The revolutionary breeze that ushered in the 60s carried with it a desire for sexual liberation and emancipation from the bourgeois, patriarchal norm. By calling into question the fundamental unit of society, the nuclear family, rebellious youth hoped to shake the foundations of staid consumerism.
The Sexual Freedom League, a student group at the University of California – Berkeley, organized nude parties and orgies. The Weather Underground tried to “smash monogamy” with bisexuality and rotating sexual partners. And in 1971 Andreas Baader, founder of the Red Army Faction, captured the sentiment of his generation, exclaiming: “The anti-imperialist struggle and sexual emancipation go hand-in-hand, fucking and shooting are the same thing!”
Now, four decades later, we can discern the faint stirrings of a return to the project of sexual liberation. This time, however, it is not under the flag of “free love” but of “polyamory” that the struggle will be waged.
Experiments in free love were not always a success and in retrospect some former participants now admit there was another form of coercion at work. Free love ceased being free and revolutionary the moment it became obligatory. In his 1971 dystopian sci-fi novel, The World Inside, Robert Silverberg conveys this point brilliantly.
Writing in the midst of the sexual revolution, Silverberg imagines a world where an exponentially growing human population lives in mile high sky scrapers. With limited space, their society adopts sexual norms that avoid tension: promiscuity is encouraged, and it is considered anti-social to turn down a sexual advance. Every night, men sleep with their neighbors wives and wives freely switch partners as well. The result is a world of greater apparent freedom – drugs are also legal – sustained by a severe form of social control: those who resist the free love culture disappear.
Sexual liberation as imagined in the 60s was heavily biased towards a vision where sexual energy was freely flowing, all partners essentially equal, and sex something that ought to be shared without restriction. Against this borderless, formless vision of sex another perspective is gaining traction: the “polyamorous” position that maintains it is the tight bounding of a group, whether it be three or four or more, that is revolutionary.
Polyamory is an outgrowth of the free love movement but instead of looking to the orgy as the model for rebellion it is the notion of a tribe that excites their imagination. There are many visions of polyamory, but the one that many find intriguing is a world where partners are not exchangeable, relationships are stable and promiscuity is often frowned on. Whether polyamory means two women and a man, two men and a woman or two couples who share the same bed, the nuclear, patriarchal family is no where to be found.
Can capitalism exist without its foundation of heterosexual monogamy? Is polyamory inherently revolutionary?