Western North Carolina prides itself on its “live and let live” ethos. From the moonshiners of yore to back-to-the-land homesteaders to the sprawling artistic community, many people feel they can make their living differently here.
That independent streak often runs through people’s personal lives, too. For that reason, some consider Asheville to be an accepting place for polyamory — engaging in emotional and sexual relationships with multiple partners.
Polyamory, also called consensual or ethical nonmonogamy, is distinguished from infidelity by forthrightness about multiple relationships, as well as explicit agreements on how those relationships operate. Folks in polyamorous relationships can be married, dating, hooking up, hanging out or have no definition for their bonds.
“One could say I have five partners, depending on how you define ‘partner,’” says Tikva Wolf. A panel in Ask Me About Polyamory!, a collection of comics by the Swannanoa-based cartoonist, explains, “If you’re happy and not causing others harm, you’re doing it right.”
These untraditional relationships exist worldwide, but in Asheville, they may be more out in the open. “For a town in the South, Asheville has a large progressive, open-minded community, which makes it more poly-friendly than most of the surrounding region,” says Luke Hankins of West Asheville, who is from Louisiana.
Several of the area’s social outlets specifically welcome poly people. A local Facebook group for the poly community allows members to share advice and post events, such as happy hours and informal support groups. A local kink group, Asheville After Dark, includes poly folks at their events. And multiple polyamorous people who spoke with Xpress say they’ve met each other through the local community that attends the annual Burning Man festival held in Nevada.
Despite this openness, it’s hard to quantify Asheville’s polyamorous community; there’s no way of knowing how many of the 1,700 members of Asheville’s poly Facebook group actually engage in consensual nonmonogamy, and the U.S. census does not ask questions about sexual exclusivity. But a 2021 study in the research journal Frontiers in Psychology found that 1-in-9 single Americans had engaged in polyamory at some point in their lives.
And the practice may be increasing among younger generations. Of millennial respondents to a 2020 YouGov survey, 31% said they were nonmonogamous, compared with 27% of respondents in Generation X and 16% of baby boomers.
Yet even in Asheville, polyamorous people can face social stigma and struggle with the way monogamy is held up as the default relationship pattern.
“It’s a societal bias, especially in the South, and one that I frankly resent,” says Hankins. “I’ve even had people literally walk out on dates when polyamory came up, as if suddenly human dignity and common decency no longer mattered — as if I were no longer worthy of respect.” But, he adds, “I refuse to be ashamed about it.”
One Asheville man, who spoke with Xpress anonymously due to fear of professional consquences, had the experience of being outed as polyamorous in his workplace. He’s been in an open marriage with his wife for six years. Although he had met other poly folks in social settings while working in Asheville, he had also been using two online dating apps.
In late 2019, the man’s boss called him into his office and said someone, whom the boss declined to identify, reported finding him on a dating app. “He didn’t seem to care so much,” the man recalls about his boss’s reaction. “But he said that since we are a government organization, it was possible that a higher-up would find out and care a lot more. He then not meanly, but strongly, suggested I take down my dating profiles.”
The source chose to share with his boss that he and his wife are polyamorous, as the alternative to his boss believing he was cheating. “He said he understood and knew that my wife and I were open-minded people,” the man says. “He just wanted me to be extra careful.”
The man removed himself from the dating apps immediately. He says he felt shocked, saddened, angry and frustrated by the situation. Yet the experience has not changed how open he feels he can be in public, although he notes, “I’m careful around new people.”
Polyamorous people also face the belief that their behavior is unsafe for children. Wolf (who uses they/them pronouns) dealt with this directly when, after moving to Asheville eight years ago, they say a housemate reported concerns about their family to Buncombe County’s Department of Social Services.
Wolf is raising an 11-year-old daughter with a co-parent. Currently Wolf, the co-parent, and another partner rent three townhouses side by side. This support provides “an extended family feel,” they say, and the proximity is helpful for child care. But a former housemate, who lived with Wolf when their daughter was 3 years old, saw something different.
“When they found out we were polyamorous, they had a really strong response to that,” Wolf recalls of the housemate. “They moved out immediately and called Children Protective Services on us.”
A county official showed up unannounced at Wolf and their co-parent’s house to investigate an allegation that a toddler was in danger, they say. The official asked Wolf questions about their home environment, including about polyamory, and concluded that the child was not at risk.
But Wolf says this reminder of how some people view polyamory as licentious rattled them. “I guess [the former housemate’s] understanding of what polyamory was was based entirely on sex, and [they were] concerned there would be orgies in the living room,” Wolf recalls.
A provider’s lack of understanding about polyamory can impact the medical care a person receives. Many health screenings don’t solicit information about multiple partners, which some poly people say is delegitimizing and provides an incomplete picture of their sexual health. Wolf notes that the queer community and people of color who are polyamorous can face additional discrimination in these settings on top of the stigma they already face.
Getting mental health support can also be more challenging for poly people. Asheville-based sex therapist Charlotte Taylor says she’s heard other therapists in social settings criticize polyamory. While she’s quick to note that not all therapists who hold this view, Taylor suspects the professionals who do may harbor misunderstanding and fear that can hinder their ability to connect with patients. “It’s a block to understanding why somebody else would make that choice,” she says.
How therapists support a polyamorous relationship is not necessarily different from how they support a monogamous relationship, Taylor adds. “Often the people who find their way to ethical nonmonogamy or polyamory are people who have done a lot of work on their ability to show up in relationships and their understanding of their needs and their emotions,” she explains. She encourages good communication, the ability to name feelings and needs and clear articulation of sexual desires.
And Alisa Genovese, a couples therapist in Asheville, says she has seen the most success in poly relationships when partners agree about boundaries, such as that sexual play is allowed with other partners but there should not be emotional connections made.
Loving while polyamorous
“If you’re going to be poly, Asheville is a great place for it,” says Lindsey Wright, who has been practicing polyamory for three of the five years she’s lived here. She is engaged to a partner in Asheville, and the two share a long-distance boyfriend in Georgia. Wright is also getting to know another man in Georgia. While that relationship doesn’t yet have a label, her connected group of nonmonogamous folks is together called a polycule.
Wright and her fiancée, whom she refers to as her primary partner, have established some ground rules: If she goes on a date with someone else, she’ll tell the partner, and she’ll always use protection when having sex. “What some people don’t seem to realize is yes, you can cheat in a poly relationship if you’re lying to your partner or hiding from your partner,” she says.
As with any relationship, jealousy and insecurity can be detrimental when left to fester. But other bumps in the road are specific to nonmonogamy. Problems can arise if one partner is more involved with other people than the other partner is, Genovese says.
Some polyamorous relationships are intentionally nonhierarchical, meaning one partner does not take precedence over the other. But other poly relationships will designate a primary partner, like Wright and her fiancée. In Genovese’s experience counseling poly couples, she has witnessed the most success when a primary relationship has priority over other relationships.
Some people become aware of their desire for polyamory early on and seek relationships with others who have a similar mindset. But other couples, established as monogamous, make a mutual choice to open up the relationship. Of the latter configuration, Genovese says, “I think that’s one of the trickier ones, because it’s a change to the whole system.”
The emotions involved underscore the skill required to navigate these relationships. “Successful poly relationships do not have an absence of jealousy, an absence of hard feelings or an absence of problems,” says Taylor. “They often have all of those things, but they are dealt with in an understanding and supportive way.”