originally published by Serolynne, March 21, 2005
The concept behind polyamory, or the lifestyle of openly and honestly loving more than one person at a time, has been around for much longer than the word itself. But with the advent of the internet and a term to draw people together, polyamory has become a movement of its own. The Ravenheart family, who formed a ‘nest’ and a church based on the writings of Robert A. Heinlein, are frequently credited with coining the term ‘polyamorous’. Because a word was created, people of like minds are now able to partake in a community that has resulted from the polyamory movement. Even today, more than 40 years after the influential works of Heinlein were published, people still point to reading Heinlein’s science fiction writings as the catalyst that brought them to exploring polyamorous lifestyles.
Robert A. Heinlein is a recognized science fiction writer, who wrote short stories, novellas and novels from 1939 until 1987 . His writings often questioned various social and political norms.
In 1961, Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human raised on Mars who returns to Earth, bringing along some alternative views on sexuality, relationships and spirituality. “Robert Heinlein depicts a group where bacchanalia, mate-swapping, and communal living are wholly moral”. The fictional Martian, Valentine Michael Smith, formed the Church of All Worlds for his followers who subscribed to his theories on spirituality and relationships. Nesting, or forming intricate webs of intimate connections in a group of church members, was presented as a valid social structure in the book.
A few years later, Heinlein published The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a story set on a penal colony on the moon. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress provides a detailed picture of life in a ‘line marriage’ with multiple wives and husbands. In a line marriage, new younger members to the group marriage are added in as the median age of the group grows older. Everyone can sleep with anyone else in the group, and all are responsible for raising the children and bringing income to the family. The book also depicted other group relationship styles as necessitated by the vast gender population differences, since there were few females living on the moon and an over abundance of males.
While there have been no documented references regarding whether Heinlein actually lived an open marriage with his wife, Virginia, Heinlein’s views on sex were far from the mainstream, as he considered restrictions on sex to be based on religious superstition, In Grumbles from the Grave, published post-mortem, a copy of Heinlein’s letter to his editor defends alternative styles in response to his editor’s request to remove the nest concept from Stranger in a Strange Land:
Monogamy is merely a social pattern useful to certain structures of society – but it is strictly a pragmatic matter, unconnected with sin … and a myriad other patterns are possible and some of them can be, under appropriate circumstances, both more efficient and more happy-making.
Heinlein was not alone in inspiring the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, as writers such as Robert Rimmer, author of the influential The Harrad Experiment written in 1966, are also cited as stimulating alternative thoughts on relationships and sexuality.
By 1960 a successful revolution of the human spirit against the stifling bureaucracy had begun in the utopian literature. The main thrust was not against governments as villains that oppress man, but against insincerity, materialism and such artificial institution as exclusive monogamy.
Heinlein’s writings were no exception during this time period. However, unlike other author’s, Heinlein’s writings had a particularly strong impact on a young man by the name of Tim (now Oberon) Zell. Zell, a student at Westminster College in Missouri, lead a community of science fiction enthusiasts in the early 1960s, and Heinlein’s works were highly admired. Beginning as early as 1962, Zell and followers formed a “water-brotherhood” called “Atl” that was similar to themes presented in Stranger in a Strange Land. In 1968, Zell and his followers incorporated The Church of All Worlds, the same name used by Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land for his religious group, and centered around the same theological concepts. The entire social experiment was based around a science-fictional theology that hovered on the edge of existence. In 1973, Zell met and married Morning Glory, another long time fan of Heinlein. They began forming group marriages based on their own relationship and they called their family the “Ravenhearts.”
Needing a new term to describe the type of relationship style the Ravenhearts were leading, Morning Glory used her linguistic skills and came up with the term “polyamorous” in the late 1980s (McCullough and Hall). The term comes from the Greek root ‘poly’ for ‘many’ and the Latin ‘amor’ for ‘love’ – resulting in a term that means “Many Loves.” She did not like the other words being tossed about to describe the relationship style, such as “omnigamy” and “polyfidelity.” The term “polygamy” was too limiting, as it only defined marriage to multiple people. So polyamory set out to be an umbrella term to describe openly and honestly loving more than one person at a time. Morning Glory published her article “A Bouquet of Lovers,” in the Church of All World’s magazine, Green Egg, in 1990, which set forth the rules and concepts behind polyamory.
Now with a term defined to bring like minded people together, and the advent of the internet, polyamory as a movement was ready to be born. incidently, totally independently of the Church of All Worlds, Jennifer Wesp came up with the term 'polyamory' to describe non-monogmous relationships in an online newsgroup debate. On May 29, 1992, she started the alt.polyamory newsgroup, setting the stage for people of like minds to come together (Matthesen). In 1994, Loving More was formed to publish the first magazine dedicated to the subject of polyamory, called simply, Loving More. Loving More is published quarterly, and was previously run by Ryam Nearing, but has recently been taken over by Robyn Trask. Loving More and their website has served as a media contact point for the national level polyamory movement, and hosts two conferences a year to bring together people from all over the country to facilitate and attend workshops related to polyamory.
The Loving More Magazine claims a circulation of 10,000 subscribers. The Ravenheart family have been frequent contributors to both the magazine and the conferences, as well as featured in documentaries and articles on polyamory, including When Two Won’t Do.
Polyamory has been flourishing on the internet, with a google search on March 12, 2005 returning 177,000 hits simply on the word ‘polyamory.’ (Update: One year later, the same search yields 1,460,000 hits.) Many of the searches yielded references to people citing Heinlein as a catalyst for influencing their ideas on relationships which lead them to pursue polyamory as a lifestyle (Voas). In late 2006, the word 'polyamory' was officially entered into the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster.
Online websites, chat rooms, e-mail lists, personals sites and discussion boards are quite plentiful on the internet. There are sites dedicated to helping polyamorously minded people find each other, such as PolyMatchmaker (www.polymatchmaker.com), which boosts a subscription basis of 4331 active members as of March 12, 2005. Other personals matching making sites, such as Pearz (www.pearz.com) and OKCupid (www.okcupid.com), while not specifically focused on polyamorous matchmaking, have specific categories for the non-monogamous lifestyle.
Nationally, conferences take place that bring polyamorous people together to discuss ideas and work on relationship issues. Loving More hosts two such conferences a year, but there are also conferences hosted by the Institute for 21st Century Relationships (www.lovethatworks.org), Poly Living (www.polyliving.com) and the World Polyamory Association (www.worldpolyamoryassociation.) More politically charged organizations, such as the Institute for 21st Century Relationships, Alternatives to Marriage Project and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, have also formed that help legally protect the rights of people living non-traditional relationship models.
Regional and local polyamory groups are also abundant, with most major cities now having some sort of organized community. There are estimated to be tens of thousands of people across the nation practicing some form of polyamory (Brown). Celebrities have started coming out of the closet as being at least non-traditional in their relationships, including the most recent outing of actor Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith as having an open marriage based on honest communication.
Even opponents to gay marriage, such as the Family Research Council, recognize polyamory as a movement that threatens a slippery slope. They claim that social and legal acceptance of same sex marriage will lead to the polyamorists wanting similar rights for multi-person marriages. They specifically cite Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as being an inspiration on the polyamory movement.
Polyamory is a lifestyle and movement that is gaining momentum in society, with more and more online, local and national resources coming together. It’s a movement that could not have existed without a central term to bring people together who want to break away from society’s default monogamy model of relationships. The term ‘polyamorous’ was coined by Morning Glory Ravenheart, who was a member of the Church of All Worlds, a religious organization formed around the principals presented in the book Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. In this respect, the polyamory movement can claim part of its to be at least inspired by Heinlein.