Non-monogamy is nothing new. Recent research suggests that alongside the stubborn population of adulterers, 15 to 28% of heterosexual couples and about 50% of bisexuals and gay men have some sort of "non-traditional" arrangement. This week the BBC Radio 4 documentary Monogamy and the Rules of Love tapped into a growing curiosity about polyamory, the formal practice of having multiple romantic partners at one time. For many people, though, polyamory isn't curious at all – it's just another way of organising life, love and whose turn it is to make the tea.
It may be hard for the conservative old guard to fathom, but for a long time lots of people have quietly been getting on with non-monogamous relationships. During the recent debates around the legalisation of gay marriage, Tory critics warned that the next, unthinkable step would be multiple marriage. I can't be the only one who wondered if that'd be such a bad idea. Some of the sweetest couples I know, including many with healthy, happy children, are not couples at all, but triples or even quadruples – but the public conversation about open non-monogamy is still stuck on horrified confusion. An article in the Independent about the BBC programme confused polyamory with "wife-swapping", which makes the women involved sound like unwanted Saturdays CDs.
In particular, non-monogamy is stereotyped as a bad deal for women and girls, all of whom actually just want a white wedding, because we women are all the same, simple creatures with simple desires. When abuse happens within polyamorous relationships, outsiders often assume that the non-traditional relationship structure is to blame – but the same assumptions are rarely made when a "traditional" marriage turns violent, despite the fact that the practice historically treated women as property and until recently made it legal for men to rape their wives. For plenty of women, that's reason enough to consider other options.