Keep Them Coming: Polyamory in the pandemic
Chances are if you’re a loyal Pitch reader, you’ve heard of polyamory—and if not that’s okay, too. While there’s increasing awareness around polyamory because of pop culture, it’s not often monogamous folks have exposure to couples in the lifestyle. 6.5% of people report knowing someone (Moors, Gesselman, and Garcia March 2021) who was or is practicing some form of consensual non-monogamy. That makes sense, because about 4-5% of our population is currently in a CNM, or consensual nonmanogamous, relationship (Rubin et al, 2014).
Polyamory is often differentiated from open or swinging relationships in that the former involves emotional connections while open dating/swinging is primarily about sexual connections. All three fall under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy. The study published in March 2021 by Moors et al found 17% of single Americans want or are interested in a polyamorous relationship. As a Certified Sex Coach and Clinical Sexologist, I know that there’s a growing curiosity about polyamory. This may be especially true for people who lie in the middle of the Kinsey Scale, a chart that measures your sexual orientation and its changes over time.
I was curious how COVID-19 has affected polyamorous people’s choices, lifestyles, and options beyond what I see in the office. Were polycules—that is, a group of people connected through a consensually non-monogamous relationship—stable or fragile because of all the time together during quarantine? Had they adjusted and found their footing? Are they dating safely or causing the virus to spread? I had conversations with some poly individuals to find answers.
Turns out, the pandemic has given many folks a chance to explore poly relationships while being surprisingly safe.
Sara “Miss Conception” Glass is an activist and artist originally from Kansas City who has lived in a nudist colony for over a year now. She had experience with a few poly relationships in the past, and at the beginning of 2020, she decided she was ready to dive in and see if she and her guy could make it work for them. It was primarily her task to find suitable partners, and her location easily lent to meeting like-minded potential partners.
Glass says she, her primary partner, and the other partners involved had open discussions about who they’d been around to protect everyone’s safety. There was very open communication about testing for STIs and COVID before interacting with new partners during quarantine and since.
While that relationship didn’t work out and she’s currently single, she feels her experiences have provided important lessons about transparent conversations, beyond diseases and safety. She’s skipping the apps for now—“Bumble has been a miss,” says Glass—and she’s still only focused on seeing who she meets in person. I mean, she does live in a nudist colony!
[Editorial Note: Names in some of the following sections are replaced with letters to protect individuals’ identities.]
J and his wife E had been dating another couple, C and L, for a year when lockdown started. They have kids, and had already been gradually explaining polyamory to them long before March 2020. With J and E’s kids, the two couples had family dinners and mini-vacations. C and L even purchased a house closer to J and E pre-pandemic.
“[The kids] knew something was going on,” J says. “‘One said, ‘Dad’s taking a nap with C! What’s going on?’” After J explained to the kids that “you can love more than one person at a time and it doesn’t diminish your love for someone else,” they were all on board. They made the decision to move into one house, keeping the other as a sanctuary for date nights. This type of polyamorous relationship is called a “kitchen table structure,” meaning they operate as one big family with all adults taking on parenting and household duties.
For long-term polycules, the pandemic certainly has had ramifications.
Ray Margo is a long-term practitioner of polyamory and owner of SinsualSteel, a business that makes quality and affordable BDSM implements. He lives in Kansas City with his two nesting partners—meaning partners he shares a home with—while maintaining a long-distance relationship, as well.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on Margo and his long-distance girlfriend of 10 years. She lives in Iowa and they usually saw each other on the road at conventions like Kinky College, or places he was selling SinsualSteel products. She’s now taking time to come stay with Margo and his two nesting partners on weekends, instead.
At the same time, this time hasn’t been easy for those in Margo’s household, either. One of his nesting partners and Margo himself have struggled with the lack of access to communities they had traditionally relied on for support and socialization.
“We’re fairly social people,” Margo says about his and his nesting partner’s relationship. “There was no dungeon to go to, no meetups. Being locked in and everything, it can be really stressful.”
One friend of mine, B, describes her marriage as “monogamish.” Her long-term partner was a good match in ways, but after last spring, the intensity of being at home made her think deeply about her relationships and what she wanted for a marriage in the long run.
“It made it hard to spend time with Side Guy,” says B. “The kids were home, I couldn’t leave. There was no stopping by after a work meeting.” After reflecting on what didn’t feel right about her secondary relationship, B ended it with her boyfriend, and her primary relationship is currently thriving.
“When I had the spaciousness of the pandemic and lots of time to think and reflect, I realized I was trying to find something somewhere else that I wasn’t creating at home,” B says. “I could be giving my energy to my partner.”
Mark Athens is a local kink educator from the leather community who teaches fire play and is part of a polycule. Pre-pandemic, they played regularly with other partners. When quarantine began, they closed their polycule and have kept it that way since.
Everyone in Athens’ polycule, including his partner Puppy and Athens’ owned—a term which denotes a 24/7 Master/slave relationship—are all essential workers. They said that if ever there was a time to truly gauge if polyamory was right for them, it’s now.
The pandemic has made them realize they have to operate as a team to keep the household going. Planning every detail out, even which person would snag a pack of toilet paper after work, became crucial.
“Poly culture has this rep as being hook-ups, but people don’t see the teamwork,” Athens points out. Puppy agrees, sharing that, “The pandemic showed us that there is nothing we can’t do together.”
I like to think about life in terms of continuums and spectrums. Most things aren’t binary or all-or-nothing. What I heard from people across the relationship style spectrum is that the last year and a half has given them gifts in unexpected ways. Priorities rose to the surface no matter what their relationship structure was. Polyamory, like any style of dating, works for some and doesn’t for others—it’s a strong and healthy model for raising kids, running a family, and exploring your preferences. And for those looking to expand their love lives with polyamory in this second wave of the pandemic, take it from these folks: You can hold so much love in your heart and spread it around without causing the spread of COVID.
Don’t forget to exercise, meditate, and masturbate! —XOXO Kristen