From Taboo to Mainstream: The Rise of Polyamory
It’s not cheating on your partner, and it’s not quite “sister wives,” either. At its base, polyamory is the concept of having multiple sexual or romantic partners with the consent of all involved.
Monogamy is still the heavyweight champ of relationships, but polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM)—an umbrella term for any form of nonmonogamous relationship—are punching above their weight with each passing year.
Celebrities, popular media and even lawmakers are beginning to acknowledge the legitimacy of relationships outside of traditional monogamy, so you may be wondering: Where did this idea come from, and why is it now becoming so popular?
Origins of nonmonogamy
While the term polyamory and its modern understanding are relatively new, CNM has existed in different forms in various cultures across human history. The 2010 New York Times bestseller “Sex at Dawn” theorized that nonmonogamy is part of human evolution, an assertion widely debated by scholars.
Polygamy—marriage to multiple partners—is found throughout the world, its practitioners ranging from religious sects to specific ethnic groups. In the United States, people are probably most familiar with Mormon polygamy, but this Christianity-based form of nonmonogamy is a far cry from the more liberal-leaning roots of polyamory.
Dr. Eli Sheff, who has written several books on the topic of polyamory, credits many free-love and intentional communities as the predecessors to modern polyamory. Founded in the mid-1800s in New York, the Oneida community is one of the first documented examples of this sort of lifestyle.
In the 1960s, the free-love movement led to a rise in the popularity and visibility of nonmonogamous practices such as swinging, and challenged the taboo status of promiscuity. Various communes in the late 20th century practiced forms of consensual nonmonogamy and group marriage, as well. One of the most notable is the Kerista commune in California, which existed from 1971 to 1991, though the movement originally started in the 1960s.
Polyamory in its current form came into being in the early 1990s. The first documented use of the word “polyamory” is widely credited to an internet discussion group founded in 1992. In 1997, “The Ethical Slut,” a book often touted as the polyamorous handbook, further elaborated on the topic. Like many other countercultural movements, polyamory was finally able to reach a broader audience through the rise of the internet.
Today, polyamorous communities can be found on almost any popular social media network. For example, the Facebook group Polyamory Discussion boasts nearly 40,000 members, while Reddit’s polyamory subreddit has more than 180,000 followers. Dating apps (such as Feeld and #open) for nonmonogamous individuals continue to hit the market, while more established dating platforms such as OKCupid have added features to serve the polyamorous community.
In popular media, viewers have enjoyed Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married and Dating,” while the Canadian-American series “You Me Her” has been greenlit for a fifth season. The 2017 film “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” explores the true-life story of the creator of Wonder Woman and the polyamorous triad in which he was involved.
Major news sources and magazines, including CBS, CNN, Oprah Magazine and Cosmopolitan, have also covered the topic.
Polyamory in real life
While it’s easy to think that the media sensationalizes the popularity of polyamory or that it’s something that exists only on TV, the practice is growing more common in the United States. According to research, about 20 percent of American adults have tried some form of consensual nonmonogamy at some point in their life, and about 5 percent currently engage in it. For people who practice polyamory, the modern rise in visibility and awareness is facilitating positive real-life changes.
Somerville, Massachusetts, made national headlines in July 2020, when the local government extended certain rights usually reserved for married spouses to people in polyamorous domestic partnerships. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), the U.S. certifying body for sex therapists, now includes polyamory and other areas of sexual and relationship diversity as a “Core Knowledge Area” in its certification requirements.
Future of nonmonogamy
Monogamy certainly isn’t on the way out, but the past 30 years have seen a dramatic rise in the visibility—and acceptance—of polyamory. Research shows the millennial generation is more receptive to consensual nonmonogamy than previous generations, and perhaps the trend will continue with Gen Z. Whether or not you are monogamous, chances are you may meet someone who is nonmonogamous in your lifetime. Perhaps you already have.