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Julia Scott | Photo: Brett Walker | January 26, 2015
The high highs, low lows, and endless trade-offs of the group relationship.
“So are you guys in an equilateral triangle, or are you more of a V?”
A dark-haired woman leans over to an eager-looking young coupled seated next to her and holds up her thumb and forefinger. Each of the V signifies a person; the fleshy connective tissue between them stands for the partner to whom they're both sexually connected. Her hand gesture is intended as an icebreaker, but the couple pause awkwardly, as if they don't know exactly how to answer.
In polyamorous relationships, knowing where you stand is crucial, but often hard to figure out. Whether you have 2 partners or 10, managing multiple liaisons can feel like walking a tightrope—which is perhaps why the perplexed couple have come to this unmarked warehouse on Mission Street that houses the Center for Sex and Culture. Tonight’s Open Relationship Discussion Group is exploring “Threesomes and Moresomes.” The attendees—a total of 22 men and women, a commendable turnout for a Monday night in November—sit in a neat circle, jittering with the same blend of excitement and anxiety that you might find in a roomful of people training for their first parachute jump.
Coats still on against the chill of the unheated room, the gathered polyamorists try not to stare too obviously at the painted nudes on the wall, rendered in various poses of masturbation and frottage. It’s a hip-looking crowd, mostly in their 30s and 40s, white, and flying solo, though there are a few couples and one triad: two women and a man who stroke each other’s hands and listen, but never speak.
When Marcia Baczynski, a relationship coach and tonight’s discussion leader, asks how many people are new to the group, nearly half raise their hands. Some of them are new to poly altogether, including one smartly dressed woman who met the love of her life—a married man—on OkCupid six months ago. With his wife’s consent, she and the man started a passionate affair. Little by little, the two women grew to care for each other as well, to the point that the three of them now sleep in the same bed.
“If I hadn’t fallen in love with him,” the woman says, “I wouldn’t have been able to develop feelings for her. They’ve been together 17 years, and sometimes I see them as the same person.” She gestures toward the man on her left, who smiles and takes her hand. Then her face falls: The wife, who is not present tonight, is pregnant. “There’s this other large need that I have,” the woman confesses, “to get married and have kids. There’s a huge guilt in me for wanting to date other men. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him if I do.” She starts to cry. The room is silent until the man speaks up: “I’ve told her that the last time I loved someone this much, I married her. I don’t know what to do with this.”
Someone asks whether the two of them have talked about having a child together. They have, and they may. “But that’s the hard part for me,” the woman says. “It’s so not what my parents wanted for me. It’s not the social norm.” Everyone nods.
“Jealousy, time management, and lack of clarity around what you’re doing.” Baczynski ticks off the three most common pitfalls that beset practitioners of poly. We’re seated close together on a lipstick-red velvet chaise at Wicked Grounds, a kink-friendly café on Eighth Street where you can purchasee hand-carved rosewood butt paddles with your peppermint tea. Curly-headed and bright-eyed, Baczynski exudes friendliness that inspires a tangible intimacy. A decade ago, she gained fame in the alt-sex community as the coinventor of cuddle parties, which began in 2004 with clothed strangers caressing each other in her Manhattan apartment and have spread to thousands of living rooms across the United States and Canada. Now she's one of the Bay Area's most sought-after relationship coaches in the poly sphere, thanks in part to the prominence of her online curriculum, Successful Nonmonogamy, which helps couples open up their relationships without imploding them.
Twenty-four years after Sonoma County pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart conceived the word “polyamory” (meaning “many loves”), the Bay Area poly scene is still the biggest in the country and very much in the vanguard of a movement to disrupt monogamy. Many of its members are more aptly described as “monogamish,” Dan Savage’s term for couples who stay committed to each other while having sex on the side. (Polyamory also extends to couples who date each other and single people who date around a lot—although poly types tend to dismiss cruisers and commitment-phobes as not part of their tribe.) But the variations only spin out from there. The aforementioned V becomes an equilateral triangle when a threesome commits to sharing sex, love, and face time among all three partners. Two couples, or a couple and two singles, make a quad. If a fivesome is connected via a common partner, that’s a W. Partners may be primary, secondary, or tertiary, though some polys reject those terms as too determinative. A distinction is made between lovers and metamours (a partner’s partner), the latter often a close friend who steps in to resolve conflicts, cook dinner for everyone, and help raise the kids.
The concepts behind these words are constantly being hashed out in homes throughout the Bay Area, long known as polyamory’s petri dish. New additions to the vocabulary often bubble up here before filtering out to polyamorists in the rest of the country. “Compersion,” for example, defined as taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (the opposite of jealousy), emerged in the Kerista Commune, a Haight-Ashbury “polyfidelitous” social experiment that used a rotating schedule to assign bed partners.
Dossie Easton, a Bay Area therapist who wrote the landmark poly bible, The Ethical Slut, in 1997, gets emotional when she talks about how far the poly world has come since her arrival here as a sexual revolutionary in 1967. “I see people who start out where I fought for years and years to get to. They think that they should be able to come out to their families, that their parents should accept them and welcome all their various partners and their various partners’ children for Thanksgiving.”
This isn’t the polyamory of your imagination, filled with ’70s swinger parties and spouse swapping in the hot tub. In fact, the reality of polyamory is much more muted, cerebral, and, well, unsexy. Generally speaking, self-identified poly types aren’t looking for free love; they’re in search of the expensive kind, paid for with generous allotments of time and emotional energy invested in their various partners—and their partners’ children and families. All of that entails a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of time-consuming sharing. “There’s a joke,” Baczynski says, laughing: “Swingers have sex, and poly people talk about having sex.”
If it all sounds inordinately complicated, that’s because it is. What do you do when your partner vetoes a potential lover? How do you handle it when your spouse starts dating your ex? To cope with jealousy and the thorny subject of sexual boundaries, the poly community relies on an excess of communication—hence, discussion groups like tonight’s. The community calendar offers nonstop opportunities for support, conversation, and debate, including potlucks, workshops, coffeehouse socials, political discussions, and book readings. As one woman tells me, people here like to geek out on relationship philosophy as much as they like to geek out on software (and, in fact, the polyamory world has considerable overlap with the tech community).
In the poly world, uncoupling monogamy and sex leads not only to casual sex but also to uncasual sex and, sometimes, uncasual unsex (that is, ritualized cuddling). “I have the freedom to do whatever I want—and what I want includes taking on a lot of responsibility,” says Baczynski, who is in long-term relationships with one woman and two men. Polyamory isn’t about destroying a beloved institution, she argues. Instead, it’s about casting people in the roles that they actually want to play. “There’s an assumption in our dominant culture that the person you’re having sex with is the person who has all the status and has the mortgage with you, too,” she says. “Why do sex and mortgages go together? I’m not sure.”
But freedom comes with a multitude of challenges, many of which were voiced by the following sampling of local poly practitioners. Collectively they provide a glimpse of what it’s really like to be “open.”
Gloria and Alex and Luna and Joe
Gloria Schoenfeldt wasn’t particularly drawn to polyamory, just to people who happened to be polyamorous. First the 31-year-old school-teacher got used to having a polyamorous best friend in Luna Murray, a 25-year-old event planner. Hearing of Luna’s sexual adventures may have made it easier for Gloria to open her heart to a man named Alex, a 45-year-old photographer and relationship coach who identifies as not only poly but also pansexual.
At first, Gloria didn’t want to know about Alex’s other liaisons, other than their names—she couldn’t take the details creeping into her imagination. But that changed when she realized that she wanted to be a part of his “joys and sadnesses,” even if they weren’t with her. “It’s always worse in my head than it is in real life. It’s always bigger and scarier and more intense and more likely to cause the end of our relationship,” Gloria says. Now she comforts Alex through breakups and heartaches—and enjoys dating other men as well.
When Gloria introduced Alex to Luna, she was happy to see that they hit it off. The couple also got along well with Luna’s boyfriend Joe. So well, in fact, that eventually they all became lovers. Last February, the two couples decided to cohabitate, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. For the first time in her 31 years, Gloria tried on the poly lifestyle in earnest, taking care to schedule her dates at the same time as Alex’s so as not to feel abandoned. She shares an occasional sexual four-way with her husband and housemates (they call their state of emotional intimacy a “quasi-quad”). Most of the time, though, they’re plain old housemates, two linked couples who pool money for groceries and get into tiffs over keeping the house tidy. “We live together, we have this loving family connection, and I don’t know what to call that,” says Alex.
Does it work? It does for now—one year in is too soon to declare it a permanent success, although the couples are talking about having children of their own. And both couples married last July, in jubilant back-to-back weddings in Orinda and Berkeley (they served as each others’ witnesses). What keep things stable are the poly-relationship standbys: limits and communication. While they sometimes couple off or have collective sex in the same room, it’s not an orgiastic free-for-all. There are boundaries. Gloria’s never had one-on-one sex with either Luna or Joe. When dating outside their marriage, Alex and Gloria only have protected sex. Luna and Joe won’t bring home a date who hasn’t been vetted by their respective spouse, as well as by Alex and Gloria. Everyone keeps a lid on when Alex’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay, although she knows that her dad is poly and has seen him kissing his housemates in a non-housemate-like way.
Still, the arrangement has its challenges. Joe, a 25-year-old server at an upscale Berkeley restaurant, used to get so jealous of his wife’s lovers that they developed a system: Before she left on a date, she would sit him down and tell him all the things that she loved about him and promise him that she was coming home. Over time, “it got easier and easier,” says Joe. Now the tables have turned. Joe has several lovers, while Luna’s sex drive has plummeted. It’s made her insecure and sad. “I used to be this sexual beast, and I’m feeling very fragile about my sexuality and my body.... He’ll talk about how much he loves his partner’s body, and I’ll start crying,” she says.
But as far as Gloria’s personal plunge into poly goes, she considers it a success. She was skeptical of monogamy prior to meeting Alex (“It doesn’t provide the security it claims to, because it can’t”), but had questioned whether she had the emotional capacity for an open marriage. Seven months in, the answer is yes, this is a good life. So far.
“The abandonment stuff still comes up,” Gloria says. “When that happens, I cry. And we talk. And he holds me and he reassures me.”
Ian Baker became a practicing polyamorist the hard way: He fell in love with a girl who told him that she didn’t want to be monogamous—and then slept with his housemate. “I freaked out,” recalls Baker, but he wanted to be with her nevertheless. “I had to do a lot of work for it to be OK,” he says, “for my particular psyche to be OK with it.”
That he faced such a difficult adjustment was surprising to Baker, for whom polyamory was hardly a new concept: He’d grown up in a poly family with three parents—his dad, his mom, and his dad’s girlfriend—who bedded down together every night. They were poor, living in a small cottage in the woods in Sonoma County. Baker, who believes that the arrangement helped keep them all housed and fed, likes to use his story to counter the perception of poly as the domain of oversexed, affluent people with way too much time on their hands. “When I was a kid, my parents’ relationship made perfect sense,” he says. “Whatever situation you grow up in is the situation that makes sense.”
Baker, a developer and CEO of the Y Combinator–backed startup Threadable, describes his younger self as an insecure fellow who looked to his girlfriends for validation. He started reading books about jealousy, and slowly it dawned on him that polyamory could help him outgrow his core anxiety. And so he tapped into the poly community for emotional support. “The only reason that I ever wanted monogamy,” he says now, “was because I was insecure.”
Baker is in love with Lydia (not her real name), his partner of four years. He doesn’t date much outside the relationship, he says, because he’s basically fulfilled. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be monogamous,” he quickly adds. “I like the connections that exploring sexuality brings to my life.”
Lydia, on the other hand, does have other lovers. “She wants to see other people, and I want her to have what she wants,” Baker says. But every time she takes a new lover, he admits, “I have some anxiety. So when that’s the case, I have to do a little work. I’ll call someone and chat with them about it for a few minutes, and then I’ll feel better. It’s not a big deal.”
For poly practitioners like Baker, self-improvement and sexual exploration are overlapping preoccupations. It’s well-nigh impossible to handle the emotional agitation of concurrent relationships without facing one’s own self-relationship, they say—your resilience must be equal to the task. “There’s a bunch of different ways that you can learn to be emotionally self-sufficient, and it happens that I learned those lessons by having my girlfriend sleep with my friends,” says Baker, chuckling. “But since then, it’s been wonderful.”
Bespectacled and wearing pink yoga pants, her hair wet after a shower, Sherry Froman leads me up the rainbow staircase to her bedroom and stretches out on her cozy sheepskin rug like a cat in the sun. She has hosted play parties—featuring touching and, sometimes, sex—for years on these sensuous carpets, beneath tapestry-draped ceilings that evoke four-poster beds. Some of the parties begin with an opening ceremony that resembles a personal-growth workshop: Participants practice communicating boundaries and desires, gaze into each other’s eyes, reveal the body part that they want to be touched, practice saying yes and no, explore the mattresses laid out on the floor. But, Froman hastens to add, “not everything is like that—New Age, woo-woo spirituality. The poly scene is very diverse.”
When Froman falls for someone new, someone she wants to date for a while, she skips the elaborate lingerie and whips out her calendar—not because she wants to keep her multiple suitors from colliding, but because she wants them to meet. If they form a copacetic bond, she believes, someday they all might cohabitate in the big house that, for now, resides solely in her imagination. That dream was a reality once, 20 years ago at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley—Froman would walk from house to house visiting friends and lovers who were studying tantric techniques and the full-body orgasm. “I was 23, and all these older men wanted to pleasure me and were fine with me not giving anything back,” she says. “I thought, that’s different from college boys.”
Since then, Froman has dated her share of supposed polys who hypocritically wanted their women to be monogamous with them. “I think a lot of men have a difficult time with polyamory, because the fantasy looks nothing like the reality,” she says. “Because if a man has several female lovers in his life, chances are that the women are going to talk about him to each other. And they’re all going to want him to be comfortable talking about his feelings.”
In the two decades since her time at the hot springs, Froman has learned to resist the pull of NRE—that’s “new relationship energy,” a poly term for the fizzy bubble of endorphins that envelops the newly besotted. While NRE feels great, she says, the high highs usually lead to the opposite. “You’ve got to think sustainably,” she says. “How is this person going to work for you over a period of time?”
Froman describes herself as having been a “very” sexual person since puberty. (When she decided to lose her virginity at age 16, her mother reserved a honeymoon suite with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi for the occasion and took her lingerie shopping.) After years of casual encounters, she stumbled onto the poly world and started choosing partners for different reasons—love, friendship, community. But lately she has again been hankering for more male partners in addition to the long-term beau with whom she shares this four-bedroom in Glen Park—it’s called “adding on.”
Froman, who met her live-in boyfriend on OkCupid (where users can self-identify as nonmonogamous) more than five years ago, believes that her schedule could support three other live-in men. But how to find them? She used to make promising friends by hosting Open Relationship Community potlucks at her house, but now she’s trying to explore new social venues to unearth men. “Once I find them,” she says, “then all of us being in the same bubble with each other is going to be a lot easier. It’s like having a family.”
William and Anna
Anna Hirsch thought that William Winters was going to be her first one-night stand. She ended up marrying him. When they met in Baton Rouge, their relationship styles—his casual connections, her commitment to monogamy—seemed as mismatched as their temperaments. Then they discovered poly, which squared their deep, if idiosyncratic, love with their desire to avoid the mistakes of relationships past. They agreed to experiment, and when Hirsch left town for several weeks, Winters slept with someone else. He didn’t tell Hirsch until she got back.
“She cried for two consecutive weeks,” recalls Winters. “It was totally fucking horrible. I remember saying, ‘Anna, if it is this hard, we do not have to do this.’ It was she who said, ‘No. There is something in this for me. I’m choosing this. But we cannot do it your way.’”
Eight years later, Hirsch, a writer and editor, and Winters, a progressive activist and organizer, are one of the most socially conspicuous poly couples in the Bay Area. In honor of the poly potlucks that they organized for a time, the Chronicle went so far as to dub Winters the “de facto king of the East Bay poly scene”—if you ask, he’ll show you a playing card, designed by his friends as a joke, that depicts him as the king of hearts.
Hirsch and Winters live in the Oakland Hills, in a studio apartment attached to a house occupied by several other poly couples. These days, Winters hosts private play parties and enjoys mingling with women. Hirsch is in a four-year relationship with a married couple (she’s more serious with the husband than with the wife) and has a boyfriend as well. Doing things Hirsch’s way means that Winters has the freedom he needs to play, while she puts down roots with the people she loves. Although she’s legally married to Winters, she likes to “propose” to her partners as a way of acknowledging their importance to her. When she mock-married a platonic friend back in Baton Rouge, Winters was her date to the wedding. “I have this whimsical image of myself old on a porch somewhere, someday,” Hirsch says. “And I would like William to be on that porch. And I think it would be amazing if there were other people on that porch, too.” This process—fitting together relationships without elevating them or putting them in special categories—is described by the couple as “integrating.”
So why did they marry at all? Winters frowns. “I feel like that question itself comes from a scarcity model that says we only have time for one major relationship. That kind of underlies the dominance of monogamy.” Hirsch has a more practical answer: They were in love, and she needed health insurance. “But what do I care about what marriage means?” she says. “It’s not a promise. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.” On their wedding day, she and Winters nixed vows and simply made a toast.
On the poly success scale, Winters rates their relationship as a 9.8 out of 10. Jealousy? Never a problem. Boundaries? The couple’s only rules concern safe sex and date disclosures (each a must). Even so, their marriage has been shaken this past year by the same temperament and communication problems that have plagued them since they got together—at one point, they put their chances of splitting up at 50-50. For all its laboriousness, polyamory is a deeply gratifying lifestyle for Winters and Hirsch, and the effort that it requires—the sometimes Augean task of maintaining multiple messy arrangements all at once—is more than paid off by the emotional rewards. Still, the day-to-day upkeep of a relationship can test anyone’s fortitude. “The poly stuff? So easy,” Winters says. “And the rest of it is like, sometimes, why does it have to be so fucking hard?”
Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco