Polyamory seems to have burst upon the American mainstream over the past two decades. The deluge of podcasts, TV shows, books, and magazine articles detailing polycules, metamores, throuples, threesomes, and moresomes testifies to the growing number of Americans willing to jettison monogamy.
Voices celebrating or lamenting polyamory’s newfound popularity come from predictable sources. Though studies have shown that Americans from across the political spectrum have embraced forms of consensual non-monogamy, it tends to be liberal progressives who publicly laud polyamory as the next stage of the sexual revolution, while religious conservatives bemoan it as the next step in more than half a century of moral decline. Yet, setting polyamory within the longer history of American sexual dissent uncovers a complicated relationship between politics and sexual freedom that defies simplistic categorization.
The term polyamory was coined in the early 1990s after a coalition of ethical non-monogamists came together to give a name to similar lifestyles many of them had practiced for decades. Though sometimes confused with polygamy, polyamory is distinct in that it tends to be gender egalitarian and queer affirming.
Polyamory’s roots reach back at least a century to the Progressive Era, if not further, when Bohemian notions of free love breached major U.S. metropolises. The “Roaring Twenties” that ensued prefigured the sexual revolution of a half century later, as wars over birth control and the Equal Rights Amendment divided Americans, and the short-haired, cigarette-smoking New Woman became a symbol of American freedom.
The post-Depression era stifled sexual freedom, but in ways many Americans in need readily accepted. The New Deal’s promises of economic stability reinterpreted freedom as the absence of want. Such tradeoffs came at a price, however, as its programs prioritized male employment, re-enforcing gender roles the 1920s had begun to upend. By the 1940s, the twin threats of nuclear annihilation and the spread of godless Communism exacerbated the return to sexual traditionalism, producing a cultural consensus on marriage and family that tolerated little dissent.
But not all Americans accepted the ideal of lifelong heterosexual monogamy enshrined in the nuclear family. The Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 testified to the facade of uniformity, uncovering a shocking degree of sexual diversity present in Americans’ private lives. Meanwhile, the Beatnik embrace of drugs and promiscuity foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s.
The Beats were not the only Americans to chide mainstream mores, nor to use literature to do so. There was also Ayn Rand, the anti-statist Russian-born novelist bent on destroying all impediments to personal autonomy. Rand dabbled with ethical non-monogamy, believing that her and her protege’s shared commitment to her philosophy of Objectivism provided sanction for their intimacy. Though they were honest about the relationship, it brought great emotional distress to both their spouses, and her disregard for the feelings of all others involved made it unlikely for polyamorists to claim her as an intellectual forebearer.
The clearest link between polyamory and the first decades of the 20th century is traceable through the influence of acclaimed science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Referring to himself as a “child of the Torrid Twenties,” Heinlein was a sexual iconoclast. His first two marriages in 1929 and 1932 were both open, and he spent the 1930s and 1940s frequenting nudist clubs, and running in countercultural circles that included the occultic sex magician and Cal Tech rocket scientist Jack Parsons and fellow science fiction writer and founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard.
Although he was a New Deal liberal throughout the 1930s, the threat of nuclear war galvanized Heinlein, pushing him toward an anti-communist right-wing elitism his critics have charged with bordering on fascism. Such themes are most clearly seen in his lesser-known treatises supporting American nuclear armament and in his more well-known Hugo Award winning 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.
Heinlein’s rightward turn did little to temper his promotion of sexually transgressive ideas. If anything, it reinforced the notion that sexual freedom should be protected as a private right. He lamented monogamy and monotheism as the two sacred cows of western civilization and continued to take aim at both in his novels. The culmination of such efforts was his 1961 novel Stanger in a Strange Land. The novel, which follows a human raised on Mars who returns to Earth and starts a church that rejects jealousy in lieu of ritualistic free love, took little time to become canonical within 1960s counterculture.
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Many within the counterculture opted out of politics. The anti-war movement tended to draw those who were politically inclined toward the New Left. But there were others, like university student Tim Zell, who believed sexual freedom and small government were linked. In 1967, Zell founded a neo-Pagan church in St. Louis modeled after Heinlein’s novel. Prior to that, Zell and his friends had been acolytes of Rand, and their early newsletters heckled campus socialists while promoting Barry Goldwater as the presidential candidate best suited to preserve American freedom. During the early 1970s Zell married Heinlein’s ideas with Randian libertarianism, producing a magazine, Green Egg, which set spiritualist appeals to cast off the restrictive bonds of monogamy alongside articles on anarcho-capitalism. In 1990, Zell’s wife, Morning Glory, would go on to coin the term “polyamorous” in the magazine’s pages.
Zell’s church was not the only Heinlein-influenced poly-precursor with conservative political leanings. Also influential was the Kerista Commune, which proliferated first in New York during the 1960s and then in San Francisco throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The commune is best known in poly circles as originating the concept of “polyfidelity,” the notion that intimacy between more than two people is acceptable if it remains within a closed group.
Keristans believed that sex and capitalism were both central to creating a global utopia. They thought if they could replicate financially successful clusters of polyfidelitous communes around the world, they could deter the emerging Third World from Soviet propaganda, thwarting the spread of communism. Calling themselves the “Hip Right,” they cut ties with anyone who questioned their shared devotion to capitalism and group marriage. Before it disbanded in 1991, the commune became the largest Apple computer dealer in Northern California, generating tens of millions in sales. Disaffected members later disseminated many of Kerista’s ideas into polyamory’s vocabulary.
The decisively conservative shift of the 1980s did much to halt the sexual revolution. Yet, it was within this conservative climate that disparate poly factions united. This predominately female-led coalition began publicly organizing, printing newsletters, planning conferences, and making media appearances.
But in doing so, they rejected outdated versions of 1960s free love as wanton hedonism. In its place, they learned to speak the language of Reagan, arguing that when rooted in commitment, ethical non-monogamy was not antithetical to family values. In fact, it centered the family, providing greater emotional and financial stability in an age increasingly marred by political and economic uncertainty. Or as Ryam Nearing, the co-founder of the influential polyamory non-profit Loving More argued in 1984, committed multi-partner relationships were identical to monogamous relationships in that they were characterized by the joys and trials of navigating careers, childrearing, spirituality, and asset sharing. What they offered that monogamy could not was “far greater economic security, and an increase in loving parents and role models.” For Nearing, ethical non-monogamy meant “intimacy without nuclear couple isolation, multiplicity without shallowness.” Furthermore, those truly committed to the freedom afforded by limited government had no basis to deny such unions.
The poly activists of the 1980s and early 1990s did not affect immediate change. It would not be until the turn of the 21st century that polyamory began receiving positive media attention. By then, however, two decades of culture wars had polarized American discourse and memory. But such polarization obscures the political diversity among polyamorists. It also obscures a more complex history of American sexual dissent, where one of the most radical notions of the sexual revolution was long championed by pro-capitalist, libertarian hippies.
Many polyamorists no longer focus narrowly on commitment. Though their relationships may be lifelong, they tend to rest their sexual ethics on ideals of honesty, open communication, and mutual respect. For many of these Americans, polyamory remains a private matter. Others believe polyamory is a civil rights issue. Echoing their forebearers, they claim that polyamory is not an assault on the American family, but rather a timely defense of it.
Christopher M. Gleason is the Academic Director for the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, part-time Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University, and author of American Poly: A History. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.