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Polyamory gaining mainstream acceptance

The pitfalls show why nonmonogamy can never be ethical

People in a polyamorous relationship join hands in Buenos Aires. Getty Images/Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP

Polyamory gaining mainstream acceptance

A new dating show on NBC’s Peacock streaming service features couples who are looking for a third person to add to their relationship. Last year, the dating app Tinder reported that 41 percent of its Generation Z demographic was open to pursuing nonmonogamous relationships. The app recently added over a dozen pronoun options and five different relationship structure options, including “ethical nonmonogamy.”

While studies indicate that only about 5 percent of Americans are currently in polyamorous relationships, growing interest and acceptance of the practice could damage a broad range of relationships and families.

A 2023 study from the online dating company Match found that only 49 percent of single Americans listed monogamy as their “ideal sexual relationship structure.” Over 30 percent had already been in relationships of more than two people. In his book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, sociologist Mark Regnerus writes that 24 percent of churchgoers ages 24 to 35 affirm consensual nonmonogamy as morally acceptable.

Nonmonogamy is an umbrella term for relationships in which a couple consents to having outside romantic or sexual partners. Polyamory specifically refers to a closed group of more than two people who engage in romance or sex.

In February, the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-Monogamy rallied sponsors to support legislation in two California cities that would extend anti-discrimination laws to people in romantic relationships of more than two people. Two Massachusetts cities have already passed similar laws.

“I think we’ve just reached a point where [polyamory and nonmonogamy] is sort of starting to break through . . . As it gains more publicity, more people become aware of it … there’s more media, and so on,” said Brett Chamberlin, the group’s founder and executive director.

The breakthrough of polyamory into mainstream culture comes with a cost, especially for children, said Amy Hamilton, a research associate at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture at the University of Texas. “This design of male and female in a procreative union ordained by God . . . that’s no longer the thing we want,” she said. “We want the freedom to self define, and to self express. . . . Children are always the first victims when adult sexual interests are placed at the forefront.”

Supporters of polyamory argue that children who grow up around more adults in nonmonogamous relationships get extra love and attention that’s equal to or even better than being raised by both biological parents. In Them Before Us, authors Katy Faust and Stacy Manning report that data show that children always face higher risk with unrelated adults in the home. Children who live with one unrelated adult are 40 times more likely to be abused and 8 times more likely to die of maltreatment than children living with two biological parents.

Polyamory doesn’t just put children at risk of harm. Sociologist Elisabeth Sheff approves of polyamory, but says the extreme emotional highs and lows of polyamorous relationships create additional traumas and challenges for adults.

“You can’t become polyamorous and then get upset when there are strings,” she said. “You’re inviting strings.”

Sheff described a woman who moved from a different state to live with a couple in a polyamorous relationship. She helped raise their children and was the primary homeschooler during the pandemic. After seven years, the couple wanted her to leave, and she had no legal rights to the children, who would now lose a parental figure.

“Those social parents are at great risk,” Sheff said. “They often will put in a lot of resources, time, energy, money, attention, you know, and then . . . they’re out of luck.”

Hamilton from the University of Texas said that polyamory is the next step in the sexual revolution after the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage. During the Obergefell arguments, Justice Samuel Alito questioned how allowing a marriage between two people of the same sex could affect other potential relationships.

“Suppose we rule in your favor in this case and then after that, a group consisting of two men and two women apply for a marriage license,” he said. “Would there be any ground for denying them a license?” Lawyer Mary Bonauto replied that a polyamorous relationship “is not the same thing” as marriage.

Pastor and speaker Branson Parler said people in a polyamorous relationships have visited his church. Parler writes for the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender, an organization that Rosaria Butterfield and others have criticized because they see it as being willing to compromise on LGBTQ issues. Parler said any sexual relationship outside of Biblical marriage is adultery, and responding to this next movement of the sexual revolution starts with knowing the truth of how God created us to flourish and to glorify Him.

“The church . . . is the real picture that Scripture presents that actually meets these deepest needs, while also holding up this covenant of marriage between two people, husband and wife, as this faithful pattern for putting God’s love on display in the world around us,” he said. “Because God is faithful to us, that’s why it is so important that in our marriages, we are faithful to each other.”

Lillian Hamman

Lillian is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Berry College. She is a producer for WORLD Radio.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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