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Not tonight, I'm screwing Lucy

Edited version published: Men's Style #33 (Winter 2009)

Anything that has to invent new words in order to explain itself should be viewed with suspicion. And interest. Suspicion because we’ve obviously made it this far without the word, why do we need it now? Interest because, well, there must be something going on here.

The word: polyamory. The meaning: having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time. Not to be confused with polygamy (so Mormon) swinging (so fifties), or sleeping around (so so), polyamory - also termed polyfidelity, or poly - is the new relationship buzzword, code for having your cake and eating it too.

Take Tom. Tom has been happily married to Cath for nine years, but spends two nights a week with Lucy, who is in turn married to Paul. Paul has been involved with Christina for eighteen months. Lucy is also in love with Martin, who doesn’t have another partner, but he’s happy to share Lucy. Paul and Lucy also occasionally sleep with a woman called Sandy. Sandy lives with her husband John, and husband and wife Ralph and Sarah. Both couples sleep together – in a group, and one on one. Meanwhile Cath is also ensconced in a lesbian relationship with Stella, who is in turn sleeping with Sarah. Tom and Cath and Paul and Lucy both have children. Everybody knows about everybody else, and that’s the way they like it.

If you think this looks like the work of an oversexed autistic genius with a knack for making simple things complicated, you’re not far off. In polyspeak, this is a geometric network. Cath is Tom’s primary; Lucy is his secondary. Together they form a vee. Paul and Lucy and Sandy are a triad. Christina is Paul’s tertiary, while Sandy and John and Sarah and Ralph are a quad.

Phew. If it’s this hard to lay out on paper, imagine what it’s like in practice. There are no hard and fast rules; polys resist definition in the same way they resist the confines of monogamy. But notions of choice, trust, equality of free will and compersion - another invented term meaning to take pleasure in knowing your partner is experiencing pleasure with another – are all central tenets of the trend.

There’s nothing essentially new here; we’ve been indulging in peccadilloes long before we stopped swinging from trees. We just haven’t been outspoken about it. Not since the Catholic Church and generation after generation of increasingly inbred European monarchies clamped a whopping great chastity belt around Europe’s curvaceous hips, anyway.

It’s clearly not just about sex – if it were that simple, swinging would be fashionable again. But we’re a few generations past the sexual revolution now. We can have sex with whoever we please, whenever we please. So what? The notion of sexual freedom is as washed up as Tina Turner. Love has everything to do with it. Love, and money.

Polyamory’s champions consider sexual rights a fundamental human right, and are pushing for the legal recognition of multiple relationships. “I have absolutely no legal status as being in a relationship with my female life-partner, although we have cohabited for seven years now,” Dr Gloria Brame (clinical sexologist, polyamorist, sadomasochist, author and all round kinkster) blogs. “She can't add her Master to her insurance policy as long as he is legally married to me.”

I’m torn. Is polyamory a serious attempt at creating a new model for living, or simply the latest craze for emotionally challenged commitment-phobes?

The cynically minded might consider the notions of one true love and happily ever after little more than social constructs proffered as the natural order of things by the megalomaniac master classes of times gone by. Whatever - we all know the stats. Despite our recent reversal back into the arms of marriage, it’s til divorce, not death, do us part. And it’s often one or the other partner’s wandering eye - not to mention other vital organs - that get the blame.

Why shouldn’t we love more than one person at once? Our capacity for giving and receiving and feeling love is arguably infinite – it’s the sharing that’s the challenge. Polyamorous bloggers all agree on one thing; if you think making one relationship work is tricky, managing two (plus) is even more complex.

They joke that while swingers have sex, polys have conversations, yet remain adamant that – jargon alert - the NRE (new relationship energy) generated by SWOP (sex with other people) is worth it.

Sounds palatable, but be warned; polyamory is not a pass for free fucking. It is a serious, if self indulgent attempt at a workable way to recognise, honour and express the shifting vectors of sexual and emotional desire men and women experience throughout a lifetime. Pass me a knife.