There's a new book out called The Polyamorists Next Door by academic and sometime polyamorist Elisabeth Sheff, which explores the complexities of multi-partner sex and living arrangements in our oh-so-modern times. And, naturally, it was researched in part in San Francisco.
Sheff explores the world of polys, as she abbreviates them, via ethnographies of several hundred people whom she interviewed in three waves over 15 years, sometimes multiple times, in the SF Bay Area, Boulder, Atlanta and elsewhere. As she explains, the poly community is, by and large, white and affluent. As she tells the HuffPo in a new interview:
Once I studied kinky people and saw mostly white folks at their gatherings (even in Atlanta, which is far more diverse than any place in Colorado) I wondered what was going on. ...We decided that social privilege makes it safer to be openly sexually unconventional. There are most likely people of color and working class people who have kinky sex or multiple partners, but either they don’t identify as kinky or poly, or they don’t want to participate in research with white people who might judge them or get outed and lose their jobs, housing, kids, or support from family and other community members.
She says that by far the most common arrangement she found was open male-female couples, with each partner dating someone else on the side. Triads, quads, and more complicated communal arrangements are still pretty rare, but she explores those as well. And as she says, the more complicated the arrangement, the more communication and negotiation that has to occur. "Non-polys would be surprised to find out how much of the poly relationship depends on communication and emotional connection, and how little of it actually revolves around sex."
I gotta say, the potential for drama, and all the forced openness, about everything, just sounds exhausting. And if you're not even able to have illicit sex, is it even hot? Especially when you all have to sit down all the time and talk about STD test results?
Safer sex agreements mean that fluid transfer is assumed to be taboo unless explicitly negotiated otherwise. Polys routinely use condoms for fluid-producing sex, and have other kinds of sex that does not involve fluid transfer. They also tend to get tested for STIs and share their results in group “show and tell” so everyone knows what everyone else has and sees those people in person to get the sense that they hold the collective health of the group in their hands. This spreads responsibility and empathy.
And yes, she says, there's plenty of jealousy too, even though she was surprised to observe some poly people who appeared, genuinely, not to have any real capacity for jealousy. "[But] inevitably someone breaks a rule (has sex in a position that is supposed to be special/saved for the primary [partner], goes to a place with a date that is supposed to be sacred to the primary, something like that) and the shit hits the fan."
How many polyamorous people do you know in San Francisco? We all know at a least a couple, right? Anyhow, a book like The Polyamorists Next Door seems particularly fitting here since, unlike in many parts of the country, there really probably are some next door.