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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Recently I wrote about the many problems polygamy tends to cause across the world, including high crime rates resulting from young men confined to singledom because older men are hoarding wives, and the subjugation of teenage girls forced to marry because there simply aren’t enough women to go around. With few exceptions, such as among India’s Toda people, a pastoral tribe in which one woman sometimes married several brothers, polygamy almost always expresses itself as the marriage of one man to several women. In America, polygamy is associated with fundamentalist Mormon culture, and more specifically with its domineering leader Warren Jeffs and his sexual abuse of underage girls.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

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

Historically, though, there’s been an exception to the rule about plural marriage being bad for women. Polyamory, in which people openly take on multiple relationships, sometimes in the context of group marriage, has a radically different history. Nearly as marginal on the left wing of our culture as polygamy is on the right, modern-day polyamory is intertwined with the rise of feminism, and its roots go back to the ’40s— the 1840s. It’s hard to believe, but during the heart of the Victorian era, during a time when chastity was the rule, divorce was unheard of and petticoats were unmentionables, the most radical American women renounced monogamy as an instrument of their servility. A progressive attitude toward gender roles continues in the modern-day polyamory movement, which has been shepherded by women writers, historians, and organizers.

From the late 1840s to the late 1870s, under the leadership of a charismatic Christian minister named John Noyes, the Oneida commune in upstate New York conducted an experiment in promiscuity known as complex marriage. Noyes believed that sex was a kind of worship, and that in order to live without sin, men and women had to be free to worship all over the place with whoever they wanted. About 300 people lived at Oneida, and they were all considered married to one another. Noyes had radical and sometimes abhorrent ideas about sex; he tried to breed a better class of humans through eugenics, and he thought incest was just fine. (At various points he had sex with his niece, and possibly his sister.)

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Despite its many faults, though, the system of complex marriage at Oneida amounted to remarkable progress for the women who lived there. Older women were responsible for teaching young men exactly how to practice spiritual sex. Men were responsible for birth control by resisting orgasms during intercourse. Oneidan women generally had sex only with whom they wanted, which, as Oneida historian Spencer Klaw points out, “could not be said of numberless married women in the world outside.” In her diary, Noyes’ niece Tirzah Miller wrote of the last, bittersweet days of complex marriage. She made love to one man, and then another, and then, while fetching a lemon for one of her lovers, came upon a third. “There seemed a subtle fire between us,” she wrote, and slipped into the bathroom with him.

This ethic of free love, honed during Noyes’ time, continued into the next century, albeit only on the fringes of society. Free love rejected the tyranny of conventional marriage, and particularly how it limited women’s lives to child-bearing, household drudgery, legal powerlessness, and, often enough, loveless sex. As historian Christine Stansell documents in her book American Moderns, bohemians paired the free-love ethic with the fight for birth control and the idea of women’s sexual self-determination. In practice, that made for some interesting romantic dynamics. The anarchist Emma Goldman lived with her boyfriend and another couple, and the four of them made love at the same time as they made political trouble. The writers Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hopgood were married to each other but compared notes on their various lovers. (“Tell me you love me and also tell me about the flirtations you are having,” Hutchins wrote Boyce.) In England, the intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group contorted themselves into all sorts of tortured love triangles.

In his book, The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, journalist Terry Gould draws a direct line from Oneida to the bohemians, through the free love of the beatnik and hippie movements and into the modern-day polyamorous community. There is a thread of idealism that runs through all of it, he writes; polyamory has historically been as much about remaking one’s own little corner of the world as it has been about sex. Gould contrasts polyamory with swinging, which he traces to the most unlikely of sources—World War II era fighter pilots and their wives. Swinging thus has a more masculine and more conservative history, whereas polyamorists have tended to be more utopian, more New Age, and yes, more feminist.

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