updated 14 Feb 2010, 17:23
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Sun, Feb 14, 2010
The Star/Asia News Network
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Sharing partners

RAYMOND spends two nights a week at the condo of Susan, who also meets up with Michael for meals, movies and sometimes “a bit more” at his place. Yew Ling is Raymond’s occasional travel cum romance partner on short holidays. Michael also has a few companions cum girlfriends.

All the parties know about each other and are cool about it – a classic open relationship. These well-educated, middle-class, English-speaking Malaysian Chinese, all living around the Klang Valley, are a nascent example of polyamory (literally, many loves).

A Newsweek article last July calls it “the next sexual revolution”.

“I don’t believe in marriage,” says Susan, a marketing manager in her mid-30s, who earns a five-figure salary. “Many people stay married not because they are genuinely in love, but because of the children. Or they can’t manage financially. Others are just too afraid of the social repercussions of divorce.”

Susan feels it will be too “demanding and exhausting” for one person to provide for all her needs. Raymond fulfils her sexually, and Michael, mentally, she says.

“Love is really about genuinely caring. You can love your brothers, sisters, children and animals – it’s all plural. So why does your partner need to be limited to the singular?”

Raymond, a mid-level public relations executive in his early 40s, says, “Many married men will curi makan (commit adultery). At least I’m honest with all parties concerned.

“I’ve been in many relationships but this is the first time I’m in something like this. Yes, I felt jealous about Michael in the beginning, but I asked myself, ‘Is love about controlling and owning a person?’ If Susan is happy loving him, shouldn’t I also be happy for her?

“I realised my feelings of insecurity were not about her or Michael. They were about my own issues which I had to deal with.”

Susan encapsulates the key factors that drive polyamory – scepticism about marriage and women’s independence and empowerment.

“It’s easy to dismiss polyamory as a kind of (college boys’) frat-house (sexual) fantasy gone wild,” says the Newsweek article. “But in truth, the community has a decidedly feminist bent: women (and gender equality) have been central to its creation.”

How widespread is this idea? When you Google “polyamory”, you get 550,000 hits online. On Facebook, you can set your own relationship status to single, married, divorced, in an open relationship, or even, “it’s complicated”.

And it does get more complicated.

In the West, a common polyamorous scenario would see Raymond, Susan and Michael staying in one house (with separate bedrooms), and the others coming over on weekends. Groups set their own rules, for example, “we agree to talk about and work out any unhappiness”. Or, “we will only sleep within a limited group” (polyfidelity).

Others may be more open and decide to disclose any new loves. Some partners might even be married with children, who are then cared for by all the adults, like in an extended family.

The Newsweek piece notes that “openly polyamorous” families in the United States number more than half a million, with “thriving contingents” in nearly every major city. Today there are poly blogs and podcasts, books and local get-togethers.

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