Poly Philly: People all over the city are practicing ethical non-monogamy. What's that like?
There's a lot to take in and explore when it comes to being polyamorous. But what does that mean, and what's it like to actually do it?
This story is first in an occasional series on modern relationships in Philly we're calling Otherly Love.
From the front of the buzzing-with-energy events room of the airport Embassy Suites hotel, Robyn Trask instructs everyone to rise from their chairs and turn to their right.
It’s late February, freezing outside, and Trask, executive director of the Loving More nonprofit, tells the 200-plus polyamorous (or poly-interested, or poly-ally) people to get cozy.
Take the shoulders of the person in front of you, Trask instructs. The woman who is now behind me, Tori Sidenstricker, tells me I’ve got to play along, too. Prompted by Trask, she starts to massage me. Sidenstricker is simultaneously having her shoulders rubbed from behind by John Michael Neal, then one of her two male partners.
“Now say, ‘I appreciate you,’” Trask says. I’m at the end of my row; I have no shoulders to rub. I feel a degree of relief, and also very much like the outsider I am.
“I appreciate you,” the assembly echoes twice more. Once re-seated, three women sitting in front of me blissfully exchange kisses.
Soon, renowned polyamory writer, activist and educator Franklin Veaux will deliver the keynote address while wearing bunny ears.
“For those of us who can tell our stories, we are normalizing this,” Veaux says. “We are not monsters for doing this.”
Veaux implores, “We have to keep telling our stories.”
A few minutes prior, the group had been instructed to keep the PDA to a respectful minimum — no making out on the hotel lobby’s couches; please be fully clothed in the lobby — and some will soon change into fancier dress for the “Bohemian Nights”-themed Polyamory Dance Party. When I popped into the dance later on, the first song playing was “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” One guy had on shimmery harem pants.
So began the 10th annual Poly Living 2015 Philadelphia conference.
This year's conference, which Loving More hosts, kicked off at 3:30 p.m. with an "orientation circle" for newcomers. When I identified myself as a City Paper reporter, the response seemed positive — a few people in the circle smiled and nodded; the woman next to me immediately offered her hand to shake and said, "I'd love to talk to you."
The crowd was diverse: plenty of long, gray ponytails, stereotypical aging-hippie looks, socks with sandals; but also younger faces — gauged ears, tattoos — and a smattering of mom pantsuits and conservative wear. Every conceivable body type, style of dress and degree of attention to hair, makeup and hygiene was represented.
Thirty or so people went around the orientation circle saying things like:
“I was born poly.” “I have a monogamous body with a poly heart.” “I’m not sure if I want to identify as poly.”
During a sort of icebreaker activity, Trask told the attendees to stand if they related to a statement she said. Everyone then scrambled, musical chairs style, to a new seat: The last person standing had to come up with a new statement.
The statements ranged from those where only a couple people stood —
“I’m out [as poly] completely.” “I do tell people I’m poly as a pickup line.” [Laughs.] “I really don’t understand jealousy, I just don’t get it.”
— to those where most of the group leapt up:
“I’ve attempted to be in a poly relationship with completely monogamous people.” “I thought I was the only one [I knew] being poly.” “For me, poly is about the emotional connection.”
At that last one, pretty much everyone stood.
That’s the thing about polyamory: Its focus is typically on multi-partner, emotionally driven relationships, not just straight-up sex. But people in relationships have sex, so during this conference and in the poly community as a whole, most folks are hardly shy about expressing their enthusiasm for it.
Before Trask suggested the group get some rest that night (prompting an older gentleman who had earlier described himself as “The Geezer of Poly” to guffaw in a distinctly “yeah, right” manner), there were questions to answer and rules to discuss.
Trask explained that there were no clothing-optional workshops on the schedule this year.
One woman asked if she could wear rope bondage to the dance. (Yes, but with clothing underneath.)
Another woman asked if there was a dictionary of poly terms. (Yes. “The polyamory community is big on making up words,” Trask said, to laughs.)
The community leaders fervently emphasized consent: No hugging or touching someone without asking explicitly is the Golden Rule (shoulder rubs notwithstanding).
The brochure for the weekend — which includes a printout of Poly Bingo with squares like “B-day in March” and “Attended a Cuddle Party” — lists a “Love, Intimacy and Sacred Touch” workshop (“working in small groups, each person will have an opportunity to give and receive sacred touch,”) and a “Mandala Sacred Sex Puja” workshop (“combines the teachings of Taoist and Tantric Sacred Sexual practices to awaken the flow of sexual creative energy”), neither of which were open to media.
But beyond the touchy-feely workshops, the conference serves a distinct purpose — to help educate and connect a growing community. Poly Living conferences usually attract 130 to 180 people; last year brought in 175 and this year, 210 people from all over the country attended. Poly Living was actually founded in 2005 right here in Philly.
“Whether you’re monogamous or poly, we’re really not taught these skills to have really healthy relationships,” Trask says. “That’s why we do these conferences; we help people learn how to do this.”
From Friday to Sunday, there are workshops on the basics of poly (emotional issues, safe sex, common concerns); coming out; jealousy; poly parenting; ditching the “rules” of poly; abuse in poly; gender in poly, even a faith-based workshop taught by a minister.
So there’s a lot to take in and explore when it comes to being polyamorous. But what does that mean, and what’s it like to actually do it?
"Poly" terms 101: "Polygamy" refers to marriage among multiple spouses, male or female. "Polygyny" refers to a man with multiple wives. "Polyandry" refers to a woman with multiple husbands. Any of these situations could, theoretically, fall under the umbrella of "polyamory," which means, basically, "many loves," but polyamory itself doesn't imply marriage — it simply refers to loving or being emotionally or romantically involved with more than one person; polyamorous relationships are non-monogamous.
Polygamy and its forms are illegal in pretty much every western country. Bigamy — being married to two people at once — is a second-degree misdemeanor in Pennsylvania that carries a fine and up to two years of jail time.
Polyamory, though, is defined as ethical non-monogamy; that is, everyone knows about and is accepting of everyone else from the get-go, no matter how “serious” or emotionally invested the relationship.
And all those “everyone elses” can take part in a polyamorous relationship in myriad ways. The “ways” to be poly are practically limitless.
There is abundant vocabulary in the poly community for types of relationships and types of poly individuals, from how many people exist in the situation (triad, quad, sometimes “W” for five people, like the five points on the letter) to how they relate to others in the relationship (a primary/secondary relationship means the “primaries” are the partners whose relationship(s) supercede others in any number of ways; “secondaries” are relationships that might naturally be less life-entwined).
The scope of possibilities suggest the overarching theme of polyamory: that there really is no right or wrong way to do it. Some people consider a primary/secondary situation demeaning to secondary partners, and therefore don’t classify their partners in this manner, for instance; some people are “solo poly,” and don’t identify strongly as part of any couple, triad, etc. — they are “free agents” — while some poly relationships might have many more rules and boundaries than others.
My conference masseuse, Sidenstricker, and her partner Neal met on Tinder this past Thanksgiving. At the conference, they defined one another as the members of their “core” relationship — they were one another’s partners, but additionally, Sidenstricker had a boyfriend and Neal had a girlfriend; those people knew of each other, but hadn’t met. Neal called it a “couple-plus” model.
“This is the core, but then there’s this other, bigger relationship than us. We all pull together and root for each other even if we aren’t in the same room,” he says.
“There is such a level of communication,” Sidenstricker says. “Stuff you don’t want to relate to your partner or yourself, you have to. All we do is not be complacent.”
Later, she adds, “The sex itself is the easiest part of it all.”
“It’s the ‘-amory’ part that people fuck up,” Neal says.
Several weeks after the conference, Neal says he and Sidenstricker had recently ended their sexual relationship “wonderfully,” still remaining friends. He learned a lot about what he wanted from polyamory from that weekend. The “couple-plus” relationship thing wasn’t working for him anymore; he disliked the idea of a hierarchy, the “primary” and “secondary” terms.
“‘Primary and secondary’ never really sat right with me, and I didn’t understand why until that weekend,” Neal says. He believes hierarchical and strict rule-bound styles of polyamory can lead to partners’ feelings getting hurt more easily. Though Neal is still in a relationship with his partner Erica, he’s found a new way he wants to practice poly, thanks to a Poly Living workshop on “relationship anarchy.”
“It’s a setup without rules, there’s no restrictions, no, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” he says.
Some poly relationships can evolve into an anarchy model, says Phillip Weber, 30, one of the creators of the invite-only Facebook group, Polydelphia, which has 230 members, both poly people and allies.
Weber has six female partners in addition to Tiffany Adams, the partner he lives with in Bensalem. Adams has one female partner and three male partners. They each spend time with their other partners frequently — some once a week, some once a month. Weber might have three to five date nights in a week, but it’s flexible — he uses Google Docs and a Google calendar to keep everything straight. That’s common in poly, he says.
“It’s definitely like, ‘All right, this relationship is final because we’re sharing Google calendars,’” he says with a laugh.
Some of Adams’ partners date some of Weber’s partners. Adams doesn’t date any of the people Weber dates — but that’s not a “rule,” just how it is — that’s kind of what relationship anarchy is about.
Weber says his group of partners is “more free than a lot of people,” but for him, relationship anarchy is the closest definition of what they do:
“Everything is negotiable; relationships themselves aren’t more important than the people involved, and all relationships are one-to-one,” Weber explains. “If I start a relationship with Tiff’s boyfriend or girlfriend, that doesn’t give her [Tiff] any particular control over that relationship. … Third parties don’t control relationships.”
Weber says many in that group felt how Neal does — that a couple-plus model, a hierarchy, or a more rigid, exclusive poly relationship just isn’t right.
“When I told people [in the Polydelphia group] you had interviewed a couple with a primary/secondary hierarchy dynamic [Tori and John, at one point], they were all like, ‘Ughhh,’ because almost everyone starts off with some measure of that. … I think it really tends to die off unless there’s a pressing financial need, or child [-related] burdens. Even then, [after time] people tend to shrug off the primary/secondary, as far as I can tell,” Weber says.
He says that, for example, he can’t even think of a group of three people who exclusively date only each other, among all the poly people he knows.
“People had to be a lot more entrenched and careful about who knew [about their poly relationship] 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “So those [older] relationships are a lot more tight-knit and cellular.”
That’s another way of doing things. Trask and her partner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, board president of Loving More, are married, and at the conference Garcia said Trask was the only person he was deeply involved with at the time; Trask at the time talked about her two other long-distance partners, whom she calls her “sweeties.”
Weber says when he and Adams got into poly in 2010, “the social acceptability level was a lot higher.” He’s even told his bosses at his last two jobs — in fact, his current boss and his wife are poly, and Weber dates his boss’ wife.
Loving More’s Trask agrees that while there’s still a long road ahead, the social acceptability of poly is on the rise.
“It’s starting to [gain acceptance], but it’s slow,” she says.
It’s hard to get any real numbers on how many people are poly since so many people who are engaged in it aren’t out. A 2012 paper in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy reported that about 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. heterosexual population are “engaged in some form of consensual non-monogamy.” The key word here being heterosexual — that leaves out a lot of people.
But in Philly, there does seem to be an upward trend when investigating what’s going on in the space where so many poly people find and help each other — the Internet.
Four online groups I found for poly people had popped up in 2014 alone — Weber’s 230-strong Polydelphia group, along with three groups on Meetup.com: Greater Philly Alt. Lifestyle and Relationship Social Tribe (304 members), NY/NJ/PA Solo Poly & Relationships Anarchy (RA) Network (104 members) and Black & Poly Philadelphia (52 members).
Another Meetup that started in 2007, Philadelphia Mindful Polyamory Meetup Group, has 931 members, and the Phila. Polyamory and “Open” Relationships Discussion Group, started in 2010, has 390.
Elsewhere online, OkCupid, easily among the largest free dating sites, seems to be the site that’s embraced polyamory most wholeheartedly: When you choose what you’re “searching for” on the site, you can select people who are “non-monogamous.”
“The idea of the hard-and-fast boyfriend-and-girlfriend relationship among people sub-30 has completely disintegrated,” Neal says. “The hookup culture, the Tinder culture, so many people have open relationships, ‘no strings attached,’ ‘friends with benefits’ or
whatever. It’s a different environment now.”
Victoria Powell, 22, is among the members of the Philadelphia Mindful Polyamory Meetup Group. She also attended Poly Living this year and last.
She says that right now, she is focusing on "solo polyamory," but relationship anarchy is something she'd like to continue learning more about and practicing in her relationships.
Franklin Veaux (the Poly Living keynote speaker), defines "solo polyamory" on his website as:
An approach to polyamory that emphasizes agency and does not seek to engage in relationships that are tightly couple-centric. People who identify as solo poly emphasize autonomy, the freedom to choose their own relationships without seeking permission from others, and flexibility in the form their relationships take. Such people generally don't want or need relationships that look like traditional couples, and may not, for example, seek to live with a partner (or partners) or combine finances with a partner (or partners).
And psychologist Sandy Peace writes that solo poly is different from the typical notion of "dating" because of "the honesty and consent factors," the same factors that play into all poly relationships. In solo poly, Peace writes, you tell everyone you're dating about everyone else you're dating. Again, this poly relationship style can mean different things to different people.
I asked Powell what solo poly meant to her.
"You can't love someone else if you don't love yourself first. I want to get myself out of any patterns of thinking that my happiness is derived from 'one' other person. I know that partners can enhance my happiness, but I am trying to work on cultivating my inner peace and happiness," she says.
How does marriage play into polyamory?
About 20 to 30 percent of the people who join Weber’s Polydelphia group are married, he says.
Kevin, 32, and his wife, Antoinette, 36, are among them. The married couple of eight years lives in Chester, and Kevin has three girlfriends in addition to Antoinette, who is dating four other men. He describes their polyamory as “relationship anarchy” as well. He says he and his wife got into poly pretty naturally.
“Soon after we started dating, [we] stumbled into a group-sex situation, and it kicked off lots of long conversations about the status of our relationship. We decided mutually that exclusivity and monogamy weren’t that important to us. After hovering around ‘open’ and ‘swinging,’ we decided that stable, lasting relationships were more our style,” he says.
He believes being married is beneficial to his style of polyamory.
“One of my girlfriends is married and poly. One of my wife’s guys is the same. It changes the style in that there always feels like a safety net or a home base,” he says. “I understand that this delves into ‘couple privilege,’ but it feels good to know that someone is always there to support your failures and celebrate your successes. I won’t apologize for that.”
But there may be conflicting ideas over whether poly people want to fight for the right to get married, if they’re not already hitched when they enter the community.
Neal believes poly marriage could be a growing civil rights issue — that just as he says it’s “wrong” to say two gay people can’t get married, it’s “wrong” to say more than two people can’t.
“Let’s say we’re together for 20 years,” he says of two potential partners. “We want to get married, and I have to choose one of them?” That’s unfair, he says.
Weber says, though, that there’s less of a tendency for polyamorous people to want to get married because they “trust more in personal negotiations.”
“It kind of feels like every time you bring on a new partner, you’re writing your own vows,” he says. “You have to define it yourself.”
Polyamory, no matter what form it takes, is a relationship, and relationships inherently have issues.
"Things that are problems in monogamous relationships are also problems in poly relationships," Neal says at the conference.
Jealousy happens in poly relationships too, says Melissa Dessereau, a marriage and family therapist at Philadelphia Institute for Individual, Relational & Sex Therapy. She's been working with polyamorous people for a few years, and helps them work through things like developing a relationship "contract," coming out, communication and boundaries.
Dessereau also believes poly and monogamous relationships have similar problems.
“I don’t actually think the issues are particularly different — they’re communication issues, intimacy issues, issues around feeling connected to their partner. Those are all really universal issues that human beings have,” she says.
Many polyamorous people, she believes, attempt to look at jealousy in a way that doesn’t place the onus on their partner or partners.
“It’s their feeling,” she says. “Jealousy might be coming from a place of insecurity, … of possessiveness. … It could be coming from a place of feeling excluded or left out.”
In poly, she says, jealousy is “framed as ‘this thing that happens, it’s my responsibility as the jealous person to take care of myself around it, and understanding that it’s not necessarily up to my partner to alter their behavior.’”
Trask spoke about jealousy at the conference.
“Jealousy’s not about him [her partner Garcia], it’s not about what he’s doing. It’s about me, about my insecurity, and what I have to learn to do is sit with it, look at it and learn what it’s teaching me.”
“Starting poly is like dating as a teenager,” she says. “We had angst and jealousy and, ‘Oh my God, am I not good enough?”
Poly people can attain a feeling called “compersion,” a word created by the community that essentially means taking pleasure in someone else’s pleasure. Trask and Garcia talked about this at the conference.
“She’s going on vacation [soon] with her other sweetie,” Garcia says. “I am ecstatic that she gets to go on vacation with him.”
Weber says that when he and Adams started practicing poly, one of the most difficult things for him to come to terms with was that she could go out and find someone better.
“My relationship with Tiff wasn’t going to be guaranteed — there is no ‘I’ve got this person locked down,’” he says.
But having someone truly “locked down” isn’t a guarantee in any relationship —monogamy and polyamory have that in common.
“We choose to stay together, and that’s all there is holding us together. Tiff wrote a song about it, actually,” Weber says. She’s in the local band Cicada Jade. “One of the lines is, ‘Every day, I choose to stay.’”
A freer and less rigid approach to poly, though, still maintains its core values — trust and communication.
“I can only do as much poly stuff as I do because I trust my partners and their partners to communicate when things are going wrong, before they go wrong,” Weber says.
I asked Weber if he thought polyamorous people are happier than monogamous people.
“A lot of happiness is prevalent in the poly community, and in the monogamous relationships that exercise the same skills, like consideration and thoughtfulness,” he says. “On average, I see a lot of happier poly people, but I think it’s just a matter of skills, it’s not necessarily built into the relationship structure.”
A challenge of monogamy, he says, is that there are just assumed rules and agreements, “the cookie-cutter, romantic-comedy version” of relationships, that couples implicitly agree to without talking about. That doesn’t happen in poly.
“The worst feeling is the idea that someone will hit you with, ‘’If you’re dating two people you can’t love them equally or the same amount you could love one person,’” Weber says. “That’s basically the challenge that I find, this idea of scarcity. The healthiest way for poly people to look at it is the only truly scarce resource you have is time.”
Dessereau shares that sentiment.
“There is a belief in our culture that we only have a finite amount of love,” she says. “But if you ask any parent of multiple children, they know … ‘Well, I love them all.’”
“The more love you have in your life, the more love you have to give,” she continues. “It’s kind of remarkable.”