April 17, 2024 - 7:20pm

There’s a lot to say about The New York Times’ profile of a 20-person polycule in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an article that reads like a very tedious one-act play or a very short History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

As is typical for the genre, all the big questions go unanswered, like, “why?” The interviewees demonstrate their mastery of the latest social-justice lingo, alongside world-historical levels of self-involvement and mind-bending logistics. Check back in seven months for the New York Times’ Gift Guide for The Dearly Beloved Non-Romantic-But-Occasionally-Sexual Life-Partner Pseudo-Wife in Your Life: “My husband, my nesting partner, is the person I own a home with. I also have life-partnership friends, I call them my wives, who are core members in the polycule. One of their husbands is one of my best friends and occasional sexual partner, and I do have sex with my wives, but we’re not romantically involved. But I love them”.

The pleasure of reading the article is, of course, purely and shamelessly voyeuristic. But the feelings it inspires are not envy or titillation but exhaustion and relief that one has never felt (or indeed ever heard of) “compersion” the feeling of “being happy seeing your partner happy with one of their other partners.”

The participants wax rhapsodic about liberation, authenticity, empowerment, and intentionality. “It is very much about social change,” Ann says. “It is about making the world a better place.” Nico praises the fact that the polycule is “female-run. It’s the female-identified people who spearhead.” Nonmonogamy is about “a bunch of queer women who say we’re not going to follow the rules.”

But there’s a strange gap between the high-flying pronouncements and the evidence that makes it unclear whether anyone is in fact being liberated, authentic, or empowered (intentionality, at least, seems to be in abundance). What’s being reinvented here? They’re 21st-century swingers — just with fewer leisure suits, more worksheets, and vague aspirations to split utility bills sometime down the road. The women — sorry, “female-identified people” — still seem to be carrying the mental load, responsible for resolving the scheduling nightmares nonmonogamy always seems to entail.

As far as “not follow[ing] the rules” goes, they seem merely to have replaced the old “monogamous script” with a new, infinitely more complicated one, torturously negotiated and renegotiated in “six to 10 hours of hard poly-processing” sessions.

Back in 1914, the revolutionary Emma Goldman imagined a future where free love between men and women might be possible: “Some day, men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love,” she wrote. “What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can foresee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women. If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.”

I’m not convinced Goldman would recognise the realisation of her vision in these Cambridge house parties, which seem less an exercise in human liberation than Human Resources. Clearly, some people want to turn their personal lives into HR nightmares as part of their “activism.” They surrounded themselves with dictates: Talk to/about me this way, not that way. Fill out these poly worksheets with me. Politicise every interaction, without realising or caring that there is no surer way to destroy everything you touch.

Somewhere along the way, the revolutionary spirit of free love — however impractical or impossible it may have been — got lost, replaced by thought exercises and pills to make you OK with the bad feelings that seeing your partner sleep with other people tends to stir up. Anyone can use the latest jargon to macerate ordinary human emotions. The problem of how to balance one’s “radical queer values” with the responsibility and consideration we owe to the people closest to us is a more delicate one. No one in this article seems to have mastered it.

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.