Polyamorous relationships may be the last frontier
of human sexuality – and there are hostile forces on that frontier
By Tim Rauf
In 2014, Aly Sildra spoke to the Edmonton Journal about Polyamory Edmonton, an organization she runs for people who have multiple romantic partners. When the article ran, it drew a roar of moral panic and outrage from readers.
In the comments section, one person wrote, “at the end of the day, society has strayed so far away from ‘normal’ … and we question why our society is so screwed up?”
Another complained that “adultery is adultery no matter how you dress it up. It’s no way to live.”
As we have seen with the now-widespread acceptance of gay marriage, in a few years, a lot can change.
At the time, Sildra says, the number of people in the community Facebook group was around 300. Now, it’s 617.
Still, you don’t have to look far to see that many people still frown on anything that isn’t a straight, male-female sexual relationship.
Polyamory is, after all, a shakeup of the traditional. Belief that one can have multiple romantic partners is a far cry from the conventional setup of monogamy. Historically, polyamory wasn’t always perceived as strange and unnatural.
As psychologist Michael D. Price writes on the subject, “mainstream Christianity has always endorsed and enforced monogamy, and as Christianity spread across Europe in the centuries following the fall of Rome, monogamy spread along with it.”
Sildra argues that since polyamorous relationships have always been a part of human history, it’s natural for people to practise it.
Sildra defines polyamory as “the ability to pursue multiple relationships, romantic relationships specifically. It’s pretty big on communication and consent where everyone is above-board.”
The way Sildra describes it is a far reach from of those who believe polyamory is just painted-up adultery. Sildra says the key difference lies in those elements: communication, and consent. However, polyamory, adultery and swinging all sit on the “spectrum” of non-monogamy.
“It includes all kinds,” Sildra says. “Polyamory is just an aspect of it. Swinging is there. Don’t ask/don’t tell relationships are there. Even adultery is on that spectrum. It’s just polyamory is the more communicative, honest, (and) open.”
Polyamory itself is just an umbrella term. There are multiple versions of polyamory that people practise. Polyliving.net, a resource that aims to educate people on the more confusing aspects of polyamory, outlines a few of these.
There’s the triad, in which three people have a relationship that goes all ways. The quad goes another step forward, bringing a fourth person into the mix. Most complex of all is the polycule, which Polyliving says “can be as large and as varied as the partners involved.”
Things get even more confusing to an outsider, with the inclusion of hierarchal and non-hierarchal variations. It’s a taboo frozen yogurt: non-monogamy is the flavour, polyamory the syrup, and all its versions the fruit and candy toppings.
Shannon Ouellette practises what she calls “non-hierarchical polyamory.” To her, being in a committed relationship with more than one person has always felt natural. The non-hierarchal part means that both her partners are equally important in her life.
Ouellette has been married to her husband for 27 years, and has been with another man, whom she describes as her “life partner” for four years. Her husband has a girlfriend who lives with them and their two daughters.
After reading a book on polyamory, Ouellette says, she began to think that “the only reason I was monogamous was that I didn’t realize I could be anything other than monogamous and still have a healthy relationship.
“Once I realized that non-monogamy has been a part of humanity all along, and that some people do have healthy relationships that are non-monogamous, the idea was really intriguing for me.
“When I understood that other people have the propensity to love multiple people, I could see that in myself. And I knew that in myself, and that absolutely has proven to be true.”
Anna, who requested that her actual name be withheld, lives in Illinois with her wife, and practises hierarchical polyamory, meaning she and her wife are each other’s top priority.
“We are the main consideration. That’s where we start, and then if we date someone, that’s fine.”
She says that, for her and her wife, polyamory extends beyond just the structure of a relationship.
“My wife has always known that she was poly. It’s just something she’s known for almost as long as she’s known that she’s into women.”
Ouellette says she and her husband also identify themselves as not just practising, but being poly. She says their decision to tell people of their relationship was a coming-out moment.
Sildra agrees that it is “like a coming out, in a way – just to explain to family what I believe in, to the people in my life that are important.”
Before she began setting up events for the Facebook group, Sildra says there wasn’t any gathering place for the polyamory community, but it wasn’t long before social gatherings for poly people became a monthly occurrence.
“There were quite a number of people in the Edmonton area that had an interest in it.”
“We’re the public face,” she says. “We’re the one that’s very open and obviously public. Our group is accessible to anyone.”
There are offshoots of the main group, for those who aren’t comfortable with having the rest of the world know about that part of their lives.
“There are some of the other groups out there that are strictly for polyamorous people,” Sildra says. “But they’re a bit more of a closed group or a private group.”
Some people have suffered for being open about their relationships; it’s common for family ties to be strained or broken as a result.
Sildra, says the experience hasn’t been too negative in her case. Some of her family don’t understand, but others at least try to accept.
Ouellette’s case is different.
“I have a lot of family relationships have ended. My parents stopped speaking to me for years. My mom actually passed away while we were estranged.”
Members of her husband’s family have also chosen to cut them out. But the most important people in their lives have stayed with them, she adds.
“Our daughters are both fine with our choice, and they’re both supportive of us being poly.”
However, the community of St. Lina, the hamlet in Northern Alberta where she and her family live, there has been mistrust and misunderstanding – though people don’t go out of their way to be hostile, she says.
“My (younger) daughter has friends who aren’t allowed to visit our home, and to do sleepovers at our house.” For the most part, though, people are accepting of their lifestyle.
“Out where we are, people have not been overly hostile,” she says. Overall, Ouellette says, most people still tolerant – though they do tend to leave the family alone.
“My daughter hasn’t had any issues with being bullied at school, and I haven’t faced any hostility when I’m out and about in the community.
“I definitely think it’s not as bad as it could have been, or as we may have feared it have been, and I think that’s pretty cool. Even in rural Alberta, we’re finding some acceptance, and I think that’s really great.”
In Illinois, Anna says she hasn’t noticed much prejudice, either. Still, she and her wife have been selective in whom they choose to tell about their relationship.
“We’ve been very fortunate. We haven’t lost any friendships because of it. But, then, we’ve been very careful of who we tell.”
The state has adultery laws on the books that could pose a real threat to the couple, she says, and that’s why she can’t give her real name.
“Anybody can file a complaint against you or your partner for stepping out with someone else,” Anna says. “Essentially, if there is someone that knows that my wife is sleeping with someone else besides me, then they can report us for that, and we can get in trouble – even though both of us are OK with it.”
The Illinois legal system is a prime example of North American prudishness and resistance to change, she says.
“We don’t want to change. Because what if it’s scary? It’s a fear thing. If we change this, then the whole world will go to shit.”
The backlash comes largely from misunderstanding. One of the most common misconceptions surrounding the lifestyle, is the reason people practise it: “A licence to cheat, as a can’t-make-up- your-mind wishy-washy excuse for bad behaviour.”
Another common perception is that people do it to fix relationships that have started to fail.
In Anna’s case “this was a conscious choice coming from a healthy relationship where we decided this would only add good to our life. We would only have more happiness.
“We weren’t doing this because we were unhappy.”
When people outside of their relationships learn about their polyamory, at least in urban centers like Edmonton, all three women haven’t had experience dealing with rudeness or intolerance.
In Edmonton, Ouellette and Sildra say, people appear to be accepting and open, something Ouellette says is a pleasant contrast to life in St. Lina.
“Out where I live, it’s very rural. I look at the family members who have been supportive, and a lot of them do live in Edmonton.
“I think that a lot of people who live in the bigger centres are used to meeting and connecting with people who are different than them. So they’re more comfortable with seeing things that are different.”
Sildra says she has never been confronted with outright hostility or negativity.
“For the most part, if people aren’t in agreeance with it, they’re just very polite about it and don’t really talk about it or bring it up.
“Being the public face of it, I’ve had many opportunities to have conversations with people, but I personally haven’t experienced any in-person negative conversations.”
Sildra partly attributes this to avoiding online conversations – and the trolls that inevitably show up in them.
People are changing, and growing more accepting, Sildra says.
“I think there’s a general acceptance for things that are different. I think we’re learning to be more accepting of differences, and we’re learning to listen before passing any judgement.
“We’re learning that different doesn’t equate to wrong.”