Not just "one big orgy": Fighting the stigma of consensual non-monogamy

CBSN Originals: Non-monogamy

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary, "Speaking Frankly: Non-monogamy," in the video player above. 


"One big orgy." That's the stereotype about the lifestyle of consensual non-monogamy — an arrangement where committed partners openly agree to have sexual relationships with other people.

But people who have practiced non-monogamy for years say it's not all wild sex — or even all that wild. It takes a lot of work, and it carries a lot of stigma. There can be serious consequences for the family life and even careers of those involved.

"Many people are trying to create families in different kinds of ways. And a lot of people see that as dangerous," Diana Adams, a Brooklyn-based lawyer who represents polyamorous families, says in the CBSN Originals documentary, "Non-monogamy." 

She advises clients in non-monogamous relationships to be careful about telling their employers. She's seen some lose their jobs over it. 

"There are places where it's not safe to tell people that you're polyamorous, and many people are not out," Adams said. "I think employers are aware that they don't have to allow employees to express themselves, in terms of their relationship status. Because that isn't a protected class."

It is illegal in all 50 states to be married to more than one person — which is known as polygamy, not polyamory. Polyamorous people who try different kinds of arrangements — such as a married couple with steady outside partners — run into their own legal problems. 

There is no legal framework for polyamorous families to share finances, custody of children or the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. Likewise, there are no legal protections against people facing discrimination for being in a non-monogamous relationship.

Legal hurdles in non-monogamous relationships

Mahdy, a man who lives in Brooklyn, New York, had to end his marriage to keep his relationship together. He is part of what's called a triad or thruple — a polyamorous relationship between three people who are all actively involved with each other. But because it's illegal to be married to more than one person, only two people in his triad can be married. 

Mahdy, who did not want his last name to be used, met his first partner about 14 years ago and married her in 2011. One year later, the couple met another woman, and the three formed a triad. But it could have fallen apart after the second woman ran into problems with her immigration status, he says. 

For her to remain in America, Mahdy and his wife divorced, and the wife married the second partner. It kept them all together — but he is still reeling from the ordeal.

"Dissolving the marriage … that was really, really difficult for me," he says. "I don't have the legal protections I had when me and my first partner were married. In fact, I don't think I've had health insurance since."

For many people in non-monogamous relationships, there's nothing strange about their arrangement. It's just romance — plus one or two other people, or more.

"People think that there's this magical thing happening all the time," says Brooke Houston of Kansas City, Kansas, who has been in a triad for more than a year. "And half the time we're just chilling. … Whoever has the energy for a big orgy 24/7, let me know. Tell me your secret," she joked.

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(L-R): CJ George, Brooke Houston and Brandi George have a triad monogamous relationship. CBS News

In 2018, Houston formed a triad with CJ and Brandi George, a couple who have been in an open marriage for four years. She has a sexual relationship with both CJ and Brandi — sometimes individually, and sometimes all together. 

It's not all about sex, though. The three of them live as one unit — sharing a bed, but also sharing dinners. They're part of a monogamous triad, meaning they don't date or have sex with anyone outside their relationship.

On the outside, not everyone is so understanding.

Brandi said that years ago, someone wrote an anonymous letter to the school district where she works as a teacher, outing her for being in an open relationship. The district called her in to discuss it. She didn't end up losing her job — but she feared that she would.

"I was terrified that I would be let go from my job or that I would have people that wouldn't accept me," she said. "My students, like, they give me oxygen, they give me life. And so to have that taken from me would have just like devastated me. So I was just very aware that that could happen and that I would have nothing. And how could I provide for my kids if I don't have a job?"

Children of polyamorous relationships

Some non-monogamous people can't be open about their situation at all.

CBSN Originals spoke with two women in Durham, North Carolina, who have been in what they call a polyfidelitous closed quad for more than seven years. That means the two married couples are romantically involved with each other — each woman has sex with the other's husband — but outside of that the couples don't see anyone else. The women asked to remain anonymous to protect their families, and for fear of consequences in their jobs.

"It's not just about sleeping with each other's husbands. Our lives are meshed together," one of the women said. "Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays are the nights we spend with our extramarital partners. And Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays we spend with our marital partners."

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These two women and their husbands in Durham, North Carolina, have been in what they call a "polyfidelitous closed quad" for more than seven years CBS News

One of the hardest parts of the arrangement is the children. One couple does not have kids; the other does. The couples care for and parent them together, though there is no question about who their biological parents are. And those children had to have all of this explained to them.

"It involves a lot of trust," the woman with children said. "I, as a mother, have to think, 'Do I trust these people?' This could really, really impact my children's life for the worse."

"What we were hoping for was that giving the children more adults in their lives that love them would counterbalance giving them a strange life, and would outweigh it," her partner added.

Last year, the American Psychological Association's Division 44 created a task force on consensual non-monogamy to promote awareness and understanding of non-traditional relationship structures. 

"Finding love and/or sexual intimacy is a central part of most people's life experience," the APA website says. "However, the ability to engage in desired intimacy without social and medical stigmatization is not a liberty for all."

A deeper look at the non-monogamy task force

People who engage in or support non-monogamous relationships argue that it's simply an option that should be available for those who choose — just as monogamy should be an option. And for now, they're just asking for acceptance. 

"It's never gonna be equal for us," Mahdy said. "I only ask that people don't interfere with what we have."