First, let’s get a few ground rules straight. The polyamorists I spoke with do not want to be seen as sex hungry monsters who swing from partner to partner. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of polyamory is the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time. So for clarity, we are talking about emotional and physical intimacy here, not just sex.
“Polyamory, Swinging, Open Marriages, Open Relationships, Monogamish and more all fall under the umbrella of non-monogamy but people who are polyamorous are more interested in the relationship and don’t just want to have sex with people,” says editor of the online magazine BlackandPoly.org, Crystal Farmer. “However, a lot poly people have sexual relationships while there are also people who don't have sexual relationships, who are asexual or don’t have a need for a sexual connection, but consider themselves polyamorous because they are in emotional relationships with other people.”
Are you following? This means you can be polyamorous through sexual relationships or non-sexual emotional relationships or, for most polyamorous people, something in between. The bottom line is that you don’t belong to just one person.
Crystal defines herself as "solo-poly." “I consider myself my primary partner,” she proclaims. Other than her 7-year-old daughter Crystal explains that she doesn’t want to live with someone again although she says she’s open to having relationships with men, women and gender non-binary individuals.
She was first introduced to the lifestyle by her ex-husband, who wanted an open marriage but asked her to maintain a "one penis policy." This means that he could bring other women into the partnership and she could have relationships with other females but men were off limits.
Author and speaker Kevin Patterson, founder of the blog PolyRoleModels.tumblr.com, has a very different point of view. He and his wife, who have been together for 16 years, have both maintained relationships with girlfriends and boyfriends with complete trust and transparency.
“I don’t believe in rules. Rules are about trying to wall off an insecurity,” Kevin told me. “When I’m triggered, it inspires me to ask where the insecurity is coming from.” He feels that his partners should all have autonomy.
In his forthcoming book, Love Is Not Color Blind, Kevin discusses what it is like being a Black polyamorous man just as he has done in speaking engagements around the country for years. Borrowing Mahershala Ali’s quote on the Black American experience, “We move through the world playing defense, we don’t have the capacity to play offense,” Kevin says he feels like he’s always defending the legitimacy of his marriage and his decision to be polyamorous to family, the church, and the Black community.
Denika, a 41-year-old polyamorous woman, also felt ostracized from her family and community for choosing to live her life in this way until she discovered the Black polyamorous community online.
A quick search of Meetup.com in my own city of Los Angeles yielded 19 options of polyamory groups to join. But just how diverse are these groups? Crystal, who is based just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, says that the groups she attends are predominantly white.
She is open to dating someone of a different culture but she admits that she feels more comfortable when there are other people of color in her poly groups.
In addition to meetup groups, OKCupid seems to be a popular date source for the non-monogamous.
“I am a happily married man in a polyamorous relationship” is the first line in Kevin’s dating profile. He finds it easier to date in circles where they already know about your lifestyle so you don’t have to "edu-date" a partner about how non-monogamy works.
Writer/director Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, 29, began using dating sites when she was new to the polyamory community but quickly found that her Blackness was exoticized among the couples on her polyamory dating site. She thought the first message she received, with the subject line “Ebony Seeking Ivory,” was an anomaly but when her inbox filled up with 200 similar messages, she retreated from the world of polyamory.
Although she still feels she is polyamorous, Alicia says in her essay “Diary of a Polyamorous Black Girl” that “white is the face of polyamory and has been for quite some time. It more than likely will remain that way. The face of the world is white – why wouldn’t the poly community be the same?”
Crystal sees there is more shame around polyamory in the African-American community because of our roots in Christianity and conservative values.
Denika recalls a time when her sister asked how her relationship with God played into her decision to be polyamorous. Denika sees intimacy and religion as two separate things yet that doesn’t stop her from noticing a look of disapproval when she tells people in the black community that she is polyamorous.
I turned to intimalogist Dr. Kat Smith to understand the psychology behind the polyamory movement. She sees it as a return to our evolutionary roots. “It goes to show how animalistic humans really are.” If you look at many animal packs, the leader is able to have sex with multiple females. “We are sexual beings first,” says Dr. Kat.
Her concern, however, is that women are ‘going rogue with sexuality.’ She warns, “It’s one thing to claim your freedom and sexual liberation. Another thing to put yourself in harms way by not respecting your body.”
Crystal was met with this sentiment so often that she wrote a blog about it for BlackandPoly.org. She wanted to make it safe for other people who feel like her. “I like having sex but that doesn’t mean that I’m compromising my values or putting my life in danger just for sex,” Crystal declares. “I’m a polyamorous person and I'm proud of it.”
Trust seems to be the highest priority among all the poly individuals I spoke to. Denika notes, “I need to be able to trust people. Sometimes it can be hurtful but I will be upfront with you so you’re not mislead in the end.” She clarifies that she doesn’t do hookups. “If all you want is sex then you need to be upfront with your intentions but don’t waste my time," Denika explains.
Is polyamory “right” for African-Americans? You will have to draw your own conclusion. What I can say is that the polyamorous people I spoke with all seemed happy with their decision to live life in this way. It’s evident from the growing popularity of sites like BlackandPoly.org and PolyRoleModels.tumblr.com that there is at least a curiosity and an openness to exploring non-traditional relationship options.
Denika’s advice is to “know yourself, explore your sexuality, intimacy, sense of self and be open to something different.”