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Polyamory in the 21st CenturyReview - Polyamory in the 21st Century
Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners
by Deborah Anapol
Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
Review by A. P. Bober
Jun 26th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 26)

"The word polyamory was created in the late 1980s by Morning Glory and Oberon Zell," married since 1974, Anapol tells us, or two years after publication of Open Marriage by the O'Neills.  She adds (1): "I use the word polyamory to describe the whole range of lovestyles that arise from an understanding that love cannot be forced to flow or be prevented from flowing in any particular direction."  Rather than being about the number of partners, says she, it proceeds from an attitude of "letting love evolve without expectations or demands. . . ."

Chapter One states Anapol's basic conceptions about polyamory, including what she feels is prevalent among animal species, physiological influences, and the issue of anthropological terminology.  Next she asks what goes into the choice of polyamory, including self-actualization, its possible stabilizing effects, whether it's an addiction, and its curious relationship with Asperger syndrome.  She continues with a survey, in United States history, of such oft-studied movements as the Oneida community, Kerista, Brook Farm, the appearance of polyamory in fiction, Mormon polygyny, which everyone mistags with the grab-bag term polygamy, modern talk of the GLBT community, and others, that complicate discussion of the standard anthropological labeling of marriage forms.  Chapter Four discusses recent developments in religion and spirituality around polyamory and what she labels the new paradigm based on a new ethic of unconditional love and fully transparent communication.  The next two chapters look for core characteristics of polyamorists and man-woman differences, as well as strong reactions in some of the green-eyed monster of jealousy, the counter of which is "compersion," a Kerista term that implies positive feelings about seeing a loved one growthfully with (other) persons.  As well she discusses the tricky issue of children, always honest and revelatory to outsiders, in a polyamorous community.  This last transitions into social and legal coming-out-of-the-closet issues.  The final few chapters round out the topic discussing cross-cultural loci such as China, India, Europe, Anglo-Saxon cultures, mythology, and ethological-evolutionary considerations.  The last chapter discusses the costs and benefits of polyamory, negatively as it conflicts with old ways, family, and old friends, and positively as it offers greater openness, the growthfulness of unconditional positive regard, movement away from acquisitive capitalism and toward greater flexibility in sex roles.

As Anapol's training is in clinical psychology, you would expect her to master especially intrapsychic and interpersonal emotional issues.  She gives many real-life examples of how people have dealt with tensions in a non-restrictive kind of relationship, whether normatively sanctioned or not, thus providing a preview of possible outcomes for persons considering more expansive ways of being with others.  However, a grave problem arises when she steps out of her trained expertise.  As she stretches past social psychology into sociology, as well as into cultural and physical anthropology, her competence quickly rolls over a Niagra curve headlong to the rocks below.  Her way of explaining long-standing categories of marriage form are flat-out incorrect, imprecise at best, confusing, misleading, and contradictory.  The reader does better to view some recent anthropology texts in a local college or to research online at scholarly sites.  One thing is certain, and in her favor:  the whole issue of "homophilia," to broaden X-sexual scientifically beyond a narrow physical-emotional focus, complicates old categories of marriage form--monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, group marriage--beyond the "H-word"/"G-word" taboo of conspiratorial silence typical of us teachers/grad students of decades past.  It is a rare case, for example, to find a West-African tribe where older women collect younger ones as pawns in a power game in which emotion takes no apparent part.

Anyone who has taught marriage forms to more than a generation of students must feel obliged to clarify the record for a reader who would, unaided, see as through a glass darkly.  So I list these basic points:

1.    There are four types of marriage in global history, beyond prehistoric local bands:  monogamy, one marriage, one man to one woman; three polygamies, much/many marriage(s):  polygyny: one man and multiple women, preferred (mostly men asked?) in 79% of 16,000-plus known societies; polyandry, relatively infrequent, one woman and multiple men (which she confuses with group marriage [223], misapplied to chimps); group marriage:  at least two men and two women that some argue never occurs based on their narrow definitions.  Americans practice serial monogamy, or, so to speak, polygamy on the installment plan.  In numerous societies an intermarrying group easily goes through all these forms, as the Kaingang of South America, and in all societies the majority can only earn the right to marry one other person.  To speak, as Anapol does, as if a one-sidedly male or female homophile group can be a marriage is nonsense since bigamy (which she acknowledges [178]) has been outlawed here at least since the 1878 Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States.  Those relationships that Anapol calls intimate networks (17) are quasi-sibling associations, unless an age-difference provides a sense of generation.  Americans routinely feel pressure to "cheat," a thing that can only exist if there is a game board which defines outside relationships as cheating.  The point of polyamory, or open relationship, is that mutual honesty makes "cheating" impossible.

2.    Monogamy, as one marriage, has nothing to do with sexual-exclusivity, except as Americans impose an irrelevant connection, sometimes aided by a rare sociologist, anthropologist, or demographer (who should know better) who thoughtlessly errs.  To her credit she finally (130) corrects herself in a footnote saying that "freely chosen monogamy . . . does not involve an ironclad agreement to maintain sexual exclusivity. . . ."

3.    "Traditional" (89-90) has no meaning in that you must refer to a specific time, place, class, cultural or geographic group, etc., from which a practice is carried over.

4.    As experientially lived at the moment, the feeling of being in any allowed relationship makes being with that person "primary," so that to refer to the married pair thus and all outsiders as "secondary" makes no sense.  An alternative a bit on the stuffy side is to use "reference relationship" for that pair and "referred" to all others, since it is more likely a spouse compares the other experience, if desired, with that with the partner.  A relatively inclusive-exclusive relationship can be theoretically open during a period in which one person is reaching outward and the other is not for some period of time.  It may also be bilaterally or unilaterally open.  The latter is simply self-deceptive non-mutuality called cheating in an officially exclusive relationship.  Many act like the one ethnic male whom I asked whether he was married.  Said he, "I'm not, but my wife is."

5.    Perhaps because deprived Americans are thus sexually obsessed, they never, the author included, discuss alternative lifestyles except in sexual terms.  My students seemed to agree that if a spouse had a strong non-emotional/sexual relationship with another based on a hobby, pastime, or cultural passion--Italian opera, chess, majong--that would indeed be more threatening.  She seems to understand this elliptically (14), so to speak, thus:  "Polyamorous gatherings, because they are less sexually orientated, are less attractive to people who are primarily seeking sex."  Aged quasi-polygyny she ignores, as Mead's suggestion that the fewer surviving men share households with multiple women for mutual care.

6.    To extend an issue in 1. above, "gay" is a thoughtless cultural epithet and "X-sexual" suggests the interest/feeling is nothing other than erotic.  Though scientifically dull, the best terms are homophile, heterophile, and ambiphile ("bi") since they imply a love of people and things in life, supporting the thesis of 5. above.

 It helps as well to straighten out some minor points: 

–no "foresake" (78), or any vow phrase, has any part of the marriage act, legally, beyond two yeses to a state-officiated and witnessed quasi-contract

–"The nuclear family is a relatively recent social experiment and is quickly becoming a relic of the past."  If nuclear (230), minimally one adult with one child, ceases to repeat after two (extended) generations, humanity would end.  She obviously assumes there must be two married adults and a child, but even among our recent non-married parents either one has a nuclear relation with the child.

–On a clinical note, one polyamorist reflects on her man saying "I unintentionally caused him a lot of pain. . . ."  Anapol might have called that bad faith, letting us consider the question whether anyone can ever cause the feelings of others or whether they inadvertently choose the feelings they have.

An additional tendency that may annoy readers is the tendency to manufacture inconsistent and incommensurable categories (old-new paradigm for what in organizational analysis is theory X versus theory Y; intimate network [17] for primary group, or just friends, though the former is more descriptive), as well as to fall, less or more, into contradiction, as in the two sentences (7) I shall now quote.  "But nowhere in the animal kingdom do we find anything remotely resembling the phenomenon now called polyamory."  "All these patterns of mating and sexual activity can be found in the animal world."  Let the reader judge the context.

Finally, Anapol devotes a half page (16-17) to open marriage/relationship as if it were a mere footnote to polyamory.  The O'Neills' book came out (254) in 1972; the Zells, above, very late on the scene, obviously put old wine into new bastard-etymology bottles, like that of Latin-Greek-rooted sociology someone called the bastard science.  Including everything up to normative marriage "open relationship" already covers all the unnecessary neologisms found in Anapol's index--compersion, dyad/intimate network, multilateral marriage, polyfidelity, and the like--adding a slight depreciatory sense of closed versus open that phrases like "relatively expansive" would overcome.

In the end Anapol gives us a look at the interior of a freedom-enhancing relationship that of yore was relatively unnoticed--Jung forced an open relationship on his wife and fourth-century Jerome wrote to a bishop petitioning him to keep to one wife--or had names that didn't generally stick--celestial marriage (cf. Heinlein's line marriage [57])--as the new ones may ultimately do.  She writes plainly and broadly on the descriptive level for the edification of the general reader, and these days that seems a laudable feat in itself.  And she speaks from a wide, if admittedly partisan, experience.



© 2012 Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.



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