I first met sociologist Elisabeth Sheff
over dinner at the 2011 Atlanta Poly Weekend
. She had recently been denied tenure at Georgia State University. Her specialty for more than a decade was polyfamilies and their children (she's not poly herself), and she had come to a tough and dispiriting decision.
Something that really matters if you're up for tenure is bringing grant money to your university department. Rather than abandon years of work in favor of something that would bring more grants to GSU — meaning research that would pathologize alt-relationships, thereby accessing the grants available for research into pathologies — Sheff decided to leave and try to make her way on her own.
|For 20% off the retail price, see footnote 1|
The first major fruit of that effort appeared in November: her book The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families.1
It describes her findings from 15 years of studying polyfamilies and their kids. She's currently on the road to promote the book, giving talks and interviews.
Huffington Post Gay Voices just published an interview with her this morning. Although there is nothing particularly gay about the book or about poly, the gay world seems to be treating polys more and more as fellow travelers in the queer universe.
Additional media appearances, including several podcasts, are listed further below.
Who are 'The Polyamorists Next Door'? Q&A with author Elisabeth Sheff
By Arin Greenwood
...The relationship didn't last. But Sheff's curiosity about polyamory had staying power; she spent some 15 years studying non-monogamous families. The book she wrote based on her research — "The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families" — is a thoroughly interesting, deep look inside this world.
Sex and jealousy, when it's time to open up a family's Google calendar to a new partner, why so many in the poly community are white and affluent — Sheff spoke with HuffPost about all this and more.
The Huffington Post: Is there a typical polyamorous family?
The most common form I found was the open couple, generally a female/male couple that lived together with their children and dated other people who did not live in the household with the couple and their kids. The more people in the relationship, the rarer they are and the more likely it is that the people involved will shift over time....
Poly families’ shared characteristics include a focus on communication and honesty, emotional intimacy with kids and adults fostered through communication and honesty, sexuality kept private among the adults so kids don’t see it even though they can ask about it if they want — and they never want to know, like any other kids, the kids in poly families do not want to know about their parents’ sex lives — dealing with stigma from society and families of origin, challenges deciding to be out or not depending on family circumstances, location and sharing resources so that people get more attention, free time, money, rides, help with homework or life issues, and love.
What makes for a successful poly relationship? How is success defined in poly relationships?
Successful poly relationships are those that meet the participants’ needs. If they continue meeting needs then the relationships continue being successful. If they stop meeting needs because people change or their interests or needs diverge, then it does not have to mean that they failed, only that they are changing form to be something different that meets needs better — at least in the ideal.
Sometimes they crash and burn, hurting people in the process and that is not success. But merely ending or changing form does not mean failure but rather new opportunities to be different....
Some people worry that polyamory is bad for kids. What did you find in your research?
The kids who participated in my research were in amazingly good shape — articulate, self assured, and confident in their family’s love. This positive social outcome was helped along by their parents’ (and their own) race and class privileges because lots of these folks are white, highly educated professionals with middle class jobs, health insurance and white privilege.
On top of those advantages, kids in poly families get a lot of attention from multiple adults who can provide emotional support and practical help on homework or rides home from the movie at the mall.
The downside is that sometimes kids get emotionally attached to a parent’s partners who then leave when things do not work out romantically between the adults. The same thing happens in divorced families in which single parents are dating, and the poly parents use many of the same strategies single parents use, like being very selective, careful and slow about introducing the kids to someone they are dating, and being very clear with the kids about what to expect from the adults in their lives.
The other downsides the kids talked about were too much supervision to get away with anything coupled with the difficulty of keeping a lie coherent with multiple adults, and the problems that come with household crowding....
What are the big rules or guidelines governing sex in the poly community?...
Safer sex agreements mean that fluid transfer is assumed to be taboo unless explicitly negotiated otherwise. Polys routinely use condoms for fluid-producing sex, and have other kinds of sex that does not involve fluid transfer. They also tend to get tested for STIs and share their results in group “show and tell” so everyone knows what everyone else has and sees those people in person to get the sense that they hold the collective health of the group in their hands. This spreads responsibility and empathy.
Polys tend to have more conversations about relationship maintenance than sex, though [when] they do have sex it is often only after extensive communication about feelings, schedules and STIs. All of the discussion and communicating make polyamory a bad choice for people who only want to have no-strings sex....
Most polys try group sex at some point and some of them love it, prefer it to two person sex. More of them tell me that they prefer two person sex and only have group sex occasionally....
...In poly circles, giving someone access to the family’s Google calendar can be considered not only foreplay, but prelude to serious family inclusion....
...How did you do your research? How many people did you talk to, and how did you find them?
I did qualitative research -– what sociologists call ethnography. That involved interviewing 122 people and observing another 500....
There's lots more interesting stuff here. Read on
(March 5, 2014).
Commentary on the interview just went up at the San Francisco site sfist.com: Regarding Polyamory, Why Polyamorists Are Mostly White, And How Their Kids Cope
, by Jay Barman.
Sheff has had other publicity since the book came out (not necessarily complete):
● Wisconsin Public Radio did a 22-minute interview
just as the book appeared (Nov. 18, 2013).
● On the Sex with Dr. Timaree podcast
(to listen, click the button on the speaker bar. Nov. 21, 2013.)
● Interview with the Girl With Pen: Bridging feminist research and popular reality
(Dec. 26, 2013).
● On Tristan Taormino's "Sex Out Loud" webradio show: Polyamory, Non-Monogamy, and the Current Reality of Relationships
(Jan. 17, 2014).
● On The Sex Geeks podcast: Sexology Spotlight: Polyamorous Families
(Feb. 18, 2014).
Sheff has a blogsite at Psychology Today
titled "The Polyamorists Next Door," with much material based on the book. The index page of all her articles there
On her website
are her journal articles and academic book chapters
and some presentations
Some upcoming speaking gigs
A recent substantial publication: Children of Polyamorous Families: a First Empirical Look
, in the Journal of Law and Social Deviance
(Vol. 5, 2013. 95 small pages).
Her Polyamorous Family Study
Sheff and her media mentions have appeared in Polyamory in the News
And, here are my posts tagged "kids"
for the past three years.
1. Price discount: The Polyamorists Next Door is published by Rowman & Littlefield. Academic publishers such as this, with their captive markets of students and university libraries, are notorious for high book prices. However, you can get a 20% discount if you order directly and use the promotion code 4M14SHEFF at checkout. "This promotion is valid until December 31, 2014. This offer excludes eBooks, and cannot be combined with any other promo or discount offers."
There's also a lower-cost Kindle edition at Amazon.
Labels: books, research, The Polyamorists Next Door