Shara Smith looks pretty normal. She's petite with a pale complexion and long dark hair that falls well below the waist of her thin frame. Smith is 30, outgoing, childless and has a career as a lighting and video technician that allows her to make her own hours. Even her hobbies are pretty standard: photography, cross-stitching, ballroom and swing dancing, making costumes out of liquid latex. (OK, that last one is a little out there.)
The only hint a casual observer might have that she's not wholly middle-of-the-road is the message on the black camisole she wears during a recent interview: "My boyfriend says I need to be more affectionate," it reads, "so now I have 2 boyfriends."
It's a joke, and it isn't a joke. Smith has two boyfriends, as well as relationships with two other men that are "not well-defined." She's not a cheater; she's a polyamorist, the difference being that all her boyfriends know about her other boyfriends, and they're cool with it.
Smith is sipping coffee at an Orlando Starbucks and holding hands with Ki, one of her boyfriends. Unlike Smith, Ki (who asked that his last name be withheld) is shy, though today he's excited.
Smith fires up her laptop and logs on to a live chat session with Franklin Veaux, another of her beaus. (Veaux has four girlfriends himself, including Smith. Ki, who has two girlfriends and three "undefined relationships," has never met Veaux.)
Smith turns the video camera resting on top of her computer toward Ki. Smith and Ki are holding hands as the two men wave and smile at each other. At the conclusion of the conversation, Ki asks Smith for Veaux's number so the men can chat, and says he looks forward to visiting him if he's ever in Atlanta, where Veaux lives.
"Generally when you're interested in one person, you tend to like the other people that they like," says Smith. "You don't go in thinking they're a threat or competition; they're allies."
Such is life in a polyamorous relationship.
All my sweeties
Unlike swingers, who are generally after no-strings sex, polyamorists believe in cultivating multiple intimate and emotionally connected relationships. As a group they tend to think of monogamy as outdated and largely cultural in origin; it serves society, but it doesn't necessarily reflect human needs.
"It works for society for people to marry and have kids and continue to remain married," says Randy Fisher, an associate psychology professor at the University of Central Florida. "It's an efficient economic unit."
But it isn't a satisfying one for everyone, Fisher adds. "It takes some social pressure to enforce monogamy. There is a stigma attached to being a cheater, but that suggests that not everyone is satisfied with marital sexuality. Research suggests that men and women become bored with the same sex partner."
About 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women who consider themselves monogamous will have an affair at some point during marriage, notes Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego therapist who authored the book Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Dealing With Affairs.
"I've known couples involved in sexually open marriages, but I've known only a few who were able to sustain them over a long period of time," Vaughan writes on her website, www.dearpeggy.com. "Neither long-term monogamy nor long-term sexually open marriages are either easy or prevalent."
The problem is that when partners want a sexually open marriage, she says, they are usually thinking only of themselves and dreaming of having "the best of both worlds": a strong marriage and the excitement of affairs.
"But realistically, that's not likely to happen," she writes. "Because talking through the issues involved in a sexually open marriage (and processing all the feelings involved) requires an enormous amount of time and energy — which has a dramatic impact on the quality of the primary relationship. In the final analysis, most people determine that the tradeoffs are just not worth it."
Of course, there are exceptions.
Veaux took two dates to his senior prom and says he's always known that he was polyamorous.
"There's plenty of room for more than one person; why should I have to chose?" asks Veaux, who runs the popular poly website www.xeromag.com, which also features BDSM, erotic art and essays. "It's effortless. It's more difficult to be with one person."
While there is no limit to the number of partners that could be involved in a poly relationship, time is a factor. Veaux says he reaches "poly saturation" at about three women. He has four relationships now, but they are all long-distance.
"Time and attention are not infinite," he says.
He is a pierced and tattooed computer hacker who spins fire and dabbles in electronics. He says he's "entertained the idea of getting married," and says he'd like to have the option of marrying his "sweeties," as polyamorists often call their partners.
But polyamorism isn't about demanding rights. Practitioners of the lifestyle — there's really no way to know how many there are in Central Florida as they aren't organized and don't gather to push their agenda — realize that the best they can hope for right now is not to be seen as enemies of "traditional family values."
"Poly is not mainstream because people are not aware of it, but that's starting to change," Veaux says. "I think that more people are becoming aware of it and considering methods aside from traditional monogamy."
Of course legal recognition would be nice. Being a polyamorist means suffering the same lack of legal recognition that befalls homosexuals: insurance, power of attorney, the release of confidential medical information and other benefits of marriage are all denied. Polyamory could meet the definition of adultery in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which could mean court-martial for a poly soldier.
"What should be available is an easier path to insurance, more of a civil union type arrangement," says James Glendinning, an Orlando traveling wine salesman and something of a spokesman for polyamory. "What business does the government have coming to me and telling me who I can and can't have a relationship with? How does that affect the government if I have two partners?"
Still, Glendinning says there is a reluctance among many polys to press their case, lest they be labeled freaks.
"`Activism` is somewhat discouraged because the people that would come forward would not be good for poly," he says.
Why be monogamous?
You think it's tough holding a monogamous relationship together? Imagine traffic control in a poly lifestyle.
"Certainly when you have more people it becomes more complicated," Veaux says, noting that ensuring graceful breakups when relationships go sour is critical.
"I have a long history of civil breakups," says Smith, who notes that she prefers to meet potential partners' exes before making it official. "It's nearly required that I meet the current partners."
Perhaps the larger dilemma is learning to deal with the jealousy.
Anne (no last name), a married Ohio woman who also has a boyfriend, says that jealousy comes from the idea of ownership common in monogamous relationships.
"The idea is that once we grow up we have to be with one person forever and give up first-touch excitement," says Anne, who has been married for eight years. "That's something I was just subscribing to because that's what I had. Then I thought, ‘Why am I monogamous?'"
Anne and her husband agreed to have other relationships two years ago. Instead of feeling jealous, she says it was like the pair were "recommitting to the relationship by choosing the relationship again. It made it that much more exciting."
Her long-distance boyfriend, Brian Downes of Orlando, questions the reasons that many people stay together at all. "It's interesting to me what people will accept about relationships that aren't true," Downes says. "Why should we be jealous? I prefer the idea that a woman is in my life because she wants to be, not because I locked the door. It's not a Mexican standoff. If all it takes is for them to spend the weekend with someone else and they leave, it wasn't much of a relationship."
OK, but isn't polyamorism opening the door to STDs?
Perhaps. But again, it's all in how you manage things. Polys are used to exchanging health reports before getting intimate, and often provide health reports for other partners they are currently having sex with.
Smith, for example, keeps a computerized spreadsheet of everyone she's slept with (or even been in close quarters with) since 1989, the results of their health tests, and all of the exams she has received over the years. Her Excel document, appropriately titled "Sexual Health and History Disclosure," doesn't just skim the surface. It lists her last checkup (February; she hasn't yet added her most recent checkup, in May). It includes a laundry list of diseases ranging from HIV to syphilis and two types of the human papillomavirus, the dates she was most recently tested for each, the results and the status of any previous diagnosis. She includes her fertility status, the fact that she is not surgically sterile, uses condoms as her preferred method of birth control, doesn't plan to have kids and is pro-choice. (If you're interested, Smith posts a version of the chart on her website, theinnbetween.net.)
"Things don't usually just happen," she says. "There's too many people that would be affected and could get hurt."
She gives copies of the chart to potential partners before things get physical, and expects the same in return. Some would-be lovers have been resistant, Smith says, perhaps embarrassed or uncomfortable with the number of past lovers.
For Smith, that's a firstname.lastname@example.org