American Polyintimacy in the 90s and the Internet

by Green Onions

I use the term `casual polyintimacy' for convenience. It doesn't cover all conceptions of polyintimacy that arose in the 60s. And I certainly do not mean to imply that `free love' (a concept that dates back to the 19th century) merely means spouse swapping (swinging). The latter was simply one consequence of the free love movement that was embraced by many middle class Americans. (It's also true that Stalinism was a consequence of Marxism. In both cases one may argue about whether the subsequent trend was a misinterpretation of the prior philosophy, but the question of whether the latter was rooted in the former is an issue of history rather than ideology.)

I describe `polyamory' as `coming of age' in the 1970s, but there is some evidence that similar traditions existed in America long before that time period, perhaps as early as the 19th century. And while `polyamory' seems to have a literal definition (more than one lover), many people insist that the requirements of consent, some degree of (more than short-term) `commitment' and gender equality are absolutely essential to any application of the term. My experience in interacting with adherents of polyamory on the newsgroup alt.polyamory suggests that they reject any definition which lacks these requirements as utterly meritless, and have strong negative emotional reactions to more literal interpretations. The basis for this preference seems to be either scholarly usage or the historical background behind its coinage, athough I think some of the zeal with which the literal meaning is rejected may derive from ideology.

The term `polyamory' does not seem to appear in any dictionary and every other word that begins with `poly' possesses--as at least one of its definitions--an unqualified meaning of `more than one' of something (e.g. `polyglot,' `polytheistic,' `polyandry' etc.). For purposes of this essay I am following their usage because I think that they may be the largest group of people who use the term. My opinion is that terms that don't appear in the dictionary should be defined by usage frequency, not by strict adherence to historical origins or scholarly usage.

I am not seeking to address the current public debate raging around the access to sexually explicit information on the internet obtained by some underage users. I share the view held by the overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the computer industry that this problem is best handled by societal consensus and software development rather than legal restrictions, and that it is an issue which will fade in significance over the years as more and more ISPs and parents pay careful attention to the matter. (I also think that the availability via `offshore' world wide web sites of material prohibited to adults in the U.S. will become a much more important topic of discussion in the future. This latter problem may be analogous to other issues of free trade, such as environmental standards as well as regulations that address the rights and welfare of workers and consumers.)

I'm very grateful to a a member of an organization of practicing polyamorists (The Glendower International Community, email: for his informative remarks on polyamory which I incorporated into the first section as well as other suggestions. L.N. updated me on the term `free love'. M.G.D.M., R.S.D. and G.L. posted detailed critiques of an earlier draft of this piece on the internet and I have adopted several of their suggestions. L. made an interesting observation about the manner in which the internet facilitates intragender communication and pointed out that a slightly facetious example I had been using might be misconstrued.

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