Story updated on 2/16/2011 at 9:00pm
Dawn Davidson doesn’t live her life by Disney standards.
When you have more than one Prince Charming, fairy-tale clichés go out the window.
“In our culture, the only acceptable, long-term relationship style is monogamy,” said Dawn Davidson, relationship coach and veteran in the polyamory community. “We’re taught that literally from childhood. What happens when the prince rescues the princess? They ride off into the sunset, and they live happily ever after. Just the two of them. Except she leaves behind her seven vertically-challenged, very hard-working housemates.”
Davidson laughs at this allusion and continues, “That seems like it might be kind of a light example, but it’s just the beginning.”
Davidson is one of the estimated half a million Americans who identify as polyamorous. Polyamory is having romantic relationships with two or more individuals simultaneously. As of 2005, there were an estimated 2,000 poly people residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Santa Cruz alone, 238 people participate in an online group that meets regularly to discuss polyamory.
In recent years these numbers have received significant media attention — notably, Newsweek described polyamory as “the next sexual revolution.” Poly books such as “The Ethical Slut,” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, have achieved mainstream success, bringing new faces to poly community groups in large cities throughout the country. As polls show younger generations growing more accepting of all lifestyles and non-hetero-normative relationships are in and out of federal courtrooms, polyamory is becoming more high-profile.
The poly community has received some negative attention. Conservative groups like Focus on the Family have publicly denounced polyamory as immoral, and a threat to the current federal marriage laws. A pamphlet released by the Family Research Council describes a polyamorous home as “a frat house with revolving doors.”
“This nebulous, free-for-all model of the family looms ahead for our society unless a bulwark is created in the form of a constitutional amendment protecting marriage,” according to the pamphlet.
Davidson said people in polyamorous relationships have similar motivations as those in monogamous ones, and they face similar challenges, just in greater numbers. As the number of members within a relationship increases, so does the potential for common dating and familial problems.
“Socially, it’s very similar,” she said. “We still have to negotiate around who gets to see whom, Thanksgiving and Christmas, ‘Are we driving to so-and-so’s this year? Are we getting together, and is there a big enough place to hold us all?’ It’s not an uncommon discussion. It’s just in a very different context.”
Many conservative groups wouldn’t agree with Davidson. Publications on the Family Research Council website warn that “the rising polyamorous culture is out to get your children.” Stigmas like this drive many poly people to keep their relationships relatively private.
Santa Cruz County resident Steve Jones* said he is openly polyamorous around his friends, but he chose to remain anonymous in this story to avoid becoming the subject of “malicious gossip.”
“If I’m close enough to people to talk about dating, then they probably know,” he said. “If we just have a business relationship and don’t talk about personal stuff, then I’m not going to talk about that any more than anything else that’s personal.”
The roots of polyamory, originally referred to as “responsible” or “ethical” non-monogamy, can be traced back to the 19th century. The term was not used with its contemporary meaning until 1990 and was not included in the Oxford English Dictionary until 2009. In the early ’90s, prominent figures in several poly communities used the Internet, which was still in its infancy, to organize networks of poly people and create resources for people interested in consensual non-monogamy.
Though Davidson has been in polyamorous relationships for more than 30 years, she “didn’t have a name to put on it” until the mid ’90s, she said. Since then, she has married, had children and become a prominent figure in the Bay Area polyamory community. Davidson also teaches classes for the local poly community at Pure Pleasure, an adult store located in downtown Santa Cruz.
Polyamorous relationships are not unlike monogamous ones, Davidson said.
“A lot of families are doing polyamory-style relating,” she said. “We just call it divorce and remarriage. There are a lot of people who have two moms and two dads.”
As the number of people in the relationship increases, so does the potential for common dating and familial problems, Davidson said.
“We tend to have more relationships, so the opportunity for all kinds of feelings comes up more in terms of sheer numbers,” Davidson said.
Jealousy is a common concern of people outside the community. But the issue is less common than many think, she said.
“I would actually say that the context of monogamy tends to generate some really strong jealousy behaviors,” Davidson said. “Again, it’s condoned and even supported by our culture — ‘A real man will protect his woman’ kind of thing, and it gets into that patriarchal property kind of stuff. Or conversely, you’ll hear about women using jealousy to get their man to pay more attention to them. It’s my take on it that at least the ideals of the polyamorous community, based on openness and honesty, everybody really has to be on board with what’s going on.”
Having multiple partners is common among people who identify as monogamous as well. “Open relationships” and “friends with benefits” arrangements remain common, as does infidelity. A recent study at Oregon State University of 434 young heterosexual couples found that, even among those with an explicit agreement to be monogamous, almost 30 percent had broken the agreement, with at least one partner having had sex outside the relationship.
While some might assume polyamory and cheating are the same, members of the poly community are quick to differentiate between the two.
Polyamorous relationships usually include primary and secondary partners. Primary partners often function in a spousal role, and there is less expectation for serious commitment and partnership in secondary relationships.
“A lot of men cheat — and a lot of women do too — but they sneak around, and that’s not what polyamory is all about,” said Santa Cruz County resident and polyamorist Pat Smith*. “If you really want somebody in your life, you need to work it out with your primary partner. Quite honestly, if you look at the original tenants of polyamory, the primary partner gets a veto. If this doesn’t work for them or they’re threatened in any way, you shouldn’t go there. They have to accept what’s going on. If they don’t … it’s considered cheating, to me.”
The differences between what some poly people see as undefined polyamory in monogamous relationships and open polyamory in multi-person partnerships can come down to semantics.
“There are a lot of cases where two people, often close friends, have mutual attraction but don’t act on it because of their agreement of monogamy with their primary relationship,” Larry Colen, a Santa Cruz County resident and long-time polyamorist, said in an e-mail. “These people are often lovers in everything but the sexual consummation. Since polyamory is, in theory, more about the emotional attachment rather than the physical expression, one could argue that these are, in reality, polyamorous relationships.”
Davidson says mainstream reluctance to accept polyamory is because of societal pressure.
“A lot of people just don’t realize it could be called that,” she said. “We have a really strong monogamous cultural assumption.”
While many people interested in polyamory seek out local and online groups, Jones guesses there are many more people who are not active in the community. These unaccounted-for polyamorists may fly under the official radar simply because they do not consider their relationships polyamorous.
“I know a lot of people of a younger generation who just don’t identify it as polyamory,” Davidson said. “But if you ask them if they are monogamous, they’d say no. They might call it responsible non-monogamy. They might call it open relationships … One group I used to know used to say their relationships are ‘in the flow.’”
People within the community say the term “polyamory” encompasses many different approaches to non-monogamy.
“In the poly community you’ll find everything from people having a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement, where it is OK to have other relationships as long as you don’t talk about it,” Jones said. “That’s on one extreme. The other extreme would be a group marriage, where you have people living together and pooling their resources and doing all of the things that a family does together.”
Jones and his wife are friendly with each other’s partners and discuss their relationships, he said, but their relationships are separate. They only have two people in their marriage, he said.
While every relationship is unique, the poly community has terminology to distinguish between the more common types of polyamorous relationships. Relationships can be primary, secondary and casual. A primary relationship is mostly comparable to a traditional monogamous relationship and may be prioritized over secondary relationships.
“Often, people will only have one primary relationship, and that person takes priority,” Colen said. “A secondary relationship is very important to the person but usually not the person you live with. A long-term mistress could be a classic example of a secondary relationship.”
Smith and her husband have been in polyamorous relationships since they moved to California more than 30 years ago. Both had been previously married, and monogamy had not worked, she said. After listening to a lecture by polyamorist author Deborah Anapol, Smith and her husband began to consider multiple partners.
“We kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘That might work,’” she said. “It wasn’t about sleeping around — it was about needing more in a relationship. Not everybody can give everybody everything. And we had tried to work within the paradigm we were raised to acknowledge, [and] it wasn’t working.”
Smith is open about her relationships to her friends and family, and while she has received much support, she acknowledges that her traditionally-minded relatives do not understand her lifestyle.
“My sister is still married to the first man she ever went to bed with, and she doesn’t want to castigate me, but I’m sure she thinks I’m awful,” she said with a laugh. “They sort of consider me the batty aunt.”
Though polyamory may not be mainstream, the community is not small.
Pure Pleasure co-owner Janis Baldwin said Davidson’s classes have met a need for many Santa Cruzans, who used to drive to San Francisco for poly classes and resources.
“No one was teaching classes like that,” Smith said of Davidson’s poly workshops. “The last class was standing-room only.”
Davidson teaches Polamory 101, which is intended to be an introduction to polyamory. Participants learn definitions and terminology, and discuss basic issues that do and do not work in polyamorous relationships, like the importance of time management and how to deal with jealousy.
Amy Baldwin, who owns the store with her mother, said there is “definitely” a large poly community in Santa Cruz that utilizes this resource.
“Some people come who have been in poly relationships for years, and others are just dabbling in [polyamory],” Amy said. “Everyone leaves with something different.”
One of the most important things to take away from investigating polyamory, Davidson said, is that love is the same, regardless of how many people are involved.
“Honestly, poly relationships are just relationships,” she said. “We just have more of them.”
*Name has been changed.