If you imagine that adults who become polyamorous grew up in hippie households with flower child parents who introduced them to marijuana before they reached puberty, nothing could be further from the truth in my case. I grew up with traditional Chinese parents who were so worried about the corrupting influences of American pop culture on my moral development that they raised me as a Mormon. Until I went to college my religion was adamant that sex was sacred and should only take place within the sanctity of marriage. I was taught that marriage was eternal and to one only. I was taught that masturbation, homosexuality, and adultery were sins. After my sixteenth birthday, I was permitted to date, but only boys in the church so that I could marry a faithful Mormon, because a temple ceremony was the only way to receive the ultimate blessing–the promise of eternal life.
By the time I was in college and eligible for marriage, finding any men to date while attending an all women’s college in liberal Massachusetts was a challenge, not to mention eligible Mormon men. My education taught me to explore, think critically, and be ambitious about my career, which I found hard to reconcile with a religion that emphasizes faith, obedience, and a narrow definition of gender roles. I was dying inside for love, passion, and sexual intimacy, and I was no longer interested in rejecting opportunities for intimacy just because my partner didn’t happen to be Mormon or interested in marrying me.
At twenty, I fell in love with a man thirty years older than me. Our relationship was passionate, intellectual, and it didn’t end when I moved to the UK to begin my year long study abroad program at Oxford University. We talked on the phone regularly, wrote emails, and felt very much in love. But I was young, alone, and in a new country, and he encouraged me to explore other relationships. My next lover was one year older than me and in my study abroad program. We had a very romantic winter holiday together in Paris, but he left right afterwards to resume his studies in the United States. For a while I corresponded with both of them, in the meantime, a friendship with a classmate I met in the Fall blossomed into romance in the Spring.
Suddenly I was dating three men at the same time, even though two of them were in the US and one was in the UK. The two back in the States actually expected me to lose interest in them and move on, but I didn’t. Partly because I knew that E. and I could resume our relationship back in the States, and because I loved all of them and saw no reason to end two relationships just because I developed feelings for someone knew. I remember keeping in touch with all three of them during my Spring break, sometimes cutting and pasting my emails to save time. Each of them was so different and inspired me in different ways. L., the 50 year old, was my confidante, and could be counted on to add spice and humor to any interaction; E. was the sweet Latin lover, with a smile that melted my heart and a scholarly demeanor; H. was the nature-loving artist/scientist, with a nest of wild hair and the ability to show me the beauty that he saw in the world. I loved them all so much at the time and could not have done without any one of them.
The next chance I had to have multiple lovers occurred when I was completing my graduate studies at University of Utah. I was dating an ex-Mormon, whose name is N., but E. and I decided to get back together after a year apart. I broke up with N. in order to be with E. However, E. lived in New York City while N. and I lived in the same neighborhood in Salt Lake City. E. and I talked on the phone almost every night but it was N. who took me grocery shopping, ate dinners with me, and came to see me when I was ill. He even gave me rides to the airport so that I could travel to see E. (I did not have a car). I felt ashamed of the fact that I could not be open with E. about my continued relationship with N., but I could not bare to lose either of them. Once again I was in a situation where I loved two men, and the fact that one was long distance made it easier to continue my relationship with the other one.
By then I was free of the Mormon yoke. I had renounced my limiting beliefs in Mormonism and was on an exhilarating path of spiritual and personal discovery. I knew that I didn’t need a husband or approval from the church to enjoy my sexuality. I saw beauty in all kinds of people, and loved them regardless of their age, race, religion or gender. But I struggled with monogamy. I was in a stage of my life where I and the people I was involved with moved frequently and relationships often became long distance long before they naturally lost their luster. Having a local lover when I had a long distance one made the long absences easier to bear. In addition I usually wanted to add lovers, not take away or exchange. Whenever I had a new lover who wanted me exclusively, it hurt me tremendously to let go of the previous one, and when I was attracted to someone, it hurt me to hold back because I was already in a relationship. Perhaps I’m indecisive, but we are never forced to make such choices when it comes to friendship. I didn’t like doing it in romantic relationships.
Then I discovered polyamory. I came upon a copy of Sex at Dawn, a nonfiction book about why human beings are evolutionarily predisposed to be non-monogamous. The book was very funny and informative and I read it at lightning speed in three days. I especially enjoyed the accounts of cultures that do not have marriage as a norm. For example, Polynesian tribes that encouraged their women to be promiscuous with outsiders in order to strengthen the gene pool on isolated island communities; native South American women who would have sex with as many men as possible while trying to conceive because they believe that more than one father contributed to a baby’s genetics; or the Asian tribe where women took on as many lovers as they wanted because the women raised offspring with their birth families. I became fascinated with the topic and began to learn as much as I could on the internet and from books.
The liberation I felt at learning about polyamory was like the liberation I felt at abandoning my Mormon beliefs. I realized that I no longer had to stuff myself into this box that society had imposed on me all my life. I no longer had to feel like a deviant or a slut for not conforming comfortably to this box. Outside the box is a whole world with many options that I had never known about before. Polyamory was not just an alternative to monogamy, it was the discovery that we can each create the world that we want to live in. From open relationships to polyfidelity to solo polyamory, there are so many ways that people can come together without breaking others apart. The world was suddenly wide open, full of tenderness and possibility.
Some people say that they are poly by orientation, others say it is a lifestyle. It dawned on me that in my fantasies of my ideal life I never pictured myself as wife to one husband. Since I was a teenager, my fantasy has always been to live in a household with both men and women, all loving each other, and sometimes with children that we were all raising together. I fantasized about living in a community of artists, activists, and spiritual seekers as instinctively as some women dream about their prince charming. For my entire life I entertained this fantasy like a writer entertains an idea for a novel, or as a form of escape from reality, but I never entertained it seriously as a possible lifestyle. Since then I have learned a lot more about polyamory (and intentional communities) and it has changed my perception. I see my fantasy as the human dream for community, which since the dawn of time has enabled our survival as a species. It is a dream of love and family beyond the bonds of marriage and genetics, a dream that is as native to the earth as life its itself.
Photo: The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland. 1993