A Brief History of Polyamory in America

Nearly a quarter of American people today believe that polygamy is a morally acceptable practice. This is according to a 2022 Gallup poll, and shows a major increase from 7% just 20 or so years before.

Polygamy is related to polyamory, referencing the practice of marrying more than one spouse at a time.

Polyamory means “love of many” and refers to a lifestyle or orientation that includes romantic and sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. This doesn’t include marriage right now because it is illegal in the USA to marry more than one person at a time, so calling polyamory polygamy is not accurate.

Read: ENM Relationships: 10 Examples of Ethical Non-Monogamy

Many polyamorous people would like marriage options to be open to them. Others reject the institution of marriage in favor of their own commitment ceremonies, or their choice to oppose heteronormative relationship structures.

The word “polyamory” was coined in 1990 and has been subsequently used to promote non-monogamy as a valid, moral lifestyle alternative to monogamous relationships including serial monogamy. Polyamory is born in part of sexual liberation in general and of sexual liberation and equality for women.

Polyamory was partly born as well from increased recognition of gay individuals and their rights. Sexual liberation and acceptance in general, for gay people, women, and all people led to activism for different expressions of relationships, including non-monogamous practices.

Polygamy of course has historically been a patriarchal institution just as monogamous marriage has been. It may mean multiple spouses but usually refers to polygyny, or many wives. Polyandry or more than one husband has been practiced throughout history, but rarely.

Read: 13 Unconventional and Alternative Relationships Explained

Strange Bedfellows: Religious Polyamory in America

While it may seem unexpected when one of polyamory’s greatest detractors is religious “morality,” religion drives some forms of polyamory in American life and American history.

Or more accurately, polygyny—having more than one wife.

Modern polyamory is egalitarian, consensual, affirming of diverse sexual identities and orientations, and uniquely interested in women’s sexual liberation. Although polygamy qualifies as “love of many” or “marriage of many,” it doesn’t reflect contemporary values that are important to polyamory as a lifestyle.

Nonetheless, historically speaking, polygamy is polyamorous in practice. Some polygamous individuals and families practiced consensually.

Read: 23 Types of Sexuality: Glossary of Terms

Polygamy in Islam

Polygamy is a right for men in Islam, but not for women—surprise, surprise. Sharia law allows Muslim men to marry four wives. Because of the belief that sharia law is God’s law, local laws are irrelevant to some religious believers.

Although polyamory and polygamy are not practically legal in the USA, some believers practice anyway, using personal or religious rituals. No one knows how many polygamous Islamic families there are but estimates range from 50,000 people implicated to twice that number.

While women’s freedom and inequality are serious issues, not all polygamous wives are unhappy. In polygamous cultures, wives can be rivals but they can also be like sisters, and share childcare responsibilities and keep each other company.

Read: Polygamy vs. Polyamory: What’s the Difference?

Polygamy in Mormonism

Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, was born in the USA. This offshoot of Christianity added a new prophet and a new scripture. Polygamous marriage was a tenet of the Mormon church through 1890 when officials declared it invalid.

There remain religious believers who see polygamy as an aspect of the true faith and feel the state bullied the church into compliance. However, no legal polygamous marriages take place any longer.

While some Mormons view the change as an assault to religious freedom, others view the polygamous era as the deviation, quoting the Book of Mormon itself, which states that men should have only one wife.

Read: Polyamorous Marriage: 6 Benefits for Poly People

Communal Cultural Customs and Polygamy

Not all American polygamy was historically religious in practice. Scottish, Irish, and Welsh immigrants to the nation practiced polygamy in the context of communal living. Agrarian cultures frequently found communal living practices more practical in terms of sharing tasks and roles in farming.

Read: 4 Benefits of Being in a Polycule

Polyamory and America’s Neighbors

Polygamy is defined in Canada as any conjugal relationship with more than one. In the polyamorous context, the legality of it is being contested on grounds of civil liberties. It is rare for polygamy to face prosecution, with only a handful of cases punished legally over the past 70 years.

In Mexico, polygyny was widely practiced before Spanish colonization. It was typical for many groups of people to practice marriage with more than one wife, sometimes only for the elites but not the regular folks, but with the change to Catholicism, European customs of marriage were implemented. Today it is illegal to have more than one spouse throughout Mexico.

Read: Why Monogamy is Better than Polyamory (and Vice Versa)

Modern Polyamory in America

Polyamory is not rare today but is practiced by around 5% of the population. About 20% of people have had polyamorous relationships or practices at some point.

There are increasing advocacies toward complete social, cultural, religious, and legal recognition of polyamory, and more medical, scientific, anthropological, and psychological research on the subject. Mainstream medicine and media, as well as television and literature, increasingly portray complex truth about polyamory rather than simply showing outdated value judgements.

Read: 6 Alternatives to Monogamy that Don’t Involve Cheating 

Polyamory Flag

In 1995, Jim Evans designed a polyamory flag, with three stripes in blue, red, and black, with a pi symbol in the center. Blue represented honesty and openness, red represented passion and love, and black represented solidarity with others. The pi symbol stood for the first letter in polyamory.

Read: The Polyamorous Flag and Other Poly Symbols

Polyamory on Television

Polyamory: Married and Dating was a reality tv show in 2012 that followed polyamorous people navigating the challenges of poly life.

Seeking Brother Husband is a recent series focusing primarily on polyamorous women looking for more than one male partner.

Single Parents is an ABC sitcom featuring a throuple.

Unicornland is an 8 episode series about a New York woman exploring polyamory.

There are many more films and television series about polyamory of featuring portrayals of polyamorous characters. While polyamory was once used in cinema only to show affairs, moral condemnation, salacious menage a trois, or drama over the infamous “love triangles,” today more and more polyamory is depicted as complex or positive.

How has the history of polyamory influenced your lifestyle choices?

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