A Lexicon of Alternative Sexualities, Part 2: Two Tribes of Non-Monogamists

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 26 2013 9:15 AM

A Lexicon of Alternative Sexualities, Part 2: Two Tribes of Non-Monogamists

Polyamory

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Weegee/ICP/Getty Images.

You can read about the origins of this series in the first entry. Today, the distinction between swingers and polyamorists—the groups overlap, but there are important differences—and a few neologisms invented by polyamorists to discuss their relationships. There are probably neologisms like these among swingers, too; I’m just not familiar with them.

polyamory
The practice of pursuing multiple intimate, loving relationships. This term was coined in the 1990s, but it descends from the 1960s counterculture, and the “free love” philosophy can be traced all the way back to the 18th century, to people like Mary Wollstonecraft and her better-known daughter. During the 1970s, the Kerista Commune in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco coined the term polyfidelity to describe sexual freedom within the group while remaining exclusive with respect to non-members. In the modern poly community, you’ll sometimes encounter polyfidelitous triads or quads. However, I’ve observed a lot more people who form fairly traditional dyads but have agreements to allow additional relationships. The dyadic partners agree that while their secondary relationships may be important and emotionally fulfilling, they will never displace the primary partnership.

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primary and secondary
I will note, before my poly peers show up to do it for me, that a fair number of people dislike the hierarchical sound of primary and secondary. The terms definitely miss something important. Relationships with different people aren’t better or worse, more or less important. They’re qualitatively different; they make you into different versions of yourself. Still, these words convey something true about how poly works for many practitioners. If you have a shared home and bank account with somebody, have bound yourself to them legally, and most especially if you’ve had children together, maintaining that relationship is going to require a special level of effort and attention.

There are cases where people end up having more than one relationship with this level of commitment and intensity. A triad or quad that develops when everyone is living separately may decide to move in as a group. An existing dyad may invite a third into their household or merge with another couple to form a quad. In such cases, two people who share a common primary may refer to each other as co-primary. On the other hand, some people practice solo poly, in which they consciously avoid settling into any one primary relationship. They may choose never to move in with an intimate partner, preferring to live alone or perhaps with roommates who are friends but not lovers. Or they may move in with one or more partners, but only after reaching a clear agreement that giving each other space and freedom will remain a high priority.

A secondary relationship may look pretty similar to how a monogamist might interact with a girl- or boyfriend at a stage of their relationship before moving in together—a couple might go out to dinner and a movie, or cook at home and spend the evening talking, or happily curl up together to read for a few hours. Different people have different arrangements about what happens physically, whether and when sleepovers are allowed, and so on. It’s fairly common to see primaries trying to set dates with secondaries for the same evening, thus reducing the number of evenings that they miss quality time with each other. This can lead to situations where someone three degrees away from you has some kind of crisis, and the effects ripple into your calendar. There’s a longstanding joke in the community that the hardest thing about being poly isn’t jealousy—it’s scheduling.

There are as many permutations of relationship agreements as there are couples making them. But, as is the case with gay families, if you observed a poly family at any given time, chances are it would seem pretty pedestrian. I go to work, cook dinner with my wife, deal with laundry and other chores, waste time in front of the television. I once spent a long summer afternoon with my secondary and her primary, helping to paint the apartment where they’d just moved in together. This sounds like the set-up for a Penthouse letter, but if things got steamy, it was only because of the weather.

swing
According to the folk histories I’ve heard, the modern American culture of swinging developed among U.S. Air Force fighter pilots during World War II. (This story is reported in investigative journalist Terry Gould’s book The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, and swingers themselves certainly seem to believe it.) Couples would engage in “wife swapping” with the understanding that they were developing intimate bonds; wives whose husbands died in combat would be taken care of, financially and emotionally, by the surviving men and their wives.

The community of swingers has evolved away from those roots in some ways. Many modern participants in “the Lifestyle,” as they sometimes call it, specifically value the chance to get sexual variety without emotional entanglement and without needing to have their other partners around on a daily basis, interfering with their ability to pass as vanilla. On the other hand, some features have been retained—in particular, swinging remains primarily centered on swapping among couples. Basic vocabulary for a swing club includes differentiating between a “soft swap” and a “full swap.”

You’ll find a surprising number of self-identified conservative Christians at swing clubs and parties, and even the occasional wife-swapping pastor. I hope they have wonderful, fulfilling marriages, ’til death do them part … just as long as they aren’t hypocritically enforcing stigma against anyone else’s sexual choices. In the same way that gays who’ve been indoctrinated with religious self-loathing are often among the most virulent homophobes, you’ll occasionally run into swingers who are vocal about judging promiscuity. I’m never quite sure whether to be mad at, or sad for, such mixed-up people.

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