Along Came Poly

A guide to the open-love lifestyle

by Liz Forster

In Buddhism, mudita is the idea of sympathetic joy in one of the four brahmaviharas, or immeasurable states. In the practice of mudita, humans are able to participate in the joy of others. In doing so, webreak the boundary between the self and others that forms in our subconscious. This allows Buddhists to overcome self-centeredness and achieve liberation. For bodhisattvas (the Sanskrit term for a being with bodhi, or enlightenment), mudita furthers their goal of achieving and sustaining enlightenment for the better of all sentient beings, not just for themselves. 

Sympathetic joy appears in all forms of relationships: marriage, committed but non-marital relationships, friendships and even interactions between strangers. The most common form of sympathetic joy is experienced in monogamous marriage, in which shared experiences, sensual exchange and lovemaking provide the platform for sympathetic joy, according to psychologist Jorge N. Ferrer. 

Despite the dominant Buddhist idea of sympathetic joy, Buddhists do not celebrate the practice. Monks use the sexual energy built up from celibacy to achieve enlightenment. The Buddha understood different types of relationships, though, and accepted polyamorous relationships if the people and context of the relationship called for it. 

Polytheistic religions, such as Paganism, translate adoration for the diversity of nature to the diversity of people, a belief system that greatly parallels ideas of sympathetic joy. Polytheism is shamed, though, often limiting the expression of relationships to Pagan festivals and private spaces. 

Monogamy has become the norm. Now, in most areas of the world, monogamy signifies commitment, true love and trust. Anything other than extramarital celibacy is viewed as cheating or a casual, meaningless hookup. Of course, both cheatin and hookups exist. We experience them personally or witness them secondhand at Colorado College almost every weekend. They are alternatives to monogamy. But are they the only alternatives?

Polyamory in practice

CC first-year Kat Hart Gentry was introduced to polyamory during her gap year. She worked at Touchstone Climbing and Fitness’s Bay Area gym as a setter, designing climbing walls. One of her co-workers, Alan, identified as both queer and polyamorous and had experience with polyamorous relationships. At the time he met Hart Gentry, he had one primary wife as well as a community and family with whom he lives. 

Alan is not a polygamist. His primary wife, as well as the people within his community with whom he engages in emotional and sexual relationships, also engages in relationships with other people. It isn’t cheating. He and the others involved are all aware of the dates, sex and intimate interactions that occur within this microcommunity. 

To Hart Gentry, the idea of a network of relationships rather than just one with a single other person was foreign but not disconcerting. 

“I was curious as to what relationships like this were like,” she said. 

She did not immediately engage in a polyamorous relationship until she met Zach, a martial arts instructor and yoga teacher. From the beginning of their relationship, he told her that he was in a serious relationship with another woman, but that he believed in polyamory and wanted to share a part of his life with her. 

“I was okay with that,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to be in a monogamous, committed relationship, and it was an opportunity to experience polyamory.”

Hart Gentry explained that she and Zach would consistently talk about their relationship as well as other relationships they were engaged in. It was their opportunity to define what parameters they as individuals believed would benefit (or harm) their relationship.

“It worked because we had an advanced level of communication that I had never experienced in a monogamous relationship,” Hart Gentry said. “Things can change pretty rapidly in any relationship and being able to talk about the emotions and problems that come up was a key part to making that relationship work.”

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is not consistently defined across or within cultures. Proponents of the practice emphasize the values of care, intimacy, honesty, equality, non-exclusivity, relational autonomy and, as Hart Gentry emphasized, communication. 

“[Polyamory is] a pure relationship based on mutual trust,” said prominent sociologist Anthony Giddens. “[It’s about] disclosing intimacy, voluntary agreement, egalitarian decision-making and mutual consent.”

One of the crucial differences between polyamory and monogamy is that the former rejects the latter’s deeply engrained idea that jealousy is inherent in romantic relationships. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips theorized that friendship and erotic love are differentiated by the lack or presence of jealousy. In fact, he said that jealousy is seen as a virtue, if not an emblem of true love. Jealousy stems from fears of loss or abandonment. 

In a successful polyamorous relationship, though, jealousy cannot exist, or else the entire network of relationships can crumble. The English language has no definitive antonym for jealousy, thus leaving polyamorous people without a mainstream word to describe not just the absence of jealousy, but the joy from not feeling jealous. The effects of a lack of language extends far beyond not being able to explain one’s emotions. Language dictates culture and the values it deems accepted and normal. 

“Language around us shapes our self-identities and our understanding of sexual identity [are based on] the language of sexuality available to us,” wrote sociologists Ani Ritchie and Meg Barker. Ritchie and Barker conducted a study in which they examined online polyamory forums with the goal of assembling a collection of language specific to the polyamory community, in particular their language of emotion and labeling. 

In terms of their antonym for jealousy, members of the experimental, polyamorous Kerista commune from San Francisco coined the term “compersion” in the latter half of the 20th century. Although not officially in the English dictionary, compersion is defined as the joyful feeling that a polyamorous person has when his or her lover or spouse has had sex or spent time with a new person. “[Compersion is] the waves of warmth, pleasure and appreciation at the idea of our partner loving others and being loved by them in non-harmful and mutually beneficially way,” Ferrer wrote.

Ritchie and Barker also found polyamorists frequently using the words “wibble” and “wibbly” to describe discomfort with their partners’ other relationship(s). In using these words, polyamorists have a window through which they can vocalize their insecurities. “Wibbling becomes a way of expressing anxiety and asking for reassurance without the negative connotations associated with jealousy,” they wrote.

Another term frequently used in the polyamorous community is the “ethical slut.” Dose Easton and Janet Hardy coined the term in 1997 in their self-help guide to polyamory, “The Ethical Slut.” Although the term seems derogatory, the community has embraced it just as the LGBT community embraced the once-derogatory term “queer.” Easton and Hardy define ethical sluts as people that “value consent…are honest…recognize the ramification of our sexual choices…It is important to us to treat people well and not hurt anyone.” Polyamorists frequently used the term on the online forums Ritchie and Barker studied.

Finally, polyamorists use the term “metamour” for a partner’s partner and “paramour” for an unmarried partner. Without those terms, the default term is “mistress” or “the other woman.”

Ritchie and Barker believe that the language of sexuality, like every other subgroup of language, is constantly evolving, and that the efforts of polyamorists to develop a language for their community is “less of a matter of final discovery than perpetual reinvention.”

The Rejection of ‘Poly’

The West has long rejected the concept of polyamory, and the rejection mirrors that of polytheistic belief systems and pantheistic spiritualities in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Polytheism served as the foundation for most ancient religions and civilizations, including Hinduism, Shintoism and the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

Christianity and Judaism have long chastised polytheism, arguing that the gods of Greece and Rome were fallen angels and the source of Roman cruelty and oppression. Because of the dominance of Christianity, polytheism is often seen by the Western world as primitive. 

The inferior connotation associated with “poly” was ironically exacerbated by the Greek story of the human origin as told in Plato’s “Symposium.” Originally, a super-race of men and women attached back-to-back evolved. But the super-race had ambitions to attack the gods, so Zeus split them in half. People of this race went hysterical looking for their other halves. Out of pity, Zeus moved their genitals to the front so they could reconnect with their other half without returning to their superhuman state.

Plato argued, “This is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being: it calls the halves of our original nature back together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound in human nature…When a person meets the half that is his very own…then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their sense by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another.”

This idea is called ‘supermonogamy.’ Unlike monogamy, in which people are exclusive during a relationship but can have multiple loves in a lifetime, supermonogamy holds that we only have one love in life and search until we find them or die. 

Although scientific evidence does not support supermonogamy, biological anthropology studies on human evolution have proven the advantages of monogamy in humans. Most animals do not act in a monogamous manner because of their inherent drive to continue the survival of their genes. 

Humans strayed from this natural instinct by developing ‘adaptive monogamy.’ According to Elizabeth F. Emens, author of “Monogamy’s Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence,” adaptive monogamy allowed females to benefit from the protection provided by males during the gestation period. 

Scientists have three theories about the evolutionary advantage for males. First, distributing the sexual resource (i.e. women) serves as advantageous to cooperative hunting. Second, in protecting their offspring, they ensure the chance of their genetic survival. And third, by preventing other males from impregnating the female, the female is not diverting her resources away from the primary male, once again, guaranteeing an offspring on to which to pass genes. 

These religious, philosophical and scientific beliefs have served as the basis for the cultural acceptance and oftentimes mandate of language. Although no longer the publicized rationale for monogamy, they are the dominant ideas associated with monogamy and the narrative against polyamory. In the words of literary theorist Roland Barthes, “Monogamy is the law.”

A Makeover for Monogamy

Monogamy is so engrained in our society that in the 1985 case of Potter v. Murray City, the court upheld the original decision to terminate a police officer for bigamy because, according to the judges, “monogamy is inextricably woven into the fabric of our society.” How can we continue to support that rigid claim with divorce rates as high as 50 percent and adultery rates 30 to 50 percent in the United States? We cannot and should not do away with monogamy, but maybe polyamory, or at least the values it upholds, can offer monogamy the makeover it needs. 

Part of that makeover involves an intense period of psychospiritual growth—the “transcendence of emotional maturity away from exclusivity and possessiveness, integration of sensuous and spiritual love, [and the] transformation of jealousy,” according to Ferrar.

Before the makeover can happen, though, mainstream culture needs to accept that not everyone fits into cookie-cutter, traditional monogamy—especially supermonogamy. 

If sociology cannot convince people, science may now be able to. Scientists in the United States inserted DNA containing vasopressin (the hormone associated with attachment bonds) from a monogamous species of mice called the prairie voles into males of a different, highly promiscuous species. Almost immediately after the insertion, the promiscuous species turned monogamous. Through the study, scientists were able to theorize that a similar effect would happen in humans who have the vasopressin receptor gene. Basically, humans with that receptor are more inclined to be monogamous than others. 

The hardest question we as college students must ask is how we can redefine the hookup or relationship culture at CC to include polyamory as an accepted practice. Since arriving at CC, Hart Gentry has found finding other students interested in polyamory more challenging than doing so in the Bay Area.

“The Bay Area and Berkeley have a tight-knit, defined polyamorous community even though it is obscure and less well-known. Here, people are a lot younger and have a lot less knowledge about what they want out of a sexual relationship,” Hart Gentry said. “It’s less open in general. When I try to talk about what this, a relationship, with someone here, means and what they want, it’s unexpected and awkward, even though it’s not polyamorous. Things are not said clearly, which is difficult and different for me.”

She continued on to say that many people mistake polyamory for polygamy or have a view of it as legalized cheating where people are just seeking out the best of both worlds: a hookup with no ties and a relationship. Rather than being a dishonest cheater, polyamorous people define what sort of relationship they want, while being willing and open to change.

“College students are still developing those skills, I’m still developing skills,” Hart Gentry said. “I want to pursue polyamory more, since it’s resonating with me more. I want to be able to explore and navigate that in a college setting.”