Elisabeth Sheff is an educational consultant and expert witness serving sexual and gender minorities. Her new book, Stories from the Polycule, is a delightful anthology that brings together stories, poems, drawings and essays created by real people living in polycules. Children describe life with more than two parents; adults share what it’s like to parent with more than one partner. We hear from triads, solos, people who have felt polyamorous their entire lives, and people exploring poly for the first time.
This is a slice-of-life anthology of essays and stories on poly dating, parenting, loss and life. Far from a poly how-to book, SftP is easily consumable infotainment, easy to thumb through for the insights that are relevant to you right now.
Why did you decide to write this book?
The amount of information about polyamory has skyrocketed in the last few years, but too little of it presents a well-rounded view of what it is actually like to live in a poly family. Sex and sensationalism are the rule for TV shows about polyamory, and the raft of new how-to books and memoirs on polyamory by definition provide a limited view because they focus on one person/group’s experience.
Stories from the Polycule is composed of selections written by many different people in poly families, so it is in their own voices. I wanted a book that could give many little peeks in to a range of poly families to show the true diversity of poly experience, outside of sexy hot tub scenes or dramatic relationship blow-ups. Or in addition to sex and drama, because those are in the Polycule as well, but also much more.
Whom do you want to read this book?
The main audience is people who are curious about poly families and want a realistic view of what they are like on a day-to-day basis, warts and all. Readers who are looking for a sugar-coated view of poly family life as idyllic and effortless will be disappointed. Those who want to read short and approachable vignettes from poly families — how they come together, what happens with their lives, and what sustains or drives them apart – will be quite pleased with the variety of stories, poems, drawings, and cartoons in Stories from the Polycule. It is the kind of book you can sit and read for several hours, or leaf through and read a few stories here and there.
It is the first book of its kind to tell (some of) their stories, in their own voices. Stories from the Polycule also would be a great tool to introduce polyamory to family members, friends, kids, and adults of all stripes who might need to know about polyamory but shy away from reading long, complicated, or academic books. Because people can leaf through and find what interests them, Polycule can provide a nice slow introduction to begin with and lots more detail later, once the conversation has progressed.
What did you learn from writing this book?
It was my first edited anthology, and I was thrilled by how easily it came together once I had the submissions. It was a real challenge to get submissions, and I had to keep recruiting for a long time before I felt like I had enough to make the book. Each time a submission would come in, it was like opening a birthday present to find out what cool surprise was inside. I loved reading each one, and felt connected to the larger poly community through their stories. Even so, the submissions were trickling in and I was afraid the book would not come together.
At that point I learned not to despair, because help arrived in the form of Eve Rickert at Thorntree Press who aided me in reaching a larger audience to get the word out about submissions. With her help, I got a flood of great stuff at the end, and it really rounded out the book very nicely. So the hardest part was definitely getting the submissions–after that, it all just fell in to place beautifully with hardly any effort on my part. The selections almost sorted themselves in to the six chapters that compse the book.
Why do you study and write so much about polyamory when you’re not poly yourself?
I originally started investigating polyamory as a personal relationship option for myself when, as an undergraduate, I accidentally fell in love with a man (“Rick”) who had told me from the beginning that he did not do monogamy. We discussed it for several years, and when I was in graduate school near the end of the 1990s, I heard an interview with Ryam Nearing (then editor of Loving More Magazine), and my brain exploded. She was talking about exactly what Rick and I had been discussing ad nauseum these several years, and it had a name–polyamory! Not only that, when I looked them up online, it turned out there was a public informational meeting about it in a nearby public library. Rick and I attended that meeting and began hanging out with those folks, just checking out their scene. They were cool, friendly, outdoorsy, open-minded liberals and we fit right in and had fun at their events.
The more I knew about polyamory, the more interesting and frightening it became. As an intellectual, I tend to intellectualize things that frighten me, and I was scared shitless of actually having a polyamorous relationship. In addition to continuing to try to figure it out for myself, I realized no one had researched it yet and recognized an opportunity to both assuage my own fears and do a groundbreaking dissertation on this cool new group. I ended up writing the dissertation and continuing that research for 15 years, which eventually turned in to a book, The Polyamorists Next Door.
Along the way Rick and I tried polyamory with fairly disastrous results (the long story is in Chapter 5 of the Polys Next Door or short version on my Psychology Today blog), with me dragging my heels and making outlandish rules to manipulate the appearance of openness with the reality of monogamy, and him constantly pushing for more. After 15 years together, Rick and split up, and now neither of us identify as polyamorous.
While I do not assume that another serious poly relationship would end with the same disastrous results I experienced with Rick (from what I hear, I could expect an all new cast of potentially disastrous results J, said only partly in irony–or would it be sarcasm?), I am not eager to have another try at polyamory for other reasons like low sex drive, busy schedule, love of time alone, and having my needs well met already.
Even though polyamory does not appear to work for me at this point, I am deeply convinced by the empirical evidence generated through years of research that it can work quite well for some others. Furthermore, poly families have a demonstrated ability to provide happy, loving, and supportive environments for children. Not all poly families are perfect and they certainly can make mistakes like all families, but it is important to me that people understand that polyamorous families are not pathological by definition–they can be wonderful!
The stigma and discrimination poly folks face in daily life and the court system are unconscionable, but not novel or unusual. Sex and gender minorities of all sorts are routinely disadvantaged by negative social views that are unfounded in reality and instead reproduce and reinforce prejudicial or ignorant stereotypes. When the-powers-that-be (for instance, the Child Protective Services officials or judges in family court) use those stereotypes to make decisions about custody or employment, it deeply offends my sense of fairness and I am driven to produce research that demonstrates the empirical status of the family. Some poly families are messed up and probably should be deprived of custody of their children–only with a real investigation that finds significant distress outside of just relationship non-conformity. In other words, people should lose their kids if they are neglectful or abusive parents, not simply because they are polyamorous. I want to help good parents of all kinds–poly, kinky, vanilla, and all–keep their kids by using data to counter hysteria. That is why I study polyamorous families.
Why did you leave academia? What have you been doing since then?
When I first started out as an assistant professor, academia was still ruled by the adage “publish or perish.” Economic downturns from 2008-2011 changed the financial climate for everyone, and universities faced massive budget cuts. In response to significant budgetary shortfalls, universities across the United States made enormous changes in everything from staff and policies to course schedules and facilities. Part of these changes included making “external funding” (meaning getting a research grant from a funding agency outside of the university itself, like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health) a requirement for tenure. I tried hard to get a grant, but had very little success finding grants that would be appropriate to fund my research or getting the grants for which I applied. That meant that I perished, even though I published, and I did not get tenure at Georgia State University.
I have kept a toe in academia since then, teaching as an adjunct or visiting professor at Oglethorpe and Emory University. My consulting business, Sheff Consulting Group, helps others navigate academia, with advice on choosing programs or dealing with departmental politics, and writing consultations that help to shape articles, select target journals and prepare for submission or address R&R critique. I also work as an expert witness, testifying on behalf of sex and gender minorities who are experiencing discrimination or a challenge to custody of their children.
Currently I am working on my third book, Sex and Gender Diversity in an Internet Era, a book that introduces the general public to the wide and potentially confusing world of transgender, intersexed, genderqueer, kinky, pansexual subcultures that have blossomed since the unconventional folks could find each other online. I thought about calling it WTF is LGBTQIA+, but I thought that a publisher might take me more seriously if it was a more serious title.
Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is an educational consultant and expert witness serving sexual and gender minorities. She is the author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families as well as numerous academic and legal articles about polyamory, gender, families, and sexual minorities. Sheff has given more than 20 radio, podcast, print, and television interviews with sources from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek, CNN to National Geographic Television. By emphasizing research methodology and findings in her presentations, Dr. Sheff offers the kind of public intellectualism that encourages audience members to think critically about gender, sexualities, and families. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, their children, dog, cats and the small wild animals the cats bring in.