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The One And The Many


The other day, an e-mail came floating into my inbox from a website called Care2, a green-styled corporate site purportedly dedicated to saving the world, claiming 12.5 million subscribers. The subject header of the e-mail read, “Monogamy vs. Polyamory: Do Open Relationships Work?”*
Naturally, I thought: This ought to be interesting.

The writer gave her analysis with a title like a boxing match or a legal case. Mono versus Poly is now in session! All Rise! The article commenced as such (literally, its first words): “Non-monogamy is about one thing—sex. And sex is good.”
(You can tell she learned her writing style from the Bible.)

It went downhill from there, fast. Faster than I thought possible without jet propulsion and a lot of lube. “And sex with different people—either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime—is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex.”

When you see the word “but” you can usually tell how things are going to go. Her premise is that since polyamory is about sex, and since sex isn’t everything, polyamory is nothing special to concern oneself with. The author, whose name is Polly, continues: “I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won’t be, ‘I wish I had had more sex with more people.’ Maybe if you’re a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn’t.”

I will spare you any more. This article, while one of the less eloquent and less favorable recent mainstream reviews of polyamory, shares one thing in common with every other article on the topic that I’ve ever seen in the mainstream media: It sets polyamory and monogamy against one another as irreconcilable opposites.
While the author is less tactful about her prejudices, she does us the favor of expressing them overtly: For example, there is in many discussions the lurking suspicion that people who don’t claim orthodox monogamy are perverts, but the word is rarely used. Or they don’t really like relationships, and can’t handle intimacy; they just want to get laid. Facing these prejudices repeatedly is enough to push nearly anyone who tries to be openly polyamorous back into the closet.

Yet I wonder what the real issue is. Studies done over the years on the incidence of cheating reveal that 45 to 65 percent of women and 55 to 80 percent of men stray outside monogamous commitments. The variance is because some studies ask whether people have ever cheated while in a monogamous agreement; some ask whether they have cheated in their current relationship. Other studies show that women tend to understate their sexual conquests, and men tend to exaggerate.

In any event, we’re talking about a large portion of the population whose definition of monogamy has at one time included, and possibly includes today, sex with more than one person. For a fast check, ask yourself: Do you know anyone who hasn’t been through this at least once? How about three times? How abut five?
Notably, the accepted definition of monogamy has changed in recent decades from one partner for life (now considered archaic), to one partner at a time, as often as you feel like moving on. That’s a big difference. The revised term is “serial monogamy,” but I prefer to think of it as serial polyamory: We tend to have multiple partners, one at a time (that is, while we’re not having multiple partners, several at a time).

By any realistic description, monogamy is sounding a lot like polyamory. Those who are proponents of monogamy at all costs, who advance the cause of abstinence only until heterosexual marriage for life, sound like they are in reaction to the observable data, which basically proves that most people are simply not that way; that, and in reaction to their own feelings. True, there are some who choose a mate for life. For some this actually works and for some it creates misery. In any event, we only know their story up until today. We don’t know about tomorrow.

No matter how we experience relationships, I would propose that there are more similarities between what we call monogamy and what we call polyamory. For one thing, they both involve modes of relationship. No matter what the outward style, relationships boil down to a one-to-one meeting between two individuals. Those meetings are set within a larger community context with many complex interrelations: a community. That community either supports the relationship or it weakens the relationship. The relationship either offers something back to society, or it does not. Who has sex with whom seems to be incidental—except for one thing, jealousy. I won’t say much about jealousy in this article, except I would state up front that if one issue is choking off the potential of the human race, that’s the one.

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