Family  /  Explainer

Polyamory Isn't Just for Liberals

In the history of sexual dissent, the relationship between politics and sexual freedom defies simplistic categorization.

The term polyamory was coined in the early 1990s after a coalition of ethical non-monogamists came together to give a name to similar lifestyles many of them had practiced for decades. Though sometimes confused with polygamy, polyamory is distinct in that it tends to be gender egalitarian and queer affirming.  

Polyamory’s roots reach back at least a century to the Progressive Era, if not further, when Bohemian notions of free love breached major U.S. metropolises. The “Roaring Twenties” that ensued prefigured the sexual revolution of a half century later, as wars over birth control and the Equal Rights Amendment divided Americans, and the short-haired, cigarette-smoking New Woman became a symbol of American freedom.

The post-Depression era stifled sexual freedom, but in ways many Americans in need readily accepted. The New Deal’s promises of economic stability reinterpreted freedom as the absence of want. Such tradeoffs came at a price, however, as its programs prioritized male employment, re-enforcing gender roles the 1920s had begun to upend. By the 1940s, the twin threats of nuclear annihilation and the spread of godless Communism exacerbated the return to sexual traditionalism, producing a cultural consensus on marriage and family that tolerated little dissent.

But not all Americans accepted the ideal of lifelong heterosexual monogamy enshrined in the nuclear family. The Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 testified to the facade of uniformity, uncovering a shocking degree of sexual diversity present in Americans’ private lives. Meanwhile, the Beatnik embrace of drugs and promiscuity foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s.

The Beats were not the only Americans to chide mainstream mores, nor to use literature to do so. There was also Ayn Rand, the anti-statist Russian-born novelist bent on destroying all impediments to personal autonomy. Rand dabbled with ethical non-monogamy, believing that her and her protege's shared commitment to her philosophy of Objectivism provided sanction for their intimacy. Though they were honest about the relationship, it brought great emotional distress to both their spouses, and her disregard for the feelings of all others involved made it unlikely for polyamorists to claim her as an intellectual forebearer.

The clearest link between polyamory and the first decades of the 20th century is traceable through the influence of acclaimed science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Referring to himself as a “child of the Torrid Twenties,” Heinlein was a sexual iconoclast. His first two marriages in 1929 and 1932 were both open, and he spent the 1930s and 1940s frequenting nudist clubs, and running in countercultural circles that included the occultic sex magician and Cal Tech rocket scientist Jack Parsons and fellow science fiction writer and founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard.