Polyamory and its surprisingly woman-friendly roots.

The Surprisingly Woman-Friendly Roots of Modern Polyamory

The Surprisingly Woman-Friendly Roots of Modern Polyamory

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 12 2012 12:51 PM

Making Love and Trouble

The surprisingly woman-friendly roots of modern polyamory.

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In the 1970s, during what sociologist Elisabeth Sheff calls the second wave of polyamory, fringe groups around the country experimented with non-monogamy. A San Francisco-based commune called Kerista, founded by a man who called himself Jud the Prophet , consisted of three large group marriages, in which sleeping schedules were rotated regularly to keep intimacy evenly distributed. Although years later some former members would describe Kerista as a cult dominated by a charismatic man (not unlike John Noyes at Oneida), when the group was active it described itself as a product of the women’s movement. Its 1979 handbook mandated egalitarianism and required that members care for the commune’s children in “non-sexist parental roles.”

During the ’90s, the Internet sparked a third wave of polyamory, after AIDS had driven it underground during the ’80s. A Usenet newsgroup called alt.polyamory helped build a community, and a woman calling herself Morning Glory Zell, member of a “neo-Pagan” organization called the Church of All Worlds, helped popularize the term in an article called “A Bouquet of Lovers.” In more recent years, polyamory has mainstreamed somewhat, becoming fodder for features in Newsweek and on ABC’s Nightline. MTV did a True Life documentary on polyamorous young people, books like The Ethical Slut explored the topic, and Dan Savage continues to champion non-monogamy. Polyamory is no longer primarily identified with pagans and prophets.

In the most crunchy, West Coast communities, group marriages and open marriages are common enough that people can talk about being “poly” without having to explain what that is, says Sheff, a Georgia State University professor who is working on a book about polyamory. In her research, Sheff has even come across an area in Seattle populated by large polyamorous families: “You’ve heard of gayborhoods? This is the first poly-neighborhood I’ve heard of.”


Women are in many ways the driving force behind polyamory as a movement these days, having been integral in founding its organizations and documenting its history. As Jessica Bennett pointed out on Slate’s XX Factor back in 2009, the first books on the movement were written by women. Gould writes that a sizable number of polyamorous households consist of more men than women, the opposite of how polygamy typically expresses itself.

Group marriages are hardly dream harems for the women at the helm. The issues are those of monogamous relationships, but magnified considerably. In a marriage of five, who pays the bulk of the rent? Who empties the dishwasher? Polyamorous conventions tend to offer practical advice. Along with lessons in dancing in “Goddess” style, they have sessions on the logistics of large families sharing housing, and how to keep the peace between one’s various partners. Talking is the main tool of the polyamorists; they negotiate their time, their tasks, their emotional landmines.

In one triad, a female sexologist lives with her two boyfriends in Topanga, Calif. One boyfriend, with whom she has a son, works as a furniture designer, while her other boyfriend stays home and takes care of the baby. “Jealousy comes up,” the sexologist says, but they deal with it through “communication.”

On the other hand, there is something to be said for being the center of a polyamorous universe. This is the position of Terisa Greenan, an actress who lives with two men in Seattle. They all date outside the household, but this triad is their primary relationship, and both men appear deeply in love with Greenan.

As she puts it in one video with a grin, “You get something different from each of them.”

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.