Is polyamory the future? The future legality of polyamory in the United States

Zoe Finley, Reporter

When Mylo was pursuing their undergraduate degree in 2019 while in a relationship with their boyfriend, they started to realize that a monogamous relationship was not for them. 

After talking to their boyfriend about how they felt, they mutually decided to open up their relationship to other people.

That was when Kent State graduate student Mylo, who is identified by only their first name for privacy, decided they were polyamorous.

“I needed to reclaim my sexuality in a way and my own anatomy by meeting other people,” Mylo said. “I’ve always loved having a connection with other people and I love finding people I am compatible with.”

Mylo is not alone in being polyamorous. 

In a 2021 episode of Red Table Talk, Willow Smith, the daughter of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, grabbed the media’s attention after she opened up about being polyamorous.

“With polyamory, I feel like the main foundation is the freedom to be able to create a relationship style that works for you and not just stepping into monogamy because that’s what everyone around you says is the right thing to do,” Smith said. 

Major publications like the “Los Angeles Times” and “Good Morning America” reported on Smith’s story, further creating awareness around the rights polyamorous individuals lack in the United States.

The Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition (PLAC) is a multi-disciplinary coalition of academic and legal professionals that advocates for the advancement of polyamorous individuals’ civil and human rights. They define polyamory as “a practice or idea of a person having or being open to having a relationship with multiple people at the same time, with everyone involved having knowledge and consent of one another.”

College students like Mylo, who identify as polyamorous, face laws against their lifestyle in the United States.


History of Polyamory

Tamara Pincus, a certified sex therapist who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Smith College and a master’s degree in social work from the Catholic University of America, said it is important for people who are just beginning their journey in polyamory to learn what qualifies as cheating. 

“I think people who don’t know a lot about polyamory can get triggered by their own feelings as ‘if this happened to me, I would feel very jealous’ or ‘it would be terrible,’ so they assume that anyone who is in this kind of relationship is not okay,” Pincus said. “That they’re being forced into it or it’s not something they actually consent to.”

The negative perception of polyamory is not new in the history of the United States.

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, an academic expert on polyamory who has a doctorate degree in sociology from the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote that non-monogamous relationships have been present throughout history. In the 1800s, an experimental free-love community known as Brook Farm traveled along the east coast of the United States, spreading their non-monogamous relationship beliefs. 

Still, the concept and term polyamory came to the forefront of American society during California’s free-love movement and the sexual revolution in the late 1960s and 70s.

According to PLAC, in the past, non-traditional relationships such as same-sex, biracial and non-monogamous relationships have been seen as immoral and less capable of success than traditional ones. As a result, these relationships are mistreated and face discrimination in court systems. 


America’s views of non-monogamy 

A February 2023 survey by YouGov, an international internet-based market research and data analytics firm, focused on monogamy and nonmonogamy in relationships and gave insight into Americans’ views of polyamory. 

The survey discovered that more than half of Americans oppose the legalization of polyamorous relationships. But unlike in the past, a significant minority were open to non-monogamous relationships such as polyamory or open relationships.

The last question on the survey, “Do you think polyamory will be legalized in the U.S. in the next 50 years?” gave further insight into Americans’ view on polyamory’s legality in the United States in the future.

The majority, 52 percent, said no, it will not be legalized. But with 18 percent saying yes and 30 percent saying “not sure,” it raises the question; is polyamory on the potential path of legalization in the United States?

Troy Bishop, a registered mental health counseling intern from Trinity, Florida, who has worked frequently with polyamorous couples, said it is difficult to predict if polyamory will be legalized in the future.

“It’s kinda hard to say in the next 50 years because, you know, 50 years ago, if you asked somebody if same-sex marriages would be legal, they would have said absolutely not. Just like 50 years before that if you asked if different races would be allowed to marry their response would have been absolutely not,” Bishop said. “I kind of hesitate [to say] whether or not something will be legalized because it all depends on culture.” 

In most countries around the world, polyamory is not legalized. Instead, people are only allowed to have one spouse at a time because of cultural norms. The U.S. also follows the traditional idea of what a legally binding relationship is. 

Although the U.S. does not acknowledge polyamorous relationships under the law, they are still legal. But the lack of legal recognition for polyamorous people makes it challenging to receive legal protections like health insurance, tax benefits, child custody and making medical decisions for their partners if necessary. 


Discrimination and misunderstanding polyamorous individuals face

According to PLAC, there are many discriminations faced by polyamorous couples every day that are not generally thought of. Polyamorous couples face discrimination in areas such as housing, insurance, hospital visitation and employment. Additionally, lack of recognition in general is an ongoing issue. 

Many legal challenges polyamorous people face can be linked to harmful stereotypes surrounding polyamory. Pinus said that because of the media, there is a sexist idea that polyamorous relationships are something that only men want. 

Bishop said the media causes polyamory to be misrepresented across the entire U.S.

“The mind goes where the media portrays it,” Bishop said. “The media definitely dictates where culture goes, and in all honesty, there is not much representation in media of polyamory.”

Although polyamorous relationships have become more mainstream in Western culture, there is still legal and personal discrimination faced by polyamorous individuals. 

The media feeds into these stereotypes by showing polyamory as salacious and just a kink. 

Mylo said the media does not provide polyamorous relationships much exposure, and when it does, it is rarely positive. 

“I’ve seen the whole cheating on your partner for dramatic effect in TV shows, and it just puts a bad negative stereotype on polyamory,”  Mylo said.

Mylo said polyamory is often portrayed as a purely sexual thing in the media.

“But there is a lot more to polyamory than just sex,” Mylo said. “There is commitment and loyalty that isn’t shown anywhere.”

Noel Lee, a second-year transfer geology student who is in their first semester at Kent State, has never been in an official polyamorous relationship but said they would consider themselves polyamorous. 

Lee said they feel polyamory is significantly underrepresented, and it happens because polyamory is not seen as a positive thing. 

The danger of the media’s lack of and wrong portrayal of polyamory feeds into the lack of legal protections and benefits for polyamorous couples. The same YouGov survey found younger individuals were more likely to be open to non-monogamous relationships like polyamory than older individuals.


Polyamory as college students

Mylo said they were currently in a polycule, and each of their boyfriends fulfilled their different needs. Mylo said each fulfills needs like romance, emotional support, and sexual needs. 

“I find it very healthy, the fact that I don’t demand all my needs be met by one person, because I feel like that’s too much for people to handle sometimes in different parts of life,” Mylo said. 

Lee said they discovered a couple of years into college that they felt their love shouldn’t be limited to just one person. 

“A couple of years into college back in 2020, I guess I sort of felt that I just like so many people and feel like my love shouldn’t just be limited to one person,” Lee said.  “I have only ever told my past partners about it just to see where they stood on it- nothing ever came of it but just people I’ve been in relationships with I’ve told.”

Pincus provided advice to people who are considering non-monogamous relationships like polyamory.

“Take it slow,” Pincus said. “Think about what you need as far as emotional care before you start adding more people in.” 

Pincus also gave advice on maintaining a healthy relationship with a partner before opening up their relationship. 

“To keep the relationship that you were in originally, you have to really put a lot of effort into that,” Pincus said. “You have to make sure you are spending enough time together. Make sure you are spending enough emotional energy on that relationship.” 

“It’s also okay if that relationship shifts like sometimes people end up basically being friends with the person that was their primary person when they started out, that’s okay,” Pincus said. 

Bishops also shared his advice on opening up a relationship.  

“It takes a very strong relationship to add a different dynamic,” Bishops said, “because it creates a completely different dynamic.”

Pincus and Bishop said there must be trust and commitment to the original relationship before opening it up.


The future of polyamory

Outside the U.S., the Supreme Court of Newfoundland recognized parents of a polyamorous family that consisted of three parents. 

States including California, Washington, Louisiana, and Rhode Island, have begun recognizing relationships with multiple parents, such as step-families, adoptive families and non-monogamous families. 

In 2018, California passed a law prohibiting discrimination against people in child custody cases based on their sexual relationships.

In 2020 and 2021, three Boston towns (Somerville, Cambridge and Arlington) were the first in the U.S. to recognize and include legal definitions of domestic partnerships, including non-monogamous relationships. 

Organizations like PLAC and Loving More continue to advocate for the legal recognition of polyamory in the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

Mylo said that the whole part of polyamory is to be truthful and honest with yourself and your partner. 

“Find someone that is compatible with you and healthy in the fact that you don’t have to hide anything about yourself,” Mylo said.

Zoe Finley is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected]