves are inevitably non-normative, either because society has labeled them as such or because they must live in some non-normative manner in order to be happy. So I think there is a certain regrettable inevitability to this quest for normativity as a social movement actually starts realizing its goals.

The BDSM community out here is significantly less politicized than the queer community, which sounds like your experience there. People mostly want to focus inward, and they get involved in all the minutiae of in-group relating. So BDSM folks that I know will attend workshops, conferences, and social events in large numbers but typically do not see themselves as political and do not try to form a strongly supportive community. The gay leather scene does a much better job of this and there is a stronger community feel.

Overall I would say that the BDSM folks are in certain ways behind the poly folks in terms of social acceptance. I think the lack of political engagement in U.S. BDSM communities is likely because it seems hopeless. I don’t think it is hopeless, and we are getting positive energy from a number of places (most notably college newspapers, but also queer communities) but at the same time I think people are very aware of the stigma attached to their activities. Perhaps they are overly scared of cultural backlash, but it is a real concern in any case.

Daniel:

There’s an odd feeling I get reading your reply. At once, I feel hopeful for the future of the poly movement in Portugal and also it feels like peeking through a window into the future. It’s interesting to see some independent verification of my 10-year-lag theory.

The language barrier is indeed being broken little by little – more and more people are paying attention to the word, and all that’s associated with it, there has been increasing media attention – more people outside the poly group I’m in want to talk about polyamory. But at the same time, there’s a lot of people saying “all in all, it doesn’t differ from open relationships and the notion of polyamory isn’t really needed because people will just sort out their lives and that’s it”.

Of course there can be a double reading to this: on the one hand, the anti-identity and very queer reading that says we shouldn’t conform; on the other hand, and this is the one that’s most likely what they mean, the reading that says, as you’ve pointed out, that this doesn’t need to go out-of-doors, that it’s purely private and doesn’t call for public debate.

Pepper:

Regarding the people you hear saying that polyamory isn’t much different from open relationships, when I have heard that out here it has generally been an excuse to closet or otherwise hide. The two defining features of open relationships (in the U.S.) were that they were mostly a primary relationship with sex on the side, and that they were almost universally closeted, much like swinging. So mostly I read that statement as a defensive maneuver, trying to keep people seeing their activities as entirely private, in the tradition of open relationships.

I think it is important to remember that open relationships and polyamory are very similar in a lot of ways – much of what we are doing has been done before, and we should not erase that history or pretend that the new wave of polyamory is somehow inherently superior to previous waves of nonmonogamy. But at the same time, polyamory does bring some new things to the table – here in the U.S., open relationships rarely involved multiple dating-style relationships (and still don’t when currently practiced, as they are in the gay community here in SF), and it was not until the advent of polyamory that these became relatively widespread.

I also want to say that I appreciate the need for closeting. I think most of the resistance you are facing is because people want to stay closeted. And they have good reasons for doing so – they could easily lose their jobs, be disowned from their families, and lose their friends if they come out publicly. But what I find is that people make up all sorts of arguments to justify closeting rather than talking about the real reasons they are scared. A lot of the above fits this pattern. Which is not to say that people need to uncloset or the group needs to become more open, but rather that a direct conversation about people’s actual fears tends to be more productive in producing a sense of safety than these surrogate conversations. One way to address this to create actual support groups, or to have on-list discussions about the real good and bad things about coming out or staying closeted.

Jealousy, Monogamy, and Power

This essay on jealousy came out of work I did on two preceding papers. It represents my latest thinking on the relationship between jealousy and monogamy, written in a dense academic style. I have also posted a PDF version on my website. This paper has not been published or peer-reviewed, but I am interested in publishing it. If you have connections to a publication that would be appropriate, please email me at pepomint@gmail.com.

What are we to make of jealousy?  It is simultaneously a biological response, an emotion, a social reaction to particular situations, and a general term that can be applied to any sort of covetousness.  Romantic jealousy is often a point of strife in relationships, when one person gets jealous or one person accuses another of jealousy.  And yet, we largely consider jealousy to be an inevitable part of relationships.

Whenever nonmonogamy is addressed in popular culture, romantic jealousy is brought up as an overwhelming obstacle to any sort of successful nonmonogamy.  Sometimes the author states that they themselves could never get past jealousy enough to be nonmonogamous.  Other times, therapists are quoted as saying that nonmonogamy is impossible due to jealousy.  We see quotes like “there is no getting around the ultimate problem of jealousy” (Coren 2005) and similar examples when polyamory is profiled in the media (DeDonato 2008; Jackson 2006; Lewis 2005; Marech 2001).  This immediate conflation of nonmonogamy and jealousy hints at the cultural role jealousy plays in creating monogamous conformity – I will describe this role in detail below.

In contrast, polyamory literature tends to start discussions of jealousy by stating that it is in fact defeatable.  This is done to counter mainstream culture’s sense that jealousy is inevitable in and fatal to nonmonogamous situations (Anapol 1997: 50-51; Benson 2008: 185; Easton and Hardy 1997: 136-137).

When our culture examines jealousy, we tend to fall back on biological imperative.  Research has not been immune to this essentialization (for an overview, see Lucas 2007).  Recent advances in DNA fingerprinting have revealed that sexual monogamy is pretty much nonexistent in the natural kingdom (Barash and Lipton 2001), and jealousy is generally understood in academic circles to be constructed by culture rather than a biological phenomenon (Sharpsteen 1993; Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 66-75).  However, this knowledge has not filtered through the public awareness, and jealousy and monogamy are generally considered to be biological and inevitable, as we see in journalism (e.g. Barash and Barash 2005; Martell 2003; Stephens 2007) and pop psychology (e.g. Barash and Lipton 2001: 30,120; Buss 2000; Espejo 2007: 29; Rodgers 2002: 8,11,123,346). The mainstream often considers jealousy situations to be a problem which should be addressed (as I describe below), but the jealous response itself is rarely questioned.

In our culture we rarely look to a person’s underlying motivations for the source of jealousy, though people seem to understand these causes and will readily admit to deeper social or situational reasons when questioned: "I thought she would leave me for him" "I feel ugly compared to him" "I know he’ll take the first chance he gets if I let him out of my sight" "I’m jealous because of how you acted around her" "You’re just saying that because you’re jealous".  In short, jealousy is a strategy of personal power within relationships, one that is useful and common enough that we are rarely willing to take a cold look at what we are actually using it for.

This essay is devoted to examining these power strategies that surround jealousy. For this analysis, I am relying on a Foucauldian notion of power (Foucault 1978: 92-102).  In other words, I view jealousy as a social mechanism used for relationships among people, a mechanism that allows people to exert power on each other in various ways.  My hope is to establish a framework for understanding the relationship between jealousy, power, and monogamy in romantic relationships.

I will reference various academic works on jealousy throughout this paper, but my primary source for this deconstruction is the shared knowledge of the polyamory community, and my own personal experience in polyamorous relationships, education, and organizing. Social activists are well aware that the people who understand a power dynamic best are those who are in a losing position when it comes to that form of power (for example, Harding 2003: 56-57).  Indeed, polyamorous people are beset by the multitudinous mechanisms that enforce compulsory monogamy in our culture.  And as we shall see, the power relations surrounding jealousy are prime enforcers of monogamy.  Polyamorous people of necessity become experts at negotiating these power dynamics, to the point where some of the claims in this paper may already be obvious to my poly readers.

First, some disclaimers.  I am only discussing the complex of romantic jealousy in this essay, and I am not addressing other forms of jealousy and envy such as sibling jealousy, coworker jealousy, and so on.

I will be addressing the culturally hegemonic system of compulsory monogamy in this piece.  Nothing in this essay should be taken as critical of the practice of monogamy or of people who get jealous: monogamy, especially when practiced in a conscious manner, is a rewarding path for many people.  Also, deconstructing jealousy (a key component of the conceptual apparatus of compulsory monogamy) will inevitably be read as privileging nonmonogamy.  Nonmonogamy is not magically free of interpersonal power, and any particular variety will have its own power mechanisms, which I am not examining here. 

Also, this paper is a critique of mainstream United States culture specifically, which means that its applicability is limited in scope to that mainstream (mostly white, middle-class, male-dominated, etc) culture.  While the power structures described here may apply to some extent to other cultures and U.S. subcultures, some of the conclusions will not hold as the cultural distance increases.

Indeed, people who are heavily invested in nonmonogamy may find themselves disagreeing with many of the statements I make here about the mainstream mechanism of jealousy.  This is unsurprising, as the process of investing in nonmonogamy tends to require that one find ways to disempower the various power mechanisms of jealousy described here, and the resulting reconceptualization is typically incompatible with the mainstream ideology of jealousy.

The Power Mechanisms of Jealousy

Jealousy is one of the few concepts we have that describes a romantic situation among three people, and like most of the others it is a negative description. For romantic jealousy, the parties in question are: the person who is jealous, a romantic partner of that person, and some third party who is viewed by the jealous person as a romantic rival (White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  The jealous person’s fear is typically that the romantic rival will somehow attract the attentions of their partner, either impeding or ending the partner’s relationship with the jealous person.

Jealousy generally has an air of the problematic about it.  The very existence of an episode of jealousy is viewed as a problem, or at least indicative of one (Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 1-3).  If there were no problem, we assume that there would be no jealousy.  Jealousy is a problem for the person feeling jealous, not just because they are upset but also because they are feeling a threat to their relationship.  Jealousy is also a problem for the other partner, in that they are assumed to have done something to cause the jealousy, or at the very least they need to be able to address or assuage it.  Jealousy is a problem for the overall relationship as well, in that jealousy is generally assumed to only appear when there is a threat to the relationship.  It is this problematic cast to jealousy that makes it easy to describe jealousy as an undesirable trait (though still common and inevitable), as described below.

If the existence of jealousy is considered a problem, then it is begging a solution.  The culturally accepted solution to a person’s jealousy is for the other partner to change their behavior or make amends in some way.  Or, sometimes the third party is expected to apologize for or alter their actions. In other words, a non-jealous person is considered responsible for the jealousy itself, both for its creation and for its attenuation. It is possible to make someone jealous, and this making is seen as an inevitable cause/effect relationship – jealousy as a reflex response to a certain sort of situation.  As a culture we conveniently fail to define exactly what sort of situation, which gives us a wide range of possible jealous triggers, as I describe in the next section.

Jealousy occupies a somewhat odd position as a first-class emotion that at the same time places its responsibility on another person. This becomes apparent when we compare jealousy to other negative feelings. On the one side, we have anger, which like jealousy is a strongly felt emotion but which is somewhat less culturally acceptable than jealousy. For example, public displays of anger are looked down upon more than public displays of jealousy. While anger is typically a response to a situation, we do not automatically locate the source of anger externally the way we do for jealousy. If a person is often angry, we send them to anger management classes, but there are no jealousy management classes outside of nonmonogamous communities, because the way to solve jealousy is to alter one’s situation. On the other side, feelings like hurt and betrayal are socially sanctioned because they are defined responsively, but they do not have the force of full-on emotions – a betrayed person may have various emotional responses, including anger and jealousy. Jealousy sits in a charmed space between these two types of feelings, as we grant it the strength and immediacy of an internally felt emotion while still giving it the deference of an emotional response to an external situation.

To recap, we consistently locate both the source of and solution to jealousy in an external party. This externality of jealousy is demanded by the cultural script we have for it, namely: a person takes or allows an action towards a third party, which threatens the relationship and triggers jealousy in the person’s partner.  Jealousy is primarily seen as the legitimate response to a real relationship threat (Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  Indeed, jealousy is understood as part and parcel of the threat itself, nothing more than the emotional flipside of being the aggrieved party.  However, putting the responsibility for an emotion on someone other than the person feeling the emotion necessarily creates multiple power dynamics, and I will describe three of them below. Here I am focusing on power between the jealous person and their partner and leaving aside dynamics between the jealous person and the third party, though there is a parallel and somewhat weaker set of power relations between those parties.

First, jealousy itself demands some sort of response from the other partner, influencing them.  Because the conceptual domain of jealousy is the partner’s interactions with third parties, being jealous produces influence over the partner’s relations with specific third parties or even their social life in general.  If someone gets jealous because their partner flirts, then the implied demand is that their partner stop flirting.  If someone is jealous because their partner is friendly with a particular person, they are effectively demanding that their partner stop being friends with that person.  Further, feeling jealous gives a person a certain degree of social license and emotional cover to take various malicious actions, such as reading their partner’s email or trying to manipulate their partner’s social contacts (White and Mullen: 183-185,223-227).

These direct power mechanisms remain in effect even when jealousy is not contrived or strategic, though it may be either of these.  Because jealousy is a felt emotion, it is difficult to discern any actual causality between the feeling and the power dynamic.  Is a person jealous for the associated power effects, or are they gaining the power effects because they are jealous?  Their actual motivation is not particularly relevant to the power outcomes, which flow from the conceptualization of jealousy itself.

This power mechanism of jealousy is direct, in that it is a largely unavoidable effect of jealousy itself.  Indeed, we can read the influence of jealousy over a partner as the conceptual purpose of jealousy itself.  If jealousy is an emotional response to a relationship threat, then the desired effect of jealousy would in theory be to protect the relationship.  There is of course no guarantee that any particular jealous episode will be protective or destructive towards a relationship, but our cultural logic defines jealousy as an appropriate defensive response.

Because our culture generally recognizes the association of jealousy with control of a partner, there is a secondary power dynamic produced, where a person accuses someone of being jealous for personal gain.  We enable this accusation by categorizing jealousy into reasonable and unreasonable varieties, generally judged by the severity of the jealous person’s actions (Lucas 2007; Stenner and Rogers 1998).  For example, complaining to one’s partner about their behavior might be reasonable, but demanding that they not socialize with coworkers might seem overly controlling.  Of course, we are again conveniently vague about where the line between reasonable and unreasonable jealousy falls, making this a flexible power dynamic.  Depending on the situation and the person making the judgment, acts of jealous violence might be reasonable, or the mere feeling of jealousy itself might be unreasonable (as in the interview by Stenner 1993).  “You’re being too jealous” is therefore the inverse power relation to the direct power effects of jealousy, providing a counterbalancing effect: one person makes demands via jealousy, and their partner resists those by claiming that the jealousy is unreasonable.  While either power dynamic can exist in a particular relationship without the other, this inverse power mechanism is a proper Foucaldian method of resistance to the direct jealousy mechanism described above, as its existence requires recognizing the possibilities of control associated with jealousy (Foucault 1978: 95-96).

This back and forth power struggle means that the act of admitting jealousy is somewhat fraught, opening a person up to accusations of being unreasonably jealous, along with carrying an implicit admission that there may be a real threat to the relationship.  Also, jealousy is generally considered to be a negative trait by counseling professionals (White and Mullen 1989: 173-217).

The upshot of all this is that people are remarkably loathe to admit that they are jealous (White and Mullen 1989: 55), because making that admission sets them at a disadvantage.  Which makes for an odd situation: on the one hand, a person might feel entirely justified in acting on their jealousy, but on the other hand, they typically seek to hide the jealousy itself.  A quick trip to the relationship self-help section of the bookstore confirms this: few of the books present actually approve of or mention jealousy, but quite a number of them license jealous feelings and controlling behavior under the rubric of protecting one’s relationship from cheating or recovering from an affair (e.g. Block and Neumann 2009: 55-75; Copeland and Louis 2000: 363-364; DeLorenzo et al 2009; Neuman 2008: 34-62; Spring 1996: 148-160).  Indeed, it is common polyamorous wisdom that an initial difficult step in dealing with jealousy is getting the jealous person to acknowledge their feelings (e.g. Anapol 1997: 57-58; Easton and Hardy 1997: 138-139).

It is well-understood that power dynamics seek to hide their own operation, because doing so makes them more effective (Foucault 1978: 86).  We can view this tendency to disavow jealousy as another tactic in this vein. Individuals make better use of jealousy by hiding their personal motivations, and this tendency for jealousy to remain a private matter means that knowledge on how to handle jealousy is not distributed through social networks.

The third power dynamic associated with jealousy is purposefully inducing jealousy in one’s partner for some sort of leverage (White 1980).  Whereas the above mechanisms depend on jealousy being the responsibility of the jealous person’s partner, this mechanism depends on the partner’s actions being the source of jealousy.  The desired outcome is the jealous emotion itself, either using its unpleasantness as a motivator or as proof of love.  Alternatively, as suggested by the preceding paragraph, inducing jealousy may produce various advantages by exposing a partner’s jealousy. In short, if jealousy is a response to a relationship threat, this mechanism is manufacturing a relationship threat to prove a point.  The inducement mechanism depends on the ubiquity and inevitability of jealousy itself, as the easiest way to block it would be to simply not get jealous.  This power mechanism is again a form of resistance per Foucault, since its utility is a side effect of one’s partner having access to the direct mechanism.

Certainly, these power mechanisms associated with jealousy are not the only power dynamics within relationships, or even the most powerful ones.  However, the domain of jealous power is interactions with outside parties, which lends it a wide scope.  Also, the mechanisms of jealousy can elastically expand in any particular relationship to the point where jealousy is the defining factor in either intra-relationship or external dynamics.

The Scope of Jealous Power

Let us now take a look at the scope of the direct power mechanism of jealousy, where a jealous person causes their partner to act or not act via expressions of jealousy.

Jealousy is essentialized as biological in popular culture (e.g. Buss 2000), so it is generally unassailable: you can accuse a person of being unreasonably jealous, but it is much more difficult to decry their jealousy as fabricated, strategic, or conditioned, though it may well be any of these.  In other words, a person with a jealous response does not need to justify it, beyond pointing out their partner’s actions that make the jealousy reasonable.  The jealous reaction itself is thought of as inevitable, and indeed people who do not experience jealousy are doubted, or considered to be deficient in some way (Taormino 2008: 155,176).

Even though jealousy is firmly grounded in biology as an emotion, as a culture we are remarkably vague about forms jealousy actually takes.  There are no direct physical symptoms associated with jealousy, in contrast to the red face of anger or the tears of sadness.  “Turning green with jealousy” does not actually describe a solid physical response.  This convenient obscurity means that jealousy can be experienced as a host of emotional responses such as fear, anger, betrayal, sadness, or insecurity, and it may or may not include a variety of physical symptoms (Easton 2010; Sharpsteen 1993; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  This confusion around the jealous experience increases its flexibility as a tool of interpersonal power.  For example, a person could claim to be jealous when they are not, or when they feel threatened, depressed, or even controlling.  Or a person could take actions motivated by jealousy while denying that they are jealous, chalking their behavior up to these other emotions.

We accept a wide range of triggers for jealousy. Jealousy is supposed to be the worst when one’s partner has sex with someone else (unsurprisingly, the very thing that makes a person not monogamous), but it can also be triggered when one’s partner looks at someone else the wrong way, flirts with someone else, spends too much time with someone else, or spends too much time away from the jealous person, among other things.  These infractions are widespread enough and vague enough that they can be basically fabricated in the mind of the beholder, or jealousy can be triggered due to a suspicion instead of a direct action.  In other words, jealousy needs no actual trigger: an imagined one is good enough (Benson 2008: 185; White and Mullen 1989: 187-194).

Similarly, while I have been discussing jealousy as if it only existed in committed romantic relationships, the relationship in question may also be imagined.  People can and do get jealous when they are infatuated, whether or not the object of their affections feels the same way (White and Mullen 1989: 10).

People who are jealous have few limits on their actions. Because we consider jealousy to be a strong emotion, we license all sort of normally antisocial behavior to jealous people. Jealous people can furtively look through their partner’s clothes or email, they can follow their partner, they can make public scenes, they can take reprisals against the third party, they can break up with their partner, and so on  (see also Sharpsteen 1993 for similar reactions).

Even violence, while generally considered unreasonable or unacceptable, is a perfectly understandable course of action when jealous (Sharpsteen 1993).  Researchers are well aware that jealousy is a major factor in domestic violence and homicide (Babcock et al 2004; Barash and Lipton 2001: 55; White and Mullen 1989: 218-222), and it is typically not difficult to find instances of jealous violence in one’s own life or in the media (e.g. within a three-day span: Goodman 2010; Morrison 2010; Sanchez 2010).  While they may be looked down on, jealous violence and other extreme jealous behaviors are conceivable, or “intelligible” in Butler’s framework (Butler 1990).  Because these behaviors are conceptually available, they are licensed to some extent, even though they may be viewed as destructive or irrational.

Notably, jealous violence is overwhelmingly inflicted on the jealous person’s partner, rather than on the rival (White and Mullen 1989: 218-219).  While this may seem initially illogical, it makes sense if we remember that the direct mechanism of jealousy is a tool of power between romantic partners: the escalation of that power to violence therefore also occurs between partners.  In other words, jealous violence is the end resort of a person who is using jealousy’s direct mechanism for control.

Indeed, jealous violence committed against one’s partner or the third party is often excused by the courts and sympathetic juries, either through acquittal or the reduction of murder to manslaughter (White and Mullen, 1989: 231-235). Due to jealousy being viewed as relationship defense, laws have been passed that excuse killing a rival: into the 1970s it was legal in Georgia and Texas for a man to kill his wife’s lover if he could catch them in the act (Miller 2002: 57-60).  While these days the law might take reprisals against someone who commits violence while jealous, no one will be particularly surprised that they did it.

In addition, jealousy is often eroticized.  Sometimes jealousy is seen as direct evidence of a person’s love.  Other times, someone will have sex with a third party specifically to make their partner jealous, fueling the sex with someone else’s potential jealousy.  Jealousy is consensually mined for erotic potential in BDSM play and in cuckolding scenes (White and Mullen 1989: 237-242), and jealousy is used by swingers to tease and arouse their primary partners (McDonald 2010).  Power dynamics that are commonly eroticized are typically those dynamics that shape people’s lives in a culturally ubiquitous manner: violence, gender, race, and so on.  While jealousy is not comparable to these other systems, jealousy’s ready availability for eroticization points to its strength as a hegemonic power dynamic.

To recap, the triggers for jealousy vary widely and can be imagined, the relationship in question can be imagined, the jealous response itself is thought of as biological and inevitable while remaining conveniently vague, and the behavior associated with jealousy ranges from the entirely reasonable all the way up to stalking and homicide.  In other words, jealousy is an extremely elastic power mechanism, available in pretty most relationships and licensing escalating reprisals.  This is not to say that the direct mechanism of jealousy is all-powerful: jealous triggers and actions must fit into the conceptual framework of defending one’s sexual or romantic interest against third parties.  For example, this makes it difficult (though notably, not impossible) to claim jealousy when one’s partner is spending too much time with a person of a gender they are not attracted to.

Note that the inverse mechanism of jealousy is not elastic to this extent. For example, one generally cannot conceive of violence against one’s partner because they got jealous.  Similarly, the inducement mechanism does not license violence: one does not commit violence in order to make one’s partner jealous.  The strongest actions available to either of these resistance forms are effectively either cheating or leaving the relationship.

It should be noted that a desire for power is not the only reason that people get jealous. For many people, jealousy is a conditioned and generally unavoidable response. For example, we see this in nonmonogamous subcultures, where people get jealous even when jealousy is a serious liability to their situation – more on this below.

Jealousy and Gender

While the above mechanisms are available regardless of gender, jealousy is somewhat gendered.  Interestingly, there is a gender reversal between the ideology and practice of jealousy.  Jealousy is generally considered to be an emotion that women are more likely to feel, even though men and women self-report feelings of jealousy at similar levels (Hansen 1985).  At the same time men are much more likely to escalate the direct mechanism of jealousy to controlling behavior or violence.  When feeling jealous, women are more likely to blame themselves and men are more likely to blame others. (Buunk and Dijkstra 2004)

This gender dissonance starts making sense if we remember that hiding or disavowing one’s jealousy actually makes one’s use of jealous power more effective, by blocking the “you’re too jealous” inverse mechanism.  By considering women to be more jealous, which is to say by exposing the jealousy of women, our culture effectively hampers women’s ability to use the direct form of jealous power.

On average, men tend to be the winners in jealous power dynamics and women tend to lose.  As described above, men are seen as less jealous by the culture, but are more likely to blame others when they get jealous, and then escalate that jealousy into influence, control, or violence.  Women are more likely to be discredited as overly jealous, but tend to blame themselves for jealousy and have less ability to escalate jealous feelings into power.

There is an exception: women are somewhat more likely to use the inducement mechanism, where a person specifically encourages jealousy in their partner to gain an advantage (White 1980).  This would seem to contradict the hypothesis that jealousy on average augments the power of men over women, until we recall that the inducement mechanism is a form of resistance to the more powerful direct mechanism of jealousy.  In other words, women make more effective use of jealousy inducement specifically because the men they are with are provided more effective use of jealousy itself.  Women’s higher propensity to engage in a resistance tactic is therefore evidence of this gendered power split, not an argument against it.

Given a long history in U.S. culture of women being restricted by monogamy much more than men, it is no surprise that the power arrangements of jealousy profit men more than women, even though jealous power is generally available across gender.  Men are able to draw upon both this history and current gender inequalities in order to get an upper hand in jealousy dynamics within relationships.

We can expect that other forms of power imbalance within relationships (race, class, cisgender versus transgender, and so on) will also lead to unequal access to jealous power within relationships, though there may not be the same clear markers associating these forms of power with jealousy in the popular imagination, and very little research has been done on these intersections.

Jealousy and Monogamy

Our culture’s vision of monogamy is a competitive one.  Hearts can be taken, lovers can be stolen, and all’s fair in love and war.  There is a certain relationship game here, predicated on assumptions of scarcity and a supposed hierarchy of desirability, where the goal is to pair up with the best person possible before time runs out.  Monogamy is of course the source of this scarcity: once someone is spoken for, they are off the market.  But once in a relationship, a person’s committed monogamy is also seen as the bulwark against the danger that their partner will take off with someone else.

In this competitive vision of monogamy, jealousy is a rational personal strategy: the emotional response to a threat to one’s investment in a scarce commodity.  In many ways, we view jealousy the same as the emotional response to a threat to one’s house or job, only we notably do not have specific words for these other responses. 

This threat-response definition of jealousy shows up in attempts to define jealousy for research purposes (Hansen 1985; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  Also, Stenner and Rogers (1998) ran an empirical study of jealousy conceptualization which found that out of ten primary factors, eight were responses to a threat to one’s romantic interest from rivals, including the four most common.

The inducement mechanism of jealousy in particular exposes the centrality of threat to our conception of jealousy.  This power mechanism can actually be read as not involving jealousy at all: one partner purposefully develops a threat to the relationship (say, by expressing attraction to someone else) and the other partner responds by changing their behavior (White 1980).  But because there is a threat in the form of a third party, we describe this as “making the partner jealous”, because jealousy is our understanding of the response to such a threat.

My personal experience in nonmonogamous social circles is also that jealousy is a personal strategy of monogamy.  I have a previously nonmonogamous friend who first felt jealous only after entering a monogamous relationship with a jealous partner.  I have had various partners deploy jealousy as a tactic to shut down my other relationships in order to establish monogamy in their relationship with me.  It is common polyamorous wisdom that we are conditioned to become jealous when faced with a romantic or sexual rival (that is, a threat to monogamy), and this continues even when a nonmonogamous arrangement means that rivals are not a factor (Anapol 1997: 49-51; Easton and Hardy 1997: 133-152; Taormino 2008: 153-156).

Compulsory monogamy’s strategic positioning produces the power mechanisms of jealousy, by conceptualizing jealousy as a strategic response to a threat to one’s monogamous relationship.  In short, jealousy is an effect of monogamy, a personal strategy made profitable both by the micro-level effects of monogamous practice, and by the hegemonic regime of compulsory monogamy.  Jealousy is not separable from monogamy, but rather is created by it.

Dominant cultural discourses would have us believe that biology produces jealousy, and we are monogamous because our natural jealousy forces us into monogamy.  Jealousy is therefore the biological evidence of the naturalness of monogamy.  But as is typical with essentialized power mechanisms, the actual cause and effect goes the other direction: we are jealous because we operate in a system of compulsory monogamy.

However, there is a grain of truth in these discourses: it can be quite difficult to be anything other than monogamous when jealousy is present.  While the power mechanisms of jealousy can be used for various effects, most uses of jealous mechanisms tend to push people towards monogamy, because the prime strategic purpose of jealousy is to shut off one’s partner from possible sex or romance with other people.  In other words, the hegemonic concept of jealousy creates a framework of transgressions and socially sanctioned reprisals in order to produce conformity, and the conformity it produces is specifically monogamy. Even the inverse and inducement mechanisms of jealousy tend to assume that jealousy is always potentially present and generally unavoidable, driving home the idea that monogamy is inevitable.

As with any other conceptual power mechanism, jealousy has to be exercised to remain useful.  Individuals will use jealousy strategically in their particular situations, which tends to reinforce the cultural hegemony of jealousy, which keeps jealousy available for strategic usage.  This sort of micro/macro feedback is typical among cultural power mechanisms: for example, use of sexism for individual gain reproduces the culture-wide system of sexism, which in turn creates a situation where sexism is available to individuals.

By definition, nonmonogamy requires at least three people: one person involved with two other people.  But of course, this is the archetypical situation that is supposed to trigger jealousy, with all its accompanying physical symptoms, strong emotions, potentially vicious reprisals, and cultural support.  Because jealousy is culturally hegemonic and strongly conditioned in us, it is a rare person who can handle this situation without jealousy.  Unless the two people at the ends of our basic nonmonogamous V can somehow quell or manage their jealousy, the V will fall apart and the nonmonogamy will effectively cease, reverting to de facto monogamy.  And indeed, jealousy is cited as the primary difficulty in maintaining polyamorous or swinger relationships (Benson 2008: 185; De Visser and McDonald 2007; Easton and Hardy 1997: 133; Kaldera 2005: 38).

There are some exceptions, where the power mechanisms of jealousy can be used to fuel nonmonogamy.  This can happen when jealousy is re-channeled via eroticization, as noted above, or when jealousy is used to fuel BDSM practice (Bauer 2010).  But these are adaptive subversions of jealousy, and are relatively rare.  In general, nonmonogamous subcultures are forced to deal with jealousy by deploying various personal and conceptual strategies to block or de-fang jealous power – to do otherwise is to revert to monogamy (Easton 2010; Mint 2010).

By implanting jealousy (effective anti-nonmonogamy) into individuals in particular relationships, the culture creates micro-level enforcement of compulsory monogamy, where people in a couple push each other towards monogamy via their jealousy. Indeed, making one’s partner the enforcer of one’s monogamy is perhaps the most effective point of cultural enforcement, better than self-enforcement or enforcement by the social milieu.  Self-enforcement tends to be ineffective because people have a remarkable ability to revise their own conceptual apparatus when faced with a personally restrictive system like compulsory monogamy.  The social milieu can be ineffective because it is too easy to create private arrangements or countercultures that go against the cultural grain.  The lesbian feminist subculture of the 70’s and 80’s is one example of a subculture that tried to promote nonmonogamy as a legitimate option: compulsory monogamy was seen as a tool of the patriarchy, and nonmonogamy was promoted as a way of building connections (Rosa 1994; Stelboum 1999; Vera 1999).

This may all seem quite circular, and indeed it is.  Jealousy is present because it is personally strategic within a culture-wide system of compulsory monogamy.  But at the same time, individual uses of jealousy (backed up by heavy conditioning) create partner-level enforcement of monogamy, which in turn maintains the hegemony of monogamy.

In other words, compulsory monogamy is a system of power that is self-propagating in particular ways, and one of those ways is jealousy.  This sort of self-propagation mechanism is typical for culture-wide systems of conformity (per Foucault 1978: 99-100). According to a strict deconstructionist stance, there can be no current biological source for jealousy or monogamy, so the current source of this monogamy/jealousy complex is in fact its self-propagation, and the original source is the slow historical shift of cultural power mechanisms.

Conclusion

Jealousy is a crucial enforcement and propagation mechanism of modern monogamy, to the point where if jealousy did not exist, we could expect that monogamous people would swiftly invent something very similar.  As mentioned in the introduction, we generally see jealousy posited as the biological cause of monogamy, but in fact the causality is reversed and jealousy is required by monogamy.

In jealousy, we see a particular example of the manner in which socially prescribed power mechanisms maintain themselves via a feedback loop between cultural ideology and personal actions.  The hegemony of monogamy makes jealous power dynamics available for personal use, but at the same time the act of jealousy itself reinforces its prevalence in the culture, and requires a certain level of personal investment which can then translate into public advocacy for jealousy.  We can expect that jealousy is not the only relationship dynamic that propagates monogamy. As I have described previously, the conceptual apparatus of infidelity is another (Mint 2004).

Examining the possibilities for power that surround jealousy also enables us to shed light on its contradictions.  Jealousy can be either advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on the situation.  It is both condoned and derided in the therapist’s office, sometimes depending on the particular forms it takes.  Jealousy is considered natural, ubiquitous, healthy, loving, and erotic, but at the same time people deny and hide their own jealousy.  It is distressingly difficult to pin down exactly where jealousy ends and begins, or to draw lines between good and bad jealousy.  All of these minor paradoxes increase the utility of jealousy as a channel for interpersonal power.

Of course, the same things that make jealousy useful also create a situation where it is dangerous.  Jealousy is elastic in form, tends to hide itself, and is licensed to escalate to abuse, controlling behavior, and violence.  As a result it is a significant factor in the nastier relationship dynamics, including domestic violence and stalking.  In addition, jealousy plays into gendered relationship power dynamics that maintain male dominance in romantic relationships.  The culture generally recognizes this dangerous aspect of jealousy, and perhaps this is the source of our ambivalence towards the emotion.  But again there is paradox, in the largely unbroken wall of acceptance and licensing of jealousy in the media.  Perhaps as a culture we do understand the abusive and violent outcomes of jealousy, but jealousy is just too useful for us to consider the possibility that it might be jettisoned.

The exception of course is nonmonogamous subcultures, where jealousy at the very least must be managed, and is often delegitimized, deconstructed, deprogrammed, or eroticized in order to hamstring the power dynamics packaged with its emotional content.  Negotiated nonmonogamy requires that a certain truce be established, where all sides refrain from engaging in jealous power. We can expect that the ongoing innovations around jealousy in nonmonogamous communities (e.g. Mint 2010) will be exported for their utility back into monogamous relationships, and indeed this is already happening (e.g. May 2010; Nelson 2010).  The counseling and research communities should look to nonmonogamous practitioners for jealousy techniques that can aid both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships.  Perhaps together we can create a more authentic version of monogamy, one which is predicated more on conscious intent and less on interpersonal struggle.

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Call for Thoughts: Poly People of Color

Update 2

Good news! Two people (Katie, who comments below, and a co-conspirator) are putting together an anthology of writings by “perverts of color”, which includes kinky and poly people. It was this sort of eventual product that I was trying to get at in this post, though I did not do a good job of it. So I am very excited about the upcoming anthology.

You can read about the status of the anthology here.

Update

If it were possible to truly retract a blog post, I would want to do so with this post. But it is not, and I have a moral problem with deleting pithy comments such as those below. I am leaving this post up as a lesson in what not to do, and as a starting point for conversations.

The first rule of this sort of work is to not further the oppression in question. And that’s where I failed in this posting. By centering white people in my language and discussing the polyamory movement in unqualified terms, I made it difficult to have a productive conversation about race, which is what I was looking for. In retrospect, it is not at all surprising that the post resulted in various critical comments but not much in the way of stories.

I encourage readers to read this post in a critical manner, remembering that polyamory communities include people of color, and there are many kinds of poly community out there, some more visible and some less. Please read Katie and Nabil’s comments along with my original post in order to get the full picture.

To their criticisms, let me add that it is perhaps problematic (patronizing? colonizing?) for a white person to ask people of color to put their stories on the line as I have done here. At the very least it is difficult to do elegantly, and my activist urges have outrun my skill level in this case.

With these issues in mind, feel free to comment or continue any of the conversations started below.

I am abandoning the stories project for now. It is clear that I need to think hard about my positioning in racial power dynamics before trying again. If I decide that I am the right person to lead another attempt, the end goal would be to have a kind of mini-reference of the issues and experiences that people of color face around race and polyamory, something that could be referred to during power struggles around race within poly community.

I may still do a somewhat more generic interview project for polyweekly, because I think polyweekly could greatly be improved with more personal voices. If I do, I will be sure to include poly people of color as interviewees and race as a salient feature.

I apologize deeply for this abortive attempt. I do understand that flailing about like this can cause damage, and at the very least is not productive in anti-oppression work. I know I should have devoted a lot more attention and care to this post. I will be sure to do so in the future when dealing with race and racism.

Original Post

Motivation

Recently at a large poly speed dating event here in San Francisco, I estimated that around 85% of the room was white. This may not seem like a lot to some of my readers, but it looks a lot bigger if we remember that San Francisco itself is only 43% white, and the greater Bay Area is still only about half white. For some reason, or more likely a series of reasons, poly community in the area is either failing to attract or managing to exclude people of color.

This disparity becomes even stronger if we look at the the well-known luminaries of the polyamory movement. I have eleven books about polyamory on my shelf, and all but one were written by white people as far as I know. (And the exception is not a well-known poly book.) And while there definitely are a growing number of poly activists of color, that number was still a handful at the recent summit of poly leaders in Philadelphia.

I have been collecting my thoughts on race and polyamory into a separate post, but as I was writing that essay, I realized that my writing should not be the first or last word on the matter, in this blog or anywhere else. One of the intersectional issues for race and polyamory is the near-complete lack of representation of people of color who are nonmonogamous. So I am trying to do my little part to remedy this visibility problem, both here on the blog and on the polyweekly podcast.

My personal motivation here is related to my polyamory organizing and activism. I put on local polyamory events, and any understanding of racial dynamics around nonmonogamy is immediately useful to me in making these events more inclusive, and for figuring out how to support local poly people of color. I am hoping this call will be a conversation starter around these issues.

The Call

I am looking for stories or thoughts by people of color (including mixed-race people) who identify as polyamorous or nonmonogamous. I am also looking to hear from white people in interracial relationships. I will collect these together and then post them here as a separate blog post.

If you are a nonmonogamous person of color with something to relate, please send me something as short as a paragraph or as long as a couple thousand words. You can do that by posting it as a comment here or by emailing me. I will only perform minor edits for grammar or clarity before reposting. I will not post these thoughts anywhere other than this blog. Also, let me know what level of attribution you want: name? link? bio? anonymous?

I am also looking for interview folks for polyweekly. I am a co-host there, and the show is an easy way to reach a couple thousand people. My current vague plan is to do human-interest style interviews with race as a salient presence. If you are interested in being interviewed, or have some other idea for creating content, email me.

You should write about whatever seems important to you. However, if you are short on ideas, here are some questions that might get things flowing:

  • What do you think of local polyamory community? Are you engaged with it in some way? Do you think that attending events would be a good or bad idea? If you have gone to local poly events, what good or bad experiences did you have?
  • How do race and polyamory intersect for you? Do you find that stigma tends to stack as a poly person of color? Does dealing with racism tend to take priority over figuring out nonmonogamy, or vice versa? Do you find yourself traveling between communities?
  • I have noticed that the poly people of color who attend local poly events in my area are mostly those who are willing to date white folks, which is not too surprising given the white super-majority at these events. For those poly people of color who date white people, do you run into difficulties around race in these relationships? Or trouble finding partners?

I do reserve the right to exclude posts that are egregious in some way: completely incoherent, hate speech against an oppressed group, etc. However, I do not anticipate this being an issue. All other stories will be reposted unless the author specifically requests that they are not.

Comment Policy

Because the purpose of this post is to hear people’s experiences, I will have a comment policy in place. I encourage folks to start discussions based on any posted experiences, but responses that are overly critical or which seek to invalidate people’s experience will be moderated. Please be respectful. Similarly, comments which seek to shut down or derail the conversation will be moderated. If you are curious if this includes your response, check it against these bingo sheets. White commenters, please state your race.

I welcome comments from people of color which are critical of this project. If you see flaws in this, please speak up.

Published: Power Mechanisms of Jealousy

I recently had an essay published in an academic anthology on nonmonogamy, Understanding Non-Monogamies. The piece describes the basic mechanisms of power around jealousy, in a similar manner to my earlier paper on jealousy and control. I also spend some time describing the various strategies that polyamorous people use to defuse jealousy. This is the second time I have been published in an anthology, the first was a treatment of cheating and power focusing on polyamory.

My essay is short, only six pages, due to editorial limits. Those of you who read this blog know that six pages is barely enough space for me to clear my throat, but I did manage to condense a lot of analysis into that space, much of which is new thinking on my part. At some point in the future I will do a rewrite and post a longer version here.

The upside to short articles is that the book manages to cram twenty-six pieces by academics and community thinkers into a three hundred page tome that promises to be the academic anthology on nonmonogamy. It is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone with a scholarly interest in the subject. In addition to a number of works on polyamory, it includes articles on swinging, queer nonmonogamy, nonmonogamy in young women, and so on. The approaches vary from hard science (mostly interview-based sociology) to literature review or theoretical pieces.

I would like to send a big thank you out to my editor, Meg Barker of UK poly psychologist fame, both for including me and then working through revisions.

As Understanding Non-Monogamies is targeted at the textbook market, it is unfortunately expensive, with prices starting at $85. The price may go down in the future, but it will be a while. The cheaper places to buy the book are Amazon and Psychology Press, and the latter has a listing of chapter titles.

Those of you who are interested in this new anthology should also check out an old one, the Sexualities journal special issue on polyamory. At the website, you can either buy the individual articles in electronic format or call SAGE to order a cheaper back print issue.

Update: Bitsy pointed out in comments that libraries are very responsive to requests to purchase a particular book. So, if you are not up for springing for the high cost of this book, consider recommending it to your local library. In particular it would be a great book for inclusion at university libraries, since students frequently try to do papers on nonmonogamy and then end up baffled by the glaring lack of accessible research papers on the subject. (And then they post requests on polyamory forums, which is how I know this.)

Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture

This guide was originally put together as a handout for a class on nonmonogamy aimed at men. Before finishing it, I decided to switch to a “tips” format instead, so I am publishing the portion that was finished, which covers the high-level conceptual stuff but does not get down into specific attitudes or the practical advice. This should be read as an addendum to standard poly 101 information, such as my guide. Also, see the sex parties for men essay.

A while ago I noticed a problem in my polyamorous social circles, namely that some of the guys just are not doing that well, in terms of finding partners, dating, and generally succeeding at nonmonogamy. In particular, the guys who are new to nonmonogamy seem to make a lot of blunders. Sometimes these are spectacular and result in those guys giving up and going back to monogamy, but other times they seem to take the form of a steady failure to date, or a quickly cycling through relationships. Of course, there are plenty of men who take well to nonmonogamy (myself included), espcially those who have been doing it for a long time. That said, longevity is no guarantee of success – some of the frustrated guys at my recent class on this subject had been polyamorous for over a decade but could still not get their groove on. My hope with the discussions below is that they will help other guys hopscotch past a lot of the conceptual traps that hold us back.

This paper is aimed at men who are attracted to women, which covers both straight men and bisexual men’s interactions with women. It is somewhat useful for men who are attracted to men, and for women, though many of the things I say will not apply. In many ways, men’s sexual/romantic interactions with men are very different than what I describe here, and of course the same goes for women’s interactions with women. I am focusing on men’s attitudes towards and involvement with women because that is where I have experience, and where some of the biggest problems reside.

There are a lot of generalizations in here, including lots of “men tend to” and “women tend to” statements. These are necessary in order to sum up the general way things work, but there will of course be particular men, women, or situations that are exceptions to anything I say.

Table of Contents

   The Valley of the Dolls
   Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)
   It’s a Small Scene
   The Gender Split
   Find Your Attraction
   Work on Yourself
   Take Your Time

The Valley of the Dolls

Men have this persistent fantasy that if you just find the right scene, if you poke your head through the right door, you will happen upon rooms full of gorgeous women eager to have sex with you.

We see this in porn all the time. The primary justification for people having sex in porn movies seems to be that they have found themselves in the same room. Or perhaps outdoors in the same location. Their response to this incredible coincidence is: “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” Sometimes they throw in a little bit of justification to spice things up. “Oh hi! You’re the plumber! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi, hubby! You just caught me having sex with the pool boy! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi! I’m interviewing for a job. Wanna fuck?”

This is of course not just confined to video porn. Pick up Letters to Penthouse sometime: it reads just like a porn script. When men write down their fantasies, we often see these themes of sexual abundance and availability.

I call this mythological place full of nubile enthusiastic women the Valley of the Dolls, after Russ Meyer’s sexploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Russ Meyer’s movies generally featured tall women with huge breasts having sex with… everyone. Because these movies were made in the 60’s or 70’s, they ended on a moralistic tone to avoid the wrath of the censors, with the loose women getting married or killed. But their draw was the promise of easy sex with amazonian women.

Back in the era of free love, there may have actually been some Valley of the Dolls situations, though I suspect the rumors are overblown. A number of factors in the 80’s ended this: AIDS, an increase in cultural sexual repression, and women realizing that free love may have been designed more for men than them.

Despite changing times, the Valley of the Dolls is still heavily present in men’s imaginations. There is a guy in the San Francisco scene whom I see every once in a while, who always asks me where he can find the play parties with the “hot young things”. I am always speechless. First, what he is looking for does not exist. Second, why does he think that I am the connection to this mystical event? Third, he will ask me this at parties that are full of very cool sex radical women (and men – he is bisexual) who would probably be willing to do all sorts of nasty with him if he could take the time and get to know them a bit. But he cannot, because he is too busy chasing a dream and cannot see what is right in front of him.

Here is the kicker, guys. The harsh truth. The thing you need to repeat to yourself again and again.

There is no Valley of the Dolls.

There is no party you can walk into where strange women will just throw themselves on you. There is no “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” It is never that straightforward. There is always some effort involved, and usually it takes a lot of effort. Porn is lying to you. So are Letters to Penthouse. You may have heard from some guy about his Valley of the Dolls experience, but there is a good chance he was describing a fantasy to you, not something he actually did. Men produce these fantasies all over the place, and often try to pass them off as real in a grown-up version of locker room boasting.

There is a core piece of the Valley of the Dolls fantasy that is untenable: the idea that some women will make themselves sexually available to men just because they are that sort of woman. “That sort of woman” does not exist. What actually happens is that women have sex with men because they are attracted to those men. (Which should be obvious to us, but many guys seem to forget.) There is some level of negotiation involved, and women have input into that negotiation. The negotiation often takes time and energy, though other times it is quick. At sex or play parties the negotiation may seem fast and painless, but there is actually almost always some leadup, usually either people scoping each other out from across the party or some kind of shared history in the scene.

I think men are obsessed with the Valley of the Dolls for three reasons.

First, the sexual accessibility of women seems to be a central theme: the idea that there are women out there who will sleep with you because you are just in the same room. In our culture which sets up women as the gatekeepers of sexuality, men are trained to be attracted to women just because those women are available for sex. Which is about as low as standards get, and can cause all sorts of problems when men try to figure out which women they are actually attracted to.

Second, the women in these fantasies are never picky about their men. They are happy to have sex with whomever walks through the door. There are no real women like this. Real women have their own sexual agency, and they are looking for men they are attracted to. They are not interested in getting it on with men they are not attracted to, and just like everyone else, they are probably only attracted to a relatively small subset of people. Somehow this little detail gets lost in these fantasies, and it is not hard to see why. The fact that women are actually evaluating men is a major point of insecurity. Men tend to go way out of their way to deny the existence of women’s sexual agency, because if these men can pretend that women are not judging them, it means they do not need to worry about themselves: their attractiveness, their intellect, or whether they are acting like an asshole.

Third, these fantasies evade any sort of responsibility. There is no need to get to know someone first. There is no need to take them out to dinner afterwards. There is no need to use a condom (thus, there are very few condoms in porn) because there are none of the real-world worries about STDs or pregnancy. Sex in the Valley of the Dolls is free and uncomplicated. In fact, it is so uncomplicated that it cannot exist in the real world, where other people are complicated beings with needs and agendas of their own, and where all sorts of meaning attaches to sex.

If we look at the three elements, a pattern emerges. All three motivations boil down to having control of the sexual situation: women who are sexually available to any guy and who do not bring their own motivations into play, set in situations outside the social contract. Control is a staple of sexual fantasies (including many women’s fantasies), but control at this level is antithetical to actual sex with another person. If you have this level of control, what you have on the other end is not a person. In fact, it is usually a book, website, or video. There is nothing wrong with masturbating to control fantasies, but beyond a certain point the fantasy is not going to become reality.

(I can hear the domination/submission types in the audience gnashing their teeth. Even the strictest D/S arrangement involves some level of agency on the part of the submissive, or it is no longer D/S and has wandered into the territory of actual sexual slavery. My point here is that these fantasies tend towards an unrealistic level of control of the sexual situation, even when compared with real-life D/S. In fact, D/S erotica falls prey to the same pattern: as anyone who has done D/S can tell you, the actual negotiation involved is a lot more subtle and complex than what happens in Anne Rice’s Beauty series.)

Unfortunately, most depictions of nonmonogamy in popular culture fit the Valley of the Dolls model. It goes the other way as well: men’s sexual fantasies as played out in porn or erotica seem to require nonmonogamous women (and men). This has always struck me as a bit odd, given that men with these fantasies are usually unwilling to date nonmonogamous women themselves. Perhaps this is because sexually fantastic women like this must be on the wrong side of the madonna/whore split, or perhaps it would be somehow logically inconsistent for a man in these fantasies to be nonmonogamous while the women are monogamous to him.

In any case, the consistent association of nonmonogamy with the Valley of the Dolls has meant real trouble for real-life practicing nonmonogamous people. It means that men in particular enter nonmonogamous scenes with a totally unrealistic set of expectations: they assume that the scene will operate just like those movies and websites they have been looking at.

Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)

The reason that there is always negotiation is that women tend to be on the defensive in sexualized environments – and nonmonogamous scenes or online personals always have a slightly sexual air, whatever the intentions of their organizers or attendees. I think a lot of men have trouble understanding that this defensiveness is for a good reason: women are generally worried about sexual safety. This worry comes from a number of places.

First, our culture tells them to be worried, as part of a general campaign of keeping women’s sexuality under control. Young women are told that they are worth less once they lose their virginity, and that associating with the wrong guys will lead them to ruin. Sex education reinforces this by driving home a message that messing around will get you STDs and/or pregnant, and this message is reinforced by movies and other media. Sometimes this “sex is dangerous” meme gets frankly ridiculous – for example, when a woman has sex in a horror movie, it is almost always a guarantee that she will be die later in that movie. Of course, many women shrug off this sexual fearmongering as they grow up, but typically at least some of the conditioning takes.

Second, women actually do have to fear for their safety where sexuality is a concern. Somewhere around one in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, typically by someone they already know, and in many cases by someone they are on a date with. Women who have not been assaulted often know other women who have been, so it is an immediate concern. Of course, there are no easy ways to tell which guys are the sort that would sexually assault you, so many women find ways to feel out a guy and establish trust before anything sexual happens.

Which directly collides with the third issue, namely that guys are really pushy about getting dates with women and having sex with them. When a woman meets a man for the first time, there is a decent chance that he will hit on her in a clumsy, inappropriate, or pushy manner. If she says no (which she almost always does), he may insult her or try to make her feel guilty. Women deal with this sort of harassment on the street and on the job. So, when a man approaches a woman (in person or online), she starts already in a defensive position, because she has had to deal with so much crap previously. It is important to understand that she has every reason to be defensive.

Women’s defensiveness means that guys have to take special care not to be that pushy guy. Above all, this means a slow ramp-up: not giving her your number immediately, having conversations without coming on to her or flirting too hard, running into someone multiple times, and so on. Many of the issues covered below are a direct result of this bad dynamic between men and women. Of course, there are specialized situations where things move much faster, such as sex parties. But, even in these situations rituals develop that ensure that women feel safe – or they stop showing up.

This need to take things slow means that there is no Valley of the Dolls. Queer men do have some situations that resemble the Valley, most obviously bathhouses, where guys hook up mostly based on physical attraction, and there is little expectation of lead-up or follow-up. There is no heterosexual equivalent to the bathhouse. It might be tempting to get bitter about this situation, but I encourage you to take that energy and instead focus on making the culture sexually safe for women, because that is the only way to change things.

It’s a Small Scene

There are not a lot of openly nonmonogamous people. And when I say “not a lot”, I mean that a tiny tiny proportion of the population does this: somewhere between one in fifty people and one in twenty, depending on how you make the estimate.

To put it differently, it can be really hard to find people who are up for something other than monogamy. This is true even if you just want some people to talk to on the subject who are not horrified by the thought. But it gets much worse when you are looking for people to date or have sex with. There are of course the usual concerns around whether they are attracted to you and you are attracted to them, which already cuts the number of possibilities down to a fraction of the people you meet. If you are looking for people who are not monogamous, that slashes the number of potential partners in your circles by another couple orders of magnitude. If you are looking for a particular type of nonmonogamy (poly, swinging, open, kinky) then the situation is even worse, since you have to find people looking for the same thing.

Monogamous people are generally used to being able to date pretty much anyone who takes their fancy and is available, since most other people are monogamous. So, monogamous people often end up getting involved with co-workers, people they meet at the gym or on the plane, neighbors, and so on. Nonmonogamous people rarely have that luxury, because our neighbor has at best a one in twenty chance of being one of us. Once you pile on all the other things that can narrow the search (like gender, mutual attraction, and situation) then dating random people that you run into becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible.

This can come as quite a shock to someone who is used to dating in a monogamous world. Indeed, many people who decide they want to be nonmonogamous take a long time after that decision to actually end up in a situation where they are involved or having sex with more than one person. I am not talking about two weeks: three months to a year is more common. The delay is due to a learning curve, where the person new to nonmonogamy has to effectively re-learn how to date due to the new situation, and in particular has to learn how to cope with a severely limited dating pool.

To give yourself a sense of what these numbers actually mean, take a minute and remember all the people you have dated or had sex with in your formerly monogamous life (assuming you had such a life). Think about all the effort involved in finding those compatible people. Now, imagine that only one in ten of those people was actually compatible with you, which is what we are dealing with (optimistically) when you take all the monogamous folks out of the picture. How much harder would you have had to search to find those partners? How much more effort would you have had to put in? Are you getting a sense of the scale of the issue?

This is not to say that there are no nonmonogamous people around. In the greater San Francisco region, I would estimate that the number of nonmonogamous people is counted in the tens of thousands. Indeed, there are a number of regular polyamorous gatherings, a similar number of registered (with NASCA) swinger parties, three separate dungeons holding frequent and regular events, and a huge underground of people in open arrangements who are not associated with any particular group or community. But this is an area whose population is counted in the millions. So while there are plenty of nonmonogamous people, we are still rare in relation to the overall population. Picking each other out of the crowd is difficult, and made more difficult by the fact that most nonmonogamous people do not advertise their habits, typically out of fear for their jobs or similar closeting reasons.

The solution to this numbers problem is typically to gather in groups. If we put in the upfront effort to seek out and spend time around other nonmonogamous people, then our chances of finding partners go way up. In fact, one of the primary purposes of nonmonogamous community is finding compatible people. Certainly, nonmonogamous communities serve many other functions: for example the public polyamory community seems to be largely set up to teach people skills and provide support. But at the same time, it is doubtful that these communities would exist without the draw of locating other nonmonogamous folks. There are of course a lot of nonmonogamous people who fly under the radar and do not join any sort of public or official community. But in most cases, these people develop networks of nonmonogamous friends, which serve the dual purpose of providing support and functioning as a dating pool, basically a different sort of community. For example, most of the polyamorous people I know have at least a minimum set of other poly friends. I will use the term “scene” to describe any of these groupings of nonmonogamous folks, whether formal or informal.

However, due to the relatively small number of people engaged in nonmonogamy, there tend to be a limited number of scenes in any particular area, and each scene tends to be rather small. We end up with a number of effects as a result, each one of which I will mention here and then discuss in a section on its own.

First, it can be really hard to break into a scene. Depending on the scene and the region in question, it can be really hard to just find the scene in the first place. On top of this, nonmonogamous communities tend to be fairly insular. This is partly due to closeting concerns and partly to avoid a constant problematic influx of new folks carrying the prejudices and misconceptions of the larger culture. Once in the door, it still takes a while to learn the particular customs and rituals of the scene, and further time to get to know people and settle in.

So, getting into a scene takes time. Scenes reward people who are patient, flexible, and able to handle a couple rounds of rejection. Getting into a scene takes actual effort, and the process tends to weed out those who are not fairly committed to their practice of nonmonogamy.

Some people manage to circumvent this process successfully by using online personals services, and the ability to connect through the internet seems to be fueling the current growth in nonmonogamy. However, the personals require a different sort of commitment, and even on the biggest personals sites the pool of nonmonogamous possibilities is still relatively limited. In a way, we can think of the online personals as a different sort of scene, one with its own set of customs and skills, which in fact can be specific to the particular website in question.

In addition, the small size of the nonmonogamous population means that there is less room for a negative reputation. In the larger monogamous world, men sometimes use the anonymity of crowds as a shield for their own bad behavior, switching from social group to social group to avoid censure. In this way, they continue bad dating practices, both relatively benign bad habits that tend to scuttle men/women interactions, and seriously harmful acts like controlling behavior, stalking, harassment, and rape. If a particular social group wises up, men will just move to a new social group or social venue, which while not painless is quite possible in the monogamous world.

In small nonmonogamous scenes, there is much less room to do this. Word gets around fast, and a person who is known for acting poorly will often find themselves with a stunning lack of dating options. If a person messes up so bad that they have to leave the scene, it is a major setback, because they then have to start over in a new group, meeting and getting comfortable with new people. Worse, scenes often share members. This is especially true in rural areas or small cities, but even in large sex-positive cities there can be a significant overlap across groups. Getting a bad enough reputation in one group may quickly get one locked out from all the groups in the area, making the actual practice of nonmonogamy difficult or impossible short of moving to a new region. Some men try to work around this using the online personals, but even there word gets around because there just are not that many people. That cute swinger you are chatting up may well know people at that swing club where you offended someone last week. In fact, at least the poly and BDSM communities have a informal reference system in place: often before meeting or playing with someone new, a person will actually check up on them by asking around in the community.

So, nonmonogamy goes a lot better with good relationship skills and a commitment to not acting like an asshole towards one’s lovers, even unintentionally. In addition, people make a point of keeping breakups amicable and staying friends with exes, because they want to continue moving in the same small circles with those same exes.

The Gender Split

In addition to dealing with the repercussions of moving in a small scene, nonmonogamous men have to face the fact that there are simply more men interested in any particular nonmonogamous scene than women. In other words, a gender imbalance.

I see this gender imbalance as a cultural artifact. It is not a surprising outcome given that we raise men with the message that they should be studly and having sex with whomever (at least while young) and at the same time women are told to be chaste and only have sex in the context of a monogamous relationship. This double standard exists in the larger culture in order to give men more sexual freedom than women, and it is effective at that (though that is really not a laudable goal). However, it backfires badly for men who are interested in nonmonogamy with women, because it means that the pool of women is always smaller.

Now, the gender imbalance is not ridiculous – there are still plenty of women involved in nonmonogamy. But it is real none the less. For example, a friend of mine surveyed an online poly dating site and discovered that there were about twice as many men on that site as women. I think this two-to-one ratio is pretty typical (though there are no statistics on this), but the actual ratio varies widely from one scene to another. Mixed-gender scenes that are friendlier to women have a ratio that is pretty close to one-to-one, while scenes that are unfriendly to women will have a vanishingly small number of women.

The upshot of this imbalance is that women (who are attracted to men) are in demand, and they know it, and nonmonogamous men know it as well, or end up learning it very quickly once they enter a scene.

As a result, nonmonogamous women are generally unwilling to deal with the usual crap that men put them through out in the mainstream world. In the monogamous world, there is this persistent sense that there are not enough men to go around. I am not sure if there are actually less men, given that statistics often suggest otherwise. But there is a constant media message that women have to hurry up and find a mate now, which at least produces the myth that there are less men. As a result, monogamous women are often willing to look past bad behavior of various sorts in order to stick with a guy they like.

Nonmonogamous women, on the other hand, are generally not so accommodating. This is doubly true for the majority of women in the scene who already have a primary partner and are looking for other partners or casual play buddies. If someone pulls crap on them, they just look elsewhere, and there are plenty of elsewheres to check out. This creates an interesting situation where guys coming into a nonmonogamous scene often try to behave in the way that they are used to acting in the mainstream world, and they hit a brick wall of women who are unwilling to take it, and other men who are supportive of those women. The usual result is the rapid learning of hard lessons, or a quick ejection from the scene.

Swingers in the audience might be objecting at this point – after all, swinger parties generally have slightly more women than men. But this is not due to a lack of interest on the part of men, but rather because single men are generally not allowed at these parties. Similarly, swingers who meet online generally are M/F couples looking for other couples. These practices ensure a gender balance. However, I would argue that the upshot is still that women have a lot more say in how things go than in the monogamous world, because the couple cannot swing if the woman loses interest. Indeed, at many swinger parties is the custom for the women to arrange the hookups.

In addition to changing the balance of power, the gender split means that there is simply more competition from other men. Finding women partners takes more effort and more time than expected, and it is important to consider one’s approach closely, something that is not required in the monogamous world.

However, the good news is that the practice of nonmonogamy itself can even this out a bit. For example, if there are somewhat more men than women at a sex or BDSM party, this may just mean that women get somewhat more play, but men are still doing pretty well. Similarly in the poly world, women might have on average more partners than men, but most men still end up with at least two partners.

I often run into men who have gotten bitter about the gender imbalance, either online or in person. Sometimes they give up on nonmonogamy entirely once they realize that there is a gender imbalance. Other times they continue but tend to complain a lot about it. Other guys still will embark on a crazy quest to find a scene where there are more women than men, basically looking for the Valley of the Dolls. These reactions are all a bad idea. The complaints may be accurate (though usually I find they are overblown) but complaining is never sexy, and guys who get bitter about their dating prospects tend to doom those same prospects through their bitterness.

Sure, the gender balance seems unfair. But if you have a problem with that, I recommend that you go work on fixing our mainstream culture, which tells women of all ages that sleeping around makes them a slut. Until the slut-shaming of women in the larger culture is fixed, we will have this local problem in nonmonogamous scenes. Getting upset or complaining about the effects on nonmonogamous men is frankly kind of petty, given that the larger cultural problem is really detrimental to women as a whole.

Find Your Attraction

Men are told all sorts of things about our sexuality. We are told that we are constantly voracious and ready for sex. We are told that we always say yes to sex with women when it is offered, to the point that men are do not even think of the possibility that they might say no, resulting in a good deal of confusing signals and lackluster sex.

Paradoxically, right alongside being told that we should be willing to have sex with anyone, we are taught to separate women into “hot” and “ugly” categories, with the hot women looking like the models in the magazines at the checkout stand. Of course, those women do not actually look like that: the pictures have been photoshopped to within an inch of total absurdity, and often beyond. In other words, we are taught that what we are really attracted to are very specific bodies, bodies that are so rare that the number of women who have them are a vanishingly small minority. (In fact, we make the standards of women’s beauty pretty much impossible to fulfill, as evidenced by the popular magazines that spend their pages critiquing tiny little things about how movie stars look.)

So we are conditioned via two seemingly contradictory cultural/media myths: one which insists that men must be attracted to all women, and another that men are only attracted to a very particular sort of woman. While these two cultural imperatives seem to be at odds, they are both types of sexism. The first myth is an attempt to justify men’s bad sexual behavior, in particular rape, with a “he couldn’t help himself” defense. In addition, it is insulting to women because it implies they are interchangeable. The second myth creates a standard of beauty that is unachievable for most women, devaluing women’s real bodies and creating a storm of insecurity.

Both myths create problematic behavior in men. In addition to being an excuse for sexual assault or harassment, the first myth leads guys to engage in spamming behavior when looking for women, which I will discuss below. The second myth can cause men to ignore women who do not fit the conventional ideal, and simultaneously give way too much attention to women who come close to the beauty standard (which basically becomes harassment). Respecting women requires getting away from both of these myths.

Both myths have a curious side effect on how men think: they prevent us from figuring out the type of women we are attracted to, because they paint men as being either hot for all women or almost none. Of course, actual men are typically attracted to some subset of women. Sometimes this might be a large subset, like a third of women. Other guys are only attracted to a very small number of women. A particular guy will have a particular things he is attracted to: short women, smart women, women who are cynical, women who like to dance, tough women, and so on. It is these components of desire that determine which women he will find sexy.

If you watch TV or read a popular magazine, it would seem that there is only one type of attractive woman out there: thin, feminine, middle or upper class, and probably white. And in fact, some men end up fully conditioned by media to only be attracted to these women. But most of us do not. Most men end up with a set of actual attractions towards women that simply do not line up with anything you can find in the pages of Cosmo or mainstream porn.

But at the same time, the constant bombardment of particular types of images can have a funny effect on us: sometimes we get convinced that we are attracted to the media standard, even when our attractions lie elsewhere. I have seen a lot of men with this funny kind of doublethink, where they might go on and on about how they like tall women with pornstar bodies, but the actual women they date are consistently short and round. Taken to an extreme, this sort of attraction disconnect can lead to self-hating and abuse of one’s partner: I knew one man who dated a particular type of woman, but then would always tell his current girlfriend that he thought she was ugly. He clearly had a specific set of attractions, but he had been brainwashed into thinking that the women he desired were somehow inferior.

On top of all this, men are constantly told that we are primarily attracted to bodies, to physical aspects of people. We see this assumption everywhere from “sex sells” billboards to swimsuit issues to visual porn. Again this training takes for some men, but it fails for most of us. We are actually attracted to a combination of physical and personality traits, and often personality trumps a person’s physical appearance. But again, we often lose sight of this fact, and are convinced that we are only hot for butts, boobs, hair, or some other combination of body parts. We end up with another desire disconnect, where we think that we are primarily looking for particular bodies, when we are really looking for personality with a side dish of physicality.

The upshot of all this is that most men are not quite sure what we want when it comes to women. We blunder around, often successfully following our gut feelings, but typically not quite sure where those feelings are coming from. Very few men can list off a set of traits that they are looking for in women, and then have that set of criteria accurately predict whether or not they will click well with someone. Often a guy’s friends can better identify his type than he can.

Certainly this describes me, at least up until recently. In retrospect, my high school and college dating career can be described as a series of missed opportunities because I was unaware of who actually turned my crank. I only figured out that I was into BDSM because all three women I was dating at one point were kinky, and that finally caused the kinky clue-by-four to hit me. These days I feel like I am actually getting a solid handle on the factors that make up my attraction to others, and it took almost two decades of dating to get to this point.

I encourage my guy readers to explore your own attraction. If you are the type of guy who has always been willing to get with most anyone (like me), then try to narrow things down and focus on whom you would really prefer. If you ended up very narrowly attracted to conventional bodies, then try to widen your scope and consider how you might find non-conventional women attractive. A good place to start either introspection is your own history: what women really did it for you, either in terms of your relationship or in bed? Were you ever surprised by your own lack of interest once you ended up getting to know a woman, or have you ended up having sex that was not fun for you even though the person you were with was nominally your type? Have you ended up with someone who was not your type, but you were strangely hot for anyways? When we end up in these situations where our own desires surprise us, it is usually a hint that we have one of these desire disconnects: we think we want one thing, when we actually want something else.

While doing this discovery, remember that personality is paramount. What personality traits do you find attractive in women? Shy? Accomplished? Social? Introverted? Feminine? Butch or tomboyish? Considerate? Inconsiderate? Nerdy? Stubborn? Funny? Happy? Vulnerable? Mature? Innocent? Dynamic? Chill? Active? Politically aware? Stubborn? Kinky? Gentle? Rough? Sometimes figuring out what we desire can expose some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. For example, I have met a number of guys who were attracted to clueless women because they are easier to boss around. Do not shy away from these truths if you run across them: the first step to fixing your own behavior is recognizing it. Also, note that you may well be attracted to different traits that are impossible to find in one person, like cutesy and sophisticated. This is good because it means you have a flexible set of desires, and of course if you are not monogamous, then you can potentially find these different traits in different people.

Of course, do not ignore the physical aspects of attraction. But try to remember that there is a lot more to physical attraction than breasts and butt. Maybe you have a thing for a certain sort of hair, or skin tone, or body curve, or hands, or eyes, or facial structure. Sometimes the physical elements we want are not reducible to a body part: maybe you are attracted to someone who is strong or wiry, or who moves with a particular style. Again, you may be attracted to various things that are contradictory. For example, I am attracted to both long and short hair on women, in different ways. It is hard, but try to step away from the conventional standards of beauty. Get a handle on who you are really attracted to, not who you think you should be attracted to.

Learning to recognize your own attraction makes dating and hooking up so much easier. If you are narrowing down, it means that you can stop haphazardly bouncing around and instead focus your energy on meeting the people who really knock your socks off. If you have been stuck on mainstream standards of physical beauty, then realizing what other sorts of women you desire will break you out of the cycle of endlessly chasing a small number of women who may not even do it for you. Either way, self-knowledge gets you a better set of dating options.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with nonmonogamy. The monogamous world tends to curtail the sort of bad behaviors caused by these attraction myths. In the land of monogamy, guys do not hit on every woman who walks by because they assume most women are taken. In nonmonogamous settings, it is quite possible that every woman walking by is theoretically available. Even if they are not actually available, the slut stigma that adheres to nonmonogamous women means that most men will assume they are available. So, men are then encouraged to hit on every woman who walks by. Similarly, the tendency of monogamous types to pair off tends to buffer the mobbing/ignoring that happens due to mainstream beauty standards. When people are playing outside of the couple paradigm, then the tendency of guys to go for conventionally attractive women to the exclusion of others ends up creating very unbalanced and uncomfortable situations.

Nonmonogamous scenes have become sensitive to these behaviors, and tend to resist them. Hitting on every woman at the party will quickly get you labeled as creepy and possibly thrown out. Making a beeline for the most conventionally attractive woman at the party will cause people to think you are shallow (correctly), and will not impress anyone.

The good news is that the nonmonogamous world is also a good place to figure out your attraction. Sometimes monogamous people do not figure out their desires until late in life, or not at all. Because nonmonogamous people have a larger number of partners, we more rapidly learn our own desires. In addition, there is usually a greater ability to experiment. If there is some person whom you are attracted to but is not your usual type, you may well be able to go for it because you are not necessarily looking for that person to be the be-all and end-all of your romantic life.

Work on Yourself

For most men, the idea that they might want to change some things about themselves to become more attractive is somewhere between alien and disturbing. We are simply not taught that we should consider our own attractiveness as a factor, and instead people will just be attracted to us because we are just that cool. This is great for the self-esteem, but creates a huge blind spot for us around the possible reasons that women might be finding us attractive or unattractive.

Of course, women are taught from birth that they have to work to be desirable. Usually this focuses on appearance: how to do their hair, how to put on makeup, how to exercise oneself into the right sort of body, and so on. But personality is also well-known as a factor: how to be charming, how smiling is important, and so on. Women end up thinking a lot about this stuff. This gap between the genders has been slowly closing: men are starting to consider their own attractiveness, in particular queer men. However, there are still lots of men who rarely consider their own desirability, and in fact we tend to actively resist any real discussion of our own attractiveness with knee-jerk negative reactions whenever the subject comes up.

I want to say that I am not talking about one’s approach here. Guys do spend a lot of time working on their approach: the right way to flirt with someone, the right pickup line, and so on. But these same guys do not think much about their overall personality, look, or what have you. Here is the thing: approach does not matter in the slightest if the person is not attracted to you, and women will have likely figured out whether or not they are attracted to you before any approaches happen, yours or theirs. (Or if they have not figured it out, that means you are headed for rejection anyways.) So, how you look, talk, act, and the general overall impression you make are much more important than one-liners or pickup strategies. (And as a bonus, if you are in an attractive mode, women will sometimes come on to you.)

This blind spot around our own desirability can make it difficult for us to effectively find partners, whether we are talking sex, BDSM, or dating. It means that we miss what we might be doing that turns people off, or what we could be doing that turns people on. It means that we can screw up mightily and we blithely blame it on the other person and then do it again two months later. What this means is that a man who spends effort working on himself quickly stands out from the crowd. It is a little sad that it is so easy to do so, but the world’s low standards for men are your opportunity. If you take some time to work on yourself, it will quickly pay off in your social and sexual life. You know how straight women are often attracted to queer guys? This is largely because queer guys are more likely to work on themselves.

Working on yourself does not necessarily mean going to the gym to buff up or slim down. Guys have this strange idea that if they just pump enough iron the women will start flocking to them, which is bullshit. Working out does the trick for some guys just because it makes them feel more attractive and confident, but it is important to remember that being more conventionally attractive does not necessarily make you more attractive to real people living in the real world. Even if we just stick to the physical appearance, there is so much more to work with. Working on yourself might mean dressing up more, or dressing down more. It might mean dressing in a particular style that you like, like goth or grunge or funny tee shirts. Working on yourself might mean learning to love your fuzzy bear side, and finding ways to accentuate that in your appearance. Or it might mean plucking your nose hair. Working on yourself might mean experimenting with hairstyles (shorter? longer? surfer cut? buzz cut?) or it might mean adding or removing facial hair.

I hope I am getting the message across here that there is no one right way to work on yourself. There is no magical formula, like going to the gym and then wearing lots of suits. In fact, nonmonogamous communities tend towards the rebellious and favor unique individuals, so simply looking more conventional is generally the exact wrong way to go, as is trying to fit a cliched stereotype. This is not a makeover. You are not trying to hide who you are, but rather to make your true self visible. Trying to be some ideal caricature of a person will just make you neurotic and not actually make you more attractive. Working on yourself is a process of accentuating the things that are interesting about you.

I can use myself as an example here. I am an effeminate man. I have ignored this facet of myself for most of my life, but a couple years ago I decided to play into it and I started wearing long skirts. The skirts are a better expression of my personality, and while wearing them definitely makes me less of a Real Man(tm), it also gets me noticeably more dates with women.

One way to get a handle one what this might mean is by considering what makes you feel sexy and attractive. Confidence is an important piece of attractiveness, so if your look or personal expression makes you more confident, that is already an improvement. So, start with your own impulses: how would you like to come across differently, either in looks or personality? When have you felt really sexy in a way that did not depend on someone else finding you sexy? Another source is friends. Check around with your friends (of all genders) for recommendations on what little changes you might make, remembering that what works for other guys may not work for you.

Bearing this in mind, let us consider personality for a moment. Personality is more important than looks: you can be the sexiest guy in the world but if you act like an asshole or are stunningly boring your looks will not save you. There are nonmonogamous environments where one’s looks and style are nominally more important than personality, most importantly sex parties and BDSM play parties. In situations where people are mostly looking for hookups, it is sometimes possible to get in and out of a sexy encounter even with a terrible personality match, though such problems will still crop up when flirting and scuttle things. However, if you are looking for a repeat performance with this person (or people), then personality starts to really matter. So, even at play parties, an attractive personality will make a huge difference in how much fun you have.

Think about your own personality. If there are there things about it you like, try accentuating those. If there are things about your personality you do not like, figure out how to change or at least work around them. If you are drawing a blank, then just start paying attention to your social interactions. When do things go well? Poorly? Track how you are feeling when you have a good time socially and/or feel attractive, and how you are feeling when things do not go well. Similarly, keep an eye on when notable things happen. Did everyone at that dinner stop talking to you after that one thing you said? Again, your friends can be useful: ask them to give you their honest opinion on your social habits and personality, both positive and negative aspects (and be emotionally prepared to find out some not-so-flattering things about yourself).

Nervousness is a big problem in social settings, inside or outside of nonmonogamous communities. Remember that in any social situation, how you are feeling will rub off on the people around you. If you are anxious, they will get nervous and twitchy and possibly bail on you, and in any case the socializing will not go well. So, the most important thing is to be relaxed and happy when socializing. I see a lot of guys who seem to be terminally nervous, not just when in a nonmonogamous setting or when dealing with women they are attracted to, but any time they are in a social environment. If this sounds like you, figure out how to relax. Maybe this means going out with friends or maybe you should only socialize in groups smaller than five. Maybe there is some other sort of setting change that will help. Maybe you have been going into social situations with a defeatist attitude, and you just cannot break out of it all night, in which case finding a way to avoid that feeling is paramount. Also, if you find yourself getting tense in any particular situation, consider how you could relax or failing that consider bailing on the situation. I do this: I will often withdraw from parties if I feel myself getting socially anxious, either to a corner or all the way home.

Another big personality issue is being interesting. I do not mean being witty, charming, or debonaire, though those are things to think about. Rather, I am talking about being an interesting person overall. Now, most people are interesting in some way: either they are doing interesting things now or they have some interesting history. The problem is that people usually manage to hide these complex and exciting aspects of themselves. Sometimes this is due to closeting (say, if your interesting pursuits include kinky sexual practices) but mostly this just seems to be a reluctance to lay ourselves on the line and really talk about what we like. And perhaps this is for good reason, as it is true that not everyone will be interested in your rabbit farming hobby or habit of reading esoteric physics manuals. But then, some people will, and even those who are not will start seeing you as a complex being rather than just another face in the crowd.

Again, I can talk about myself here. A number of years ago I got into a sexual and romantic rut after a breakup. I was going to play parties and social events, but the people I ended up playing with were poor matches and nothing seemed to be clicking romantically. So I gave up for a while and started spending my time writing essays like this one instead. Three months later, I was dating three women and discovering my kink. While it may seem odd, my writing was crucial to this in two ways. First, it made me a more interesting person because I was clearly into something that most people do not do, writing non-fiction. Second, it forced me to stop bouncing all over the place and instead just focus on potential dating partners who were especially interesting to me. There is a lesson here: doing something you love is an aphrodisiac. Maybe that is fixing cars, gardening, reading, doing your job really well, or playing video games. Do what you love and then share that love with other people, and some of them will be attracted to you because of it.

If you can integrate what you love with a nonmonogamous community, then you win on all fronts. Here in San Francisco we have polyamorous people who enjoy hiking, so they organize poly hikes. Our local dungeon has a knitting group. Maybe you like swinging and boating, in which case you could attend or hold a small event on the water. Putting your interests in the same place as your nonmonogamous scene means you can do what you love while surrounded by people who are potential dating or play partners, a convenient timesaver for those of us who are too busy.

Through all of this, it is important to remember that people generally have cycles in their sex and relationship lives. Most folks I know go through boom and bust periods. In the bust periods, nothing seems to work and it all feels hopeless. In the boom periods, people get more play than they could possibly handle. We like to blame our bust periods on other people or on the situation but the truth is that we are the common factor. If you are in a rut, spend some time just improving your life in general and also figuring out what exactly is going wrong. Also, just relax and let it take some time. Eventually you will pop out of the down period and then you will have a whole new set of problems, like too many possible dates for a Friday night. Being nonmonogamous is a real boon when a person hits one of these boom cycles where they are just very attractive and in their groove, because we can get involved with more than one person at once, instead of having to pick just one and then have the boom period end without investigating those other opportunities.

Take Your Time

Nonmonogamous men seem to be in a particular hurry, especially those who are new to it. This shows up in a number of different ways: too eager to meet someone in person, preferring to skip past the sex party negotiation and straight to the sex, not willing to invest the time to become part of a nonmonogamous community, and so on.

I think this eagerness is perhaps the Valley of the Dolls myth in operation again. We have been well-trained by porn and other fantasies of sexual accessibility to think that the Valley is just around the next corner. It isn’t, of course. Around the next corner is a complex series of interactions and negotiations with people which, if performed well, will eventually lead to a comfortable and fulfilling sex and/or relationship life. There are of course other things that spur people on, like the kid-in-a-candy store effect of discovering nonmonogamy for the first time when you have been looking for it for a while.

Whatever the reason, I see a lot of guys who are expecting that they will start getting some action very soon. Like, next week soon. This is wildly unrealistic. Some guys do go from zero to sixty, finding dating or sexual partners almost immediately, but they are an exception just due to their particular personality or situation. (Usually this happens because someone was waiting in the wings, and so the work was effectively done before the switch to nonmonogamy.) For most of us, it takes some time.

It is important to approach nonmonogamy much like you would approach dating in the monogamous world. When dating in the mainstream, you expect it to take a while before you find someone with good chemistry. (Or, if you bounce from one relationship directly into the next, people understand that maybe you have a problem and should slow down.) The process of finding the right someone can take months or years, and will involve a lot of false starts.

Romantic dating in the nonmonogamous world is the same, even when you may already have a partner. There is some weird mind flip where people expect that having the one partner on hand should make finding the second or third one easy. But of course, finding that second partner is just as hard as finding that first one was. But somehow people miss this, and I run into a lot of poly guys who are upset because they have been looking for a whole two months (or even two weeks) and nobody has landed in their lap.

Indeed, finding that second person can be harder if you are dating in the smaller pool of nonmonogamy for the first time. It may be a while before you find people that you have chemistry with, and finding them may mean checking out a number of different social scenes before you locate one where you get along well with the people attending. We see this in the polyamory community: there are a lot of small poly social events in my area, each of which has its own personality, and people have to shop around a bit before they find one they are comfortable at.

This seems to be a particular problem for men in couples who have just opened their relationship. Of course, the process of getting to an open relationship situation may have taken years of talking and negotiation, so it is understandable if someone is a little frustrated. (Though it should be said that women rarely exhibit this particular frustration.) But the process of finding people is the same whether or not you have already put a lot of effort into being able to practice nonmonogamy, so this frustration is not useful.

But wait, you say! What about guys who are looking for casual sex or BDSM play? If someone is looking for relatively light-weight sex or play, then it is in theory easier to find people, as they do not have to be date-worthy matches. As it turns out, this theory does not hold up. It is true that one can generally connect with a wider range of people for recreational play, and that the negotiation process for any one encounter is generally shorter. However, there are a lot of other factors that make it difficult to get into nonmonogamous play. If you are looking for a party scene, then finding the right one and getting an invitation can take a while. If you are looking online, then finding an online venue and learning how to work the personals takes a while. Each sex and play scene has its own set of negotiation rituals, and you basically have to learn those rituals before anything happens, which can be a trial and error process. (This is different from dating, where we at least borrow the general framework from monogamous dating.)

On top of all this, having an over-eager (also known as “desperate”) air is a turnoff in its own right, and for good reason. When a woman meets a guy who seems desperate, she will probably assume that he is not going to really try to get to know her, that he has an agenda which will not contain much space for her agenda, and that if things do not go perfectly he will get more frustrated and move on. And she will probably be right. So, being frustrated or in a hurry can be a self-fulfilling prophecy where the desperation itself ensures failure in dating.

So, the lesson of this section is slow down already. Take your time, and measure that time in a scale of months or years. It usually takes someone six months to really get rolling once they decide on nonmonogamy, and it will be a couple years before they are fully settled in. Do not feel like you are immediately entitled to getting some action or having a dating situation work out – you aren’t. Getting there may well require a sustained effort over a long period of time.

In addition to slowing down your expectations, taking it slow applies in a number of other ways.

First, take your time when entering a nonmonogamous scene. Some scenes set up barriers to force this: for example, swinger parties may insist that you attend a clothes-on meet-and-greet before you can go to a sex party, and a dungeon in my area requires that you attend a class on a non-play night before you can become a member. These and other entrance measures are basically in place to keep that drunk guy from blundering in on a Saturday night with a “where’s the hot chicks” attitude.

So, do not be that guy. Recognize that it is going to take some time to integrate into a particular social scene, and until that happens, you will not get dates or play in that scene. You have to be around for a bit, and then you have to meet people, and then the women in the scene need to get comfortable enough with you to date you or play with you. This all takes time – I generally recommend that you attend a particular event three to six times before you start thinking about actually hooking up with people.

Also, try not to get frustrated if things do not work out quickly or if you do not seem to have prospects. If you find yourself at an event where you do not seem to have chemistry with anyone, that is a sign that you should check out other events in your area. But at the same time, consider coming back to this event a couple times. Nonmonogamy events often have a high turnover, and next month some people may show up who are to your liking. Or you may discover over time that the people you did not like at first are more interesting than first impressions would indicate. I often see people bounce through all the events in an area and then give up entirely, without having given any one event enough attention.

If you do the work in one scene and still nothing pans out, then it may be time to think about your flirting behavior or try a new scene.

Second, take it slow with any one woman. Coming on to someone when you first meet them is a guaranteed recipe for failure. She will assume (again, probably correctly) that you do not really know if you are attracted to her, and that you are just hitting on her for relatively shallow physical reasons. Instead, get to know her a bit before any propositions. This might mean running into her a couple times at different iterations of the event, or it may mean having an hour-long animated conversation the first time you meet her. In any case, if you are starting to know her, and she is starting to know you, then both of you can judge the chemistry and decide where to take it from there.

I think guys get worried that they will never see this particular attractive person again if they do not give them their number at this event right now. Indeed, sometimes people disappear never to be seen again. But you will see most of them again, at this event or another event in the (again, small) nonmonogamy scene in your area. And giving someone your number out of the blue is an almost-guarantee of failure, not just in the immediate situation but also in the future. If this woman does throw your number away, then when you two meet again she will remember you as that pushy guy and still have you mentally crossed off the list, even if otherwise she might find you attractive.

Age and Polyamory Organizing

A little over a year ago, my partner Jen and I started a polyamory social group specifically for people under age forty. There are very few age-specific poly events out there, and people tend to react somewhat defensively to groups with an age limit that excludes them, so I have ended up explaining my reasons for starting this group on various email lists. This post is an attempt to gather all those arguments in one place and explore them in depth.

First, a quick note on terminology. When I say “younger”, I mean people in their twenties and early thirties. When I talk about “older” folks in contrast, I am referring to folks over forty. This means that “older” actually includes middle age people for the purposes of this essay.

Table of Contents

Section 1: Background
   My History
   The Problem
   The Danger
   The Opportunity
Section 2: Analysis
   Reasons for Age-Specific Socializing and Dating
   Agewashing
   Culture and Age
   Sexualization
   Ageism
   Defensiveness
Section 3: Age-Aware Polyamory Organizing
   What the Polyamory Movement Can Do
   What Older Event Organizers Can Do
   What Individuals Can Do
   Holding Events Targeted at Younger People


Section 1: Background


My History

The start of this story is my partner Jen’s and my exploration of the polyamory community in San Francisco over the last five years. We spent a good bit of time trying out varous organizing polyamory events: going to this poly dinner, or that hot tub party, or a discussion group, or what have you. There are a lot of different poly events in our area, with a good turnover of new events, so we have been to quite a few different things.

However, we pretty much ended up going only once or twice to each event, and then dropping out. This seemed to be largely because of the age gap between us and the other attendees. I am currently thirty-four, and Jen is twenty-nine. When we started this exploration, I was in my late twenties and she was in her mid-twenties. There would typically only be a handful of people under forty at the events we went to. Sometimes we would be the only people under forty or even forty-five.

I was able to handle the social events pretty well, because I tend to socialize pretty well up and down the age spectrum. But even so, I would always feel a bit out of place. Also, even though I do date up to twice my age, I found very few dating partners at the poly events we were attending, and no one who worked out long-term. Jen tends to relate well only to people within ten years of her age, and she had a much harder time. At the time, she was also looking for a partner relatively close to her age, and there was no hope of finding such a person at these events. Often we would end up leaving pretty soon after arriving. “There’s nothing for me here” became a phrase that was familiar to my ears. Jen had little enthusiasm for returning to these events. Sometimes I would go on my own, but they wore on me as well, and so I never lasted long.

The discussion events were frustrating as well from an age range perspective. They would definitely draw a wider age range than the social events, but the younger people tended to drop out quickly. I think in many cases this was due to the way the discussion went. One group discussion led by an older therapist managed to attract three couples in their twenties that I had not seen before. But apparently they did not like the way the presenter approached the topic of partner abuse, because all three couples left during intermission. In another instance, there was a very cool anarchist threesome that showed up and had some excellent political things to say, but they got hammered by a somewhat traditional older triad whose members had no problem expounding endless circular arguments. The anarchists did not come back.

This is not to say that all the discussions were hopeless or problematic – indeed, we attended the discussion groups much longer than the social events because we tended to have good talks with people from all over the age range. But again, we were having trouble connecting with anyone, because people near our age range did not become regulars. This was compounded a bit by my personal politics, which are very left-wing. As you go up in age, there are less and less people who share my political views – the last thirty years have constituted a massive generational political shift. Discussion topics and perspectives were often largely irrelevant to our lives.

Jen and I identified what we call “show up once” syndrome. People from the younger age range would show up to an event once, and never come back. Sometimes they would not even make it to the end of the event. And indeed, Jen and I were part of this as well: I can list off numerous events that we made it to exactly once. We realized that this syndrome was preventing younger folks from establishing a foothold at any of the usual poly events: since they would not come back, there were rarely more than a handful at any one event.

It was during this time that Jen and I got involved in Love+Politics, a progressive polyamory organization that started up in the San Francisco area. (It is long dead, but that’s another story.) I ended up holding a lot of discussion events for L+P. The progressive bent of the group and my facilitation meant that the subjects were definitely interesting to me. However, even though the discussion group (and actually, all of Love+Politics) started off with a good age range, over time we would add older people and the younger people would drop out. Some of the younger left-wing folks who helped kick-start the organization left over political differences with the leader. My discussion group added a couple of problematic people who happened to be older.

It was with Love+Politics that I first noticed a problem that has dogged my polyamory organizing: I had a hard time getting my friends and lovers to events I was holding. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me or didn’t want to go to poly events, but rather that the sort of events I was putting on had very little appeal to them. This prompted me to start thinking about what sorts of events would actually attract younger poly folks, the question that is still fueling my attempts at poly organizing.

Eventually Jen and I found other ways to locate poly people near our age. We got good at finding partners through the online personals. Our friend/lover network eventually grew enough so we started meeting folks through social ties. But perhaps most importantly, we started going to BDSM events.

The BDSM community is not shy about creating age-limited events specifically for younger people in the community. The last decade has seen a proliferation of “TNG” groups (TNG is short for The Next Generation), typically social events or dinners specifically limited to people under a certain age. The age limit varies from place to place, but is usually either thirty, thirty-five, or forty. While these groups initially faced a lot of resistance, eventually the kink community came to the conclusion that they were necessary: the only alternative seemed to be giving up on the possibility of people in this age range joining the public BDSM community.

Here in San Francisco we have a monthly TNG dinner, a bimonthly play party for people under forty, and a kinky club night that tends to attract younger folks. Jen and I started going to these regularly, and we started meeting poly people near our age on a fairly regular basis. Even when people were not poly, they were often nonmonogamous as a side effect of being into BDSM. Jen met someone at one of the dinners and they started dating seriously.

Our impetus for starting a poly under forty group here in San Francisco was to see if we could replicate the success of the BDSM TNG dinners. These dinners function as an entry point into the community: a place for new younger folks to show up and reassure themselves that they are not the only people their age into BDSM. In San Francisco, the TNG dinners primarily act as a stepping stone to BDSM club nights and dungeons. People show up, meet a handful of folks, and quickly move on to larger kink social scenes.

And indeed, the primary response to our age-limited polyamory group has been one of relief. I cannot tell you how many “oh thank goodness” responses we have gotten. When I have told people about the group in person, I see their eyes just light up. Once they get to discussing their experiences in the local poly community, all the usual stuff comes rushing out: “I was the youngest person in the room – by ten years.” “None of the discussion topics were relevant to me.” “I left after some guy my parents’ age hit on me.” And of course, “I never went back” and “I gave up on poly events”. I am not talking about ten or twenty people here – I have had this conversation around a hundred times at this point.

At the same time, I have gotten an incredible amount of crap from people in the community for holding these events. I have been accused of ageism endlessly. I have been through two email flame wars on local lists, and I expect more in the future. I have gotten emails from strangers filled with the kind of blind hate that we expect to see from right-wing nutjobs but not from each other.


The Problem

The problem for younger folks, simply stated, is that (aside from my new under-forty events) there are no public polyamory events in my area that have a critical mass of people in their twenties or thirties. This means that there are no reliable places to go to get age-specific support, or to meet potential partners of a similar age. While some younger poly people have no problem getting support from older folks, or dating older folks, most need people around their own age for these things, and there is effectively no organized community for these people.

This creates a whole host of follow-on effects, as younger poly people compensate in various ways. Some end up depending entirely on internet resources or personals websites. Most build out friend networks full of poly people, making an effort to socialize largely with other younger poly folks, sometimes almost to the exclusion of socializing with monogamous people. Many turn to other communities where it is possible to find poly or nonmonogamous people, like the BDSM, swinger, Burner, new age, or queer communities.

Sometimes these younger folks end up not identifying as polyamorous, even when what they are doing looks and quacks like polyamory. This may seem odd, but in fact is not too surprising. It is really hard to pick up or retain an identity when you cannot find anyone in that identity group from your own demographic. If the people you end up dealing with are all swingers or Burners, then you tend to start thinking of yourself that way, even if the reason you met these people was because you are poly. Along these lines, I also see lots of people taking on the poly label, but having their polyamory identity end up secondary to these other community identifications. Which again makes sense: we prioritize the identities that are serving us best. I see these types all over the public BDSM community in the area, where polyamory has gained a foothold but the number of strongly poly-identified people is much much smaller than the number of nonmonogamous people, who are a majority in the local kink scene.

In particular, I want to note that the lack of peer support for younger poly people is a real problem in my area, and may be reducing our numbers. I know lots of younger poly folks who have problems with polyamory, and they do not have any place to get this sort of support. Some of them give up, and head back to monogamy. While of course some of these people are not the poly type, others are, and I suspect they will suffer in monogamy. I had my four years of trying to be monogamous and it was hell. I would rather that others not have to travel that particular path.

This problem may well be specific to the San Francisco area. Certainly, the Boston people in my social circle do not have this issue to my knowledge. Here in the SF area we are blessed with two things that might be contributing to this issue: a large number of poly people in general, and a large and vibrant older generation of people in their forties to early sixties. This latter group seems to be a generational spike: people who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. When you get older than this group, poly membership tapers off drastically.

Most of the events in this area are held by folks in this late-middle-aged group, and attended by the same crowd. And it is very cool that we have these events. Because of this generational group, there has been a consistently visible poly presence and activity in the bay area since before I was on the scene. I can show up to an event and actually talk to one of those people who started being nonmonogamous in the 70’s and never stopped. In short, we have an incredible resource base here in the area, one that is generally not replicated in other regions in the States. I hear stories from people in other regions, where events are infrequent and finding people is a very difficult. The vibrant older polyamorous community in the area has saved me from experiencing the isolation common to other areas.

So, I am really glad that we have this community and these events. And indeed, nothing in this essay should be taken as a critique of these events: I have no issue with events that end up being by and for a specific age group. My problem is that we seem to have developed a blind spot around age. Because we have a roster of regular events, we assume that all age groups are being served by these events, when that is really not true. (Note that this sort of problem is not specific to age: we also have it around race, ability level, liberal versus conservative, and so on.) There is a sort of universalizing effect here: events that people think of as generically poly turn out to really be events for poly people in a particular demographic, and people in that demographic sometimes have trouble seeing who is missing, since they are being well-served by local poly events.

This problem is also nothing new. I have a friend who started a poly under thirty group in the late nineties because he was facing the same sorts of problems back then. We can expect that if we do not take steps as a community to address these age issues, they will remain indefinitely.


The Danger

An inability to attract younger poly people to the organized poly community presents a certain danger to the polyamory movement as a whole. We risk aging out, where the organized community gets older and older and eventually disappears. This may sound silly to you, but that is exactly what has happened to other communities.

Remember nudism? While the nudist/naturist movement got started in the 30’s, it really took off in the 60’s and 70’s. Club membership peaked in the 80’s, but the movement now seems to be in decline. Part of this is that the culture has moved forward, and being naked is not so much of a big deal that one has to center an identity on it. But part of the issue is that the nudist movement seems to be aging out, and not attracting younger folks. Last year, a series of articles triggered by an Associated Press story covered this aging effect. Nudists in the articles described being unable to attract the younger generation because of issues like cost and generational differences. To try to deal with the problem organizations have set up young ambassador programs and clubs are offering price incentives to the younger crowd, but frankly this seems like too little too late.

The decline of organized nudism is happening at the same time as general acceptance of nudity is increasing. This may seem paradoxical, but actually makes sense: who needs organized nudist community when you can be naked at home, at a nearby beach, at a sex party, or at a hot spring? At the same time, the decline of organized nudism will probably set us back politically. At one point, nudists were filing court cases, trying to protect their right to assemble and trying to push the freedom to be naked into various public spaces. Those efforts have stopped, and we may see a certain retrenchment of mandatory clothing. The right wing has started making attacks on nudist groups, focusing on a child abuse tack, as we see in this article.

On a side note, nudism and polyamory carry a similar sexualization profile, which is to say most people in these communities will very forcibly tell you that what they do is not sexual, but at the same time the mainstream inevitably views them as sexual. I think the fact that we are a somewhat sexualized community has something to do with our generational organizing issues, as I will discuss below.

My point here is that there is no guarantee that organized polyamory (or for that matter, polyamory) will continue. We could easily turn into a one-generation flash in the pan. Something new would probably spring up to take our place, much as polyamory seems to have largely taken the place of open relationship ideology. But at the same time, losing the momentum of polyamory would be a serious setback for nonmonogamy in general, much like the decline of the naturist movement has been a setback for anyone who values nudity. We saw this happen in the 80’s, when both open relationships and swinging took a serious conceptual and cultural beating, and this halted or reversed much of the progress that had been made in nonmonogamy. For example, we would not be able to make progress in the area of legal custody reform, or in legal recognition for our relationships. We would be much easier targets for right-wing attacks and cultural backlash. We might not be able to publish our guidebooks, and our conferences and workshops could disappear. We would certainly lose our relatively good credibility.

This could all happen at the same time as polyamory or nonmonogamy gains in popular acceptance, much like has happened with nudism. We can see this with the bisexual movement. In the 90’s, bisexual activism was on the move. We got most lesbian/gay organizations to change their names to include bisexuality, we started agitating on the national level, and so on. It seemed like things would only keep on growing, and soon bisexuals would be a national force to reckon with. But instead, organizing fizzled (for reasons that were not the aging-out problem, but have more to do with bisexual invisibility and appropriation of bisexual issues). Today, there are more bisexuals than ever, but very little in the way of bisexual organizations. We have a hard time keeping up a bisexual support group in San Francisco, though we have plenty of bisexuals. We are unable to forcibly respond to media attacks on bisexuality. LBGT organizations seem to be largely staffed by L’s and G’s with the occasional T. And so on. The stagnation of bisexual organizing has not been a good thing for bisexuals, and may eventually result in a reduction in bisexual identitification and bisexual freedoms.

As I mentioned above, the polyamory generational organizing problem seems to be specific to San Francisco. However, it may simply be that polyamory has advanced further in the San Francisco area and so we are seeing effects here that have not shown up elsewhere. We have a large number of poly people here, and we also have a vibrant older poly generation, two things that you generally do not find in other regions. If we assume that the polyamory movement continues to grow, then we can expect that more areas will eventually have large poly populations containing a good number of older poly people. If this happens, then we may well see the “nowhere for younger poly people to go” problem spread to other regions. In other words, the San Francisco area may serve as a warning, giving us a preview of movement-wide difficulties that we may face in the future.


The Opportunity

I know I tend to be all gloom and doom when talking about movement organizing, so let me elucidate the positive side of focusing some effort on organizing younger poly people.

For various cultural reasons, nonmonogamy seems to be on the move in the United States. Some of this is because the problems with monogamy have started becoming visible to the larger culture. Serial monogamy is common and sometimes not well liked. Also, due to feminism, many women have gotten to a point where they can approach nonmonogamous situations from a standing of equality. Sexuality in general is gaining in acceptance, and the successes of the lesbian and gay movements have opened the door for sexual minority organizing of various sorts. On top of all this, a relatively liberal and economically stable period has supported the flowering of sexual minority subcultures. In short, we are at a very good historical moment for nonmonogamy organizing, which is probably why polyamory is doing as well as it is.

Due to the visibility of nonmonogamy (swinging, open relationships, polyamory, queer men’s nonmonogamy) and the visible problems with monogamy, more and more people are asking themselves, “do I want to be monogamous?” at a young age. Quite often, the answer is no, and people set off to be nonmonogamous. Unfortunately, role models for polyamory (or really, any kind of negotiated nonmonogamy) are pretty rare for people younger than twenty-five. Some do pretty well finding resources online, though others do not think to look until later. On the poly forums, we often see people say things like “I have been doing this for years and had no idea there was a name or community for it”. I think many people hit their first couple nonmonogamous snags and lacking support or community they give up at that point. Sometimes this is because monogamy is actually a better fit for them, but other times it is because they did not have the resources to succeed at nonmonogamy. Others keep it going, but may never seek out community or identify with nonmonogamy.

Along similar lines, there are a whole lot of people in their twenties and early thirties who are practicing nonmonogamy or polyamory (and often use the words), but who do not engage with poly community. Sometimes they don’t know organized community exists, other times they have never seen a clear reason, or they have gone to one or two events and did not find anything they were interested in at them.

Jen and I see this in the BDSM community when we hold our Practical Nonmonogamy workshops. When we hold these at dungeons, we get a strong turnout and people are really enthusiastic. We actually started to develop a following, though we are not highly experienced presenters. There is a real hunger in the BDSM community for nonmonogamy how-to skills, but either it has not occurred to these kinksters that these skills could be improved via workshops and discussion, or they have tried going to non-BDSM-oriented poly events and were turned off because they could not identify with the people there. In other words, there is a strong potential for nonmonogamous teaching and organizing in the BDSM community, but we are not fully taking advantage of that potential. I think we can say something similar for younger people experimenting with nonmonogamy: there is a real potential there for poly organizing, which we are currently not fully taking advantage of.

What if we could actually pull in these people from the younger generation in my area? We could significantly expand the number of people involved in our poly organizations. We could cement the future of organized polyamory in the area at least through the next generation.

We could get that much closer having polyamory be a household word. This bit is crucial – the queer-identified population really grew when gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities became so well-known that every young person had to ask themselves about their own sexuality, and could think about it knowing that there were decent alternatives to heterosexuality out there. (We are still working on getting transgender recognition to the same place, I think.) High schoolers started coming out in droves, and there was an identity population boom. High schoolers and college students already seem to often question whether monogamy is right for them, but generally lack any information on workable alternatives. If we can get to a place where such workable alternatives are commonly known (much like students know that being LBG is a workable alternative), I think we can expect a similar rapid increase in identification. Below I discuss various outreach efforts that could help inform monogamy-questioning youth about polyamory.

Also, there are good selfish reasons for older folks to encourage a burgeoning younger poly population. It is much easier to maintain one’s sexual minority status in old age when one is backed by a vibrant and growing cultural movement. We can see this currently in queer organizing, where there has been a significant focus on the issues faced by elder LBGT folks. Queer community money has gone to initiatives to make assisted living friendly to queer people, for example. Lesbian rights pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon managed to get legally married last year before Del Martin’s death. Given the accelerating rate of sexual minority progress, it is not inconceivable that poly people currently in their forties might legally marry more than one person before they die, but this will only happen if the movement expands considerably. If polyamory slows down or contracts, the current generation will be left out in the cold as they age, much like we are seeing with organized nudism. I have met a lot of folks who were part of the free love and hippy movements who tend to talk about their younger years with a wistful tone. There is a certain sadness to seeing one’s movement disappear or fall into disrepute as one ages. I would rather not have that happen to me or other poly aficionados.


Section 2: Analysis


Reasons for Age-Specific Socializing and Dating

When I have discussed the age distribution at events with older poly folks in my area, they tend to blame the younger folks. Specifically, they claim that younger poly people are unwilling to hang out with older people because they are ageist. And certainly this is true for some people: they have an “ew, ick, these people are my parents’ age” reaction that I can classify as ageism. But for most younger poly people I have talked to, the concern is that they want to spend time with people their own age, which seems entirely reasonable. The issue is not that there are older people in the room, but rather that there are no younger people. (The exception seems to be people who are still in college or their early twenties, who often have a visceral reaction to being at a sexualized event with older people. More on this below.)

And I want to point out that it is in fact weird that we are expecting younger and older folks to get along great. US culture is incredibly age-striated, and the culture generally expects that people will only associate with their own age group. Dating guides tend to recommend that people date within five years of their own age, and they reflect the common expectations of the culture at large. Similarly, we expect to socialize within a relatively narrow age range, only making friends with people within a decade of our own age. These dating and friend age ranges generally expand as people get older, but I would still characterize the limit as being fifteen years for people in their fifties. Interactions outside the expected age ranges are usually limited to formalized (and notably, de-sexualized) roles, like teacher/student, coworkers, relatives, and so on.

So it is a little goofy that we are expecting poly people in their twenties to primarily socialize with poly people in their forties or fifties, given our cultural context. It seems like this expectation is born of the assumption that our polyamorous identity or shared experience will trump other concerns like age. While this is true to some extent for other sexual minorities (namely LBGT folks), it is simply not true for polyamory. Most poly people I know (of any age) would prefer to hang out with monogamous people close to their own age instead of polyamorous people outside their age range.

Or perhaps we expect intergenerational socialization because we expect poly people to be more enlightened about age than the general population. And indeed, the poly movement as a whole is surprisingly friendly across generations. Polyamory itself tends to support intergenerational dating much more than monogamy: when a person does not have to be your one and only, it is much easier for them to be outside the standard cultural age range for dating. But while poly people are somewhat less likely to care about age compared to the culture at large, for most it is still a significant concern. People act surprised about this, but if we remember the culture we live in, what is surprising is our relative flexibility about age, not the fact that it remains a concern.

To be clear, there are plenty of good and understandable reasons for primarily socializing close to one’s age. The first is that it is easier to relate to people one’s own age, due to being at the same life stage. It is easy to underestimate the strength of this effect.

We see this in discussion group topics. A young friend of mine recently went to a poly discussion group, and the primary topic of discussion was raising children in a poly household. This is a hugely important topic for many poly people, but at the same time it is unlikely to interest most poly folks in their early twenties. In general, many discussion topics vary widely in importance depending on age. Some examples of such topics: moving a quad in together, coming out to parents, concerns about job security, and dealing with divorce. Even when general topics are important across the age spectrum, often the particular concerns or solutions involved are specific to one’s life stage. For example, many poly people are interested in how to find other poly people, regardless of age. However, the manner in which they can find people varies widely: a twenty year old person will successfully locate poly people differently than a thirty year old person, who in turn will use different tactics than a fifty year old. Also, the reasons for looking are quite possibly different depending on age: somewhat more likely to be validation for the twenty year old, dating partners for the thirty year old, and community for the fifty year old.

The life stage effects also impact our polyamorous practice itself. People’s relationship needs are different at different ages. There is a shift from a focus on sex to companionship as people age. Middle-aged people tend to be looking for stable child-rearing arrangements or good economic partners, more so than people in their twenties or sixties. Poly style tends to be age-specific due to these reasons. In my personal experience, younger people tend towards loose relationship networks while older poly folks tend to have a smaller set of stable established relationships.

In addition to life stage effects that make it more attractive to spend time with people close to one’s age, there are a whole series of generational changes. In other words, a thirty year old today will have very different attitudes than a thirty year old twenty years ago. Even though people do tend to change with the culture as they age, individual people do not change as fast as the culture. So the fifty year old today who was that thirty year old twenty years ago will still retain many of the attitudes of the thirty year old self, making them different from the thirty year old today. Culture has been moving fast these days, and generation gaps are significant.

The most obvious of these is a general trend towards liberal or left-wing attitudes. People are generally more liberal than their parents. Younger people are much more likely than the older generation to support queer rights, understand what it means to be queer, or be queer themselves. Most of my friends were raised in an era of feminist advance, and as a result we generally consider men and women to be the same. When an older person starts spouting off about the basic and intrinsic differences between men and women (which happens with distressing frequency at poly discussion groups), people from my age cohort are immediately alienated. And so on – I have only scratched the surface here.

In addition, there are much more subtle generational changes in the way that people date and socialize. I noticed one of these at the under-forty social group Jen and I started. Nobody at the events seemed to be hitting on each other, even though many of them were quite clearly available and looking. But at the same time, people who barely knew each other one month would show up at the next month’s event all snuggly and clearly dating. It turns out that the general strategy for propositions is to wait until after the event and contact someone via email or social networking websites. There have been almost zero face-to-face propositions at the events itself. In comparison, in-person propositions are very common at the poly events in the area attended by older folks. What happens when you mix these two age groups? The older people (in particular but not exclusively older men) are not shy about propositioning folks, including the younger cohort. Younger people experience this as pushy or threatening, even when the come-ons are perfectly polite and respectful. When you are not used to having any in-person propositions, they can be very tiring to handle, especially if they are from people you have just met.

Of course, there are lots of other generational changes to the way we date. Due to being raised during the AIDS crisis, younger people are somewhat more likely to use condoms for intercourse, and heterosexual young folks generally do not view their heterosexuality as proof against STDs. Younger folks tend to be better with the online personals, or at using social network websites for dating. Due to the queer revolution, younger folks are more likely to identify as bisexual (or otherwise not gay/straight/lesbian), or to be willing to experiment by having sex with various genders. Younger folks are less likely to view marriage and children as inevitable in their lives. Younger people are more likely to have tried anal sex. The concept of not having access to birth control or abortion is completely alien to us. In other words, there are a whole host of subtle generational changes to sexuality, relationship goals, and dating styles. These changes can make it much harder to socialize with or date older people, though it certainly does not stop many of us.


Agewashing

In the US, we like to pretend that our culture does not change, despite incredible evidence to the contrary. There is this sort of universalizing myth, that people are essentially the same from generation to generation, even as technology advances and the outer world changes. To prop up this myth, there is a fevered push for evidence of biological tendencies, focused on whatever the current insecurity is. In the 1920’s, they were desperately trying to prove that people of different races were deeply and inevitably different based on their race. Today, they are desperately trying to prove that women are different from men, and that gay men are different from straight men (somehow they neglect to consider lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people). The idea that people basically stay the same is comforting, building a conceptual wall to protect us from the speedy cultural changes all around us. This purposeful blindness to change is at its base a conservative impulse.

In the case of age-based politics, this refusal to embrace change shows up as a universalizing impulse towards age. We want to pretend that everyone is the same, whether they are twenty-five or sixty. We are sometimes willing to give ground on life stages, admitting that older people are of necessity different from younger due to their current life needs. Though just as often we seem to want to pretend that everyone in the category “adult” is basically the the same. We are much less likely to admit (or try to understand) the fundamental generational changes that are occurring. The universalizing urge shows up as the impulse to view each generation as largely identical, minus some differences due to technological advance. Times of turmoil are just seen as temporary deviations, allowing people to deny their permanent effects. I have heard “the sixties are over” more times than I can count, despite the fact that most of the effects of the sixties continue to this day. It is our cutural conceit that we live in the best possible world (from a cultural perspective as opposed to a technological perspective), and to maintain that conceit we have to assume that the future will be culturally identical, which of necessity means the next generation is also identical.

The universalizing impulse towards age tends to create a certain blindness around age at events. When people are at events where the attendees are their own age, they tend to stop noticing age entirely. This is reasonable – they are being well-served, and we only tend to notice when things are going wrong. This is true no matter what the age of the viewer, twenty-five or fifty. People go to events that are effectively age-segregated, and generally fail to notice the age segregation.

For similar reasons, people tend to be blind to intergenerational differences and issues, and to age-related interaction problems. As I have discovered in discussions around age at polyamory events, any discussion of age concerns triggers a certain defensiveness. People do not want to notice age, and even when forced to notice age, they want to pretend that age is less important than it ends up being. Any discussion of actual personal differences based on age (due to life stage or generational change) is apparently highly threatening. In their defensiveness, they throw out accusations of ageism, where the justification seems only to be that age is being discussed.

I call this purposeful blindness “agewashing”, a made-up word based on “whitewashing”. Agewashing is the urge to not see age, or to pretend that age is not a concern when it is, or to shut down discussion of very real age-related differences or tensions.


Culture and Age

To be sure, I do not blame individual people for their urge to agewash. I blame society and the media. Our culture has a frankly ridiculous approach to age, that embeds all kinds of age-related neuroses in us.

Let us start with the cultural obsession with youth and young bodies. While this is changing, it is still relatively rare to see television shows or movies where the actors are older than forty. Apparently we actually only live from age fourteen to age thirty-five or so, and then the interesting parts of our lives are over. In particular, the focus on high school and college is just ridiculous. If you judged based on screen time alone, we would spend half our lives as students. This mapping of youth to life means that people of any age have the urge to think of themselves as still young, or at least to think of themselves as having not changed since they were young. Because if we admit that older people are different simply due to being older, we end up with no role model for how to be old. Instead, people of any adult age are forced to model themselves on people in the media, who are all either young or pretending to be young. This modeling gets extreme in the case of high school movies: the way people act in high school movies is nothing at all like the way people actually act in high school. Also, the actors all have specific kinds of early-twenties bodies, not high school bodies. We are really using high school settings to stage movies that model the lives of people in middle age.

On a side note, this tendency to represent the entire culture via young people is a conservative strategy. By playing out adult dramas in the context of high school, college, or one’s twenties, cultural media effectively infantilizes adult issues. To put it differently, by focusing on young people, the media avoids serious discussion of many adult concerns. For example, it is hard to find good representation of the struggles involved in: changing jobs, long-term relationships, retirement, sending children to college, divorce, and so on. Instead the media focuses on situations that are most relevant to folks in their twenties: getting that first job, starting a relationship, accidentally getting pregnant, and so on.

If you are older, the media focus on youth creates a strong conceptual incentive to avoid thinking of yourself as different from younger people. To do otherwise is to be lost without a map. If you are younger, the absence of older protagonists means that you can largely ignore the fact that older people exist. In both cases, what we get is agewashing.

The idealization of young bodies and youth as attractive only makes this worse. We are simply not taught how older bodies and older people can be attractive. While most people grow up and figure it out for themselves to some extent, this creates a further incentive for older people to think of themselves as the same as younger folks: to do otherwise is to be consigned to a kind of conceptual desexualization.


Sexualization

The obsession with young bodies also tends to make younger people more defensive around interactions with older people in sexualized spaces. Young bodies basically end up as a kind of commodity, and of course people do not like feeling like commodities, so younger people opt out of sexualized spaces where older people are present. This is true for young people of any gender, but goes double for young women, due to the culture’s tendency to sexualize young women’s bodies and due to the culture’s focus on older men/younger women relationships and sex. I think that women actually get less defensive about their bodily space as they get older, because their aging means that the culture is less sexually aggressive towards them. More specifically, men are less sexually aggressive towards them. The upshot of all this is that younger people will generally refuse to share sexualized space with older people, due to an entirely understandable defensiveness brought on by the culture’s fetishization of them.

Much as we might dislike it, most polyamory spaces end up being sexualized. This is not because of anything about polyamory, but rather because the larger culture views any kind of nonmonogamy as deeply and inevitably sexual and titillating. The statement “I am not monogamous” is generally heard as “I am a nympho, please take me to your orgy”. Poly organizers go to great lengths to try to keep this sexualization out of our events: disciplining single men who seem to be looking for a good time, holding the events in public places and having people dress normally, instituting “no come-on” rules, and so on. And we are largely successful at creating space where people can talk about poly or with poly people without the orgy madness descending. But at the same time, we never fully erase the sexualizing effect of the culture’s understanding of nonmonogamy. There is a certain sexiness in the air at poly events. While they are not as sexual as sex parties or dating events, this sexual air is enough to create a problem when it comes to younger folks interacting with older folks, due to our problematic cultural programming around age (obsession with young bodies, idea that young people should only interact with young people). So, one strategy for creating good intergenerational interactions is to desexualize the interactions, either by setting up certain roles between people or by desexualizing events. I will discuss this below in a section on ways we can improve the generation gap situation.


Ageism

As I have mentioned, there is a certain ageism in the culture that works against older folks, and younger poly people are in no way immune to this. This ageism can show up a number of ways: thinking that older people are icky, refusing to socialize with folks older than a certain age, developing an obsession with PYTs (“pretty young things”), and so on. This ageism is very problematic for people as they get older, as I have mentioned. It means older people are desexualized and often considered ugly, they stop seeing themselves represented in media, and so on.

While I do not mean to minimize the impact and importance of anti-old ageism, I do want to say that it is not particularly surprising to find it in younger people, poly or otherwise. We deliver a consistent message to youth: older people are gross, they will not understand you, only young bodies are beautiful, high school and college are the best times of your life, and so on. So, we should not be surprised when younger poly people have these attitudes. That said, my personal experience is that people in my social circle generally grow out of these attitudes by their mid-twenties as reality impinges. So, while this anti-old ageism is definitely a factor in the generation gap issues we are seeing in the poly community (and especially important if we are talking about people in their early twenties or younger), it is not the only factor by a long shot. For example, it does not explain why a person in their early thirties cannot find an event to attend with people their own age.

There is another factor, that is much more rarely discussed and which is not particularly well-understood: anti-young ageism. Sometimes this shows up in language, for example whenever an older person dismisses the opinion of a younger person with a statement like “oh I thought that way when I was your age too”. However, this sort of obvious ageism is relatively minor compared to the real issue.

The real issue is that older people in our culture have most of the power. If you doubt this, take a quick look at the US Congress or Senate. Or any elected body in this country, actually. How many of these people are under forty years old? How many are under thirty? If we look at CEOs or most other powerful positions (with some exceptions, like movie stars) again we see people who are at least in their middle age. And even if we put aside obviously powerful positions, people generally gain money and prestige throughout their lives, which means that older people generally have more of both than younger people. Certainly in families, people tend to control more of the family wealth the older they are, up to a point (wealth often starts to decline after retirement).

Between control of government, control of corporate resources, and control of personal finances, older people basically run the show. This is true even of the media: while young bodies and high school settings are greatly over-represented in the media, the people holding the reins (directors, producers, CEOs) are typically older than the characters and the actors, and they are generally willing to use their control to influence or censor expression. Of course, there are often younger people in mid-level corporate, government, or media positions. While these people have some latitude, the overall shape of their jobs is determined from above. This country is a top-down affair: those on top have no reluctance using their power to shape the lives and products of those below them.

The upshot of all this control is that mainstream values tend to represent the values of the older generation. Or to put it differently, those values we think of as mainstream are actually the values of the older (but not yet retired) generation. The reason for this is simple: the culture-wide means of propagating values are largely controlled the older generation, whether we are talking media, books, legislation, corporate control over employees, or what have you. This is why workers at Disney resorts cannot wear piercings aisde from simple earrings.

There is a gap of time between when a generation gains adulthood and when its values become the mainstream, perhaps twenty years. When things change quickly, this can lead to a situation where older and younger adult generations seem alien to each other, and open intergenerational clashes ensue. The most recent example of this was the 60’s and 70’s, but we can find earlier examples as well, such as the early 1900’s when a significant number of women were first able to move to cities and live mostly independently. However, the generation gap never entirely disappears. Also, the lack of modern mentorship arrangements and the culture’s obsession with (certain kinds of) youth probably makes the generation gap somewhat worse in the United States than in other cultures.

Given this sort of intergenerational power, there are certain effects we can expect in social spaces.

In particular, having one’s own values (more) aligned with mainstream values confers a kind of power. Mainstream conceptualizations are hegemonic and self-defending in certain ways. Because ideology builds out from the mainstream, there are all kinds of subtle ways to use common cultural tropes to reinforce one’s mainstream values in discussion, argument, or even socializing.

The age-related power differences I have described means that older people generally are more aligned with the mainstream and the power it represents. So, older people tend to have certain kinds of social power when compared with younger people, in addition to any other power dynamics that might be at play (race, class, gender, etc). Younger people have trouble holding an equal stance in a discussion, and often are simply not heard or cannot get a word in edgewise. Even if we get past the social issues around discussion, a younger person’s ideas will not have the more-mainstream backing that the older person’s ideas have, if the discussion is crossing one of these conceptual generation gaps. This means that the younger person’s argument is (on average) harder to articulate and strategize.

The socializing implications do not just end with discussion of topics. In the general social milieu, younger people often have trouble with social maneuvering that older people take for granted: taking up social space, protecting personal space, meeting the people you want to meet, addressing or preventing uncomfortable situations, and so on. This is a strong effect when you have a social scene that mixes younger and older folks: the older-against-younger ageist power sneaks into the socializing in various subtle ways.

Which is not to say that things are all one-sided. Some younger people are of course way ahead on socializing and arguing, and plenty of older people have problems around these acts. The younger-against-older ageism I have described also has an effect, further muddying the waters. But because the culture’s anti-older ageism is a definite mixed bag for younger people (for example, the obsession with young bodies is not positive overall), there is still a definite power effect. Younger people often leave mixed-age events (especially sexualized ones) having failed in their social goals, or with a vague (or often not-so-vague) sense of discomfort or frustration.

Of course, there is one sort of power that younger people retain: the power to “vote with their feet”. Usually, they can walk away from the conversation, argument, social group, or event. (This is not always true, for example leaving a family holiday dinner is not much of an option. But it is true for polyamory community events.) And in fact, when one is faced with a entirely hopeless discussion or argument, or a frustrating social situation, walking away starts to look good. It makes more sense to spend your time and energy in a milieu where you can make some progress. And indeed, younger poly people seem to make a habit of walking away from mixed-age polyamory events in my area.

This effect pretty much disappears when younger people are socializing primarily or entirely with other younger people. It is not that they suddenly get more socially adept or conceptually well-grounded, but rather everyone in the situation is working at a similar level, excepting any other subtle power dynamics (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc) that may be in play.

In other words, there is a need for younger-only polyamory social and discussion spaces. This need does not come out of younger-against-older ageism, but rather from older-against-younger ageism. There are certain things that go much better in younger-only spaces than they do for younger people in mixed-age spaces: discussion or debate, overcoming social awkwardness, finding people to date, and so on. I can feel this at the under-forty events I am holding: compared to the mixed-age events (which it should be noted, are exactly the same excepting the age restriction) there is a certain relaxation that happens, a kind of letting go.

This should be no surprise to people who are familiar with activism that resists power dynamics in the culture. It is typical that the group with less power is forced to hold events that exclude people from the group with more power. This is not out of animosity (though animosity certainly may be present), but is rather a logistical matter that springs directly from the power in quesion. For example, meetings of feminist women often have to exclude men. This is not because the women in question hate men or do not wish to engage them. (In fact, changing men is a primary goal of feminism.) Rather, it is because having men in the room, even really well-intentioned ones, can prevent the group from getting things done. This happens for various reasons directly derived from sexism: men’s words having more weight, men feeling it is women’s role to educate them on sexism, a number of cultural “gotchas” that men can bring into play that effectively derail any conversation, and so on.


Defensiveness

These power dynamics often produce a certain defensiveness in younger poly people. This is an understandable reaction borne out of repeated frustrating experiences and being on the losing end of various subtle power-laced interactions, including uncomfortable sexualized situations. Typically these interactions around power are subtle enough to be invisible, and younger people find themselves getting defensive with no clear understanding of what exactly is causing the defensiveness. Of course, a lack of understanding does not prevent people from responding to emotional discomfort. I have observed the following various tactical responses that I believe are responses to the age-related power dynamics at poly events.

First, some younger poly people respond with straightforward anti-old ageism, pulling out the “ick, old people” cultural trope and swinging it around. While this is not a positive or enlightened viewpoint, I can see how people might get there: if you keep going to events with older people and the memorable experiences you have at those events are problematic interactions with those older people, then it is not much of a leap to conclude that older people (in the community at least) are icky. And seeking to avoid older people as a group starts to look like a reasonable personal strategy.

This anti-old ageism comes out various ways. It is pretty rare to hear someone actually say “old people disgust me”, but it is clear that a minority of young poly people start to feel this way. Sometimes this comes out as comparisons to parents: “everyone there was the same age as my parents” or “I don’t want to see naked people my parents’ age”, as if there is some problem with being one’s parents’ age. In other cases older people are not mentioned, but instead younger people are praised or it becomes clear that a particular person considers younger people to simply be better in some way. Again, this is building on the obsession with youth that we see in the media and culture. To be clear, I find these attitudes reprehensible. I am not trying to excuse any of this, but rather trying to explain where it comes from. Even (perhaps especially) socially reprehensible attitudes have a personally strategic purpose.

To be fair, the vast majority of poly people I know in my social group do not hold these ageist views. It is particularly hard to hold on to anti-old ageism as one ages into the mid-twenties, because one becomes the older person in comparison with teens and college students. And of course anti-old ageism is clearly ugly when expressed, and the social group has less tolerance for it as they age. My social cohort starts is primarily late twenties to early forties, and so I cannot think of any of my friends who are ageist in this way, though I have met other people in this age group who are anti-old ageist.

However, my friends still use defensive tactics in various ways. They are still defensive because they still need to actively defend: the effects of anti-young ageism that I have described do not start to significantly recede until a person is in their late thirties or forties. In addition, learned habits die hard, and I think many of these defensive tactics may carry on or be repurposed (to defend against other power dynamics) later in life.

One such tactic is to start labelling particular problematic people, engaging in a kind of social gossip defense. When someone has a particular bad experience with an older person, they may use terms like “creepy”, “skeezy”, or “sketchy” to describe them to their friends, basically warning them away. While this is a generic mechanism often used by women to defend against men of any age, the fact that age is often a factor in badly gendered sexualized interactions means that terms including age are being developed. The phrase “creepy old guy” is used enough that it has been shortened to “COG” by some people in my social cohort. In other cases, specific words are not used but people trust their emotional instincts anyways, perhaps describing a person as having a bad vibe or just saying that they felt uncomfortable. Such feelings are sufficient cause for warning one’s friends or excluding the person from social events.

Another defensive tactic is control of one’s immediate social environment. At mixed-age poly events where there is a basic critical mass of younger people, they may actively avoid older people whom they perceive as being difficult to deal with or having problematic attitudes. I have observed this at my own mixed-age events. This may seem cliquish, but in fact is entirely reasonable: what purpose is there in socializing with someone whom is going to be difficult to deal with in some way? And of course this is not exclusive if there is a critical mass of older people at the event.

This control of social environment extends to how one holds events. Younger poly people are much more likely to hold private social events than public community events, and I think this is primarily because private events give you control over the invite list. When holding events where establishing a somewhat safe (from age-related or other power dynamics) space is a concern, people tend to get very concerned with making sure that the right sort of people are at the party. For example, some party organizers do not allow people to bring their friends without explicit permission from the hosts. I have had to provide references to get into some of these parties. Such private events are not always presented as explicitly poly, though they may function primarily as poly social venues. In some cases play parties are favored, since monogamous folks tend not to attend sex parties. Losing control of the social environment, and specifically ending up with age-related power problems, is a prime difficulty facing younger poly organizers who wish to hold public events.

In this and the preceding sections I have laid out a fairly grim picture of intergenerational dynamics in my local poly community, including mainstream-derived power dynamics and various personal defensive mechanisms. I do not mean to imply that social interactions between older and younger poly people are doomed. Indeed, most of the time everyone acts like adults and everything goes well. However, it only requires that a small number of people act badly to poison the well where age differences are involved, with the result that age-related power dynamics end up determining the shape and attendance of community events in various ways.


Section 3: Age-Aware Polyamory Organizing

Let me recap briefly what I have observed in the San Francisco area. Older people are more likely to have the resources to hold events (and perhaps urge towards building community). The events they hold will tend to cater to older people in subtle ways, simply because people hold events based on their own personal preferences. Older people at the events will tend not to notice the age distribution since they are having a good time, so these events can be mostly free of younger people without anyone raising a stink. Even when people do notice, they will tend to assume that there is some issue with the younger folks that prevents them from attending.

Younger people who show up to these events (often with no idea as to the age range of the event) often find themselves the youngest person in the room, which means that people will generally not relate to their current life state. Events rarely have allowances that encourage inclusion by younger folks. (Some of these are simple and increase the general inclusiveness of the event, assigned greeters for example.) Younger folks are at a disadvantage due to older/younger power dynamics in the wider culture, and thus may trouble having fun, meeting people, or discussing difficult subjects at mixed-age events. When there are problems, there is often no recourse to the (usually older) organizers, again due to the power dynamic. Due to these issues, younger folks do not stay around, and so events usually do not develop the critical mass necessary to become truly mixed-age. And the cycle continues.

With all this at play, it is not at all surprising to see the sort of de facto age segregation I described above. In fact, we should be surprised when mixed-age events are successful at pulling a large age range. Let me again remind you that we live in a largely age-segregated society, despite the modern conceit that adults are largely the same.

This all begs the question: what can we do to bring younger people into the visible polyamory movement and hold events that appeal to them? How can we do this while not hurting the attractiveness of polyamory to people in the age range from middle age to retirement? (There is a third question which I will not be addressing here: how can we support polyamorous people who are of retirement age or older?)


What the Polyamory Movement Can Do

Pay attention to age. As I discuss above, it is easy for a movement (or for particular sub-groups within a movement) to fall into a lull where questions of age are largely ignored. Instead, we should be asking questions about the age of our participants. What is our age distribution? How old are people when they first decide to pursue polyamory? (And is this age lowering?) What are the differences in poly style or identification across ages? For example, are younger poly people less likely to go to polyamory events?

Part of paying attention to age is paying attention to power dynamics around age. I have discussed some of these above, but that discussion is only the beginning. In particular, when age-related power dynamics intersect with other kinds of power then we can see problems around inclusiveness. The problem of older men hitting on younger women to the point of making them uncomfortable (age-related power intersecting with sexism) is an ongoing issue in polyamorous organizing, one which tends to drive away younger women. Given that polyamory was built on a history of feminism, this trend could seriously prevent polyamorous progress in the next generation. Similarly, I am starting to suspect that there is some intersection of ageism and racial power dynamics occurring. I am not sure how exactly this intersection functions, but my under-forty social group is significantly more racially diverse than other poly events in the area (including other all-ages events that I hold), which are mostly white.

Encourage younger organizers. Organizing the younger crowd is hard. Younger people may not identify as polyamorous yet, or even if they do, they may yet see the value of attending polyamory events. Younger poly people are often not hooked into polyamory online or in-person resources, depending instead on friend networks or converting poly-curious folks. In addition, monogamous younger people tend to be more vicious about enforcing compulsory monogamy, so promoting nonmonogamy opens one up for attack. (This parallels homophobia, where currently the most blatant homophobic attacks can be found in high schools.) And to top it off, younger poly organizers have on average less organizing experience, and organizing is a real skill that must be learned.

So, any encouragement we can give to younger poly organizers is very important. This can take the form of how-to-organize guides, such as this one put out by the new and fabulous Young Metro Poly blog. It can also take the form of organizer-to-organizer mentorship, where a more experienced (usually but not always older) organizer helps a less experienced organizer get started. These mentorship arrangements should generally be non-sexual. And in general, the polyamory movement should provide support to its younger organizing cohort: younger poly birds-of-a-feather meetings at conferences, sharing resources (space, finances), and so on.

Also, I think the time is ripe to start looking at college organizing. While polyamory has been known on college campuses for a while (including back in my mid-90’s college days), visible polyamory organizations are rare. We are currently seeing an increasing trend of polyamory articles in college newspapers, as documented by Poly in the Media, which points to a good situation for college organizing. We can support fledgling college organizations by providing how-to-organize guides, providing materials (say, generic flyers), holding workshops or presentations at colleges, educating college counselors, getting in touch with the authors of college polyamory articles, mentoring the organizers, building relationships with national organizations, and so on. Other movements (notably, the queer movement and drug law reform movement) have managed to establish strong and enduring presences on college campuses, and tend to reap rewards in terms of membership and mindshare.

Connect younger people with polyamory resources. In addition to outreach (which I will discuss next), this means actually creating resources that are appropriate to a younger crowd. We already have some of these, like our online resources and the wide array of what I call Poly 101 resources, which focus on the process of entering polyamory or starting one’s first poly relationships. However, in some areas we fall short. For example, while there are an amazing array of polyamory classes and workshops out there, but it is relatively rare to find such classes taught by people in their 20’s. Mostly this happens because poly people in their 20’s are generally less experienced, but there is the possibility of encouraging people to start such classes. Younger poly people tend not to get the full benefit of classes taught by much older people, due to generational shift and life stage issues. Jen and I have been holding classes, and even at our age we get a lot of attendees in their early 20’s who are thrilled to go to a class taught by people in their late 20’s/early 30’s. There is a definite need out there.

We could also use mentorship programs of various sorts. Older-younger mentorship (or rather more-experienced-less-experienced) is something we should be doing. When I was in my early 20’s and trying polyamory, most of the people I knew were having trouble, often disastrous trouble. The situation has improved greatly, but there is still a huge need to transfer knowledge from people with more experience to those with less. Otherwise people fail, burn out, get stuck in a poly drama quagmire, and are often miserable or end up reverting to monogamy. This type of mentorship should be explicitly non-sexual in nature. If it is not, the sexualization of polyamory will ensure that younger people are scared off from such mentorship. There have been sexual minority communities that successfully practiced mentorship via older/younger relationships in the past (most notably the gay and lesbian communities), but the historical moment for such arrangements seems to have passed, even in those communities. Younger poly people in will on average prefer problematic poly relationships with people their own age instead of working polyamorous relationships with older people, though of course there are exceptions.

A second important type of mentorship is peer counseling. This is definitely possible: there are plenty of people already doing polyamory well in their 20’s. The big question is how to hook these people up with other folks of a similar age who are struggling. This could potentially be done using various points of contact with the community – classes, workshops, online forums. Keeping peer counseling groups going tends to be difficult, but is very rewarding for the people involved. Keeping peer mentorship desexualized is not nearly as high of a priority as desexualizing older-younger mentorship, but should definitely be considered, to avoid non-age-related power issues. For example, a queer woman might balk at consulting a peer counselor who is a straight man if the counseling relation is potentially sexual.

Attract younger people via outreach and representation. If younger poly or nonmonogamous people are going to join the poly movement or a particular poly community, they must be attracted to it. There is this tendency for people to self-identify as poly or nonmonogamous for a long period of time before seeking out poly community. (It took me twelve years.) From the outside it is often unclear what purpose organized polyamory serves, especially if one already has nonmonogamous friends and lovers. Once people find community that works for them, they tend to stick with it or at least view it as a useful resource in the future. So we should make it a priority to get people through the door that first time.

Overall, the polyamory movement has a lot of work to do on improving and expanding our outreach channels. At the same time as we improve outreach generally, we should consider ways that we can deliver outreach efforts to younger people. One way this has already been happening is via presentations at college classes. Human sexuality classes like to bring in speakers from sexual minorities of various sorts, and some professors specifically seek out poly people. This is great, but has mostly been informal up to this point, with professors approaching people they know or being referred from their other speakers. Every couple years there is a push to form a speakers’ bureau and start actively seeking out these engagements. If we could get this together and facilitate frequent presentations of this sort, it would be an amazing outreach coup.

While college classes are going surprisingly well, there are a host of other outreach opportunities that we are not taking advantage of. For example, BDSM TNG groups are relatively common at this point and are generally friendly to polyamory. Simply flyering or even just showing up as poly representatives at these groups would do a lot to alert poly kinksters to the existence of poly resources. Along more formal lines, educating college and high school counselors is an important step, though one that is a large effort of its own and should happen in tandem with general therapist education.

Youth-oriented sexuality websites such as Scarleteen or the Midwest Teen Sex Show tend to not mention polyamory (or even nonmonogamy) at all, or at best in passing, even though they prominently cover other relatively advanced topics such as BDSM. I think there is this sense that nonmonogamy is not yet an appropriate topic for youth, which is kind of odd given that nonmonogamous experimentation definitely happens. We could offer to help them generate such materials.

When doing outreach, there is a certain “ladder strategy” that can be helpful. It is important to usually have the people doing the outreach in the same general age range as the target audience. In the best case, this means having peers show up. For example, if we want to do outreach to BDSM TNG groups, the people doing it should be under the age limit of the groups in question. If we are unable to find experienced poly people in the given age range, then selecting people who are slightly older is a good second bet. So for example, people in their thirties approach people in their twenties, and people in their twenties approach teens. This nicely creates a way to transmit poly knowledge across generations. The thirty year old learns at a class taught by a forty-five year old, and then in turn teaches a twenty-four year old, who in turn teaches people at a college.

In addition to outreach, representation is key. By representation I mean having young poly people visible in various forums, in media and on the internet. Getting good media representation has proven to be tricky for the poly movement in general. In addition to the usual issues of screening out sensationalist producers and avoiding reporters out blindside us, we have an additional problem in that younger nonmonogamous people are somewhat less likely to be fully out, as well as being less likely to identify as polyamorous or be hooked into poly media channels. We should identify a pool of younger spokespeople and refer some set of media opportunities to them.

However, this should not be at the expense of older media representation, and there is definitely a danger that this might happen. Due to the media’s obsession with young people (and their bodies), media producers will usually favor younger subjects over older. To date, we have had a lot of success putting middle-aged and older poly people in front of the cameras. We should ensure that media opportunities continue to flow to older spokespeople despite industry pressure for young subjects. Along the same lines, we should front a variety of looks and body types, resisting the media’s proclivity for people who look like models.

We should also encourage self-representation of younger poly people. This can happen many ways (for example, by publishing a book) but the internet is currently the most vibrant medium for self-representation. Blogging has taken off, and many poly people are blogging their experiences and issues around polyamory, including some younger folks. In addition, polyamory already features prominently on some social networking sites. The two I know best are livejournal and fetlife. Just today I heard rumor that some folks are considering putting together a social networking site or sub-site specifically for young poly people. I am not entirely sure that we need to do anything to encourage these efforts (since they are already well underway) but finding ways to track them and refer people to them would be a great start.

Recognize the necessity of age-limited groups. The BDSM community took a while to get used to the existence of TNG groups and events. Initially there was a lot of bitterness, accusations of exclusivity and ageism, and what have you. Over time the flames died down. These days the larger community generally recognizes the utility of TNG organizing, though resentment still flares up from time to time.

In the polyamorous community, we seem to be in that initial discomfort phase. People (especially but not always people over the age limit) tend to come down really hard on “under-X only” groups, and there is a general failure to understand that these groups are necessary if we want younger people to join polyamory in significant numbers.

Age-limited groups prevent the various problematic power dynamics I have described, and they give younger poly people a landing place where they can meet other poly people in a similar life stage. In the BDSM community, we have seen these groups function in various ways, and we can expect the same in the poly community. In some cases they serve as a springboard into the larger community, but in other cases they allow a group of people to meet folks from their own generation and form a network of enduring connections. Also, these groups make easier to discuss poly and find support in one’s own age cohort. This is not to say that age limits do not have drawbacks – I will discuss some of these issues below.

Because age-limited groups serve these various useful purposes, they are going to start springing up more frequently as the movement ages. If nothing else, frustrated younger organizers will start them. Unfortunately, these organizers often face a nasty backlash. This can prevent a younger organizer from using pre-existing local poly resources. For example, younger organizers are currently unwilling to post events on some of the SF-area polyamory lists because they have seen the flame wars that have already occurred. In other words, the anti-young backlash that happens around age-limited groups can severely hamper younger organizers. This of course does not stop them from organizing. Instead, it prompts them to create alternate organization resources (say, email lists) and further alienates them from the pre-existing poly community in the area. If we want to prevent schisms in local communities, the backlash against these groups has to stop. And for that to happen, people need to get educated about polyamory and age issues.


What Older Event Organizers Can Do

Pay attention to age. Start by paying attention to the age of people attending your event. Are they all from a similar age range? If so, try to figure out what dynamics are maintaining that situation. Usually there is more going on than just people preferring to socialize with their own age group. This awareness is a good idea even if you have no intention of altering the age cohort at your events, because understanding the event dynamics generally makes one a better organizer.

Also, pay attention to exceptions. If new people show up from a different age group (older or younger), try to figure out what happens. Are they comfortable or uncomfortable? What sort of interactions do they have with the frequent guests? If people from different age groups show up only once or a couple times and then disappear, try to figure out why. One way to do this is by respectfully contacting them and asking them after the event. If you do this, make it clear that your motivation is improving the event and be willing to take criticism.

In general, try to pay attention to age-related power dynamics. In a discussion group, are people from different age groups talking the same amount? Are their opinions heard and respected to the same degree? In a social group, are there subtle kinds of exclusion happening? For example, I have been at events where it was implicitly assumed that everyone would get really touchy in the hot tub, and this kept some people (notably, not just younger people) from being willing to get in the tub. Are people from poorly-represented age cohorts (again, younger or older) able to socialize with others at the event, or do they tend to be ignored? And so on.

Pay attention to sexualization and sexual dynamics. This is not just an age-related issue. It is generally a good idea to look for and address problematic sexual dynamics. As most organizers know, a failure to maintain personal boundaries at an event will quickly drive polyamorous women away, which is fatal to most events. Similarly, people of color have to contend with a lot of sexual exoticization, and an atmosphere where such fetishization runs rampant will drive away people who would otherwise attend.

Boundaries are a good starting place here. Is the event one where people can set and maintain personal space, or does the event have implicit (or for that matter explicit) expectations that tend to violate such boundaries?

Casual touching is a big deal here, and as I have mentioned, there seems to be a generational or at least age-correlated component. When I am with people my own age in a social context, we pretty much do not touch each other, except when greeting or saying goodbye or if we are already good friends. But older people in my area will casually touch others frequently during social interactions. This means that even when everyone has the best of intentions, mixing up touchy older folks with not-touchy younger folks tends to make the younger folks uncomfortable. Strangely, BDSM dungeons might be more attractive to younger folks than mixed-age poly events, for the simple reason that they have very strong customs and policies that prohibit casual touching.

However, touching is not the only way that boundaries can be violated. There can also be problems with staring, crowding, inappropriate comments or propositions, aggressive nudity, social pressure, among other things. Even when everyone is being totally polite and respectful, there is a tendency for conventionally attractive people (usually but not always women) to be mobbed over the course of an evening, which tends to be draining and prevent comfortable socializing.

Try to keep an eye out for these issues, and try to find ways to make it easy for people to complain and have those complaints addressed. Again, one possibility is to ask people who have been going to the event if they ever felt sexually uncomfortable and what could be done to prevent that discomfort.

Having sexy events is great, and as I have mentioned, it is generally not possible to hold fully desexualized polyamory events. However, it can be very difficult to successfully hold a heavily sexualized mixed-age event, because of the various power dynamics I have described. For example, I rarely find sex parties that actually have a mixed-age attendance, even here in progressive San Francisco. So if one wants to hold mixed-age events, it is crucial to either desexualize the event or find a way to formalize the sexual aspect of the event.

For social non-sexy events, I have at various points considered explicit rules against coming on to people at the event. If this seems like it would cut off flirtation in a bad way, there are various ways to formalize propositions. For example, an organizer could make a rule where people can only hand others their phone number when one or the other is leaving the event. At poly speed dating events in San Francisco, we have been enforcing a strict rule against propositions outside of the dates, but at the same time allowing attendees to note down random others in the room and have their information delivered to those people.

When I describe these sorts of rules to organizers, they often balk, claiming that such strictures would take all the fun out of the event. However, that begs the question of exactly what sort of fun the event is supposed to be for. I am starting to realize that poly events are often meat markets by design, though this is rarely mentioned in the invites. If you are holding an event that is designed for flirting, come-ons, or finding dates, please say so explicitly when announcing the event.

Take steps to increase inclusiveness. Again, this is a good idea whether or not you intend to create a mixed-age event. There are a number of steps an event can take that generally increase inclusiveness, without even specifically targeting a particular group to include.

My favorite among these is assigned greeters. I personally tend to be very nervous when arriving at a new event, and I have felt much more at home when the event assigned someone to show me around, introduce me to people, and so on. One of the more successful play parties in my area has volunteers that do exactly that. Even at the small poly social gatherings I hold, I purposefully play this role myself, meeting new people and introducing them around until they seem to drop into conversations on their own. This is a very simple technique for making events much friendlier to new people, and in particular people who might not fit into the established group in some particular way. If the event is large enough, try to have greeters who are a mix of genders, ages, racial groups, etc. And of course, greeters should not be greeting with the purpose of finding sex or dating partners, as this will creep into their interactions and drive new people away from the event.

For discussion groups, people often put talking rules in place, to ensure that the louder and more aggressive attendees do not monopolize the conversation. Often these take the form of a round-robin ordering of who gets to talk. This is a great thing to do, but keeping people from talking over each other is only the beginning, because there is no guarantee that well-ordered speaking will lead to mutual respect or a willingness to hear the viewpoints of others. If possible, have someone (or multiple someones) with strong active moderation skills run the discussion group, someone who can do things like halt circular conversations, identify disagreements that are not going to resolve, get people to speak from their own experience instead of universalizing, and so on.

For any kind of event, it is a good idea to have a well-understood complaint mechanism. For example, at poly speed dating we have been handing out exit surveys at every event. While this is unusually formalized, it is a good idea to at least designate some route for complaints and comments (dropping a note in a box, a particular person, etc) and frequently remind people that it exists. Of course, complaint mechanisms are only as good as the response to the complaint by the event organizers. As an organizer, it is easy to get defensive when hearing complaints. Try to remember that complaints are a gift – someone is going out of their way to help you make your event better. Also, try to keep in mind that other people at the event have different backgrounds and qualities and may have certain sorts of bad experiences that are not visible to the organizer, for example the differences around age that I have covered in this essay. So please try to take complaints seriously and follow up, even if they initially seem unbelievable. There are of course bad, cruel, and greedy complaints that should generally be ignored, and organizers will need to make judgement calls on which complaints should be addressed, but try to see things from the complainant’s point of view as much as possible.

Include age information in event announcements. There is no problem with wanting to hold an event that caters to your specific age group, or with being satisfied when an event mostly draws people of a particular age. However, it is a good idea to be honest in event advertising when this is happening, for example with a note that “this event mostly draws people in their fifties but we welcome folks of any age”. Or if you want, make an explicit age rule – I have heard of an explicitly over-40 poly group. Marking the age of the event in announcements helps prevent the “show up once” syndrome. People who care about the age of folks at events can check through the event listings and see which ones tend to cater to their age segment. Instead of showing up to various events in the area, getting discouraged, and quitting the community entirely, people can narrow in on the events that suit them the best, or at least quickly identify that no such events currently exist.

Also, marking the age of events opens up a conversation around age in the area. If all the events in an area are announcing the age groups that show up, it is really easy to then identify which age groups are not being served, and then to start a conversation around age-related dynamics in the community, and also to find ways to refer people to age-appropriate poly resources.

Mentor younger organizers. Organizing is a wacky skill set, and one that is not taught in college classrooms. There are a lot of little hidden tricks to organizing, like how to find the right sort of venue, where to advertise, learning to not give up when attendance is low, and so on. While some people just slide into organizing naturally, and others figure it out by trial and error, probably the best way to get used to holding events is with the help of someone who has been doing it a while. I learned a lot of organizing skills while doing queer activism in college from slightly older activists (and in one case a representative from a national queer organization), and those lessons still inform my event organizing today.

So, consider being open to the idea of mentoring younger organizers. This could take place in the context of a large organized poly group, where the more experienced organizers help the less experienced organizers get started on holding their own events. Or it could happen in an ad-hoc manner, typically when a less experienced organizer asks someone they know for advice. My under-40 group turned out to be a touchstone for this sort of interaction – since starting it, I have been approached by three different people in my age cohort or younger for advice on holding events.

Consider holding events that attract a mix of ages. This is harder than it sounds, which is why these events are relatively rare. The suggestions above (inclusiveness, monitoring sexual dynamics) go a long way towards making an event friendly to younger folks while still including older folks. However, perhaps the most important step is partnering with one or more younger organizers. While not strictly necessary, the tendency of event demographics to mirror the organizers means that it will be difficult to attract a mix of ages with only older organizers. Partnering does not just mean putting their name on the event, but also that they should take an active hand in designing and carrying off the event.

Advertising appropriately is a big part of attracting a mix of ages to an event. If there is one poly email list in the area and it tends to draw people of a particular age segment, then only advertising the mixed-age event on that list will probably not result in the desired mix of ages. Consider advertising on social networking sites, or finding ways of advertising through friend networks. Approach other groups in the area, like BDSM groups or the local sex-positive sex toy store.

Formalizing events tends to make it easier for people of different age groups to interact. As I mentioned above, discussion groups tend to be more friendly to a mix of ages than social events, and I think this is largely due to the more formal structure. So, consider ways that the event could be made more formal while still being attractive across age groups. For example, add a (desexualized) activity that is fun or useful to people across age.

At more formal events, it may be possible to build age-awareness directly into the event itself. For example, if a support group is above a certain size on a given night, it could be split into two groups by age. Even if it is small, there could be communication exercises that people do in pairs or small groups, giving them the chance to break off with just their cohort. Because we were already doing matching by gender and sexuality at poly speed dating, we took the chance to also allow people to specify the age of the folks they would like to meet. This meant that even though the overall event has had a huge age range (teens to seventies), any particular person’s experience would actually be with their desired age cohort.

There is of course no requirement for older organizers to work towards mixed-age events. If an older organizer would rather only hold events targeted at their own age cohort, more power to them.


What Individuals Can Do

Pay attention to age. Is this starting to sound familiar? Try to actually notice the ages of people around you, and then try to pay attention to how age might be affecting interactions between people.

In particular, check out the ages of people at poly events you go to. It is very easy to go to an event where everyone is about the same age and walk out afterwards having not noticed that fact. Interacting with people our own age is generally comfortable, and so it is very hard to notice who is not present. Are significantly younger people present at the event? Significantly older people?

Try to pay attention to age-related power dynamics. Check your own interactions with people who are in a different age cohort. Do you get uncomfortable in some way? Do you make assumptions based on their age? If you are older, do you assume that the younger person does not have any experience or views that will be new and informative to you? If you are younger, do you find yourself automatically getting defensive?

The goal here is to start actually identifying patterns of age-related power in your own interactions and the interactions of people at the events you attend. Once we get past the obvious ones, these can get pretty subtle, like the propositioning dynamics I describe above. Figuring out age-related power dynamics helps us address those dynamics in our own lives, improving our interactions with older and younger people.

At the same time, try to keep abreast of how things are changing in the younger generation. Every generation has its own set of assumptions about the world and issues to deal with, and these change fast. I am only thirty-four, and I keep being surprised by how different things are for people in their early twenties.

Listen to younger people. While many older folks are very good about really listening and trying to understand the viewpoint of people much younger than themselves, others are not so good about this. It is a bad cliche, but there are plenty of older people who dismiss the opinions of younger people with some variant of “oh, you’ll understand when you’ve grown up a bit”. This is of course shortsighted: people walk many different paths in life, and younger people have often walked a path that someone older has not trod on.

In particular, do not talk over younger people. In discussion groups, this means actually listening and responding to the points that younger people make instead of just ignoring them as the discussion moves on. In social situations, this means literally not interrupting or talking over younger people. I know this sounds silly and obvious, but it is a real concern. I know a younger poly man who does not go to social poly events that have older people because they consistently interrupt him.

Recognize the necessity of age-limited groups. As I have mentioned, getting backlash from the community around age-targeted events only serves to drive younger poly folks away and prevents younger poly organizers from using community resources. But despite all this, the backlash is real and can be very vicious. Do not be a part of it.

Many older people find themselves feeling defensive and excluded when age-limited events (that cater to younger folks) are announced. But this begs the question of why these feelings arise. The sense I have gotten from people responding to my event is that they often feel like the younger crowd is walling itself off and somehow taking something of value away from the rest of the community by doing so. This seems to be the source of the feelings of exclusion, that age-limited events keep older people away from some valuable thing embodied in the younger poly people.

But what is this valuable thing? Younger poly people are in no way more special, important, interesting, or sexy than older poly people. Younger poly people are just people. At the under-forty poly events, we have all sorts of people, just like any other poly group. The only thing different about this poly group is that the people in it are younger. The people in this group are only more valuable if you buy into the cultural myth that younger people (and younger bodies) are more desirable, sexy, and interesting. I think a lot of older people have bought into this cultural myth, and this is why they go on the attack when under-X events are announced. Note that it does not go the other way: younger poly folks do not get particularly upset about the existence of events targeted at or limited to older poly folks.

If you find yourself feeling this way, please spend some time examining your own feelings before lashing out at younger poly event organizers. Why do you care so much? Are poly events aimed at your own age cohort (and the people at those events) somehow insufficient? Have you bought into the cultural myth that young people are simply more valuable?

For some people, the existence of under-X events creates concern that the community is splintering. As I have described above, these events become necessary when the community is already failing to serve all its members, or in other words after the community has already splintered. If you are concerned about making sure that the community brings together both younger and older poly people, I recommend starting viable mixed-age events, as described above.

Do not proposition much younger people. Because of the way gendered power dynamics operate in the culture, the biggest come-on problem is older men propositioning younger women for sex and/or romance. Older men propositioning younger men can also be a problem in some contexts. In general, there is no issue with older women propositioning younger people of any gender, because women are generally taught to be less forward when it comes to sexual advances. So, this section is primarily aimed at men (of any age).

Younger women (and sometimes younger queer men) who come to poly events often end up feeling harassed just due to the sheer number of compliments and come-ons. Once you get past the first one or two in an evening, a younger person tends to start feeling like a piece of meat, even if the people approaching are totally polite and respectful. Also, often these propositions happen out of the blue or right after meeting someone, which only adds to that meaty feeling.

In addition, the significant majority of younger women are really just not interested in anyone twenty years their senior. But, at mixed-age poly events it is not uncommon for men that much older to hit on younger women. This again produces a fresh meat feeling and tends to discourage younger women from returning to the event.

So, I would like to propose two simple rules for self-policing. I think every man (of every age) at a poly social event should be following these rules, both to keep from annoying other people and as a matter of personal integrity and self-respect.

1) Respect a lower age limit. If a person is below a certain age in comparison to your own, chances are they are different enough that you are not going to get along with you, and chances are they are not going to be interested in you. If someone is this age or younger, do not hit on them, no matter how cute they are.

The culture largely determines what this lower age limit is. It starts small after high school and widens out as you get older. At thirty, the lower age limit is around twenty-two (or “out of college”). At forty, the lower age limit is somewhere around the late twenties, or perhaps thirty. At sixty, the lower age limit might be forty or forty-five. The XKCD comic created a formulaic version of this rule, though I suspect it gets too wide past the fifties.

Of course, some people get along better with the younger crowd, and others get along worse, so I am not going to tell anyone exactly what their cutoff should be. You can judge for yourself – if you are talking to a group of people and they seem to be in a different world, they are under the age limit.

To use myself as an example, I am thirty-four and my current lower age limit is twenty-five. People younger than their mid-twenties are different enough from me that I usually do not interact well with them, and the chances of us getting along well enough to date or even have sex drops precipitously as ages cross that mid-twenties line. (Whereas I seem to have no problems dating folks in their late twenties.) So, I simply will not come onto someone younger than twenty-five, period, ever. On the recent occasions where something has happened with someone that age, it has been because they came on to me.

My point here is that having a strict lower age limit is a matter of self-respect and pragmatism. Coming on to people who are in a wildly differentiated group tends to be a recipe for consistent rejection and/or bad relationships. Abiding by a strict lower age limit helps us to step away from the older-man-younger-woman cultural myth and actually focus on people who are more likely to match us.

If you are an older man who is constantly chasing after women much younger than yourself, I think you should consider whether you have fallen prey to the dual myth that younger women are much more attractive than older women, and that younger women are available to and interested in much older men. This myth not only makes life hard for younger women, but also seems to cause endless trouble for older men. If you are somehow incapable of finding women near your own age attractive, then you are setting yourself up for a life of rejection, loneliness, and/or difficult relationships. Maybe take some time and try to re-enable your attraction to women your own age or older.

Nothing I say in this section should be taken as a criticism of intergenerational relationships or people who are into them. I think they are lovely and I have been involved in a couple myself, but I also think that the way they happen involves the active participation of a fairly precocious younger person. These are generally not people you can go looking for. Much like the endless quest for the Hot Bi Babe, if you are actively searching for much younger partners, the search itself is creating a situation that ensures you will not find them.

2) The half-hour rule. Do not compliment or come on to someone unless you have been talking to them for at least half an hour. If you have been interacting that long, and you both still seem very excited and interested in the other person, then clearly you have some chemistry. If you just met the person or saw them from across the room, then you have not established that chemistry, and hitting on them is a serious crap shoot, even though you might be physically attracted to them. You would be surprised at how well this rule operates, and this is simply because it creates an avenue for feedback. Very few people will hang around for half an hour unless they think you are at least pretty neat. Of course, whether or not they are physically attracted to you is another matter, but this is still a good start.

Note that this rule is in addition to the lower age limit rule. Talking with someone below your cutoff for half an hour does not make them fair game. Also, this rule clearly does not apply (or is very different) in certain situations: sex parties, BDSM play parties, and personals websites.

Again, this is a matter of pragmatism and integrity. If someone is not even willing to talk with you for thirty minutes, clearly they are not dateable. Are they even someone you want to have sex with? I don’t know about you, but when I have sex (even hookup sex) the encounter lasts longer than thirty minutes, so hooking up with someone I cannot stand is a recipe for disaster or at the very least bad sex. I think a lot of men put the horse before the cart and try to establish mutual physical attraction before chemistry, often by basically spamming a large number of people with low-effort come-ons that will almost certainly end in rejection. This is not a strategy that promotes self-esteem, and this sort of approach tends to be incompatible with maintaining one’s own high standards. Overall, really focusing in on a much smaller number of people who are very, very interesting and attractive tends to actually get a person more dates than low-effort approaches to a large number of people, partly because there is a more focused effort and partly because the matches are just better.


Holding Events Targeted at Younger People

In this final section, I would like to describe some of the challenges and successes in creating events that are targeted at a younger crowd. The last two years have been an illuminating journey, and hopefully this section will help others start and run events oriented towards younger poly people in their area.

While most of my experience has been with a group that has an explicit under-forty age limit, there are ways to hold events that are mostly attended by younger folks without instituting an explicit age limit. One way to do this is to create other attendance limits that effectively end up limiting the age of attendees. For example, a college polyamory group could limit attendance to polyamorous people at the college, which would definitely skew things towards a younger crowd. However, recent experience in my area has shown that these events can still drift older to a point where they are dominated by the older people at the college (grad students, postdocs, faculty), so there is an argument for limiting the group to undergraduates if the purpose is really to hold a youth group.

Another way to unofficially skew attendance towards a younger crowd is to center the event around an activity that younger people prefer. The most obvious way to do this is to hold the event late at night. If things get started at eleven or later, then the people who will show will be mostly younger. There is a (not particularly polyamorous) popular sex party in San Francisco where the action really does not get rolling until one or two in the morning, and the party continues until the sun rises. While the party gets a mix of ages, the event manages to hold the interest of the younger crowd. Similarly, there is a BDSM club night here that consistently attracts kinky college-age folks in the area, because the door price is cheap (or free with a local dungeon membership) and it has that late-night club atmosphere that keeps the average age down. I have been thinking about putting together a regular poly event at a local goth club, which I think would have similar age skew effects.

In addition to late-night activities, there are certain daytime activities that younger people are just going to be more interested in. There was a recent lasertag event in San Francisco that seemed to draw a mix of ages, I think because running around in the woods all day shooting at people is somewhat more attractive to younger folks. I have been thinking about a polyamory-oriented outing to a nearby amusement park, which I think will draw a similar crowd, as most people eventually grow out of the experience of being beaten up by roller coasters all day long. Note that sheer physical exertion does not seem to be a strict determinant of which activities are more popular with younger people. As a counterexample, poly hiking groups seem to be popular primarily among the older crowd in my area.

Also, centering an event around a fun activity is a really good idea in general. As I have recently discussed, I think the poly community (in my area at least) is moving on from the standard small discussion group or social group model, and people who are thinking of going to poly events often need a stronger draw than “a lot of poly people will be there”. Planning a unique activity tends to create a lot more interest.

Using this sort of activity-based age skew avoids the backlash towards age-limited groups. However, requiring a certain sort of activity tends to exclude certain younger folks, namely those who do want to attend a quiet social dinner or a thoughtful discussion group. Also, there tends to be some exclusion of folks with different ability levels: if a person is on crutches, they may not want to play lasertag or going to an amusement park.

Events with explicit age limits help to close these gaps. Also, an explicit age limit serves as a certain sort of advertising, drawing in those people who have given up on local poly events because they keep being the youngest person in the room. Age limits are troublesome in certain ways (described just below), but they really do work and are straightforward to set up and enforce. Creating a public “under-X” event is a an easy shortcut to having an event that younger poly people can enjoy, without the headache of trying to keep an invite list private or planning a trip to an amusement park.

Of course, explicit age limits are a blunt instrument, imperfect in the way they separate people. (Though it should be noted, no more of a blunt instrument than using activities to filter one’s events.) There will be people above the age limit who really would fit in at the event, in some cases including friends of the organizers. There will be people below the numerical age limit who are old for their age and do not fit in well. Also, the exact enforcement of the age limit can be tricky. At our under-forty events, we originally had a hard limit where no one over the age limit was welcome. However, as it turns out there are enough intergenerational poly relationships in our area that this rule ended up splitting a lot of couples (triads, etc), and people were typically not willing to show up on their own. We later modified the rule to allow older partners of people who were under the age limit, so long as the older people showed up with their younger partners.

Also, picking the exact age cutoff is tricky. We just picked the higher age limit of our social group, which extended up to age forty at the time of the group’s creation. As it turns out, setting the age limit at forty was a little too high if we wanted to include folks in their early twenties. Our under-forty group was not really hospitable to people who were under twenty-five. We would see people show up once, and never come back (though one of the people who did not come back was inspired to start holding events in her own age cohort). So, I think I can say with confidence that forty is too high of an age limit if you want to serve a college-age crowd in addition to folks in their twenties and thirties. In comparison, a local TNG BDSM group has an age limit of thirty-five, and seems to attract and retain college-age youth. This speaks of a need to have different age-limited poly groups with different age limits: college-age or under-twenty-five groups alongside under-forty or under-thirty-five groups.

Another general problem with events aimed at the under-twenty-five or college ages is that poly identity starts getting slippery in that age range. Once you hit the late twenties, enough people have taken on the poly identity that it is much easier to get a critical mass at poly events. In the late teens and early twenties, there are plenty of nonmonogamous people but in most cases their practice has not become an identity of any sort, much less a poly identity. This makes it hard to assemble a critical mass of poly-identified youth. So for youth events, it may be helpful to hold events that are generally targeted at nonmonogamous practice rather than labelling them polyamorous. I have seen something similar in the bisexual community, where an explicitly bisexual youth group does not do as well as one labelled “Fluid” or something similar.

In the BDSM world, we have seen a lot of problems around what happens when the people who meet and bond at the social group start getting older. As people start to cross the upper age limit of the group, the cutoff ends up fracturing those social networks, since some folks can stay but others have to leave. In some cases this has created pressure to steadily move the age limit higher as people age, which starts effectively excluding younger folks but keeps the base social group together. One very popular east coast TNG group gave up at one point and decided to become a generational group, still excluding people older than themselves but keeping their own generation together.

Because of this issue, it is important to identify the exact reasons that an age-limited group is required. I have listed the reasons I have seen above, and some of them are generational (flirting styles) while others are related to stage-of-life (older-vs-younger ageism) and will repeat across generations. If the particular issues involved (which exclude people from general poly events) are generational in nature, then it might make more sense to create a generational age-limited group where the age limit moves, and call it something like “Gen X” or “Millenials” or whatever the name of that generation is. If the issues are more due to stage of life, then it is preferable to keep the group around as a resource to people entering that age cohort and find other social venues for the people who are aging out.

Of course, any group with an explicit age limit has the potential to trigger a backlash in the local poly community, for the reasons I have described above. Age-limited groups seem to be popping up all over the place (I know of at least four in different geographic locations) and I suspect the poly community will eventually make peace with them. But in the meantime, the expected reprisals can really limit the advertising and outreach an organizer is able to do. There are area lists I have never posted the under-forty group to, because I am not willing to slog through yet another flame war on the topic. On the largest email list in the area, one influential member demanded that my event posts be banned, a request that was fortunately was ignored by the list moderators. As mentioned, I have gotten vicious hate mail. There is a certain (thankfully small) subset of the local community who will probably permanently avoid me over this issue. All these things make it hard to organize age-targeted events and serve to discourage younger organizers. My hope is that this essay can be used as a reference to explain why these groups are necessary.

Speed Dating and Poly Organizing

This writeup started as a report on a poly speed dating event I have been helping to organize, and turned into a meditation on holding innovative poly events. If you want to skip the somewhat lengthy event report, head down to the Speed Dating and Poly Organizing section.

To date, we have held two poly speed dating events in Berkeley. They have been raucous and fun, a whirlwind carnival of romance and rejection. Our first event attracted fifty people to a pizzeria in Berkeley. The second event was attended by ninety people, and we completely stuffed the pizzeria, including their banquet room. We are looking for a larger venue for the third round, which has not been scheduled. If you want to participate in a future round, go to the poly speed dating website and email us using the link at the bottom to be put on our mailing list.

You can see my girlfriend Debby’s chronicle of her speed dating experience at the second event here, or Luke’s report of the first event here.

The Setup

As it turns out, running poly speed dating takes more than one or even two people. Luke had the idea and continues to be the ringleader and main programmer, and he puts in the most effort. I helped him with the programming and I yell at people during the event to get them to do things. My partner Jen and her boyfriend have been logistical support, registering people, doing the data entry, setting up and taking down, and so on. A friend of ours provided website space. None of us has any prior experience holding speed dating events.

The basic premise of speed dating is that many people can gauge their level of attraction to someone within the first couple minutes of meeting them. For these folks, chemistry tend to either strike quickly, or not at all.

Mainstream speed dating pairs men and women up for quick “dates” that last from two to five minutes. Two people sit down at a table, chat for a couple minutes, and then get up and move on to the next date. Between dates, each person writes down whether or not they are interested in pursuing things further with the other person. If both people mark down that they are interested, the speed dating agency puts them in contact either later that evening or after the event. The organization is easy: you just have one gender stay seated after each date, and the other group gets up and moves to the next table.

For poly speed dating, we had to expand on this concept. First off, the organized polyamory community in our area has a lot of queer folks. Bisexuals make up a decent percentage of event attendance (20-50%, depending on event), and they are joined by a smattering of transgender, lesbian, and gay folks. Holding a speed dating event where men only talked to women would be way too limiting for this crowd. Which meant we needed to get people’s gender and attractions, and match them based on those.

But of course, this makes the problem of setting up dates very difficult. Instead of just rotating the men or women, we needed to create a schedule where people generally met with the gender(s) they were interested in. This is a very hard problem to solve, and cannot be done by just sitting down with a pencil and paper. Luke wrote a computer program to do it, using a search algorithm to find solutions that generally gave people as many dates as possible.

Since we already had a computer matching program in the works, we could also put in criteria other than gender attraction. We included age, since many people have determined that they date best in certain age ranges, or that they tend to be attracted to people in certain age ranges. (Though as it turns out, people’s dating age preferences turned out to be surprising – more on this below.)

And because this was poly speed dating, we also gave people the ability to date as a couple or group (say, as a triad). In other words, they would go around together, having dates with other singles or groups where they were both (or all) present. So, we needed to ask people if they were interested in singles versus couples/groups.

The computer program would do a first pass where it checked each particular dating unit (single, couple, group) versus every other dating unit to see if they were compatible. Then, it would run the search algorithm and generate a schedule, assigning each date to a particular location.

The good news is that running this program took only a couple minutes, including printing time. So we could do just-in-time scheduling, running the program after everyone was registered but before we started the speed dates.

We aimed for ten dating rounds, but as it turned out, we needed to put some people on more dates (up to fourteen) in order to get others to have a minimal number (say, six). More on this below.

We charged a minimal fee ($12 pre-registration, $20 at the door). The money went towards buying pizza (including vegan pizza), soda, and beer for the attendees. Basically we were renting the venue for the attendance price, and getting food and drink as part of the deal. People munched and drank throughout the evening.

The Results

In terms of numbers, poly speed dating has been a rousing success. We had fifty people at the first poly speed dating event, and over ninety at the second. Polyamory events in the SF area typically attract ten to thirty people, though there is the occasional pool party or mini-conference with more. Given that we were holding something on a Monday evening at a random pizza place in Berkeley, our attendance numbers were surprisingly high.

Matchups went very well. We were kind of surprised by how often people marked down that they were interested in pursuing things further. While there were some people who only put down one or two “yes” marks (or occasionally, none), there were lots who put down five or more. The upshot was that there were lots of two-way matches, and most people got at least one or two. The highest match count was ten for one person. There were also a handful of people at each event who got zero matches, and we sent them an apologetic note.

I think this might be one area where poly speed dating differs from mainstream (monogamous heterosexual) speed dating. If a person is looking for The One, my suspicion is that they will generally not mark down “yes” to ten different people. Of course, I could be wrong, since I’ve never been to a mainstream speed dating event. However, I think this is a good example of how polyamory tends towards romantic abundance. Several walked away with more matches than they could ever hope to actually date.

Because of all these matches, after each event there was a flurry of email activity, with people arranging actual coffee dates with various matches. Of course, this is San Francisco, so there was also lots of laming out. I’ve heard “oh, I should really write my dates” so many times that I’ve lost count. But even so, there have been some hookups, and we have started at least a couple relationships. In other words, poly speed dating works, so far at least.

In another interesting development, the crowd that turned out for poly speed dating was not the same people who frequent poly community events in the area. I hold various events in the area, and the people at speed dating were mostly new faces. One of the pivotal east bay organizers was at the first event, and he said the same thing. Apparently there are a lot of poly people in the SF area who are on the lists or otherwise reachable, but almost never come to events. A bunch of them came to speed dating.

Issues, Surprises, and Wins

The first speed dating event, we had a big problem with no-shows. Around ten people simply didn’t show up. At first, we decided to leave them in the rotation for dates, assuming they would show fairly soon. We underestimated how many tables we would end up having with just one stood-up person. Five dating rounds in, we decided that leaving no-shows in the rotation was a bad idea, so we recalculated a new set of eight rounds for the remainder. A couple people walked out halfway through, so we still had some empty tables, but it was much better. This was a nice illustration of the power of being able to recalculate the dating schedule in minutes at the event.

At both events, we have had various demographic issues, where certain age/gender/sexuality groups would show up more than others, or where we had trouble matching folks.

The biggest one was that we got more men interested in women than women interested in men. This is a common issue with singles or dating events. Perhaps for various cultural reasons, men find them more accessible than women? The imbalance was compounded by the fact that over half of the women available to date men were bisexual, and so wanted to go on dates with other queer women. To put it differently, there were a lot more people interested in women than there were women.

Our first stab at handling this was to cut off pre-registration for men who were only interested in women a couple days before the event, unless they were coming with a woman. We were hoping that registrations after this point would balance things out. This had a slight balancing effect, but did not solve the problem.

Our second strategy was to just handle the imbalance in the setup of the dating rounds. People who were in the more-desired demographic simply got more dates, and the people who desired that demographic would get fewer. We abandoned our original goal of ten dates for everyone, and cranked up the total number of rounds to fourteen. This managed to get most of the straight guys up to six dates. As Debby noted, it meant that bi women tended to date all fourteen rounds, which gets a bit harrowing.

There were other demographic issues. We had trouble developing a critical mass of men interested in men and women interested in women. This meant that people only looking for same-gender matches could have a small number of of possibly matches, say four. When we increased the total rounds to fourteen, it helped a bit. We also expanded people’s age ranges slightly, which helped a lot. (More on age ranges below.)

Most of our registered men who were interested in men did not show to the first event. That and a scheduling snafu left guy/guy dating pretty much dead, which was sad. However, for the second event, we had lots of men going on dates with men. Moving from fifty to ninety attendees seemed to create enough of a critical mass of interest. There were similar problems for women only interested in women, in particular those under thirty.

We also had problems attracting folks under thirty, in particular men under thirty. I am not sure why – guys under thirty don’t go to dating events? Maybe they don’t pre-register in advance, and we cut off registration before they got to it?

In addition, there were very few women over fifty-five who attended the first event. We did get some straight men in this age range, and we unfortunately had to turn them away since we did not have any matches for them. Again, I am not sure what was keeping this demographic away: there are certainly plenty of women this age in the local polyamory community. This seemed to improve significantly in the second event, with more women showing up.

Our first round created some funny matching effects for bisexual women. Because our algorithm prioritized people who were harder to match, straight men could end up monopolizing bisexual women, even with the difference in the number of dating rounds. We changed the algorithm in the second round so that it would attempt to balance bisexuals’ dating between men and women as much as possible.

We tried to bake transgender and genderqueer inclusion into the event from the beginning. There was a trans/genderqueer gender registration option that could be picked on its own, or in combination with the man or woman options. We also asked people if they were interested in dating genderqueer folks. And happily, most were. A small but real number (six at the last event) of trans and genderqueer folks have been registering and attending.

We discovered that giving registrants the ability to designate an age range tended to create or exacerbate matching problems. In the first round, people were pretty restrictive with their age range interest, I think more so than they are when dating in their social life. The second speed dating event was better, but there were still some matching difficulties. In order to get matches for younger or same-gender-attracted folks, we ended up expanding some age ranges by a handful of years in various directions.

Some of the age ranges were downright surprising. A couple people put down age ranges that they themselves were not included in. This did not necessarily follow the stereotypical “man only looking for younger women” model, though there was a couple of those. One woman was only looking for women and men at least three years older. Another woman was only looking for folks (of any gender) younger than herself. Most people had really wide age ranges, but others had ranges that were as small as eight years.

A number of people got to the event and realized that their gender and/or age range restrictions had kept down the number of dates they would be going on, and expressed that they would likely change them for the next event. I think there was a general tendency to treat the speed dating registration much as one would the registration for a personals website. Personals websites have membership numbers in the thousands to millions, so restrictive searches still net some people. We have less than a hundred people at speed dating, which makes matching much harder.

Couple/group dating was a special challenge. Remember, couples or groups could sign up and go on dates as a single unit. After starting registration in the first round, we realized that we couldn’t figure out who to match the groups with. If a M/F couple said they were interested in men, did that mean straight men, bi men, and/or gay men? We ended up mostly matching groups with each other for the first speed dating night. For the second, Luke updated the registration so groups could specify who in the group was attracted to which genders, and/or who was just along for the ride and not really looking.

So far, all of our eleven registered couples have been M/F couples, with some straight and some bi sexualities. We had one queer triad at the first event.

We had trouble getting people to write down their yes/no answers right after each date, since they would be running around to find their new table and then would start talking to the new person. Attendees often forgot who they had met and whether they liked them. In the future, we have a dream of having people with internet-enabled cell phones enter their yes/no answers on their phone after each date, and get the next date on their phone as well.

This would help with a further problem we had, where we did not have enough time to enter all the data from the dates before the end of the event. We want to give people their matches on the way out the door, but it just takes too long to input into a computer. We have ended up sending out match emails later that night instead. Getting people to mostly enter their own matches via phone (or possibly afterwards on a computer) would solve this problem.

We also discovered that many people simply cannot judge whether they like someone after talking to them for five minutes. There have been a lot of requests for more time, or for a “slow dating” event variant. This points to a need for a variety of poly dating events, since some people are not served by speed dating. However, most of the attendees seemed to be fine with the fast dates, and some explicitly stated that they liked the format because they felt they could judge chemistry quickly.

I think that people who pick up chemistry slowly tend to characterize speed dating as shallow, focusing only on physical attributes. Certainly there have been criticisms along those lines on various poly lists in the area, with people stating that speed dating would never work for them because they value personality. However, most attendees seemed to be judging personality-based chemistry as much or more than looks, from their comments. I think it is actually possible for some people to gauge personality compatibility relatively quickly, and those folks do well at speed dating.

It is important to remember that the speed dating rounds are mostly there to get people to the “hey let’s have coffee” level, which means that most of the chemistry-building will actually happen (or not) after the event, and the dating rounds are really there for quick elimination of folks who definitely do not match. It’s pretty easy for many people (myself included) to quickly rule out most people they meet due to personality or physical factors. It does not necessarily indicate shallowness, but rather good self-knowledge around one’s desires and attractions. Note that these attractions often do not match up with mainstream culture’s expectations of what is attractive.

There were some complaints from BDSM aficionados that they were having trouble finding other kinksters. If a person is only attracted to kinky people, ending up on a number of dates with non-kinky folks can be a bummer. We may add an “interested in BDSM” criteria in the future if we have the critical mass, or hold a separate kinky speed dating event.

We have some concern that attendance may shrink at future events. That tends to be a problem with events in our area: they make a splash in the pan, and then disappear. Also, we may be victims of our own success in certain ways. This can happen if they actually start dating due to the speed dating event, since they then have less need for a dating event. Also, I think people were in some cases overwhelmed by the abundance of possibilities afterwards, and this may lead them to avoid dating events for a while. We had few repeat customers at the second event, which means that people may not be up for returning much. This may lead to a less frequent speed dating schedule – the first two events were about three months apart.

Ironically, most of the organizers are too busy in our own lives to date new people, through a combination of prior relationships, work, and family. Though apparently we are not too busy to organize dating events.

Speed Dating and Poly Organizing

My sense is that we hit a nerve with poly speed dating, evidenced by the large attendance by people who normally don’t make it to poly events. At the first speed dating night, there was not only a lot of interest during the dates, but people seemed pretty flirty during the open social time as well. Watching this, I realized that there haven’t been any poly dating events (speed or otherwise) in the area at all.

We hold lots of poly discussion or support groups, and we hold plenty of social events. But at the social events, we tend to discourage come-ons. This is reasonable, because if the event starts to take on a meat-market atmosphere, people (particularly, but not exclusively, women) start getting uncomfortable, and the poly social event dies. So, we generally encourage light flirting but steer people away from heavy flirting or come-ons.

This works well to create a good social atmosphere, but it means that poly social events do not really double as opportunities for meeting people to date. It can be done of course, but typically one has to attend a poly social gathering repeatedly and really get to know the regulars before dates start happening. This is a decent-sized time investment.

A speed dating event, on the other hand, is much more focused. You talk with a number of people, meeting them with the explicit goal of finding people to date. At the end of the evening, you’ll probably go home with a couple prospects. The time investment is relatively short compared to the work of digging into a new social scene. And this is San Francisco, so people are busy.

I think the formality of speed dating helps to keep the event from feeling like a meat market, even though that’s exactly what it is. People tended to avoid clumsy come-ons (or come-ons of any sort, really) during the social time, which is understandable given that they had their hands full with between six and fourteen dates during the dating rounds. The system of marking down yes/no made rejection nicely impersonal and thus really easy. And even if you got paired with a person who was aggressive or creepy (and indeed there were a couple of these who attended), they would be gone in five minutes.

In any case, we have identified a need for poly dating events, at least in the SF bay area. Speed dating certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but poly organizers should consider holding dating events in their area, preferably ones that somehow avoid the bad meat-market atmosphere that singles (availables?) events tend to fall prey to. Formalizing the event in some way might do this. For example, one could have an explicit “no come-ons” rule combined with a way to register interest to the organizers, and again mutually inform any two-way matches. Also, I think that having an activity of some sort tends to make the event feel comfortable. In speed dating, the activity is the dating rounds. In other events, it could be social games (charades, etc) or other things that get people talking.

The largely new crowd at the event brought me to a further conclusion: there are a lot of poly people out there who are not being served by poly events. Again, this may be specific to the San Francisco area. I would estimate that the number of poly-identified people in the area is measured in thousands. If we include people in any sort of nonmonogamous arrangement, it moves into the tens of thousands. However, I would estimate that the number who attend poly events in any year is in the hundreds, and the number of regular attendees is around two hundred, tops.

Being the rabid community organizer that I am, this inevitably leads me to the question of why: why are these folks not coming to poly events? Polyamory events tend to be useful for support, advice, camraderie, and to find dating partners. But perhaps they are not useful enough? After all, people are busy with work, friends, and all kinds of social stuff. And in this region, they’re really really busy.

I’ve been trying to build a profile of these non-attending poly people. At least among my poly friends, most people have figured out their jealousy issues and rarely get into big poly drama. They aren’t in crisis. They know a lot of poly people, just through their friend network and dating network. They date folks in these networks. In many cases, they are polyamorous second and something else first: Burning Man aficionado, gamer, pagan, new age, goth, etc. A lot of them are super-busy with job and/or family.

In other words, it takes a lot to get these people to a poly event. They won’t go just because an event is poly. They usually need some other draw as well. Perhaps the event intersects with one of their other interests. Perhaps it is a focused one-time thing that quickly fills a poly need without a lot of lead-up time. Perhaps it draws a large number of people. Perhaps it is really entertaining in some way.

I feel like the usual discussion group / social event / conference trifecta is not working for these folks. Support and discussion groups are great if you need support or like to discuss polyamory. Poly social events are good, but people who primarily socialize in other scenes don’t make it. Conferences tend to be aimed at people new to polyamory, and are a big time investment. In other words, the trifecta works for some people, especially people new to polyamory. But it does not work so well for certain long-time poly folks, who have their own poly social networks and don’t need support or advice.

My poly friends came to poly speed dating, most of them. This is a first: I have been bedeviled by absence of my own social cohort at the poly events I organize. In some ways, this is turning into a new event success litmus test for me: are my friends going?

The unexpected success of poly speed dating has inspired me to reconsider how we hold poly events. We tend towards the sexual minority organizing model pioneered by LBGT folks, oriented towards community and support. This is great, and provides community and support, something that many of us need. But, I feel like we should branch out, and borrow organizing models from other communities, or at least creatively break out of the usual patterns.

I want to put out a call to poly organizers: try something vaguely ridiculous, or at least very different, while still maintaining your usual poly events. Poly speed dating was a half-joke from the beginning. Somewhere along the line, it morphed into something that actually works and is pretty cool at the same time. What weird poly event could you put on? Most of these will of course bomb out, but the occasional one will surprise us and turn into something really cool.

In some ways, this sort of thing is already happening. People are innovating in various ways. In New York, Cuddle Parties seem to have become a poly community mainstay. There’s various poly book clubs springing up. What else is going on?

There’s lots of other things we could try (or perhaps already are trying). Advanced polyamory conferences of some sort? Poly club nights? Poly groups pursuing random sports, like rock climbing? Poly rafting trips? Poly sex/play parties?

I don’t really know what events would work, or I would already be holding them. And indeed, I was not the clever person who came up with poly speed dating. But, I think this sort of social and community innovation is crucial, and I strongly encourage you to put on the occasional odd, different, or downright silly shindig in an effort to expand the horizons of what we are doing as a community.

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