We have received a lot of comments about the Tiger Woods polygamy post, so I thought it might be interesting to explore the idea of non-traditional sexual partnerships a little more. There is a long history of groups of people, who are usually bound together by common religious beliefs, creating communities that have sexual/romantic relationship practices that differ from the monogamy that is seen in the majority of human societies. Some, like the homosexuality of the ancient Greeks, just expand the standard practice of monogamy. Others, like the early Mormons, and the Maasai people in Africa, had group marriage practices such as polygyny and polyandry. Another type of non-standard sexual/romantic relationship that has been seen in recent American history is polyamory. In polyamory groups of people form sexual/romantic relationships. Polyamory may refer to a couple who allow one of both partners to engage in intimate relationships with other people, or it may refer to a group of people who have exclusive intimate relationships among themselves (polyfidelity).
One of the best known groups to have practiced polyamory was the Oneida Community in New Harmony Indiana which lasted from 1848 to 1881, and at its zenith had around 300 members. Members of the Oneida community (not be mistaken with the native American Oneida tribe) practied a form of group marriage whereby every male was married to every female in the community. The Oneidians believed that Christ had already returned to earth and that they were perfect and free from sin. Theoretically men and women were equal, though in practice labor was divided into stereotypical gender roles, with the women doing most of the domestic work. Exclusive intimate relationships were not allowed and group members were supposed to circulate through different partners. Married couples joining the community were supposed to expand their sexual relationships to include the other group members. Female group members reported that the had an average of three sexual encounters per week. Sexual relationships were encouraged between the more spiritual members and the less devout with the idea that the less devout would become more spiritually-minded through association. Teen-aged males were paired with older post-menopausal women who not only were able to initiate the males into sex, but also provide spiritual instruction. Males were encouraged to learn to control their ejaculation both for health reasons (it was thought that too much ejaculation could damage a man’s health) and for birth control. As a result birth rates in the community were low, but sexual encounters could last an hour or more which supposedly made the women happy. Positive eugenics was practiced and members had to apply to become parents. Prospective parents were matched by the group leaders in order to produce the healthiest children. After weaning, children were raised communally. Like many such utopian sexual experiments, the community disintegrated after the death of its charismatic leader John Humphrey Noyes.
The best part was that, once they’d gotten comfortable with us, they let down their guard and started gossiping about one another and openly discussing the tensions in the community in front of us – particularly speculation as to who might or might not be a “romantic couple” (a thing looked upon with scorn in the Kerista world).
We did indeed find the Kerista efforts to regiment human sexuality by enforcing strict “sleeping schedules” and proscribing some of the world’s most popular sex acts hilariously ridiculous – but looking back on it with 30 years additional life experience under my belt, I now wonder whether our own culture’s similar but more familiar efforts to regiment human sexuality aren’t equally ridiculous.“
Foster, L. (1998). Sex and prophetic power: A comparison of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, with Joseph Smith, Jr., The Mormon Prophet. Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, 31(4) pg:65-83.
Margulis, L., Sagan, D. (1991). Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York, NY: Summit Books.
Wikipedia Entry for the Oneida Community
Wikipedia Entry for Polygyny