Term Of Endearments

There's a word, and a lifestyle, for the non-monogamous among us: polyamorous

August 29, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Today's word is polyamory.

Don't go to the dictionary, because even with three full pages of "poly" words, from polygraph to polyunsaturated, polyamory isn't there.

But if the group that met for a conference this past weekend in the woods of Harford County has anything to say about it - and they certainly seem to - it might someday be:

Polyamory - (noun) the practice of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.

Don't misunderstand. The polyamorous don't insist everyone practice what they're preaching - any more than they want anyone, preachers included, foisting monogamy on them.

"So we're not always defined in the press by the Christian right ... it's time to do a little defining ourselves for a change," Robyn Trask, managing editor of Loving More magazine, sponsor of the conference, told participants at a welcoming session Friday night.

The polyamorous came from as far away as Puerto Rico for the three-day conference at Ramblewood, a rustic resort in the backwoods of Harford County that, according to its Web site, has been offering an environment for "unencumbered self-expression" to alternative groups for more than a decade.

Loving More, a 20-year-old quarterly journal on polyamory based in Boulder, Colo., sponsors two national conferences a year, one on the East Coast, one on the West. This was the third to be held at Ramblewood.

"I'm a polyamorous psychotherapist," said Nan Wise, attending the conference from West Orange, N.J. "I've been in a relationship with my husband for 30 years, but this is not him," she said of the man who stood with his arms wrapped around her.

"My husband and I were monogamous ... but then we found we could be very happy having our primary relationship and sharing our lives with other people as well," Wise said. "Nobody has the right to tell you how your relationships are supposed to look."

Trask opened the conference by reminding attendees it was "clothing optional" and going over the ground rules: Respect personal boundaries. Public sex is not OK. No alcohol. Smoke only in designated areas. Cabin 12, she said, was "the safe zone" - a place to go if the cabin you were sharing with other conference participants became too ... busy.

Then she announced the locations for the various workshops: "Sexual Honesty will be held in the media room ... Body Acceptance will be in the gym ... Better Sounds of Sex will be held in the barn. ... "

Trask introduced the weekend's speakers, including, at that time, the only naked participant, "Freeheart," a Virginia counselor who was there to lead the body acceptance seminar.

Trask then turned on some music and asked the group of about 80 to join hands in a circle and "share who we are." As she called out terms, those who identified themselves with those terms were invited to step inside the circle and dance.

First went the "polyfidelitous," those who have multiple romantic relationships but restrict sexual contact to specific partners.

Then went the "swingers," those who are more focused on "recreational" sex, often without emotional bonds or lasting relationships.

Heterosexuals and bisexuals followed, then members of "triads" and "quads," intimate, usually polyfidelitous networks of three and four partners.

Then came the call for the mono-poly, who, though it sounded like either a board game or a contradiction in terms, turned out to be couples in which one member is monogamous and one is polyamorous.


The polyamorous, it seems, are as open to new terms as they are to new relationships; just as they don't want to be constrained by traditional morals and lifestyles, they don't toe the established line when it comes to the dictionary, either.

"Compersion," for instance, is part of their lingo - the feeling of taking joy in the joy a partner experiences with someone else. It, like polyfidelity, is a term that originated within the Kerista commune in San Francisco, which practiced group marriage before it disbanded in the early 1990s.

"NRE" stands for New Relationship Energy, which, as it was pointed out in a late-night gab session Friday, can often be mistaken for love among those less adept at recognizing it.

Despite all the new words - including polyamory itself, which came into more widespread use around 1990 - the concept is hardly new.

It predates the 1997 book Ethical Sluts; predates "friends with benefits"; predates the hippie movement and communes and the references to, and promulgation of, open relationships in early 1960s literature, including Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment.

Heinlein, in addition to writing fictionally about open relationships, lived that way - as did a few other literary notables. William Moulton Marston, who invented an early form of the polygraph, was polyamorous. A psychologist, feminist and creator of the Wonder Woman comic book character, Marston died in 1947.

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