The XX Factor

The Feminist Roots of Polyamory


A guest post from Newsweek writer Jessica Bennett :

I’ve never been in a relationship with two people at the same time, but I’ve spent the last two months talking about it constantly. Not because I’m obsessed with the idea-though, um, increasingly I am-but because I was writing a piece for Newsweek about one particular multi-partner family . Terisa and Scott have been together for 12 years, and live in a lakeside neighborhood of Seattle, where they share a vegetable garden and three dogs. For 10 years, Terisa has also been dating Larry, who on the side is dating Vera, who is married to Matt. Now Terisa is dating Matt, too. It’s like a real life Big Love , without the Mormonism: they’re “polyamorists”-a term used to describe people who believe in loving, consensual, multi-partner relationships. And while it’s easy to brush off anything with the word “poly” as some kind of frat-house fantasy gone wild, polyamory has a decidedly feminist bent.

The key to poly relationships is gender equality, and women have been central to the creation of the practice. The word “polyamory” itself was coined by two women, in the early ’90s, and the first five books on the topic were all female-authored. Over the past year, writers like Jenny Block and Tristan Taormino, the sex columnist , have written on the topic, while celebrities Tilda Swinton (who called herself a “freak” in an interview with Double X ) and Carla Bruni, the first lady of France, have spoken out in favor of open relationships . “Multiple-partner relationships have always gone on, but they have rarely had the gender equity characteristic of poly relationships,” says sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, one of the few researchers to study polyamory.

The way these families make their relationships work is perhaps the most feminine of all of this: by good old-fashioned talking. (Terisa, Matt, and the rest of the clan describe how they make their polyamorous relationship work in this video segment.) Imagine having the problems you have with one partner with three. It requires constant communication-so much that polyamorists joke they have no time to actually have sex, because, well, they’re so damn busy talking. “I like to call it polyagony,” one of my sources joked. “It works for some, and for others, it’s a f–king nightmare.”

Photograph by Getty Images.