If you’re single, the opportunities for spontaneous sex and love at Burning Man are virtually limitless. The playa is particularly hard on couples, though, because the same is true if you are not single. This is why people often say that if your relationship can survive Black Rock City, it can survive anything.
It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that polyamory is as popular as it is among burners.
Last week, I attended a meeting of Reno’s Practical Polyamory Group, with a crowd consisting – mostly – of burners. The meeting took place in the same room as Reno’s Core Group meetings, with some of the same faces. It’s a very free-rolling group; they all seemed comfortable with each other, and with each others’ perspectives. They seemed a little more than ordinarily comfortable with themselves, too; it was a group that radiated what felt like a calm and very genuine contentment, carried like a radio signal on a wave of congenial warmth.
No, it wasn’t an orgy; go wash your mind out with soap. It was a symposium on the practical aspects of living your life free of the strictures of traditional monogamous relationships.
At the meeting before my visit, a member of the group passed out a questionnaire devised by a Harvard psychologist to show how the group represented variations on sexual identity. With only eighteen members, the group is statistically insignificant; however, by some coincidence the questionnaire results revealed that they perfectly match a demographic predicted by current theories about diversity among polyamorous people.
Of the eighteen people in attendance:
Nine were born female; nine were born male
Nine identify as female; eight identify as male
One male identifies as a “gender bender”
Nine identify as heterosexual
Six identify as bisexual
One (female) identifies as “pansexual”
One (female) identifies as asexual
One (male; the self-dubbed “gender-bender”) identifies as a lesbian trapped in a male body
Five of the men reported having had sex with women only (throughout their lives)
Four of the men reported having had sex with both women and men
One of the women reported having had sex with men only
Eight of the women reported having had sex with both men and women
Six of the men said they were attracted to women ‘mostly’
Three of the men said they were attracted to women ‘only’
Note: Out of a sense of discretion (but not shame), the eighteen participants agreed to be recorded and quoted, but asked that their names not be used. Here are some highlights:
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HOST: Let’s welcome Whatsblem the Pro. Some of you may know this man. . . we have a lot of burners here, but also some people who are not burners.
GUEST: They’re burner-curious.
GUEST: It sucks, don’t go.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: That’s right! Tell your friends.
HOST: And we have a new person in the group as well. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
NEW GUY: Hi, I’m from Israel, I’ve lived in the States five years. I moved to New York to become an actor, but I didn’t speak English so I couldn’t be an actor.
GUEST: Schwarzenegger did it!
NEW GUY: I started my work life, left New York and went to Atlanta for three years, then I discovered Burning Man after I chose to travel around the world and go from one festival to another; Burning Man was the first on the list, and was the last one as well.
GUEST: You can’t top Burning Man.
GUEST: So you’re saying you’re not a festival fairy anymore?
NEW GUY: Not at all. I did one, Burning Man, and then I stuck. I’ve done many others, but after becoming a hardcore burner every other festival was just setting up my tent and trying to bring home to wherever I go. . . to live the experience even when I’m far away from home. I moved to San Francisco to be close to Burning Man headquarters and start working for them. In the last year we created a Burning Man in Israel that was a great success.
I came to Reno to visit my friends, and I love it here. I went to one burner party and saw the potential of Reno and the burner community here, how it’s growing up very very fast; it’s right here, and there are thousands and thousands of people involved. I see myself as helping the community to grow a lot and get more together, helping people to have the Burning Man experience every day in their life, even if they can’t go to Burning Man.
I became polyamorous after my first Burning Man without having much sex on the playa. . . except once in an art installation in the middle of the day. We talked about it, and I became very excited. I searched online about polyamory because I wanted to know more about it; what’s happening, and why people live that way.
I found out that I’m a lover, and I can love many people, and I want to love as many people as possible. I feel like I’ve found my place with my new poly girlfriend. It’s not about the sex, it’s about being open with people and being together with them in a way that isn’t reserved because you’re with someone. I do like the sex, don’t get me wrong.
GUEST: Congratulations, and welcome!
GUEST: Y’know, having sex in an art installation is an old Burning Man tradition.
HOST: What we’re going to do tonight is talk about the practical aspects of polyamory, and of relationships in general.
Relationships are about forming a partnership, normally between a man and a woman, a single dyad. Polyamory can have a lot of different forms but I think the requirements, the dynamics, a lot of the issues are exactly the same, so. . . I guess the question in my mind is “are there flexibilities with polyamory that we don’t see in conventional relationships?”
A partnership is made up of many aspects; there’s intellectual partnership, emotional partnership, sexual, financial, raising children; people can be partnered up in many different ways. In most cases people partner themselves up in ways they’re comfortable with, but maybe reserve themselves in ways they are not. For instance, a lot of couples maintain completely separate property, which is the opposite of a financial partnership, and often the opposite of financial strength.
With polyamory in terms of partnerships I think there is room for a real range and diversity of possibilities in terms of emotional connections. Those connections can have various depths; we hear the terms all the time in the polyamory world: primary, secondary, tertiary relationships, as well as casual relationships, which extend out into the world of swinging.
So let’s just take turns, and anyone who wants to speak can. We’re looking for anything that is practical knowledge; how do we take out the garbage? How do we buy a house? How do we split up domestic chores? What aspects haven’t we thought of? Who gets to go with whom to the company Christmas party, or are you out with your employer or your employees? These are practical considerations.
I can get it started, maybe create a template.
My interest in polyamory started my first year at Burning Man, I went to a poly camp, the People’s Carcass Wash. I ended up staying and listened to one of their lectures, and it was interesting. I’d just come out of a divorce in 2003, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted my life to be like, and to be honest I was very cynical of marriage – and monogamy, for that matter – and had no intent to do that again, so I began exploring, and that’s what brought me into polyamory.
As far as the practical aspects, I’ve been largely single since 2000, most of the time. Except in 2003, 2004 I met a lady with whom I’ve had an ongoing on-again, off-again relationship. We’ve never really lived together; we’ve done a lot of road trips and hiking and spent a lot of time together, and we continue to do that. A lot of you might consider that a very tenuous relationship, and in many respects it is, but on the practical side, she tended to be the person I did things with. She got invited to the company parties. She was the person I did road trips with.
She’s in and out of my life, and I’ve spent more time alone. I felt pretty comfortable in this balance; it’s OK. I have other relationships; they’re not as much sexual, some of them are, some of them aren’t, it comes and goes. Some of them are intensely emotional, some of them are very much intellectual. I have these relationships that have these aspects that wax and wane in different ways, which is also true of my main relationship. I guess it’s flexible, I’m open to change. As far as the practical stuff, I guess I’m very single in a practical way.
GUEST: “Very single in a practical way.” Hmmm, hmm, I’m trying to visualize this. . . so, does that mean you financially make all your own decisions and you really don’t have a dependency. . .
HOST: Yeah, I do my own laundry, too.
GUEST: [golf clap]
HOST: The statistics say that when a man is divorced, on the average he’ll be remarried within eighteen months, while the average woman will never remarry. One of the biggest reasons that men remarry within eighteen months is so that somebody will do their laundry.
GUEST: Y’know, to get that statistic, a whole bunch of guys had to admit to getting married for the sole reason that it meant someone would do the laundry. . . that’s the really scary part!
HOST: Cooking, also. . . cooking and doing the laundry. Some guys just have this aversion. I like my independence.
GUEST: They’re looking for their mothers.
HOST: That must be it. I’m just not one of those guys.
I think in a lot of marriages, there’s that division of labor that just cripples both people. There are some cliches in our culture. The husband takes out the garbage, the wife does the laundry, cooks the food. . .
GUEST: Men barbecue.
HOST: Right, men barbecue.
GUEST: I kind of think of it as traditional for the guy who is on the bounce from a divorce to be unable to settle on anything, just kind of out there, with lots of different relationships.
GUEST: Dating models.
GUEST: Tell us what kind of car you’re driving, that’s the dead giveaway.
HOST: I’m driving a RAV4. I bought it as a chick car.
GUEST: He’s dating FOOT models!
GUEST: What you’re describing to me sounds like a traditional person having various relationships.
HOST: Well, the reality is that the woman I have the on-again off-again with is a horrible cook. It’s not a secret; we’ve had this discussion in public. We’ve had this discussion in polyamory meetings. I’ll do my own cooking, thanks. . . but if I’m cohabiting with someone and they’re really a great cook, I yield that easily.
GUEST: I’ll go next.
HOST: OK, go.
GUEST: I was in a ten-year relationship with a woman, and it was my first time with someone who identified as lesbian. It was interesting to me because the division of labor in terms of the household chores – we lived together – was really easy. We each did what we liked to do and what we were good at, instead of “you’re the man, you take out the trash, I’m the woman, I’ll do the cooking.”
GUEST: What about the finances?
GUEST: The finances were separate. That’s been true in all my relationships; I’ve always kept my finances separate because I’ve had money issues. My parents fought over money all the time, so by the time I was thirteen I decided that I was not going to be beholden to anybody; that I would pay my own way. Nobody pays my bills. . . and that problem doesn’t exist.
GUEST: Go, girl.
GUEST: It’s easier that way.
HOST: And money, that’s often a very big problem in relationships.
GUEST: I’m like that too, to the point that, with the insurance company taking so much money out of my paycheck for insurance on my kids when nothing was wrong with them, and then demanding a co-pay and denying them coverage when something did go wrong, I just started putting money in a savings account instead.
GUEST: If they’re healthy, it makes sense.
GUEST: It just made more sense to me. They’re healthy all the time! When something happens, I got that. I was like that with my husband, too, from the time we got married. He had his job, I had my job, he had his money, I had my money –
GUEST: Like the old days.
GUEST: Like the old days.
GUEST: I don’t think I’ve ever even had a joint checking account.
GUEST: No, neither have I.
HOST: How about you three? ‘Cause everyone is so curious about your situation, and how you manage things. . .
GUEST: We are SO curious!
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I’m sorry, what’s your situation? I’m the only one who doesn’t know.
ONE OF THREE: (indicating two other women) The three of us are together.
THREE OF THREE: King-sized!
ONE OF THREE: Division of labor, things like laundry or dishes goes to whomever is most available at the time. We have two children, eleven and nine. Child-rearing decisions are made mutually.
GUEST: Do you find that natural biological parents carry more weight in the decision-making regarding the children?
ONE OF THREE: No. We all have equal say.
GUEST: Are you ‘out’ with the community as far as the children are concerned?
TWO OF THREE: Oh yeah, the school and everybody knows.
HOST: And the children are comfortable, obviously. . .
TWO OF THREE: They actually brag about us a little bit too much sometimes.
THREE OF THREE: They CROW about it.
GUEST: That’s the new generation.
GUEST: So is it like, “my moms are strange,” is that how they look at it, or how do they perceive it?
GUEST: Do they call all of you ‘mom?’
ONE OF THREE: They call us Mommy, Mom, and Amber, so there’s no confusion.
THREE OF THREE: Tonight I got rewarded with our older boy being absolutely adorable; he came to me and gave me a hug for absolutely no reason and told me that he loves me just as much as the others. But not as much as the cats.
ONE OF THREE: When they went to their new school, their first couple of days they were coming home telling us about meeting the new kids and telling them about us. Nobody gave them a hard time about it.
GUEST: This is a public school?
TWO OF THREE: Yes.
GUEST: Gives them more options when seeking permission for things.
GUEST: Are there men in their lives?
TWO OF THREE: Yes, we have a mutual friend who is very close, he’s like family to us. He’s an influence.
THREE OF THREE: They call him ‘uncle.’ He’s always around.
ONE OF THREE: My mom’s in a stable relationship with a man, so they have a grandpa-model as well.
TWO OF THREE: It’s always good to have grandpa around.
ONE OF THREE: Did you have any trouble dealing with the bank?
ONE OF THREE: They just knew that we were buying a house together. All three of us own the home. It was a joint purchase; the bank didn’t even look at it twice.
GUEST: You’re all working, right? The more names on that paper, the happier they are.
HOST: So you guys have had a real long-term, stable thing going on here. What have been the major challenges in the practical side of living in a long-term polyamorous relationship?
TWO OF THREE: We did have some challenges with getting our finances incorporated into each other. At some point I just said, hey, fine, we already put the car on my credit card, let’s just use it for everything from now on.
ONE OF THREE: It took about maybe a year before we fully integrated all that stuff.
HOST: So there was a comfort level needed to achieve that.
ONE OF THREE: I manage the finances but they are in on every decision so they always know where things are. No financial decision gets made unless a consensus is reached. It has to be unanimous.
TWO OF THREE: No, there’s an allowance.
ONE OF THREE: We set out an allotment of money each month for each person to be able to do their own thing.
GUEST: Can you talk a little bit about how you brought a third person in when you were a couple?
ONE OF THREE: It was our sixth anniversary. At the time we were thinking that one of us should be out working while the other stayed home and took care of the kids. I was in a position to earn more money, so I was the one going out to work. I was working long hours, sixty or seventy hours a week, because we were trying to build up this very stable money situation and build up our credit so we could buy a house. So on our anniversary, I was totally blacked out from a very long week of work, and I got home kinda late, exhausted and kind of depressed. We were going to go out, but we couldn’t find anyone to watch the boys . .
TWO OF THREE: And I kicked her out! I said “go out and have fun, or I’m going to kill you!”
ONE OF THREE: Yep, she kicked me out. I ended up at a bar, where I met our third, and the couple that she was with at the time.
THREE OF THREE: I had been with a guy for about seven years, and he met a bunch of polyamorous people online and wanted to go out and explore that. After a while the situation was that I was the one who was more attractive to other people, so I got to do a lot more than he did, and I was, like, OK, you want to go out and see people? Let’s go out and see people!
The two of us made some plans to travel, took vacation time, and were traveling across the country for several months. We were in Reno, he met someone who he really hit it off with, and our relationship was doomed. . . and that night at the bar, it was right at the peak of that relationship crashing and burning.
GUEST: Timing is everything.
ONE OF THREE: At first, after we met in the bar and got together, it was mostly just a relationship between us, an outside relationship. From that it grew into a more mutual relationship. She had plans to go back East and look out for some family, which she did, but after a couple of months of that she decided that she wanted to come back, move in with us and stay.
THREE OF THREE: I used that time alone to try to figure out: is this a rebound relationship, am I getting into this just because it’s available? Do I really love these people? I could very well have just been moving on to the next thing because I didn’t want to be alone, that’s a common thing. I was asking myself: is that what I’m doing?
The night we met we could have gone a lot further then we did, but we have the same kind of moral background, and I didn’t really want to do anything until I’d met both of them.
ONE OF THREE: Same here, I really didn’t want to do anything until these two had met. So we didn’t. We wanted to, but we didn’t.
From my point of view, if you’re involved in a long-term, stable relationship, your partner ought to know what you’re doing, even if the relationship is open.
THREE OF THREE: That’s kind of what polyamory is, isn’t it? Not just having sex with anyone you want, but consulting your partner on it. . . do you agree that this person is actually an OK person? Am I out of my mind for being attracted to them?
GUEST: It’s good to get a second opinion!
GUEST: Especially for us guys. When you’re on your own, sometimes the wrong head thinks first.
GUEST: Some of you don’t have a right head.
GUEST: True, true.
GUEST: Well, it sounds like things are getting better and better for you. You just bought a house, and everything. Does life look different now?
THREE OF THREE: I do look at life differently. As much as I strive to be more enlightened than not, I’m still very much a hedonist, so I guess I aim for the enlightened side of hedonism, where I think of the happiness of others first. It’s like, if everyone around me is happy and has what they need, then my needs can be met and I can be even happier.
ONE OF THREE: It’s a great life. Of course, there’s nothing magical about it; I mean, we’re normal people and we get into arguments and disagreements all the time like normal people. We don’t let it ruin the relationship, though.
TWO OF THREE: Above all, what makes it work so well is that we continually talk to each other about everything.
ONE OF THREE: We talk a LOT. All. The. Time.
THREE OF THREE: “Would you please go to sleep?” (laughs)
ONE OF THREE: It takes us two to three hours to do the grocery list.
GUEST: Oh my lord.
GUEST: That’s a downside.
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If you would like to attend a meeting of the Reno polyamory group, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org