American Poly: A History

Image of American Poly: A History
Release Date: 
November 1, 2023
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Polyamory prizes commitment, honesty, trust, mutual consent, open communications, and equality among all sexes and sexual orientations.”

The history of American sexuality keeps being rewritten, and Christopher Gleason’s American Poly adds a revealing episode to the evolving story.

Since the nation’s founding, those in authority have sought to promote a morality of “family values” anchored in a belief in the heterosexual, monogamous nuclear family, the celebrated “Ozzie & Harriet” TV family of the 1950s.  

As Gleason makes clear in a too-brief historical reflection, the U.S. has long been marked by individuals, religious groups, and radical communities that questioned conventional morality.  Between 1852 to 1890, about 20 to 30 percent of Mormon families, members of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, practiced a form of polygamy they called “plural marriage.”

For much of the 19th century, “free love” advocates and other sexual radicals battled with what was known as the “social purity” movement over sex and the nature of the family. Among the most notable free love communities were: New Harmony, a secular utopian community in Harmonie, IN, founded by Robert Owen; the Brook Farm community in West Roxbury, MA, founded by George Ripley; the Oneida community in NY founded by John Humphrey Noyes; and the interracial Nashoba community in eastern Tennessee founded by Frances Wright, her sister Camilla, and Robert Dale Owen.

A second wave that challenged traditional family values emerged during the 1920s. This threat was represented by the “new woman” who symbolized the modernization that threatened social purists. And the Prohibition-era speakeasy was the nexus of this new erotic experience. Having a drink at a speakeasy was an act of transgression: One was committing a crime. When one entered a speak, one crossed the line between the socially acceptable and the illegal and, for many, the immoral. Prohibition also gave rise to the “sex circus,” infamous venues of alcohol consumption and sexual liaison, be it heterosexual and/or homosexual erotic indulgence. 

However, the 1960s forged a counterculture that challenged—and changed—American values. It was the decade characterized by the oral contraceptive pill, the mini skirt, rock ’n’ roll, long hair and the growing use of marijuana, LSD and other “psychedelic” drugs. It sparked a “sexual revolution” involving premarital sex and “free love,” often involving mate swapping, group sex, and homoeroticism.  

The “free love” movement of the ’60s found numerous forms. For example, in the mid-1960s the Sexual Freedom League hosted orgies at a home in Berkley, CA. One estimate found that between September 1966 and the League’s final 1967 Christmas Eve party, over 1,200 people attended their orgies. A second example, and also not mentioned by Gleason, was the Sandstone Retreat. Founded by John and Barbara Williamson in 1969, it was located in the hills of Topanga Canyon, just north of Los Angles. It was a unique experiment in erotic exploration that drew a fairly wide and often distinguished following among “free love” advocates.

By the 1970s, with the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the end of the Vietnam War, the rise of the new Christian right represented by Phyllis Schlafly’s defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the ’60s counterculture dissipated. However, its challenge to traditional monogamous sex and marriage persisted among the polyamorous.

Gleason lectures on American history at Georgia State University and is the Director of Academic Programs at the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prisons; American Poly is his PhD dissertation. The study is carefully researched, drawing on extensive interviews, personal journals and letters, underground newsletters and publications from the Kinsey Institute Archives and other sources,

The author carefully differentiates between traditional “polygamy” and the contemporary notions of “polyamory.” As Gleason notes, the term polyamory was coined in the early 1990s by

Morning Glory Zell-Ravenhear (aka Julie Carter) that links the Greek poly to the Latin amor becoming “many loves.” It became “an umbrella term used to describe a host of romantic or intimate relationships that provide an ethical frame for various forms of non-monogamy.” Going further, he notes: “Polyamory prizes commitment, honesty, trust, mutual consent, open communications, and equality among all sexes and sexual orientations.”

Gleason chronicles the evolution of polyamory movement over the last half-century through revealing portraits of key individuals who helped shape the movement. He notes that in New York in the 1950s, John Peltz "Bro Jud" Presmont formed the polyamorous religious community, Kerista. It embodied the notion of “polyfidelity,” non-monogamous romantic relations among equal partners. During the 1960s, Kerista-inspired storefronts and communal houses operated in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It drew admiration from Allen Ginsberg.

Kerista groups consisted of up to 24 people dubbed “best friend identity clusters” (B.F.I.C.); discouraged romantic attachment and possessiveness; and two people slept together in a shared bed, but on a rotational sleeping schedule, insuring equal bonding time among B.F.I.C. members of the opposite sex. In the 1970s, it split between “Old Tribe,” led by Presmont, and “New Tribe” that embraced monogamy and mystical experiences.

A key figure in Gleason’s study is Oberon (Timothy) Zell (aka Otter G’Zell and Zell-Ravenheart) who, in the early ’60s, was inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s celebrated science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. Zell was also influenced by the novels of Ayn Rand (e.g., The Fountainhead), and the self-actualization theory of psychologist Abraham Maslow. These led him to found the Church of All Worlds (CAW), a neo-Pagan group, and the publication, Green Eggs, that promoted polygamous relationships based on the notion of personal divinity. Zell, following Heinlein’s thinking, felt that “sex is an act of worship in which individuals partake in the divinity of one another and thus, by extension, the divinity of the goddess.” By 1974, CAW had become a nonprofit religious organization.

In the early ’60s, Fred Adams established Feraferi (i.e., “Celebrate Wildness”), a neo-Pagan community that began in Southern California into Goddess worship. In time, CAW partnered with Feraferi to form the Council of Themis and, by the late ’70s, some 30 groups were members. This growth led Gleason to observer, “Like a phoenix, neo-Paganism was rising from the ashes of suppression.”

The 1970s and ’80s was a pivotal era. It saw the maturation of the women’s and gay rights movements but also the rise of an invigorated Christian right and the culture wars targeting a woman’s right to an abortion. Together, these factors led to the stalling of a more overt, assertive polygamous movement. Gleason identifies two women who kept the movement’s spirit alive, Ryam Nearing and Deborah “Taj” Anapol.

Nearing lived outside of Eugene, OR, with her two “husbands.” She had been raised Catholic and was originally drawn to Kerista by its non-monogamous spirituality but split from it as it felt to her that it was become more like an organized religion. In addition, she didn’t want to be only “best friends” with her male companions, but wanted to be married to them—one woman with two men. In 1986, she established Polyfidelitous Educational Productions, a nonprofit group that hosts a conference (i.e., pepcon), “a networking weekend filled with workshops, films, games, dancing, and discussion groups.”

Anapol was a “polyamorous clinical psychologist,” who advocated of erotic spirituality. She cco-founded (with Nearing) the magazine, Loving More in 1994. She is the author of Polymore: The New Love Without Limits (1997) and Polyamory in the 21st Century (2010), among other works.

One of the most helpful aspects of Gleason’s book is his references to scholarly and popular studies as well as magazine articles and TV/web shows that have assessed the polygamous movement over the decades. Two studies are notable: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy (1997), a sex-positive guide colloquially known as “the poly bible”; and Elizabeth Sheff‘s The Polyamorists Next Door (2023).

Gleason’s American Poly makes clear that the polyamorous impulse to challenge the dominant form of monogamous, heterosexual sexuality and family remains alive and well in America. According to a 2019 estimate, polyamory is practiced by 4 to 5 percent of Americans, and 19 percent of Americans have been involved in sexual threesomes. While not an overt political movement, those so inclined are easy to find. The website offers and access to nationwide network of like-minded individuals.