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Is London ready for the new wave of polyamory?

·12-min read
 (Michelle Thompson)
(Michelle Thompson)

When Ruby Rare, 28, spotted the pictures of Rita Ora and boyfriend, film director Taika Waititi, both kissing co-star Tessa Thompson at an after-party a little while ago, she felt elated at seeing a sweet, happy representation of her own relationships at last. ‘It wasn’t this sordid, sexualised thing. But I thought it was interesting how suddenly everyone jumped to, “Oh my God, they’re in a polyamorous relationship.”’

Rare, a sex educator and author of Sex Ed: A Guide For Adults, has identified as ethically non-monogamous for five years. ‘For me, it’s a broader umbrella term than polyamory. But in the same way that in some contexts I might say I’m bisexual and others I’ll say I’m queer, which is a bit more open-ended.’

It’s not just the Waititi-Ora relationship that has opened up: ES cover star Willow Smith, 20, became the Gen Z poster girl for multi love when she told all on her mother’s Red Table Talk show. ‘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,’ she said. ‘The main [reason] …why divorces happen is infidelity.’

And in a candid, just published, interview with GQ, her father, Will, revealed his marriage to her mother Jada is not monogamous. ‘We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison,’ he said. ‘And I don’t suggest our road for anybody. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms that we’ve given one another and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.’

Because after arduous lockdowns for many in monogamous relationships, a general sense of openness in the world is reflecting our interest in new ways of doing things: be that ethical non-monogamy (romantic relationships that are not completely exclusive between two people), polyamory (more than one open romantic relationship at a time) or even just being a little bit ‘monogamish’ (testing the boundaries of your coupling with flirtation and sometimes more). And it may provide a happier, and definitely sexier, alternative to the raft of Covid hangover divorces.

Dating app Feeld, the go-to fixer for couples and singles, has witnessed a dramatic surge in this interest. Search terms such as ‘ethical non-monogamy’ and ‘polyamory’ have seen an almost 400 per cent increase among women, while with men they were 500 per cent up in the past year. Six in 10 couples on the app were looking for a third person to join their relationship. ‘Threesome’ is the number-one desire listed across the app.

Ana Kirova, 29, came up with the idea for Feeld in 2013 when she became drawn to another woman just eight months into her relationship with her boyfriend and founder of the app, Dimo Trifonov. ‘Everything was developing so well,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, “This is what’s going to break us,” but it didn’t.’ They turned to apps to open their relationship, but discovered that on the standard solo dating sites, ‘people were just weirded out’.

Ana Kirova (ES)
Ana Kirova (ES)

Now, eight years later, the app’s remit has grown organically from its home city, London, across the rest of Europe, the United States and Brazil. But now, Kirova can see that Londoners’ appetites for something else is having a bump. ‘The data shows that there is a clear increase in interest in alternative relationship structures after a lockdown with one partner,’ she says. ‘A lot of lockdown was about talking to people. Polyamory is not just about the physical. There’s been a rise in virtual three-ways — people get very creative. They connect on Feeld and then they just make it work.’

Although one friend-of-a-friend (who requested to remain anonymous) held multiple parties with the sexual partners he met online — including an eight-way melee while his primary partner was downstairs making the drinks — for many of the existing poly crowd, the three lockdowns were a big, quiet, change.

Rare spent the months of government restrictions at home with her non-binary ‘primary’ partner of three and a half years, saying that their relationship ‘must have seemed very conventional’ to outsiders during this time. But their non-monogamous status has not changed despite not welcoming others into their bubble. ‘It has always been a part of our relationship, it was just built into the fabric of it. We’ve never been monogamous.’

For others, the restrictions allowed those in relationships to make space. Coach and founder of relationship website alethya.com, Anita Cassidy, 45, has been polyamorous for seven years since splitting with her husband of more than a decade. Having been in a relationship and business partnership with Andrea Solza, 33, since 2016, they decided to drop the boyfriend-girlfriend tags during the pandemic. ‘We’re thinking more along the lines of the energy, activities and responsibilities we’re sharing, as opposed to being “partner” or “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. He’s family. He’s in that inner circle. But we don’t plan to go on holiday together. I only see him once every couple of weeks. I think these things almost become more nuanced over time, rather than less.’

Cassidy discovered polyamory at 38 when she realised ‘like a bolt from the blue’ that she needed more than her marriage could offer, and her children were five and seven. She says the Covid crisis has, for everyone, been ‘a big chance to reassess what we’re doing, how we do it, why we’re making the choices we make, in terms of structures and ideas about how relationships should look and how they could look’.

Presenting this to a partner is critical. In his documentary on the subject, Louis Theroux questioned whether polyamory was just ‘long divorce’ for couples unable to let go. Rare can see how this could be true for some. ‘Non-monogamy only works if everyone involved wants to do it. It can be quite hard when one person’s really keen to explore and the other person has reservations. It can also sometimes elongate a relationship that actually has ended.’

Anita Cassidy (ES)
Anita Cassidy (ES)

‘I was very attached to the idea that my life would look a certain way,’ says Cassidy of her marriage — and eventual divorce. ‘Which is why, feeling how I felt, and starting to question my marriage was really hard.’ Much like the domino effect of divorce in friend groups, people struggle to see an alternative to their marriages presented so close to home. For Cassidy, the end of her 12-year relationship once ex-husband Marc realised he wanted to remain monogamous also meant the end of many of her friendships. ‘People really couldn’t cope with the change. Someone was very candid with me and said: “It really made me think about what I’m doing and how and why, and that feels uncomfortable.” A lot of people did just think I was having a mid-life crisis, whereas Andrea gets a lot of, “You just haven’t met the right person to settle down with yet.”’

Solza, who identifies as poly and gynosexual (attracted to both cis- and trans-women), disagrees. ‘Non-monogamy and monogamy aren’t at odds: non-monogamy works best for me because I naturally deal better with the challenges and rewards of the former than the latter. It wasn’t always like that, and this may change in the future. But growing up, I couldn’t understand why “commitment”, “love” and “sex” were sold to us as a bundle deal. To me, the association felt highly unnatural, much like saying: “I will only ever drink beer with my friend Max because that’s how he knows he’s my best friend.”’ Although he tends to only commit to one or maybe two romantic relationships, he says he is physically close in five or six.

But while the curiosity and pent-up energy is there for many husbands or wives, many are not just holding back because of partners, but also because of the continued threat of the coronavirus. ‘I’m experiencing this in my personal life and as a sex educator,’ says Rare. ‘There’s a lot of push and pull. There’s a side of people who are so desperate to get back out there and explore things that maybe they haven’t done in the past. And then on the other side, there is still so much anxiety about social connection and touch.’

But now Londoners are bursting back on to the once-again vibrant poly-club scene. Kinky nights out at Torture Garden, Killing Kittens, Crossbreed and Klub Verboten, which were strictly forbidden during restrictions, returned with a bang as clubs hesitantly reopened in the summer. The smaller party circuit, through intimate private member’s clubs such as Skirt Club (which hosts luxe nights for bi-curious and bisexual women), the quarterly Camp Crumpet and cocktail night Risqué set up mailing lists to deal with the demand for their return. Others, like Lady Liquid Love (an interactive sensual massage course for ‘women of all flavours, trans and cis women’) are doing private events to cater for smaller groups as Covid wariness continues.

Solza loves to explore at fetish nights such as Slap Stick Club. ‘It’s a great way to connect spontaneously with like-minded people, which means so much more than “game for some no-strings-attached sex”. Everyone does the romance, the sex and the relating differently, so it’s important to be with a variety of people to figure out what resonates. Parties are an excellent way to do this in a friendly, low-commitment environment.’

Making connections for friendship as well as sex is core to the scene. Loussin-Torah Pilikian, 27, is an actor and facilitator at Pinky Promise, and co-founded confidence events Wombxnity and Speak Easy. She became polyamorous when her older ex-boyfriend told her he was ‘into free love’ straight from the off when they met in 2018.

Loussin-Torah Pilikian (ES)
Loussin-Torah Pilikian (ES)

‘I thought, “Yeah sure, I’m not committing to anything specific,” but that was probably my main mistake. It’s so important to establish what those boundaries are. I completely lacked the language and the community to know what I wanted.’ The pair became ‘devoted’ and while experiments with sleeping with people outside of the relationship faltered, there was also a spark with Pilikian and his best friend — something he gave ‘a kind of creepy blessing’ to explore. This became a three-way relationship which later turned toxic. ‘We were together with implied consent, but not real grounded consent. I was in an intimate relationship with two men who were very insecure, and not comfortable with themselves.’

For Cassidy, opening up to polyamory isn’t about simply bolting on a new person to save an existing relationship. ‘It’s about a network of people that meet different needs and that can support each other in mutual ways,’ she says.

Rare agrees that the key to a successful open relationship is taking it slow and being honest, both in your primary relationship and with other potential matches. ‘It might make the pool of potential people to date smaller,’ she notes, ‘because there’ll be lots of people who are actually not into that. But I think using dating apps where there is more of a culture of ethical non-monogamy is really good. Feeld is a space where you’re going to find less people who are completely shocked by these concepts.’

The experience may be a slower burn — and potentially time-consuming, contrary to the misconception that switching to polyamory will suddenly mean you’re having sex all the time, Rare laughs. ‘There’s a lot of admin involved in it. I don’t have the capacity to date loads of people. So, when newer people enter the fold, it’s on the basis of friendship that then can have romantic and sexual elements to it.’

Jealousy is par for the course, as it is in any relationship. Cassidy, who is also a trained relationship coach, says that this emotion is about time and attention spent on another person. ‘A big challenge with non-monogamy or making changes to monogamous relationships can be that you’re watching someone develop very energetic, strong feelings for another person. But it’s often difficult because we’ve been told that they’re now more important to them than me. But it’s just a phase relationships go through.’

Kirova feels that jealousy is the anxious notion that we need to change our relationship. ‘It’s like the hairs on your body. Some people would look at it and think, “It’s there, so what?” While another person will do everything to get rid of it. It’s personal. We’re taught to think that in experiencing jealousy, that the worst thing that can happen has happened. It’s how you relate to it. It’s just there, it’s part of you.’

So, while some may keep their desires in the virtual world, and other relationships may actually open up now that the world has, Cassidy just welcomes the normalisation of these feelings and needs. ‘It doesn’t mean we have to act on them, but it’s finding a safe space in your relationship to talk about these things without fear, without judgement.’ It’s time to get out on the scene and get to grips with the monogam-issue at hand.

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