American Polyintimacy in the 90s and the Internet

by Green Onions

This freetext essay describes my own impressions: I assert no copyright and I do not claim to have conducted any form of `scientific' inquiry. Nor do I claim the analysis is especially novel. While I wouldn't recommend providing this document to minors, there's nothing here that couldn't be printed in a news magazine.

By `polyintimacy' I refer to any practice in which one person may have relationships with a number of others which are more sexually and/or emotionally intimate than the type of interaction normally associated with friendships and which may be consistent with some definitions of the term `love.' (I have chosen not to use the term `polyamory'--despite the literal meaning that this more elegant term may appear to have at first blush--for reasons explained below.)

During the 1960s and 70s many Americans experimented with variations on the notion of multiple partners. In some cases one or both spouses in a marriage would have several lovers, or in rarer instances several unmarried people would declare themselves to be in a kind of collective marriage (though the term `marriage' was not necessarily used). Everyone involved would be aware of the parameters of the arrangement and provide (at least nominal) consent.

By casual polyintimacy I refer to `spouse swapping,' and related middle class American versions of the counterculture ideal of `free love' prompted by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. These practices were tolerated but by no means universal during the 60s and early 70s 1. Such arrangements were typically gender-symmetric, which distinguished them from polygamy as implemented in the older religions of Islam and Mormonism, or the notion of a powerful man who `keeps a mistress' (a practice that is no longer considered acceptable in the U.S. but which still persists in a number of other nations). Moreover these versions of polyintimacy were normally limited to purely physical interactions and typically required nothing in the way of long-term commitment.

America's socially conservative nature soon forced this trend underground. People became afraid to admit that they either partook of or allowed their spouses to enjoy the affection and consortion of others. As the Reagan years progressed, one heard less and less about the phenomenon. While the `spouse swapping' movement survives to this day, participants usually call themselves `swingers,' and tend to regard their discreet enjoyment of the practice as simply another form of sexuality rather than as a matter of philosophical bent or ideological conviction.

Another set of polyintimacy conceptions came of age during the early 1970s, inspired by Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as practices in a number of communes and alternative religious communities. I will group all of these diverse points of view under the umbrella of the term `polyamory' because I believe that the greatest number of users of this word may define it in the manner which is approximately consistent with what I am describing 2.

The number of definitions of polyintimacy that fall into this variegated popourri of practices may exceed the number of adherents. The same is true for the number of differing perspectives on the historical origins of these conventions. The one point of agreement in this case seems to be on the significance of Stranger in a Strange Land, but many adherents view as the novel's influence as more problematic than helpful.

Whereas one interpretation of `free love' seemed to be the guiding metaphor of what I am calling `casual polyintimacy,' religious, family and feminist values were the hallmark of many (though by no means all) of the forms of polyamory that matured in the 70s. Very few of these practices used married couples as their fundamental building block. And unlike `spouse swapping,' these philosophies demanded more than short-term commitment and merely physical interaction. They were distinguished from practices rooted in Islam and Mormonism by a strong emphasis on gender equality and negotiated consent.

Although the myriad diverse styles of polyamory were never more than a blip on the radar screen of mainstream American public life, these movements are very much alive and still engaged in the process of ideological refinement. The internet news group `alt.polyamory' is one forum in which a small number of reflective participants continue to discuss the thorny issues shared by many of the variations in searching detail. (What do you tell other people and/or the children? What do you do about jealousy? Etc.)

While all this highbrow talk about polyamory was raging among the counterculture's chattering classes, other events which would have more widespread impact were occurring. Graphical user interfaces such as X-windows and its popular successors, Microsoft Windows (tm) and Apple's Macintosh (tm) interface were being developed. These products were later supplemented by Mosaic (tm), which was subsequently refined into Netscape Navigator (tm).

The end result of all these advances was that the internet became accessible to large numbers of users who knew very little about hardware and software but a great deal about their own minds and hearts.

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