Sunday, December 20, 2009

Polyamory

We have received a lot of comments about the Tiger Woods polygamy post, so I thought it might be interesting to explore the idea of non-traditional sexual partnerships a little more. There is a long  history of groups of people, who are usually bound together by common religious beliefs, creating communities that have sexual/romantic relationship practices that differ from the monogamy that is seen in the majority of human societies. Some, like the homosexuality of the ancient Greeks, just expand the standard practice of monogamy. Others, like the early Mormons, and the Maasai people in Africa, had group marriage practices such as polygyny and polyandry. Another type of non-standard sexual/romantic relationship that has been seen in recent American history is polyamory. In polyamory groups of people form sexual/romantic relationships. Polyamory may refer to a couple who allow one of both partners to engage in intimate relationships with other people, or it may refer to a group of people who have exclusive intimate relationships among themselves (polyfidelity).

One of the best known groups to have practiced polyamory was the Oneida Community in New Harmony Indiana which lasted from 1848 to 1881, and at its zenith had around 300 members. Members of the Oneida community (not be mistaken with the native American Oneida tribe) practied a form of group marriage whereby every male was married to every female in the community. The Oneidians believed that Christ had already returned to earth and that they were perfect and free from sin. Theoretically men and women were equal, though in practice labor was divided into stereotypical gender roles, with the women doing most of the domestic work. Exclusive intimate relationships were not allowed and group members were supposed to circulate through different partners. Married couples joining the community were supposed to expand their sexual relationships to include the other group members. Female group members reported that the had an average of three sexual encounters per week. Sexual relationships were encouraged between the more spiritual members and the less devout with the idea that the less devout would become more spiritually-minded through association. Teen-aged males were paired with older post-menopausal women who not only were able to initiate the males into sex, but also provide spiritual instruction. Males were encouraged to learn to control their ejaculation both for health reasons (it was thought that too much ejaculation could damage a man's health) and for birth control. As a result birth rates in the community were low, but sexual encounters could last an hour or more which supposedly made the women happy. Positive eugenics was practiced and members had to apply to become parents. Prospective parents were matched by the group leaders in order to produce the healthiest children. After weaning, children were raised communally. Like many such utopian sexual experiments, the community disintegrated after the death of its charismatic leader John Humphrey Noyes.

Another more recent experiment in polyamory was the Kerista Village in San Francisco which existed from 1971 until 1991. The Keristas practiced what they called 'polyfidelity'. Each person belonged to a B-FIC (best friend identity cluster) where every person slept with everyone else of the opposite sex on a strict schedule. Children were raised with all adults in a B-FIC taking on equal parenting roles. The community supported itself by doing computer support for Macs (what else?!)

When I was in college at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Keristas came by trying to recruit people (mostly young women including my girlfriend at the time) into the community. As one of my friends from that time says:

"Yeah... I hung around with the Keristas for a while. They were really hot to have us... and I guess we kind of strung them along by pretending to be seriously interested. Exploring their world was like doing anthropology field work or something - we should have asked the UCSC Anthro Dept. if we could write a paper for credit.

The best part was that, once they'd gotten comfortable with us, they let down their guard and started gossiping about one another and openly discussing the tensions in the community in front of us - particularly speculation as to who might or might not be a "romantic couple" (a thing looked upon with scorn in the Kerista world).

We did indeed find the Kerista efforts to regiment human sexuality by enforcing strict "sleeping schedules" and proscribing some of the world's most popular sex acts hilariously ridiculous - but looking back on it with 30 years additional life experience under my belt, I now wonder whether our own culture's similar but more familiar efforts to regiment human sexuality aren't equally ridiculous.
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The Keristas ran into trouble however when people in the B-FICs started falling in love with another person exclusively. They would still sleep with everyone but would only have sex with the person they were in love with. They also had some problems because the leaders supposedly banned oral sex from being performed on the women - that got them into a lot of trouble! The Keristas were also reported to be very messy since no one would enforce rules about cleaning up.

To my mind the life cycle of these experiments in polyamory says a lot about the evolution of the monogamous family structure. There was (and perhaps is) great survival value in monogamy for humans. It is a system that kept both parents around for child-rearing, and for obtaining resources like food and shelter necessary to live. It also helped keep males for competing with each other for harems, allowing them to cooperate in hunting and protecting the social group.

In both the Oneida Community and Kerista Village many if not most of the community members ended up in monogamous relationships when the groups dissolved. Monogamy and the nuclear family structure are likely to some degree hardwired within us. We may go to an orgy, exchange one partner for another for another, or live in a a group marriage, or have a harem of mistresses, but at the end of the day most of us revert back to monogamy. Even though Tiger Wood's wife is leaving him, I would be willing to bet that he will be in another monogamous relationship in the near future. Hopefully his new wife will be comforted by the fact that although he may cheat (which I also think is likely and which I hope she understands up front), he will likely return to her.

References:

Foster, L. (1998). Sex and prophetic power: A comparison of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, with Joseph Smith, Jr., The Mormon Prophet. Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, 31(4) pg:65-83.

Kerista Village Website

Margulis, L., Sagan, D. (1991). Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York, NY: Summit Books.

Wikipedia Entry for the Oneida Community

Wikipedia Entry for Polygyny
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5 comments:

  1. This is about the stupidest, most ill informed post on polyamory I've ever read. You might want to check the divorce and infedility rates in marrriage before you try saying monogamy is "hard wired".

    Using these groups to prove nonmonogamy is a strawman. They tried a social experiment that didn't work. Polyamory is not about a certain number of lovers, it's about more than one LOVE. Before you try educating others about polyamory, you might want to educate yourself.

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  2. To add to Marti's statement. The writer's conclusions are fundamentally flawed at their most basic level.

    The "nuclear family structure" in terms of human civilization is a relatively modern arrangement. The way in which the "family" has arranged itself throughout history has always been a varied proposition; one where more often than not, rather consensual or not, monogamy has NOT been the norm.

    Also, the fundamental definition here of Polyamory here is incorrect. One that, given the slant of this article, seems to be pointedly intentional.

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  3. Another flaw to the conclusions of this article is the inability to comprehend the difference between sociologically normative and physiologically normative behavior. "Hard wired" implies a physiologically normative state based on an ad-hoc argument that "it isn't the current social norm, therein it must contradict biological norms."

    I fear for the students and patients of these two psychologists. This is the kind of junk psychology that concluded that in the 1900's women that expressed sexual desire were "hysterical."

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  4. Ouch! Some pretty harsh comments here...well that's the internet for you. However, neither Marti or Isaac provide any evidence to counter what was said in the post. With regard to Marti's comment on polyamory, I would just point out that the Keristas referred to themselves as a 'sex commune'. Their sleeping schedule was all about the number of lovers and having sex with many different people. This doesn't mean love wasn't important, but sex was a big part of what was going on.

    My comments on monogamy are not at odds with infidelity and divorce rates. Monogamous behavior confers some survival advantage and is selected for. The same is true for polygamy, etc. Both tendencies exist in humans and are in conflict with each other to some degree. Throughout history men with higher social status have had greater numbers of female sexual partners. The legal institution of monogamy (which is fairly recent historically) did not change this, it just put pressure on men to either engage in serial monogamy (one partner after another) or to engage in extramarital affairs. The higher the status of the male, the more likely this behavior will occur. There are numerous studies on this (see Buss, 2008, p. 362 for some examples). There is also plenty of literature which shows the nuclear family structure and monogamy to be a successful strategy or humans and to have been prevalent for quite some time in human history. Again, it wasn' the only strategy, but it was an important one. I don't buy Isaac's distinction between sociologically normative and physiologically normative behaviors. I believe this distinction to be artificial and too simplistic. In real life, these are mixed together, and 'norms' become varying averages of competing tendencies towards quite possible very different behaviors. I.e. biological norms may be dependent on sociological context while sociological context may be dependent on biology. If this is 'junk psychology' then so be it. I think this demonstrates the relativity of social norms and the varying degree of expression of biological imperatives - just the opposite of explaining away female sexual desire as hysterical!

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  5. Late to the game here, but all in all it's not about what is socially or psychologically normative because in the end that is as subjective based on the individuals or groups involved. What's "normal" for one person is "deviant" for another. Unless it involves harmful conduct such as non-consensual acts, those involving children, murder, assault, etc., than what's normal for you is normal for you and what's normal for me is normal for me. In my opinion, believing anything less is simply trying to justify your own way of living because you're not that sure of it yourself.

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