In recent years, Americans have become aware of an alternative relationship style called polyamory. According to the Oxford Dictionary, this word refers to “the practice, state, or ability of having more than one sexual, loving relationship at the same time, with the full consent and knowledge of the partners involved.” Here, then, are two examples of polyamorous behavior that made the news and drew public attention to the phenomenon.
In the fall of 2019, Katie Hill, then 32, a recently-elected Democratic congresswoman from California’s 25th District, openly bi-sexual, had to resign from office after just a few months. Why? She and her husband of 10 years, Kenny Heslep, had been part of a “throuple” relationship with a young female staffer. The trio had taken several vacations together, including a cruise to Alaska, during which Heslep took a photograph of Hill standing naked, while combining her female lover’s long hair.
Next, in the spring of 2021, singer/dancer Willow–daughter of openly polyamorous celebrities, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith—revealed, on an episode of her family’s podcast, “Red Table Talk,”—that she too had rejected monogamy. The 20-year-old star declared, “It’s about having the freedom to choose a relationship for yourself,” adding, “with polyamory I think the main foundation is the freedom to be able to create a relationship style that works for you and not just stumble into monogamy because that’s what everyone around you says is the right thing to do.”
Polyamory, which along with “swinging” and open relationships, is usually placed within the category of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), can be traced back to mid-19th century America. In 1848, John Humphrey Noyes, a utopian clergyman, founded a farming community at Oneida, in upstate New York. Noyes insisted upon the practice of “complex” marriage among his settlement’s 300 members, meaning that each man and woman were married to one another and expected to raise their children as part of a shared family.
The second wave of polyamorous coupling emerged during the early 1970s—the Sexual Revolution’s heyday—when a few California-based hippie communes started experimenting with free love. Examples would include the Sandstone Foundation in Los Angeles and the San Francisco- based Kerista Commune. The latter “operated on a shared parenthood, shared finances, chosen family model, with shifting consensual, group romantic and sexual relationships between the adults.”
Today, the history of polyamory has entered a new developmental phase because, as Britain’s Guardian newspaper explains, “the Internet makes it easier than ever for poly curious people to educate themselves about polyamory and connect with like-minded individuals.” Indeed, on the one hand, the Internet permits people questioning monogamy—but unsure how to proceed—to discover books specifically aimed at them, like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. Additionally, the ‘Net makes it very simple to find people looking for multi-partner relationships, thanks to websites like Ok Cupid, Meetup, and most notoriously, Feeld. Founded in 2014, and growing rapidly, the latter site, in its own words, “is on a mission to open up the future of human connection through normalizing sexual desire.”
Christian Sexual Ethics
At a later stage in this article, I will demonstrate that polyamorous conduct provides an unequalled threat to longstanding Christian teachings on marriage and family. To make that position intelligible, readers must know something about the faith’s traditional perspective on the appropriate management of human sexual activity.
First, based upon certain passages in the Old Testament’ Book of Genesis, the Church’s various branches, be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, have insisted that marriage is a divinely-sanctioned institution, not a merely human invention. And they have defined this sacred construct as “a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman as husband and wife,” which is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church,” as the “Nashville Statement” affirmed in 2017. From this Evangelical document’s viewpoint, although sex can be a legitimate source of pleasure between spouses, and unify them as “one flesh” (Genesis 2.24), its basic function should be “the procreation of new life, and the formation of families as the most basic building block of a stable and productive society.” Given these theological presuppositions, it can hardly be shocking that historic Christianity has “viewed all forms of sexual intimacy that occur outside the context of heterosexual marriage as sinful distortions of the holiness and beauty God intended,” to quote the Church of the Nazarene. This condemnation—supported by multiple texts in the Old and New Testaments alike (Genesis 38:24; Exodus 20:14; Hebrews 13: 4; Galatians 5:19; Matthew 19: 6)—leads to a simple conclusion: all pre- and extramarital intercourse should be viewed as an “abomination.”
Definitely Not Christian!
Polyamory’s “invitation to sin” cannot be reconciled with the vision of sexuality described above, that much is clear. But I would like to be even more bold: Polyamory presents the biggest threat to historic Christian teachings on sex, marriage, and family in the faith’s entire 2, 000 years. Let me commence this controversial claim by examining polyamorous culture’s alternative to the old-fashioned male-dominated nuclear family: the polycule. “It’s a broad term used to describe all the interconnected partners in the same polyamorous network,” as Cosmopolitan explains. “You do not need to be dating everyone in your polycule for them to still be a part of it. And there is also no limit to how large a polycule can grow.” Given this fluidity, polycules can be constructed in numerous, customized variants. But all of the permutations have something in common: they facilitate and celebrate non-monogamy. I cannot discuss the many polycules constructed around hierarchical polyamory, relationship anarchy, cuckolding, and solo polyamory, which would be extremely time-consuming. Instead, my discussion shall focus on the two best-known patterns, beginning with the triad or “throuple.”
Three and Four
One version of the triad is called “a vee.” In that configuration, a single partner, known as “the hinge,” engages in sexual activity with the other two, who may, or may not, be acquainted.” The uninvolved pair are described as “metamours,” a strikingly broad category that might include “your husband’s girlfriend or your boyfriend’s boyfriend,” jokes Cosmopolitan. In the second version of a triad, all of the partners share a carnal union, and perhaps the same home. Case in point: the current relationship of psychologist and self-help podcaster, Dr. Nicole LePera. In 2019, she and her wife/business partner, Lolly, began a professional relationship with a younger woman named Jenna. After working together for a while, the newcomer confessed her love for both of the women. Following that disclosure, Nicole and Lolly—who agreed that they both shared Jenna’s feelings—invited her to join them in “a loving, committed, three-person relationship.”
Another type of polyamory has entered the public imagination—the quad—which, obviously, refers to an arrangement with four participants. The number of potential “hook-ups” here is startling, to say the least. To provide a concrete example, the Guardian described a “four-person polycule” that comprised a thirty-year-old woman named Laura, along with three men: William, Mike, and Alex. She gushed that “I’ve been dating Mike for two years, and William for one year. I also have sex with Alex. And there are other people I may have sex with. It gives me a lot of happiness to see my partners together, like William and Mike for example.”
At this stage in the discussion, it should be obvious that polyamorous relationships per se—not just triads and quads—pose an existential threat to Christianity. They earn this dubious distinction by sanctioning multi-partner sex, often across gender boundaries, and shattering biblical prohibitions on adultery and fornication, while transforming the permanent “one flesh” union found in Genesis, into a temporary union of “multiple fleshes,” seeking to satisfy their lusts. And if this were not enough, polyamory also rejects the shame and secrecy traditionally associated with extramarital sex, wherein a “cheater” desperately conceals the evidence of his or her “sinful” deeds from everyone else in the community. Participants in a polycule are instead required to be open and transparent, a notion that leads to something called “kitchen table polyamory” or KTP. “Participants in kitchen table polyamory,” according to the noted poly website Loving More, “are expected, and in some cases, required to have a close, sibling-like relationship with their metamours or their partner’s partners.” They “should be able to sit around a kitchen table and feel comfortable together acting like a family.” Of course, to generations past, a family unit comprised of unmarried sexual partners sharing each other’s bodies, and proposing to rear their offspring under the same roof, would have looked like a devilish inversion of God’s plan for humanity’s wellbeing.
How, you may wonder, will this contest between two astonishingly different understandings of sexuality, marriage, and the family turn out? Here is my prognosis: absent a major religious revival that miraculously persuades the increasingly secular masses to embrace old-style Christian monogamy, polyamory shall emerge from the shadows to become a legitimate, mainstream variety of sexual expression and household formation. I base that prediction, in large part, upon the continued spread of three powerful cultural trends now permeating America (and the entire West), beginning with the sanctification of “choice.”
The Right to Choose
Our culture has become obsessed with “choice,” meaning the right to enjoy individual autonomy in all areas of existence. Thus, one can shop online for literally everything, watch television programming “on demand,” and instantaneously download every piece of music ever produced. This call for choice also applies to intimate relationships, a tendency that can be traced back to the 1960s. During that decade’s Sexual Revolution, Western nations commenced dismantling the foundations of monogamous lifelong marriage for the purpose of procreation. They accomplished that task by sanctioning easy divorce, use of contraceptives, access to abortion, and also destigmatizing pre-marital sex. Over the last two decades, building upon the Sexual Revolution’s quest for liberation, a once-despised lifestyle—homosexuality—has become an accepted component of the West’s daily life. One sexual option has, until now, remained taboo: “cheating.” The word suggests either betrayal of an unmarried partner, or more seriously, infidelity to a spouse. But what, we must ask, if the couple freely agrees to participate in non-monogamous mating and insist that only a large and changing supply of lovers can make them happy? If one values autonomy—rather than religious prohibitions—only one answer makes logical sense: their polyamorous relationship is a personal matter and should be recognized as a legitimate variety of sexual exploration.
What is my second reason for believing polyamory is unstoppable? Its advocates have begun employing the very tactics that recently brought equality to the LGBTIQ community. During the 1980s, gay rights activists linked their struggle to the larger societal campaign against discrimination on the basis of race and gender, claiming that sexual orientation, like the preceding categories, constituted an innate, unalterable characteristic. With remarkable haste, Western nations then repealed old legislation criminalizing same-sex intimacy and opened up marital rights to same-sex couples. Today, pro-poly activists are using the same playbook that served the gay community so well. In this spirit, Loving More, the polyamorous website, insisted that “polyamory is an orientation for many. Many people find monogamy simply does not work for them. Yes, people will try to conform and be monogamous, but much like a gay man in denial of who he is, marrying a woman, they often end up miserable.”The message is clear: grant equality to polyamorous folk, recognizing their multi-partner relationships and providing legal benefits to the spouses, lovers, and offspring residing within each unique polycule. Anything less, it is implied, constitutes discrimination on the basis of an unchangeable characteristic.
A third factor makes the spread of polyamory inevitable: young people are especially receptive to its basic premises. Increasingly secular, uninterested in religious precepts emphasizing the blessings of chastity, they are drawn by the potential benefits of non-monogamy. We can discern this mentality by looking at recent opinion polls. For example, a 2016 YouGov survey asked Americans to rate their preferred relationship type on a scale from “0”—”committed monogamy” to “6” or, “completely non-monogamous.” Only half (51%) of respondents under the age of 30 [Gen. X} said their ideal relationship centered on complete monogamy. Then in 2020, another survey of 1.300 Americans by the same firm, revealed that “about-one third (32%) of US adults say that their ‘ideal relationship’ is non-monogamous to some degree.” But most important for our purposes, YouGov found that “millennials (43%) are particularly likely to say that their ‘ideal relationship’ is non-monogamous.” Furthermore, among members of that age group who considered themselves to be “in a relationship,” 31% admitted to having an outside partner(s). Pollsters have detected a similar age-based trend in the UK. Thus, a 2020 survey of that nation by sexual wellness brand LELO revealed that “over a quarter of Brits (28%) would consider entering a polyamorous relationship. While 38% of 18-24-year-olds believed the idea of a polyamorous relationship would tick all their intimacy needs.”
By no means do I believe that monogamous marriages will disappear from the West altogether. A segment of the population, mainly those still amenable to Christianity’s moral teachings—or unable to overcome jealousy—will prefer that life-long and exclusive commitment. On the other hand, for those people influenced by the Sexual Revolution’s stress on complete agency in fleshly matters, polyamory will grant a “smorgasbord” of choices, a veritable “buffet table” of non-monogamous adventures. And these mainly secular individuals cannot be expected to resist their appetites on the basis of biblical texts unknown to them. So, looking to the future, I concur with sexologist Barry Smiler, who predicts that “polyamory will become just another mainstream choice, in the same way that once-edgy options like vegetarianism, jazz, or premarital cohabitation have become just another mainstream choice.”