Polyamory is popular

Relationship Health

However, who’s practicing it?

Everyone is talking about polyamory. Is it really popular? Or are people only saying it is? Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy might be at work: Polyamory becomes more widespread because we think it’s already widespread. Norms around sexuality change because we think they’ve changed — even if they haven’t.

Nontraditional sexual relationships, of course, are as old as time itself. In the 1960s and ’70s, a generation of Americans became acquainted with “free love” only to settle into monogamous relationships when they got older. “Polyamory” entered the lexicon with 1997’s “The Ethical Slut,” a book now considered a landmark in the poly community. More than mere “open relationships,” polyamory entails multiple loving, emotionally intimate, and often long-term partnerships with the full consent of the other partners, known as “metamours.”

Strictly speaking, the practice is not terribly popular, even though Americans say they are growing more open to it. In one of the few surveys that asked about polyamory specifically, only 10.7% of respondents said they had engaged in polyamory at some point in their lives; 16.8% said they would like to try. About 4 to 5% reported currently being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, suggesting that the number engaging specifically in polyamory is even less than that.

Yet interest in polyamory has increased significantly since 2021. The dating site Tinder reports that, in 2023, 41% of Gen Z users were open to or seeking non-monogamous relationships, and 26% were open to “hierarchical polyamory” — an arrangement with one primary partner taking priority over secondary or tertiary metamours.

This data raises the question of how social trends get started in the first place. If enough people think something is popular, influencers in film, television, media and the arts will reflect and then further normalize it. Peacock has begun streaming a polyamorous dating reality show called “Couple to Throuple.” Prestige television subplots have featured polyamory, most notably HBO’s 2021 remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 classic “Scenes From a Marriage.” And as goes art so goes the academy, which is always a couple years behind because of the interminable process of peer review. A meta-review of 209 studies on consensual non-monogamy found 90 in the first 3½ years of the 2020s. Only 10 were published in the 1970s, three in the ’80s and none in the ’90s.

With polyamory today, there appears to be a social contagion effect in which the prevalence of a behavior becomes artificially inflated. As lived experience, polyamory is difficult and often unsustainable for most mere mortals. Having one partner requires planning. Having multiple partners requires even more, which is why accounts of “polycules” always seem to involve a lot of work, making shared Google calendars an essential tool in the arsenal of love. As scholars of polyamory have noted, both men and women — but particularly men — must be willing to “unlearn monogamy.”

Yet, unsurprisingly, it is men who tend to be most enthusiastic about polyamory, though perhaps they idealize it for what it could be rather than what it actually is. Men are twice as likely as women to have engaged in polyamory and three times as likely to have expressed the desire. This might be a result of nature or nurture or both, but it is true regardless. Seen in this light, polyamory offers both license and a patina of legitimacy to the exploitative sexual desires of some men.

The polyamorous among us tend to brush off such concerns, since they do not see intimacy as a scarce resource. If love and sex are satisfying, why not have more of it? The authors of “The Ethical Slut” note that “sluts share their sexuality the way philanthropists share their money: because they have a lot of it to share, because it makes them happy to share it, because sharing makes the world a better place.”

But even if love were infinite, time isn’t. And just as time is limited, so, too, is the human condition, which the polyamorous think they can circumvent. Take, for example, the idea of “compersion” — feeling joy at your partner’s sexual activity with someone else. This is essential to the poly enterprise. Yet jealousy, like love, is a natural human emotion: If you love someone, how realistic is it that you will want to “share” that person with someone else?

It is no accident, then, that those who try polyamory often come away disillusioned. Only about 30% say they would do it again, with many citing as obstacles possessiveness and “difficult to navigate” emotional aspects. If polyamory trickles down into mass consciousness, more people might find the courage to explore it, but a growing number might also find their relationships and family structures challenged by these complications of boundless love. One can imagine a spouse reluctantly saying "yes" to a request for an open marriage out of a desire to be open-minded or, worse, fear that refusal will push their partner into infidelity.

Polyamory might never reach genuine popularity, but it doesn’t need to be popular to challenge who we are and what we believe about love. It teaches us that relationships, intimacy, and fidelity do not appear to be the same for everyone.

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