It’s a question virtually all of us will have been stumped by at some point in our lives: what is love? Though of course our answers vary across the board, culturally speaking love is something that for centuries has been understood as a bond or connection solely between two people. Most of us have accepted this definition as fully encompassing what love entails. But can something as vast as love really be reserved for only two people at a time?
Look at your own life, for example. If you’re reading this, chances are you have a parent, or a guardian, or someone in your life who has taken care of you in some capacity. Do you love that person? Now think about another figure in your life who is just as important to you, who has been a central part of your life, a person whom you care for very much. Surely you love them as well. Does your affection for the first person you thought of trump the affection you feel for the second? Odds are, they don’t.
Love is not a static phenomenon that must be quantified between different people in your life. Like most things, love defies a black-or-white understand of the world, opting for a vaster, more gray understanding. Love is a free-flowing experience that moves from person to person without restrictions or limitations. A person is not incapable of loving their father just because they love their mother. A person does not feel guilty for loving numerous people at a time in a familial setting; so why does our culture shame people for experiencing that sort of love with romantic partners?
Polyamory—in Greek and Latin translated to ‘many loves’—accounts for that societal cognitive dissonance. Not to be confused with polygyny or polyandry (the marital equivalence of ‘many-loves’, if you will) polyamory is the bridge that connects us between companionate love and romantic love, breaking free of the traditional notions of what a relationship is permitted to be. Essentially, a polyamorous couple establishes an understanding between all parties involved (typically two, but by no means limited to said number) that each of them is able to have more than one partner during the relationship, provided everyone is on the same page. What that partnership entails is different for every polyamorous (polyam for short) couple. Some couples date the same people at the same time, whereas others prefer to have completely separate love lives. Like any concept, polyamory is not bound by one clear-cut interpretation or practice—very much in the same vein as its central idea about love.
NPR’s Barbara J. King feels that this form of love is having a cultural moment in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why. According to a recent New York magazine article, 1 in 5 Americans have practiced polyamory. In New York, a group called Open Love NYC hosts a monthly event called “Poly Cocktails,” in order for polyamorous couples to network. A book published early this year by philosopher Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is: And What It Could Be, seems to have brought polyamory into academic discourse; a subsequent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education features the author’s battle with “mononormativity” as a woman with a husband and a boyfriend.
“To some degree,” King explains about this new influx of polyamory-based media, “the focus of mainstream-media articles like these aims at overturning incorrect assumptions about polyamory.” Some of those assumptions include the notion that polyamorous people are just promiscuous deviants. A quote from the Chronicle’s piece with Carrie Jenkins reads:
“There is no necessary connection between polyamory and promiscuity, Jenkins argues. She thinks like a logician, and to her, this is simply a confusion of concepts. She points out that a person could fall in love with two people at the same time, have only two partners her whole life, and be considered a “slut.” Meanwhile, someone can sleep around while dating, or go through a string of brief, monogamous relationships, and have dozens of partners without receiving censure. Still, Jenkins recognizes that most people will struggle with her ideas.”
As a person who is currently in a beautiful polyamorous relationship, I definitely can back up Jenkins’ claims. Ever since me and my boyfriend have established our relationship as non-monogamous, people’s reservations have been very clear to me. Add to that the fact that my boyfriend is dating a girl, and the confused stares surround us like the light from a disco ball. People often consider polyamory to be the opposite of sexual monogamy, but as Gaylen Moore writes: “it is love, not sex, that is the key in polyamory… I love two women, but ironically, I am currently in a monogamous sexual relationship with one of them… Sexuality typically follows from polyamorous love, but it is perfectly possible to be polyamorous and sexually monogamous at the same time. This is somewhat unusual, but it is not unheard of.”
Sex and love are not mutually exclusive. Montaigne notes in his essay “Of Friendship” that there can be a relationship that goes beyond the norms of ‘common friendship’ (involving close touching, kissing, and perhaps living together) but does not involve sex—what we can now consider a nonsexual romantic relationship. This is the sort of relationship my boyfriend has with his girlfriend, who he has known since high school and whom he is in love with strictly emotionally. The idea of a gay man dating a straight woman blows the minds of most people I explain this to (and, to be fair, I myself was initially hesitant to accept this) but when you come to understand polyamory and love in terms of emotions rather than sex, it becomes, as Jenkins might call it, quite logical.
Polyamory is thought by some to be fairly new or socially constructed, but in fact most researchers will tell you that monogamy is what’s new. Sexual exclusivity is not innate to our evolution as a species, and in fact, polyamory is quite natural. Sexuality is fluid, and so is desire. Psychologist Christopher Ryan explains that a “non-possessive, gregarious sexuality was the human norm until the rise of agriculture and private property just 10,000 years ago, about 5 percent of anatomically modern humans’ existence on Earth.” Biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes notes a similar point: “The need to form multiple physiological and psychological close bonds with other humans is core to who we are. It is part of our nature… Humans are rarely sexually monogamous over their lifetimes. Rather we can form multiple sexual pair bonds of differing durations over the course of our lives, which may or may not also be social pair bonds.”
In other words, it would seem that polyamory is central to who we are as human beings. Or, as King puts it, polyamory is “just another expression of the behavioral flexibility that is the true hallmark of our species — and one that, as I have learned from my reading, is predicated centrally on openness and honesty.”
All that being said, I don’t believe polyamory is having a cultural moment right now. One book and a handful of articles don’t start a movement in my eyes, and this conversation of romantic freedom is not at all novel. Rather, what I see happening is a slow but powerful cultural florescence—a shift away from outdated modes of being, and a rush towards a more natural, unrestricted way of being. More and more people are starting to see the ways in which they can expand themselves through love and affection, the ways in which the status quo is failing them in their intimate lives. And instead of being repressed by order, they are opting for romantic anarchy.
That’s more than a moment. That’s a movement. And I, for one, am laced up and ready to roll.