What is Polyamory? Interview with Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio
This interview was conducted via email between Aldo Cicolella and Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio in preparation for her invitation to Tatami, a talk show about new cultural trends hosted by Camila Raznovich on Italian public TV RaiTre, February 15, 2009.
1. How would you define Polyamory in a few words?
Polyamory is the style of love that involves responsible forms of non-monogamy. Polyamorists believe that one can genuinely love more than one person at a time, and choose to do so honestly and with full disclosure among partners. Polyamorists replace jealousy with a different emotion. It’s called compersion and it corresponds to the love, empathy, and compassion we feel for our lovers’ lovers and for the joy they bring to them regardless of us. Transforming jealousy into compersion is a demanding spiritual exercise which is very salutary for the soul once you get the knack of it. Polyamorists do not discriminate based on gender, with women just as entitled to multiple partners as men. Polyamorists emphasize relationships, and have ways to categorize various levels of involvement, including what they call primary, secondary, and tertiary relationships. Many individuals in poly communities define themselves as bisexuals and most have, at one time or another, experienced some form of bi attraction or erotic play. However, the two orientations are independent of each other.
2. Is it a niche movement or a widespread new cultural trend?
It is difficult to answer this question directly for it would require data unavailable at this time--and the famous ball to predict the future. But I can answer it indirectly based on the information I have. I would say that at this time polyamory is a niche movement that is most likely in a phase of significant expansion that could, in some transformed form, become a new and widespread social trend. Here’s why. Historically, at least for what concerns the United States, the initial form of polyamory was called polyfidelity and was practiced in the community Kerista, based in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, in the 1970s. The concept of compersion was invented at that time. The difference between polyfidelity and polyamory is that the former is a form of group marriage with all partners living in a shared home-base or territorially based community, whereas in the latter partners are organized in regionally-based networks that stay connected via phone or cyberspace and whose participants may or may not live together. This type of organization is a lot more flexible and functional in the context of today’s US lifestyle, with its high rate of mobility. For about two decades, polaymorists simply practiced their lifestyle rather quietly, they did not form a movement, and, while always proud and happy of their choices, were often not “out” in any public or political form. Polyamory, in its network form, is attracting more and more people, it is becoming more popular, and is acquiring more visibility in the media. As a result of this interest, it is also becoming, in a way, more “political,” in the sense that it has to be prepared to answer questions and define itself publicly, as I am doing now. Polyamory really responds to a very widespread need to practice multi-partnering honestly and with a clear conscience, which obviously also involves a significant measure of living in harmony with oneself and one’s surroundings, and therefore is more ecological than other lovestyles that involve duplicity and hiding. However, polyamory, as someone said, “is not for the faint of heart,” it involves the courage of honesty, with oneself (which is the hardest part), and with others (as a result). This level of connectedness with one’s emotions and erotic impulses involves an abundance in spiritual awareness and capability for autonomy and self-management.
Reid Mihalko, co-founder of Cuddle Parties, and Tristan Taormino, writer of feminist erotica and scholar of polyamory, author of many books.
3. Is our society moving toward earnest polyamory or continuing with conventional adultery, also known as cheating, or, as they say in Spanish, cuernos?
I am not sure what you mean by “our society.” Do you refer to Italian society? If so, I really cannot answer. In the US, typically, polyamory presents itself as an antidote to what Americans call “cheating,” namely having affairs while in a monogamous marriage, which often ends up in painful and costly divorces. A common trend is that a person who has been through two monogamous marriages with a person of the other gender will, after the second divorce, come to polyamory and find a home in this lovestyle. I attribute this to the fact that when monogamy fails you for the second time, you cannot blame your partner, you have to take some responsibility for having chosen a style of love that does not suit you, and so you start looking for what will suit you. It is also common for long-term couples to come to polyamory after several years of marriage, when both feel ready to try something more adventurous and satisfying. Still other people come to polyamory from bisexuality or a lesbian or gay lifestyle.
In general, I would say that in the US extramarital affairs are more likely to result in divorce than in, say, Italy or France, where traditionally there has been more tolerance for them, on either side of a couple (see, for example, Feydeau’s farces that celebrate affairs as the spice of marriage).
I have also observed that on the West Coast, where queer communities are more visible and “out,” it is also more common for polys to identify as bi or queer.
4. What kind of organization does Polyamory have internationally?
Here too, I can only answer from what I know. I begin with the US. The World Polyamory Association and Lemurian Center is based in Hawaii and holds a yearly conference in Northern California every summer. LovingMore is based in Colorado and holds an East Coast and a West Coast retreat every year, plus a yearly conference in Philadelphia. LovingMore also publishes a monthly magazine by that name. All of these are hands-on events whose intent is to strengthen and expand the communities and teach the arts of love, poly style. There is a budding poly community in the Mid-West, Chicago area, with a zesty weekly podcast, Polyamory Weekly.
There are polyamorous communities in Australia, and I would have to refer you to my friend and collaborator Maria Pallotta Chiarolli for more information on that. She is a researcher and author of many books on this and related subjects.
There are polyamorous communities in Europe, for example, Komaja, which is based in Switzerland, Croatia, and Germany. I was invited by them a few years ago, and I wrote about them on LovingMore Magazine.
After the most recent and successful Poly Pride NYC, attempts have been made to create a national organization for polyamory. I got word that a meeting might be scheduled in February. (Note: the National Polyamory Leadership Summiit did take place in Philadelphia and was very successful, with a new national organization being formed, National Polyamory Leadership, or NPL.)
I am not aware of international organizations so far, but would be interested in hearing about them.
5. What kinds of legal problems and criticism from the media has the movement had?
Issues related to the law are mostly in the area of child custody, where a poly parent may have a conservative former spouse who may try to use the law to snatch the children away, rescind visitation rights, or other similar abuses. Other legal problems involve the status of members in a triad (or a poly relationship that involves three members), where only two members can be legally married whereas all three actually consider themselves bound to each other in the same way. Sometimes there are problems of recognition of parentage. For example, two women and a man are in a triad, and a child is born with the ovum of one woman implanted in the uterus of the other and inseminated by the guy. The law can only recognize two biological parents whereas in this case all three are. Other problems may arise from levels of outness and disclosure in the workplace.
About the media, my knowledge is limited to the positive attention polys have gotten, for example, at the latest Poly Pride NYC. (I will send you a link to the You Tube on Cuddle Parties.)
6. In what way are multiple loves related to the harmonious coexistence of humans on the Earth?
Obviously, styles of love that involve multiple partners create more harmony in a person’s life and in the emotional networks this person is part of, because they eliminate or minimize the need to repress, suppress, or ignore one’s desire for variety in love and erotic expression. This harmony frees positive energy that would otherwise be trapped in a system of oppression, scarcity, surveillance, and fear. Polyamory creates abundance in one’s emotional life because one gets different needs met by different partners, and all participants in the network get to do the same. As these networks of emotional sustainability expand, this expansion creates more harmony and abundance on the planet.
7. What kinds of relationships exist between polyamory and swinging?
Interesting question. Typically, polys tend to take the high moral ground in relation to swingers, who are a lot more numerous and conventional in their lifestyle, except for the sexual part. Polys tend to think that swinging is all about sex, whereas polys emphasize relationships, namely the emotional bond, continuity, affection. Sometimes polys, and even swingers, define the kind of sex one has while swinging as “recreational sex,” and polys tend to be a bit judgmental about that. In reality, one often finds some of the same people at swingers and a poly events, which indicates that there is a lot of overlap between these two groups. This has led some participants who straddle the two scenes to define themselves a “swollies,” namely a hybrid of polys and swingers. I think that’s very honest.
Different rules govern the two communities and practices, however. For example, at least in the US, swinging is only for male-female couples. Single men are not admitted to swingers clubs (the idea is that “predators” must be kept out). Single women are admitted, but going as a single woman is not much fun, unless you are looking to meet a couple with whom to play with as a third party. Clearly, you can neither meet a man there willing to form a swinging couple, nor a woman willing to give you more than passing attention. Women play with other women in a swingers event, but men do not play with other men at all, which is a bummer if you are a bi man.
Polyamorous events have the merit of being much more open ended, and their flexible structure does not mimic the key heteronormative unit of American society. That’s why poly events are also more attractive to queers and bis. Politically, polys also tend to be more radical and progressive, they see themselves as more cutting edge and open minded. For example, the most conservative among polys are democrats, and one finds many greens and independents among them. Among swingers, a rather common political orientation is republican.
Swingers also tend to be more high middle class and more “closeted.” They keep their professional and personal lives more separate. Also, the two members of a swingers couple, especially if married, hold the emotional bond between them in special consideration. They may become friends with other couples with whom they swing over a long period of time, but they clearly demarcate the boundary between the “sex” they have while swinging, and the “love” they share with their spouse. Partly because of the conventionality of the way swingers demarcate this boundary, swingers can be great fun, they can be terrific players with total presence and no emotional drama, which is often exactly what one wishes for.
I guess I would be fair to say that in today’s movement for creating the new styles of love that include multiple partners, polys represent the “theory,” swingers the “practice.”