You, me, and polyamory: Inside Philadelphia's growing nonmonogamous community
Polyamory, once portrayed as the sole realm of sexually open hippies, has a very real place in Philadelphia modern life, with participants of all walks of life.
Antoinette and Kevin Patterson thought they'd stop dating other people once their relationship got really serious. They didn't. Maybe, they said, after they got married. When that didn't happen, they assumed after they had kids. Not then, either.
Today, Antoinette, 35, and Kevin, 38, still date other people. The parents of two continue to identify as polyamorous, meaning they maintain multiple relationships with the consent of everyone involved, and have since the beginning of their relationship 15 years ago.
"I quickly and very early on realized that monogamy was just not my jam," Antoinette said from her home in Chester this month. "I struggled with it from day one. It was not something I was able to do."
Polyamory, once portrayed as the sole realm of sexually open hippies, has a very real place in Philadelphia modern life, with participants of all walks of life navigating a complicated web of sex, relationships, marriages, and friendships among those who are in love or lust with romantic partners often dating each other. Philadelphia even has its own 1,000-member Facebook group: Polydelphia.
Logistics are difficult (enter elaborate Google calendars), jealousy happens, and there's a coming-out process for people in polyamorous relationships that can open them up to criticism and judgment.
But those who are able to make it work say the benefits of living and dating openly far outweigh the drawbacks.
Antoinette, a physical therapist, and Kevin, a writer, now say polyamory is a fundamental part of who they are. They both have upper-back tattoos depicting a heart and an infinity sign — a symbol and a constant reminder, Antoinette says, that they're "doing this poly thing forever."
Now, it's about convincing others that rejecting monogamy doesn't make them all that different.
"I'm not trying to freak the norms," said Kevin, who wrote a book about polyamory and race. "Like, I have a Netflix queue. I drive my kids to school every day. I am the norm."
In addition to her husband, Antoinette currently has another boyfriend. Kevin can't say exactly how many people he's seeing — that's always evolving. Sometimes it's five. Other times it's a dozen. For three years, he's dated Kay, his girlfriend who lives in Upper Darby. Kay, who is pansexual and open to all gender identities, has Kevin, plus her boyfriend and her nonbinary partner. She practices what's called "solo poly," meaning she isn't in a "primary" relationship with anyone.
The words polyamory and nonmonogamy encompass a variety of relationships, including married couples in open relationships, people who practice solo poly, and people in "triads" or "quads," which are multiple-person relationships where everyone is romantically involved with one another. The common theme is the goal of remaining ethical — to avoid hiding relationships.
Early on in Antoinette and Kevin Patterson's relationship, the couple called themselves "swingers with an asterisk," because they weren't following "traditional swinger culture," which is based more on sex than relationships.
Terri Conley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and an expert in sexuality, said the general interest in swinging and nonmonogamy that took shape in the early 1970s died down in the '90s with the HIV health crisis. Since then, the idea of "consensual nonmonogamy" has reentered the public consciousness, and there's a documented growing acceptance of it. Meanwhile, the internet has allowed members of this niche community to coalesce, forming active presences on social media and fostering meetup groups in cities across the country.
The Polydelphia Facebook page was created in January 2014 as a space for a couple of dozen poly friends to socialize. It has exploded in popularity since then, and recent efforts to increase privacy and be more welcoming to marginalized communities have contributed to the group's swelling in size, adding some 450 people in the last year alone, according to Kevin Patterson.
"We live in a culture that very much values and prizes monogamy, and anyone who deviates from that is often stigmatized," said Justin J. Lehmiller, an assistant professor of social psychology at Ball State University. "My sense of it is that the stigma is lessening, but it's still there."
Some studies suggest 5 percent of Americans are in consensual nonmonogamous relationships, but as many as one in five Americans has been in one at some point in his or her life. And though the reasons someone chooses polyamory vary — some say it's a deep-seated part of their sexual orientation, others say it's more of a relationship-style preference — the consensus among experts is that it's not a fear of commitment. Conley said, on the contrary, "these are people that really like commitment."
"I'm not polyamorous because I'm avoiding commitment," Kevin Patterson said. "I'm making commitments with multiple people."
Likewise for Shallena Everitt, who has two spouses. When she tells people she has a husband, Cliff, and the two have a wife, Sonia, the first question is almost always: "How does that work?" She responds simply: "It works like any other relationship. It's just more people."
Shallena, 40, of East Lansdowne, identifies as bisexual. She and Cliff have been married for 18 years and have two children, and they met Sonia four years ago. The three fell in love and in April had a commitment ceremony — a de facto wedding for the polyamorous triad, although Sonia's marriage to Shallena and Cliff is not legal. They now live in a blended house along with Sonia's three kids, and the relationship among the three of them remains open.
"A lot of people say, 'How can you love more than one person?' " said Shallena, an administrator for the local chapter of the group Black and Poly, which she discovered about five years ago. "You love them for different reasons and they bring different things to you."
Kevin Patterson, who sits on the steering committee of Polydelphia, said that it's unreasonable to ask someone to be "your everything," and that he explores different aspects of his personality with different romantic partners.
One wife, two kids, and multiple partners makes for some busy days, and logistics are a challenge. Kevin swears by his Google calendar, which he shares with Kay and Antoinette. Kay's calendar is a rainbow of commitments, with color-coded blocks for when she'll see each partner. Though she's happy in her relationships, Kay admits "it can get really tiring."
Kevin and Antoinette keep up with each other's romantic lives, including each other's sex lives. They don't necessarily need the details, but they do share with each other any relevant sexual health information. Still, they avoid exercising any control over each other's relationships. Kevin said if Antoinette's boyfriend (known as Kevin's "metamour") decides to sleep over, "they can have the bedroom" — Kevin's just fine in his basement man cave.
"I try to leave as much room as I can for their relationship to grow," he said, "without my influence."
Elisabeth Sheff, a sex education consultant and author who's written three books on polyamory, said it's this mentality that can make a polyamorous relationship work.
"If the metamours can't get along, the family does not make it," Sheff said. "If the metamours get along, then the lovers can make it through things that maybe would have otherwise broken them up."
Others say they feel joy when their romantic partners are happy in other relationships. Tiffany Adams, a 30-year-old nurse who lives in Bensalem, identifies as polyamorous and pansexual. Today, she has three romantic partners: Phillip, Dan, and Huey. She said feeling truly happy for her partners can help keep her jealousy in check.
"When my partner tells me they met somebody and they really like them or that their new partner told them they love them, it makes me feel really good," said Adams, who founded Polydelphia but no longer manages it. "I think having those things can counteract any jealous feelings."
Paul Beauvais, a 44-year-old IT architect who lives in Overbrook and is a member of Polydelphia, said some people outside the polyamorous community assume he has it great — say, when he mentions that over the weekend he went on dates with "both" of his girlfriends. Sure, Beauvais loves being polyamorous, but he makes sure to note that it includes all the "not so great" parts of a relationship, too.
"Polyamory is really based on the idea that we shouldn't be running relationships in a resource model," he said. "Love is not a scarcity."