Polyamory is prevalent; when will UK law catch up?

Many people are curious about my polyamorous lifestyle. Time management and how I do it. Methods I’ve used to manage relations with people who have different preferences. How I manage to get anything done among rumours of wild parties full of group sex and opium dens. However, to address the most common concern, I must admit that I occasionally have feelings of envy.

As I should make clear, I am not speaking of my business partners. Or any of their partners, who are all probably too busy worrying about how many sweaters to wear this winter because it’s so cold to worry about who left theirs in the laundry. What I really covet, though, are the legal safeguards and societal acknowledgement that have not yet been extended to organisations like mine. or any number of alternative residential settings that don’t look like a family portrait from the ’50s. Even then, they seemed far-fetched, but in retrospect, they seem horribly dated.

Still, viewing ethical non-monogamy (ENM) and polyamory as novel relationship patterns is, in most cases, to look at world history backwards. Less than five percent of mammal species on Earth engage in monogamy (and those animals that do mate for life, like swans, are rarely sexually exclusive to their chosen partners), and the “monogamy” practised by humans often entails several partners, which may surprise some. They are just dispersed in time or hidden away in illicit relationships.

The UK Polyamorous Association (UKPA) was recently founded by Giulia Smith because she felt the polyamorous and ENM communities lacked representation and she wanted to help those who are marginalised because of their relationships.

From their Bristol apartment, Smith informs me, “Basically, polyamory isn’t recognised by the law in the UK.” Harassment is a prevalent problem, since polyamorous people are sometimes subjected to verbal abuse, accusations of immoral or unethical behaviour, and social isolation. That can have repercussions in many areas of one’s life, including increased loneliness. As a result, polyamorous people may be less likely to come out in public about their relationships. Smith elaborates, “the dread of coming out is significant.”

Where do we start to combat that stereotype? Smith, as a member of the UKPA, seeks to do more than just advocate for those who are discriminated against in the present; she also wants to provide training and education within major institutions to help bring about a better, more inclusive future. Some examples of such places are schools, where sex education does not yet cover polyamory, health clinics, and shelters for victims of domestic violence. There are pressing concerns, but completing the project will require fighting on numerous fronts.

They state, “We believe there are two critical policies that need updating.” In the first place, we have family law. My view is that the day when couples can legally marry multiple people is very far in the future. Civil unions are the most common first step. But first, we must secure formal recognition under the Equality Act. Employment law, property law, healthcare law, and harassment legislation would all be seen in a more positive light as a result. This wouldn’t immediately lead to new laws being passed in these areas, but it would be a start.

American polyamory expert and author Dr. Elisabeth Sheff concurs. She calls me from upstate New York and says, “Those two [policies] are the most critical.” It’s not just child support and visitation that would fall within the purview of family law; it would also include issues like dividing up retirement funds. Not such a big concern in the UK, but in the US, where healthcare coverage is severely lacking, being able to insure several spouses can make a world of a difference.

Like the United Kingdom, the United States has a “very unstable” employment law that is supposed to protect minorities, but Sheff says it is “extremely shaky” even when it works. That includes more overt manifestations of bias as well. “Theoretically we have protection around issues of race and gender,” she explains. “But in reality, many businesses are what are known as ‘at-will’ employers, which means they can dismiss you for any reason at any time. If they don’t enjoy working with you, they can fire you. In the United States, polyamorous people face high rates of unemployment.

Even more so when you consider that only roughly 17% of human civilizations practise rigid monogamy. Of course, that doesn’t mean the remaining 83% are all advocates of ethical non-monogamy. Laws do exist in the world concerning multiple partners; in 2020, polygamy was decriminalised in Utah, primarily with regard to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. However, the common denominator is patriarchal households where men take multiple wives. Abusive behaviour of various kinds has a long and storied history in these communities.

Having connections with others beyond our sex partners is a fundamental human need that is often not fulfilled, even by religious institutions.

It appears that the loss of men’s monopoly on agency, especially sexual agency, is the source of the most unease among conservative lawmakers. Or, as Sheff puts it, “If women can legitimately have multiple-partnership situations as well, the patriarchy wants nothing to do with that under any circumstances.” Slut-shaming someone is lot more convenient when they don’t have a choice.

Sheff argues that many of our legal systems are flawed because they are based on the vague concept of morality rather than the more concrete concept of ethics. This is especially important in child custody cases: if a religious judge rules that a gay couple can’t properly parent their children because of their lifestyle choices, would we accept that ruling as factual and fair? I believe that a more objective, secular ethical framework would serve as a superior foundation for legislation and policymaking if we could shift our attention away from morality, which is highly nuanced and religious.

Lifestyles involving several partners are not new, but there is a growing belief that some of the recent shifts are a response to the stresses young people confront today. Alternatively, “Why is everyone poly these days?” read a popular tweet from the previous year. A group of seven persons is required to purchase a home, you motherf***er.

Unlike previous generations, “Millennials and Generation Z are often not that enchanted with monogamy,” Sheff argues. Having children while juggling several careers is challenging for many of them. So, the ideal of a happy marriage with a white picket fence is unrealistic. In the next five years, it’s quite unlikely that you’ll be living in the same place or working in the same position. Thus, I believe that this trend is passed down down the generations in our modern, transient, and migratory society. It’s a defence mechanism; it fits in with and adapts to today’s postmodern culture.

Creating a society in which polyamory is normalised is the true test of our time.

On the other hand, polyamory isn’t only a lifestyle choice anymore. It’s also important to keep in mind that the term “partner” in ENM circles does not only refer to sexual partners despite common belief to the contrary. For those who do not identify with any sexual orientation, this is of little concern. But I think for most people it’s about something more substantial: creating a chosen family (or “logical family”) out of the people you want to share your life with, however much or little of it they may be, rather than just the individuals who show up in your life by chance or by birth. To sum up, it’s all about coming together.

This is the type of group that used to be more popular, when people would go to church, hang out with their neighbours, or discover their lifelong partner. Although many of these institutions are being questioned or abandoned, others are still holding firm. Yet, “we’re left with that yearning,” Sheff says to me. “To feel connected with others or out of a general curiosity in who is in our immediate vicinity. Having friends and family outside of our intimate relationships is a fundamental human need that is often neglected in many communities, even religious ones.

There is still a desire for a sense of community among believers. That attraction is strong in me, too. In an ideal world, the people I care about would be able to follow their own unique paths in life, filled with as much love, joy, and connectedness to the world as their hearts could possibly hold. The challenge isn’t in maintaining numerous healthy relationships at once. The true challenge is creating a society where loving several people isn’t considered as a defect in one’s moral character and everyone accepts them. For starters, we need to rethink the outmoded legal system that continues to shape our daily lives.

Most importantly, I want to live in a world where people ask me, “Isn’t it expensive going on all those dates?” when I come out as poly.

It is. The other side of the coin is that we are experts at passing along jumpers and sharing Netflix logins.

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