Why Pop Culture (and ‘Say Yes to the Dress’) are Going Wild for Polyamory

Hey everyone, a relic of barbarism is making a comeback!

If the reference is lost on you, I am referring to an expression from the mid-1800s, when the Republican Party was established to replace the Whigs on the platform of eradicating what party leaders like Abraham Lincoln coined “the twin relics of barbarism.” The first of those relics was polygamy, seen as a system that was fundamentally oppressive to one of the two sexes: women. Bigamy was formally abolished under the Lincoln’s presidency.

And yet, 155 years later, the concept is creeping back into the mainstream, with popular culture blowing wind in its sails.

Just this week, People magazine informed readers that the popular bridal show, Say Yes to the Dress, would be featuring its first-ever polyamorous fitting. “Say Yes to the Dress Sneak Peek: Inside Kleinfeld’s First Polygamous Bridal Fitting,” read the headline. The article casually discusses the first “throuple” to be featured on the show and what it means to dress two women for a “polygamous wedding.”

The whole thing is framed as edgy and fresh, but in fact it’s just the latest bit of pop culture news I’ve read treating polyamory like it isn’t something backwards, straight out of the eighteenth century. We should have seen this all coming with the smash-hit “Big Love,” but at least that show tried to show the moral complexities of the issue. Today we have cultural polyamory in abundance. Showtime has a series called Polyamory, a show called You Me Her is billed as the first-ever “polyromantic comedy,” and TLC is still running episodes of Sister Wives.

Apart from television, I read almost weekly some sort of article about the rise of polyamory in the modern era. The Atlantic informs me that dating website “OkCupid Adds a Feature for the Polyamrous.” Refinery29.com nonchalantly runs a story entitled, “My Boyfriend & I Got a Girlfriend – & This is What Happened.” The opening paragraph says, “In the polyamorous world, there is a special term for the third person in a relationship. She (and it is usually a she) is called a ‘unicorn.’ She is rare, beautiful, and hard to track down. And if you can catch her, she will bring magic into your relationship.” The BBC tells me, “Polyamorous relationships may be the future of love.” “Love doesn’t just come in pairs. Is it time that marriage laws come to recognise the fact?” the article asks.

You might be reading this and asking yourself, “What the what?” 

But this has been coming down the pike for years. Plenty of us were mocked for asking questions about where it all stops if we start redefining marriage. And yet here we are in 2017, and polygamy is making a comeback. In the midst of a quick Facebook check while writing this piece, an article on the Institute for Family studies blog analyzing a recent study on rising acceptance for non-monogamous marriages scrolled through my feed. I clicked over to the study itself, the abstract of which claims, “These data call out for greater attention to both the social mediation of Giddens’s detraditionalization thesis and a more nuanced concept of marital fidelity than a simple binary axis of ‘monogamous/nonmonogamous’ permits.”

But what happens to women in a world where we scrap the “binary axis” of monogamy? Women suffer, that’s what. Nobody is asking for a show called “Brother Husbands.” Nine of ten pictures for polyamory involve one man with multiple women. The other one in ten is usually just a crowd of people. Men may sleep around, but they don’t tolerate the degradation of being a part of a modern male harem, nor have they ever, really. Polygamy uniquely subjugates one sex; it’s like an institutionalized form of the hookup culture—with women on call for male pleasure, just with some boundaries and a relationship status. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood’s big wigs from putting bigamy on the big screen like it’s NBD, no big deal.

Hey 2017, 1850 called and wants its barbarism back.

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  • Randy Richards

    I cannot disagree more. For several decades I’ve been in a polyamorous family. While it’s true that I have two wives, one of my wives has another husband, and the other one has two boyfriends. It could hardly be labeled as a sexist or misogynist practice. Like anything else, they’re always going to be people that abuse relationships, and that includes polygamy or polyandry. The thing that makes polyamory different, is that it includes men AND women as egalitarian decision-makers on the dynamics of their relationships.

    • John Doman

      So both men AND women can lead shallow, pleasure-based lives without the curse of deep and abiding love. yaaaaaaay.

      • Randy Richards

        Pleasure filled? You must be referring to some other kind of polyamory. The only difference between monogamy and polyamory, is there is more laundry and homework.

      • Rose Hagalaz

        Deep and abiding love is devoid of pleasure? You’re not making a very strong case here.

  • footnotegirl

    You are very seriously making a mistake when you liken polygamy (of the fundamentalist mormon/religious multiple wives variety) and polyamory in general. Traditional polygamy is ABSOLUTELY bad for women, and used as part of a patriarchal society to keep women unequal and young men desperate. Generally speaking, in polygamous societies, women are taught from birth that their DUTY is to be part of a multiple marriage, and they are married off without much if any respect to their wishes while still young. Women in these societies are never allowed to be openly bisexual, and even suggesting that what is good for the gander is good for the goose will bring swift negative response.
    In modern polyamory, generally, the decision to be non-monogamous is made by all members of the relationship, and people who decide to be non-monogamous are actually making a decision against what they have been brought up to believe is their natural duty. Woman are as likely as men to have multiple partners. (Actually, anecdotally speaking, most people who enter polyamory find that women have far more luck finding partners than men). I really don’t know what kind of polyamorous people you are hanging around in, but in my social milieu at least 50% of relationships are poly and the ‘one man with multiple women all sleeping only with him’ set up is… unheard of. Also, it may shock the author, but there are, in fact, polyamorous lesbians.
    Sometimes, what appears on television, even ‘reality’ television, is actually quite different from reality. I thought most adults were aware of this phenomenon.

    • John Doman

      Whether it’s men in charge or women in charge, all of these kinds of relationships are inherently shallow. There is no room for deep and abiding love in such an arrangement – because that kind of love yearns for exclusivity.
      And by the way – no religion commands polygamy. It is merely permitted, and then only in fundamentalist Mormonism and Islam.

      • Rose Hagalaz

        Just because you are not wired to love more than one person doesn’t mean it’s impossible for everyone. You can cry all day about how it must be “shallow” but you have no way of knowing that because you are only one person and you aren’t in our hearts and minds. No one is forcing you to do polyamory. Why do you feel a need to degrade us (the very thing you claim to be worried about within our relationships) just because we are different from you? Does this affect you somehow?

  • Unmutual One

    And the sickos come out of the woodwork to defend their barbaric practices. What a shock.

    • Ken Breadner

      Please explain how multiple loving, committed relationships with the knowledge and consent of all informed is barbaric. This ought to be good.

      • John Doman

        Because it replaces true love that seeks the good of your partner with selfish love that seeks the good of yourself. Because it places pursuit of pleasure above pursuit of the well-being of another person. Because the only kind of love that can survive in this relationship is shallow, hardly worthy of the term love at all. Once love deepens, it becomes exclusive and jealous. That kind of love cannot exist within a polygamous relationship. It will either be suppressed, or it will destroy the relationship(s). Once a human claims another human as exclusively theirs, polyamory can’t exist.

        • Randy Richards

          OK troll… That is so messed up. Since when did jealousy, one of the seven deadly sins, become a positive thing ? Glad to hear you’re recommending dysfunction for relationships.

        • Rose Hagalaz

          Well, maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree. You think polyamory is shallow. I think that indulging jealousy and control is toxic and dangerous. I think jealousy is more a sign of insecurity than love. I think jealousy that isn’t processed and handled ethically is antithetical to real love.

  • Personal autonomy is the god of our age. This was inevitable.

  • Thomas Horan

    The word you are looking for is “pimpin”

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  • Rose Hagalaz

    I’m gonna have to disagree with this article. I’m a polyamorous woman, and any time my male partners have had more partners than me, it has been by my own choice, because I’m busy. Oh, and they mostly seem to enjoy one another and like hanging out together.

    • John Doman

      Sounds like you’re in a relationship with some shallow men.

      • Randy Richards

        It’s called COMPERSION. Google it. I’ll wait…

      • Rose Hagalaz

        If shallow is what they are then shallow must be a good quality. They treat me with far more respect, and they actually know how to communicate, which was not a thing many of my exes are good at.

        But kept casting aspersions just because you’re uncomfortable.

  • Lola

    It might be useful for you, the author, to be very certain of your terminology. A cursory look at current social science literature will unambiguously reveal the definitions of the two words you so easily conflate.

    Polygamy is, as you note, an 1800’s practice that was (and still is) very oppressive in it’s hierarchical nature, with women often being at the receiving end of some not good behavior. It is generally strongly based on religion and demands religious adherence to it’s members.

    Polyamory, on the other hand, is very different, being both very recent in origin, not religiously based at all (although doubtless some of its adherents inhere religion in their lives) and based fundamentally on the idea of equality at both a gender and practiced level. Openness and transparency are an essential and integral part of polyamory, which contrasts with polygamy as a male-centered “head of household” practice more often than not giving the male freedom to control information.

    Regardless of how you might feel about either practice, it seems to me that being crystal clear about what words mean is axiomatic in journalism, no? Or perhaps your approach is not intended to be journalistic?

    • John Doman

      Polygamy was never based on religion. That is not true.
      If religions COMMANDED polygamy – and none do, not even Islam – then it would be religion-based.
      The worst you can say is that certain religions PERMITTED polygamy. And those would be Islam and Mormonism.
      Also, human sexual dynamics are going to inevitably make male-centered polygamy more of a numerous occurrence than female-centered polyamory. Men can’t get pregnant. Women can. Therefore men have more independence in sexual relationships. This is built into our biology.
      Finally – regardless of whether it’s male-centered or female-centered, polygamy/polyamory always involves less love, not more. Instead of a dedicated love and commitment to one person, you have halved loved, quartered love, based on selfish desire and pleasure, not the good of the other. this kind of love always involves demeaning and degrading your partner. How could it not?

      • Rose Hagalaz

        Because it isn’t degrading. Honestly, it’s far less degrading than a relationship that doesn’t trust me to make my own choices with my own time and body. We are free to choose, and we keep coming back to one another. I know people that have been in fairly stable poly relationships for decades. It’s certainly not for everyone (and it sounds like it isn’t for you) but for those of us who align with it, it’s wonderful.

        It also certainly doesn’t feel degrading when I have a problem with something and my partner’s other partner is there to give me a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Or when I help them build work skills. It doesn’t feel degrading to see the respect and affection my partners show each other, and the way they help build me up and help me grow.

  • Will

    Once contraception is recognized as acceptable, the whole Christian sexual paradigm begins to unravel. Same-sex marriage and Polyamory are inevitable in a culture that not just accepts, but enthusiastically promotes a contraceptive mentality. Nobody wants to face these facts. They are a “hard teaching”. Try to promote today the quaint notions regarding contraception and masturbation previously held in our culture. You’d have a better reception to lighting-up a cigarette at the gym.

  • Ken Breadner

    It’s patently obvious that this article was written without actually researching polyamory.
    If you research polyamory, you will find that females wield MUCH more power than straight males. A sizeable proportion of poly households consist of a woman and two men; another chunk is comprised of two couples. I myself live with my wife and her other partner, who is a wonderful man. Nobody is trying to recruit you, any more than the gays are trying to recruit you. Live and let love, people.

    • John Doman

      Kids who live with these relationships will suffer.

      • Rose Hagalaz

        Not according to the first research done on it.

  • chantel shepherd

    I am polyamorous. to me that means having multiple loving, romantic relationships, based on honesty and good communication. Love does not divide. it only expands. i can have multiple fulfilling loving Committed relationships, as can my partners based on their wants and needs. no one is degrading me, i am free to make my own choices for myself

  • truelove700

    Whenever we adults play games with our sexuality and our marital-norms CHILDREN ALWAYS GET HURT. Self harm is constantly on the rise, as are deaths from drug overdoses, as is single parenting, as are prison rates, as is alcohol abuse, as issssss….. You cannot play with love and sexuality like it is a game and expect many people not to get hurt. And those who don’t play the games end up having to pay for all those who end up getting hurt. The rise in polyamory WILL lead to a call for Polygamy to be legalised and MANY men will force their wives to accept a second wife into their homes. Jealousy, anger and abuse WILL be the outcome. AND those who don’t play the games, will end up paying the bills. NO society EVER has survived when they have left their marital norms. EVER. Acting as if this is all free will, and responsible choice – does nothing to stop the Wider negative social outcomes that everyone else has to deal with.