On Quakers and polyamory

A Friend on the PolyQuakers email list recently notifed us of an article on Salon.com about polyamory. Polyamory, if you aren’t familiar with the concept, means having multiple romantic relationships (poly + amory = “many loves”). It differs from plain old cheating in that it’s all out in the open, and differs from “swinging” (or just sleeping around) in that it’s about relationships first and foremost, rather than sex. Beyond that, there are no “rules” – pretty much any number/configuration you can think of is probably practiced by some poly person out there. The article above is quite good, probably the best introduction I’ve seen so far.

I bring this up here because the PolyQuakers email list has become pretty active in this past week (perhaps in part due to some plugging on the QuakerSexuality list), and it’s made me ponder the wider issue of Friends and sexuality, and what that means for “convergence” and the issue of liberal meetings in Friends United Meeting.

In short, to me it seems like further evidence that reconcilation will ultimately prove elusive between Friends who believe that leadings may take us outside the boundaries of the Bible and historic Christianity, and Friends who do not. Because I find it quite improbable that many Orthodox Friends would ever warm up to the practice of polyamory – not least of all because of biblical texts like I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. (Similar comments could be made about transgender folks.) The current controversy – over monogamous homosexuality between relatively gender-conforming individuals – may prove to just be the tip of the iceberg.

(More generally, I’ve been saying in comments lately that the core religion of FUM and liberal Friends are fundamentally irreconcilable, and I don’t believe I’ve seen an adequate response from anyone yet. [Update: Wess and I are discussing this now.])

10 Responses to “On Quakers and polyamory”


  1. 1 martinkelley Jun 17th, 2007

    Hi Zach,
    As you know, I’ve talked about the phenomenon of “conservative leaning liberal Friends.” Now that we have the term “convergent Friend,” I’d say my term is what Convergence looks like from within Liberal Quakerism. Anyway, the most striking observation about this group is the large LGBT component. Speaking just anecdotally, I’d say that a good half of the conservative-leaning Friends I know are somewhere on the spectrum of Queer. There are strong Christian voices in FLGBTQC and two of the three Conservative/Orthodox yearly meetings are pro-LGBT, all the way up to the top of their leadership. And come on, doesn’t it seem like everyone under thirty in the Pastoral/Orthodox American yearly meetings is gay-friendly?

    So even large swaths of the Orthodox Quaker world have recognized it’s not who you sleep with but what kind of relationship you have with them. In my experience and observation poly-amory is the high fructose corn syrup of sexuality, a quick high that feels liberating and cool but rarely seems to contribute to any lasting long-term personal or spiritual growth. It seems more part of the culture of hipster Quaker youth than an outgrowth of Quaker faith but I’ll let someone else battle that out. I saw the announcement and just thought “oh there goes that FGC fringe again, what will they think of next?”

    By the way, not to be a nudge, but the core religion of FUM and Liberal Quakerism is the same: Christianity. We are not a separate religion, though you may wish we were. Our understanding of what that means differs and individual’s understandings of just how core our core is differs but the weight of experience is still very much on the Christian side. I’m sure you’ll disagree but I think it bears repeating.

  2. 2 Zach A Jun 17th, 2007

    Martin,
    Sure, and Judaism is the core religion of Christianity in the same abstract, notional sort of way.

    But for all practical purposes, liberal Quakerism is corporately post-Christian, similar to how Christianity is corporately post-Jewish. And most non-liberal Christian Quakers, who are in a position to be more objective than yourself on this issue, seem to agree. This is even beginning to be recognized formally, e.g. by the drafts of the new NEYM Faith and Practice, which give no indication that outward Christianity is privileged in any way except of course as our historical roots.

    I’m sure we’ll continue to disagree on that, but before I move on, I want to note that you’re speaking in generalities and haven’t addressed the gulf I keep pointing out about the Bible serving as guardrails for continuing revelation.

    As for polyamory, maybe I should specifically speak of “FUM/EFI Friends,” who of course comprise the majority of Orthodox Friends. I don’t have enough personal knowledge to be sure, but it does seem like it may be a deceptive appearance about everyone under 30 in FUM/EFI being gay-friendly. I don’t hear much from the more theologically conservative FUM/EFI meetings online, and the African FUM yearly meetings I hear are clamping down on this issue, after some worries that the African WGYF had corrupted their youth with liberal ideas.

    To whatever extent it’s true, however, it sounds like a move away from the traditional FUM position on scripture and a step towards the liberal camp – the Bible is not inerrant, parts of it are culture-bound, etc. and on down the slippery slope with the FGC welcome party at the bottom.

  3. 3 forrest Jun 18th, 2007

    Reminds me of a conversation I was having a few days ago: re asking a Serious Friend “Can I practice autoeroticism if I have a lifelong committed relationship to myself?”

    I don’t think you can grow up in this culture without receiving a strong Christian influence–probably as distorted as the usual Christian take on Judaism, to use your example–but being inexorably connected to some version.

    Even an atheist in this culture will be an atheist with a Christian “flavor”–continually shaking one’s fist (or making some other disrespectual gesture) to that bad Imaginary Old Man In The Sky while simulaneously trying to show him How to Be Good Right!

    Conversely, I think I “belong to” a sort of “Christianity” that questions (& just about throws out the bulk of it) the various Christian traditions, customs, and beliefs–but holds strongly to what Jesus says, in places like the Sermon on the Mount, about the nature of God and God’s love for us. I call this “Christian” because I’m not dismissing all that as unimportant, but examining it closely with an eye to whatever inspiration God gives me in the process, considering that everything in my life is part of God’s creation of my life, none of it “accidental”, all of it potentially meaningful.

  4. 4 Tara_Affinity Jun 26th, 2007

    Dear Zack and Friends everywhere:

    Thank you for mentioning my contribution to the Yahoo group “PolyQuakers”. My contribution here is not to debate theology, but to speak to the matter of polyamory. At the age of 51, and after a deeply felt and considered journey through a variety of spiritual disciplines and influences, I have arrived at clearness in my leading to embrace polyamorous relationing.

    I intend to dispell the notion that polyamory is some sort of life-transition flash in the pan, trendy knee-jerk “we’ll fix them!” rebellion of youth. Nor do I consider it fashionable…in fact I am keenly aware it may put me at some not so small risk…and by this I mean that, as we step forward to speak our truth to power, those who are “poly and proud” may be the next targets of fear and disdain. I hear there are rummblings of this even among our Friends in FGLBTQC. I have actually been told by a member of that concerns group, that when those who are polyamorous sought some specific support, they were TOLD by those NOT polyamorous, that we fall under the category of “queer”. I’m sorry…that does NOT resonate for me at all…not one bit. I’m here to say that those of us who are polyamorous, call ourselves “polyamorous”, whether we might also happen to be “queer” or not.

    Once fancying myself to be quite monogamous and heterosexual, I felt deeply restless within myself, and constrained from a certain expansive way of being I had yet to identify. As I’ve matured physically, and particularly though these more recent years of “THE Change”, I felt a disconcerting disconnect between my spiritual and sexual “selves”. While both lived in full vibrancy within me, and my sexual intimacy experiences definately had an abundance of spiritual currents, I continued to feel some sort of disconnect…a lack of full integration.

    I began to explore Tantric and Taoist sexual practices. And as I explored, I began to learn that these practices were based on - and directed toward - a deeper intimacy with The Divine. I also learned they were regarded as a means for stimulating various chemical and energy centers in the body, in order to release blockages, detoxify and in general promote healing. These traditions both intimidated me, and well as intrigued me. I began to seek ways to actively learn these practices. As I did, I realized that to learn these practices in the most authentic way possible, I might have to study with practitioners at a variety of accomplishment levels. How daunting…practice with a variety of partners, in order to advance my own understanding and skill level? Yeeks! But wait…let me remain open and explore.

    I began to correspond and meet with some of these people, and realized these were extremely sincere, ethical people who had studied to great lengths, to carry forward the ancient traditions of healing through the movement of sexual energy, within a spiritual context. They are humble, kind, extremely intuitive and insightful, and truly beleive we each have a right to exist as the radiance of our own fullness as blessed creations. I not only felt my comfort level rising, I began to truly understand how such practices might lead to a movement of merging with the co-creative Divine in a way I had not imagined possible. That it could be a journey into the true experience of Expansive Love…a love where the sexual (which I consider to be a magnificent gift of The Spirit, particularly within a loving context) and the spiritual merged in the completeness of what we are created to be (while we remain within our bodies).

    The deeper I explored into expansive loving, “Love Without Limits” so to speak, I began to feel easily inclined to love in a manner that just didn’t make sense to confine to one person…or one gender. From there, the process took on an life of it’s own…a blossoming of my heart and spirit unlike anything I have every known. It delivered me to such a place, that I am now confidently able to say I AM polyamorous, and that my sexual orientation to be “flexible”. This is my truth as best I know it.

    For those wishing to learn and understand more about polamory, spiritual/sexual integration, Tantra, sexual healing and living within a sex-positive framework, I welcome you to visit my blog at http://360.yahoo.com/tara_affinity . I can also highly recommend Deborah Anapol’s book “Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits”. You might also visit Wikipedia, and keyword polyamory…their work-up on polyamory sits easy with me.

    Peace and Blessings: Tara - “The Net Dakini” (aka H.O’D - Lancaster Monthly Meeting/Caln Quarter/PYM/FGC)

  5. 5 Pam Jul 23rd, 2007

    I just noticed this post, and am sorry it didn’t get more conversation generated!

    I myself am just learning about polyamory, dont think I’ll ever practice it, but hope to be as “open minded” as straight folks who don’t “get” me but still respect me and see the light in my lesbian self.

    I tend to resonate with what Martin said about it being the “high fructose corn syrup” of sexuality. My gut reaction is that it simply cuts off real intimacy between any two people. So I’m hoping to hear more from poly people about how I’m wrong (not that I’m wrong, what I’m missing!)

    One must take into account that I have a low enough libido and a tender enough heart that being in more than one really intimate (which is the only kind I have) sexual relationship at a time would most likely kill me!

    My sense of it is that this shows up a lack in actual quaker process these days. We debate things, when perhaps we should be waiting expectantly together (even us nontheists) - I really don’t know about polyamory, whether it’s a “natural” (godly-?) thing that’s new and alien to me, so it’s scary, or if it really is an avoidance of true intimacy, and I am better called to challenge those who practice it to work on something deeper. I really don’t know, and I probably won’t know for a long time, if ever, but how do we, as quakers, rightly approach something like this, which we don’t understand? (some of us don’t, anyway) - that’s the most interesting question for me.

  6. 6 Zach A Jul 23rd, 2007

    Hi Pam!
    I appreciate your desire to be open-minded, and I can even somewhat appreciate your and Martin’s sentiments. I would want to emphasize though that not all poly people fit whatever stereotype you might have in mind, e.g. having 7 partners and changing one every four weeks. Some people have stable and long term relationships that happen to have 3 or 4 people instead of 2, and I don’t think that creates any real barrier to intimacy.

    As for the 7+ partners type folks, I don’t understand the appeal any more than you do (or not much more), but I don’t think it’s for you or I to impose what level and kinds of intimacy we need on other people, except maybe in the spirit of a query* — nudging people to seriously consider the wisdom of their relationship choices, but not predetermining their answer. Especially considering that people need different things in different periods of their lives — for example, for the last year I’ve been pretty sexually active, and I believe that was the right thing for me then, but in the past few months I’ve been celibate and I think that’s the right thing for me now and for the foreseeable (which isn’t very far) future.

    (*in the modern liberal Quaker sense; queries were originally more of an instrument of control than they are now)

  7. 7 Pam Jul 24th, 2007

    Zach -

    Yes, exactly, as low-key queries. I don’t think there’s any use in trying to regulate sexual behaviour that’s consensual, no matter how odd I find it.

    Still, I do have to wonder what the appeal is. I’m not actually thinking of folks with 7 “partners” or “swingers” exclusively.

    The way I’m wired means that I simply could not have a sexual relationship with more than one person at once (at least not seperately) - I really thought about it a few years ago (not that I had the opportunity) because I was in love with a woman who really wanted her life to be that way, and it pained me greatly.

    So, in trying to see her perspective, past my jealously, and all that, I tried to imagine if she and the only other woman I had been in love with at that point had both wanted to be in a sexual/romantic relationship with me, even if they didn’t have other relationships themselves, and I knew I just wouldn’t want it. There’s something about the one-to-one reciprocity of a romantic relationship which is essential to me. To give it up, even in a fully supportive, consensual situation where I was really and truly in love with both (or all) people, just wouldn’t work for me.

    I can almost imagine a three-way, if it was equally balanced, as the metaphor that comes up for me is swinging each other in folk dancing (there is an essential balance, that requires both people and nothing outside) - but you can do that with three, though it’s harder…..

    But I am realizing that sex for most people is very different than it is for me. I don’t know if that’s because I’m wounded, or extra-sensitive, but I am NEVER interested in sex without love, trust, and a deep emotional bond. I’d be fine with never having sex again, if I can’t find those things with one amazing person. Most people aren’t like that, I guess.

    I also think, though, that unless you are actually talking about committed relationships, polyamory used to be known as “dating” (without “going steady”)

    I also have troubles/concerns about the primary/secondary thing. Having been “secondary” (or lord knows, maybe quartenary or something) for someone, I have to say that I really really really don’t like it. It’s hard to imagine situations where someone would embrace that, and most folks I know have associated past experiences of being a non-primary lover as times of low-self esteem and such.

    I find myself in a weird position of believing sex to be sacred (or at least best when it is) and best reserved for intimate, loving, committed (exclusive!) couples, but not really having any biblical basis for that. It’s also not a challenge for me - that’s actually what feels right to me, so it’s a different perspective. I don’t think sexual repression is a good thing. I don’t think anyone should try to get folks who just feel wrong in monogamous relationships to conform to peer pressure or something, I just sometimes don’t understand how people can be so different from me.

  8. 8 James Riemermann Jul 24th, 2007

    Like Pam (I think) I’m very much opposed trying to regulate consensual behavior, sexual or otherwise, that doesn’t seem likely to hurt others. This includes polyamory. But again like Pam (I think) I expect that polyamory has some very serious potential pitfalls as a way of life.

    For one think, I don’t think people in love relationships are always clear on their own motivations and ambivalence. It is quite common for people to stay in a romantic relationship of any sort long after it has become unhealthy. And I am inclined to think the introduction of a third partner (or fourth, or nth) would tend to complicate that dynamic a great deal.

    From Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”:

    Alvy Singer: It was great seeing Annie again and I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her and I thought of that old joke, you know, the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken,’ and uh, the doctor says, ‘well why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and, but uh, I guess we keep going through it…because…most of us need the eggs.

    I find it easy to imagine one or more folks who are intrinsically non-polyamorous, convincing themselves to stay in such a relationship because they’re in love with one of the partners–because “they need the eggs.” I find it easy to imagine a very charming partner who finds polyamory delightful, to convince two or more others to engage in polyamory without much regard for whether it is right for them. Like having an affair, but without the headaches of having to cover up.

    And I find it extremely difficult to imagine three people in love in a way that none of them feels like an outsider, a third wheel, the least loved of the three. When two people come together in a passionate, intimate relationship of the best kind, they can sometimes focus on one another completely, and create a sort of unity that is rare in human a life. I don’t understand how–I could be mistaken–that can happen in a polyamorous relationship.

    Once again, my sense of how this might work in real life has nothing to do with people’s rights to make these sorts of choices. I just suspect there are some folks out there trying to convince themselves that they’re happy.

  9. 9 Pam Jul 24th, 2007

    Well, as usual, James comes along and says beautifully everything I was bumbling around trying vainly and clumsily to communicate.

    Thanks, James :)

  10. 10 James Riemermann Jul 25th, 2007

    Thanks, Pam. I think Woody Allen deserves some of the credit for inspiration.

    Strange how someone can be so perceptive about the quirkiness of humanity, and so apparently thickheaded in his personal life.

    Or, another way of looking at it is, if you want a provocative take on non-traditional relationships, talk to a man who married his daughter.

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