A little over a year ago, my partner Jen and I started a polyamory social group specifically for people under age forty. There are very few age-specific poly events out there, and people tend to react somewhat defensively to groups with an age limit that excludes them, so I have ended up explaining my reasons for starting this group on various email lists. This post is an attempt to gather all those arguments in one place and explore them in depth.
First, a quick note on terminology. When I say “younger”, I mean people in their twenties and early thirties. When I talk about “older” folks in contrast, I am referring to folks over forty. This means that “older” actually includes middle age people for the purposes of this essay.
Table of Contents
Section 1: Background
Section 2: Analysis
Reasons for Age-Specific Socializing and Dating
Culture and Age
Section 3: Age-Aware Polyamory Organizing
What the Polyamory Movement Can Do
What Older Event Organizers Can Do
What Individuals Can Do
Holding Events Targeted at Younger People
Section 1: Background
The start of this story is my partner Jen’s and my exploration of the polyamory community in San Francisco over the last five years. We spent a good bit of time trying out varous organizing polyamory events: going to this poly dinner, or that hot tub party, or a discussion group, or what have you. There are a lot of different poly events in our area, with a good turnover of new events, so we have been to quite a few different things.
However, we pretty much ended up going only once or twice to each event, and then dropping out. This seemed to be largely because of the age gap between us and the other attendees. I am currently thirty-four, and Jen is twenty-nine. When we started this exploration, I was in my late twenties and she was in her mid-twenties. There would typically only be a handful of people under forty at the events we went to. Sometimes we would be the only people under forty or even forty-five.
I was able to handle the social events pretty well, because I tend to socialize pretty well up and down the age spectrum. But even so, I would always feel a bit out of place. Also, even though I do date up to twice my age, I found very few dating partners at the poly events we were attending, and no one who worked out long-term. Jen tends to relate well only to people within ten years of her age, and she had a much harder time. At the time, she was also looking for a partner relatively close to her age, and there was no hope of finding such a person at these events. Often we would end up leaving pretty soon after arriving. “There’s nothing for me here” became a phrase that was familiar to my ears. Jen had little enthusiasm for returning to these events. Sometimes I would go on my own, but they wore on me as well, and so I never lasted long.
The discussion events were frustrating as well from an age range perspective. They would definitely draw a wider age range than the social events, but the younger people tended to drop out quickly. I think in many cases this was due to the way the discussion went. One group discussion led by an older therapist managed to attract three couples in their twenties that I had not seen before. But apparently they did not like the way the presenter approached the topic of partner abuse, because all three couples left during intermission. In another instance, there was a very cool anarchist threesome that showed up and had some excellent political things to say, but they got hammered by a somewhat traditional older triad whose members had no problem expounding endless circular arguments. The anarchists did not come back.
This is not to say that all the discussions were hopeless or problematic – indeed, we attended the discussion groups much longer than the social events because we tended to have good talks with people from all over the age range. But again, we were having trouble connecting with anyone, because people near our age range did not become regulars. This was compounded a bit by my personal politics, which are very left-wing. As you go up in age, there are less and less people who share my political views – the last thirty years have constituted a massive generational political shift. Discussion topics and perspectives were often largely irrelevant to our lives.
Jen and I identified what we call “show up once” syndrome. People from the younger age range would show up to an event once, and never come back. Sometimes they would not even make it to the end of the event. And indeed, Jen and I were part of this as well: I can list off numerous events that we made it to exactly once. We realized that this syndrome was preventing younger folks from establishing a foothold at any of the usual poly events: since they would not come back, there were rarely more than a handful at any one event.
It was during this time that Jen and I got involved in Love+Politics, a progressive polyamory organization that started up in the San Francisco area. (It is long dead, but that’s another story.) I ended up holding a lot of discussion events for L+P. The progressive bent of the group and my facilitation meant that the subjects were definitely interesting to me. However, even though the discussion group (and actually, all of Love+Politics) started off with a good age range, over time we would add older people and the younger people would drop out. Some of the younger left-wing folks who helped kick-start the organization left over political differences with the leader. My discussion group added a couple of problematic people who happened to be older.
It was with Love+Politics that I first noticed a problem that has dogged my polyamory organizing: I had a hard time getting my friends and lovers to events I was holding. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me or didn’t want to go to poly events, but rather that the sort of events I was putting on had very little appeal to them. This prompted me to start thinking about what sorts of events would actually attract younger poly folks, the question that is still fueling my attempts at poly organizing.
Eventually Jen and I found other ways to locate poly people near our age. We got good at finding partners through the online personals. Our friend/lover network eventually grew enough so we started meeting folks through social ties. But perhaps most importantly, we started going to BDSM events.
The BDSM community is not shy about creating age-limited events specifically for younger people in the community. The last decade has seen a proliferation of “TNG” groups (TNG is short for The Next Generation), typically social events or dinners specifically limited to people under a certain age. The age limit varies from place to place, but is usually either thirty, thirty-five, or forty. While these groups initially faced a lot of resistance, eventually the kink community came to the conclusion that they were necessary: the only alternative seemed to be giving up on the possibility of people in this age range joining the public BDSM community.
Here in San Francisco we have a monthly TNG dinner, a bimonthly play party for people under forty, and a kinky club night that tends to attract younger folks. Jen and I started going to these regularly, and we started meeting poly people near our age on a fairly regular basis. Even when people were not poly, they were often nonmonogamous as a side effect of being into BDSM. Jen met someone at one of the dinners and they started dating seriously.
Our impetus for starting a poly under forty group here in San Francisco was to see if we could replicate the success of the BDSM TNG dinners. These dinners function as an entry point into the community: a place for new younger folks to show up and reassure themselves that they are not the only people their age into BDSM. In San Francisco, the TNG dinners primarily act as a stepping stone to BDSM club nights and dungeons. People show up, meet a handful of folks, and quickly move on to larger kink social scenes.
And indeed, the primary response to our age-limited polyamory group has been one of relief. I cannot tell you how many “oh thank goodness” responses we have gotten. When I have told people about the group in person, I see their eyes just light up. Once they get to discussing their experiences in the local poly community, all the usual stuff comes rushing out: “I was the youngest person in the room – by ten years.” “None of the discussion topics were relevant to me.” “I left after some guy my parents’ age hit on me.” And of course, “I never went back” and “I gave up on poly events”. I am not talking about ten or twenty people here – I have had this conversation around a hundred times at this point.
At the same time, I have gotten an incredible amount of crap from people in the community for holding these events. I have been accused of ageism endlessly. I have been through two email flame wars on local lists, and I expect more in the future. I have gotten emails from strangers filled with the kind of blind hate that we expect to see from right-wing nutjobs but not from each other.
The problem for younger folks, simply stated, is that (aside from my new under-forty events) there are no public polyamory events in my area that have a critical mass of people in their twenties or thirties. This means that there are no reliable places to go to get age-specific support, or to meet potential partners of a similar age. While some younger poly people have no problem getting support from older folks, or dating older folks, most need people around their own age for these things, and there is effectively no organized community for these people.
This creates a whole host of follow-on effects, as younger poly people compensate in various ways. Some end up depending entirely on internet resources or personals websites. Most build out friend networks full of poly people, making an effort to socialize largely with other younger poly folks, sometimes almost to the exclusion of socializing with monogamous people. Many turn to other communities where it is possible to find poly or nonmonogamous people, like the BDSM, swinger, Burner, new age, or queer communities.
Sometimes these younger folks end up not identifying as polyamorous, even when what they are doing looks and quacks like polyamory. This may seem odd, but in fact is not too surprising. It is really hard to pick up or retain an identity when you cannot find anyone in that identity group from your own demographic. If the people you end up dealing with are all swingers or Burners, then you tend to start thinking of yourself that way, even if the reason you met these people was because you are poly. Along these lines, I also see lots of people taking on the poly label, but having their polyamory identity end up secondary to these other community identifications. Which again makes sense: we prioritize the identities that are serving us best. I see these types all over the public BDSM community in the area, where polyamory has gained a foothold but the number of strongly poly-identified people is much much smaller than the number of nonmonogamous people, who are a majority in the local kink scene.
In particular, I want to note that the lack of peer support for younger poly people is a real problem in my area, and may be reducing our numbers. I know lots of younger poly folks who have problems with polyamory, and they do not have any place to get this sort of support. Some of them give up, and head back to monogamy. While of course some of these people are not the poly type, others are, and I suspect they will suffer in monogamy. I had my four years of trying to be monogamous and it was hell. I would rather that others not have to travel that particular path.
This problem may well be specific to the San Francisco area. Certainly, the Boston people in my social circle do not have this issue to my knowledge. Here in the SF area we are blessed with two things that might be contributing to this issue: a large number of poly people in general, and a large and vibrant older generation of people in their forties to early sixties. This latter group seems to be a generational spike: people who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. When you get older than this group, poly membership tapers off drastically.
Most of the events in this area are held by folks in this late-middle-aged group, and attended by the same crowd. And it is very cool that we have these events. Because of this generational group, there has been a consistently visible poly presence and activity in the bay area since before I was on the scene. I can show up to an event and actually talk to one of those people who started being nonmonogamous in the 70’s and never stopped. In short, we have an incredible resource base here in the area, one that is generally not replicated in other regions in the States. I hear stories from people in other regions, where events are infrequent and finding people is a very difficult. The vibrant older polyamorous community in the area has saved me from experiencing the isolation common to other areas.
So, I am really glad that we have this community and these events. And indeed, nothing in this essay should be taken as a critique of these events: I have no issue with events that end up being by and for a specific age group. My problem is that we seem to have developed a blind spot around age. Because we have a roster of regular events, we assume that all age groups are being served by these events, when that is really not true. (Note that this sort of problem is not specific to age: we also have it around race, ability level, liberal versus conservative, and so on.) There is a sort of universalizing effect here: events that people think of as generically poly turn out to really be events for poly people in a particular demographic, and people in that demographic sometimes have trouble seeing who is missing, since they are being well-served by local poly events.
This problem is also nothing new. I have a friend who started a poly under thirty group in the late nineties because he was facing the same sorts of problems back then. We can expect that if we do not take steps as a community to address these age issues, they will remain indefinitely.
An inability to attract younger poly people to the organized poly community presents a certain danger to the polyamory movement as a whole. We risk aging out, where the organized community gets older and older and eventually disappears. This may sound silly to you, but that is exactly what has happened to other communities.
Remember nudism? While the nudist/naturist movement got started in the 30’s, it really took off in the 60’s and 70’s. Club membership peaked in the 80’s, but the movement now seems to be in decline. Part of this is that the culture has moved forward, and being naked is not so much of a big deal that one has to center an identity on it. But part of the issue is that the nudist movement seems to be aging out, and not attracting younger folks. Last year, a series of articles triggered by an Associated Press story covered this aging effect. Nudists in the articles described being unable to attract the younger generation because of issues like cost and generational differences. To try to deal with the problem organizations have set up young ambassador programs and clubs are offering price incentives to the younger crowd, but frankly this seems like too little too late.
The decline of organized nudism is happening at the same time as general acceptance of nudity is increasing. This may seem paradoxical, but actually makes sense: who needs organized nudist community when you can be naked at home, at a nearby beach, at a sex party, or at a hot spring? At the same time, the decline of organized nudism will probably set us back politically. At one point, nudists were filing court cases, trying to protect their right to assemble and trying to push the freedom to be naked into various public spaces. Those efforts have stopped, and we may see a certain retrenchment of mandatory clothing. The right wing has started making attacks on nudist groups, focusing on a child abuse tack, as we see in this article.
On a side note, nudism and polyamory carry a similar sexualization profile, which is to say most people in these communities will very forcibly tell you that what they do is not sexual, but at the same time the mainstream inevitably views them as sexual. I think the fact that we are a somewhat sexualized community has something to do with our generational organizing issues, as I will discuss below.
My point here is that there is no guarantee that organized polyamory (or for that matter, polyamory) will continue. We could easily turn into a one-generation flash in the pan. Something new would probably spring up to take our place, much as polyamory seems to have largely taken the place of open relationship ideology. But at the same time, losing the momentum of polyamory would be a serious setback for nonmonogamy in general, much like the decline of the naturist movement has been a setback for anyone who values nudity. We saw this happen in the 80’s, when both open relationships and swinging took a serious conceptual and cultural beating, and this halted or reversed much of the progress that had been made in nonmonogamy. For example, we would not be able to make progress in the area of legal custody reform, or in legal recognition for our relationships. We would be much easier targets for right-wing attacks and cultural backlash. We might not be able to publish our guidebooks, and our conferences and workshops could disappear. We would certainly lose our relatively good credibility.
This could all happen at the same time as polyamory or nonmonogamy gains in popular acceptance, much like has happened with nudism. We can see this with the bisexual movement. In the 90’s, bisexual activism was on the move. We got most lesbian/gay organizations to change their names to include bisexuality, we started agitating on the national level, and so on. It seemed like things would only keep on growing, and soon bisexuals would be a national force to reckon with. But instead, organizing fizzled (for reasons that were not the aging-out problem, but have more to do with bisexual invisibility and appropriation of bisexual issues). Today, there are more bisexuals than ever, but very little in the way of bisexual organizations. We have a hard time keeping up a bisexual support group in San Francisco, though we have plenty of bisexuals. We are unable to forcibly respond to media attacks on bisexuality. LBGT organizations seem to be largely staffed by L’s and G’s with the occasional T. And so on. The stagnation of bisexual organizing has not been a good thing for bisexuals, and may eventually result in a reduction in bisexual identitification and bisexual freedoms.
As I mentioned above, the polyamory generational organizing problem seems to be specific to San Francisco. However, it may simply be that polyamory has advanced further in the San Francisco area and so we are seeing effects here that have not shown up elsewhere. We have a large number of poly people here, and we also have a vibrant older poly generation, two things that you generally do not find in other regions. If we assume that the polyamory movement continues to grow, then we can expect that more areas will eventually have large poly populations containing a good number of older poly people. If this happens, then we may well see the “nowhere for younger poly people to go” problem spread to other regions. In other words, the San Francisco area may serve as a warning, giving us a preview of movement-wide difficulties that we may face in the future.
I know I tend to be all gloom and doom when talking about movement organizing, so let me elucidate the positive side of focusing some effort on organizing younger poly people.
For various cultural reasons, nonmonogamy seems to be on the move in the United States. Some of this is because the problems with monogamy have started becoming visible to the larger culture. Serial monogamy is common and sometimes not well liked. Also, due to feminism, many women have gotten to a point where they can approach nonmonogamous situations from a standing of equality. Sexuality in general is gaining in acceptance, and the successes of the lesbian and gay movements have opened the door for sexual minority organizing of various sorts. On top of all this, a relatively liberal and economically stable period has supported the flowering of sexual minority subcultures. In short, we are at a very good historical moment for nonmonogamy organizing, which is probably why polyamory is doing as well as it is.
Due to the visibility of nonmonogamy (swinging, open relationships, polyamory, queer men’s nonmonogamy) and the visible problems with monogamy, more and more people are asking themselves, “do I want to be monogamous?” at a young age. Quite often, the answer is no, and people set off to be nonmonogamous. Unfortunately, role models for polyamory (or really, any kind of negotiated nonmonogamy) are pretty rare for people younger than twenty-five. Some do pretty well finding resources online, though others do not think to look until later. On the poly forums, we often see people say things like “I have been doing this for years and had no idea there was a name or community for it”. I think many people hit their first couple nonmonogamous snags and lacking support or community they give up at that point. Sometimes this is because monogamy is actually a better fit for them, but other times it is because they did not have the resources to succeed at nonmonogamy. Others keep it going, but may never seek out community or identify with nonmonogamy.
Along similar lines, there are a whole lot of people in their twenties and early thirties who are practicing nonmonogamy or polyamory (and often use the words), but who do not engage with poly community. Sometimes they don’t know organized community exists, other times they have never seen a clear reason, or they have gone to one or two events and did not find anything they were interested in at them.
Jen and I see this in the BDSM community when we hold our Practical Nonmonogamy workshops. When we hold these at dungeons, we get a strong turnout and people are really enthusiastic. We actually started to develop a following, though we are not highly experienced presenters. There is a real hunger in the BDSM community for nonmonogamy how-to skills, but either it has not occurred to these kinksters that these skills could be improved via workshops and discussion, or they have tried going to non-BDSM-oriented poly events and were turned off because they could not identify with the people there. In other words, there is a strong potential for nonmonogamous teaching and organizing in the BDSM community, but we are not fully taking advantage of that potential. I think we can say something similar for younger people experimenting with nonmonogamy: there is a real potential there for poly organizing, which we are currently not fully taking advantage of.
What if we could actually pull in these people from the younger generation in my area? We could significantly expand the number of people involved in our poly organizations. We could cement the future of organized polyamory in the area at least through the next generation.
We could get that much closer having polyamory be a household word. This bit is crucial – the queer-identified population really grew when gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities became so well-known that every young person had to ask themselves about their own sexuality, and could think about it knowing that there were decent alternatives to heterosexuality out there. (We are still working on getting transgender recognition to the same place, I think.) High schoolers started coming out in droves, and there was an identity population boom. High schoolers and college students already seem to often question whether monogamy is right for them, but generally lack any information on workable alternatives. If we can get to a place where such workable alternatives are commonly known (much like students know that being LBG is a workable alternative), I think we can expect a similar rapid increase in identification. Below I discuss various outreach efforts that could help inform monogamy-questioning youth about polyamory.
Also, there are good selfish reasons for older folks to encourage a burgeoning younger poly population. It is much easier to maintain one’s sexual minority status in old age when one is backed by a vibrant and growing cultural movement. We can see this currently in queer organizing, where there has been a significant focus on the issues faced by elder LBGT folks. Queer community money has gone to initiatives to make assisted living friendly to queer people, for example. Lesbian rights pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon managed to get legally married last year before Del Martin’s death. Given the accelerating rate of sexual minority progress, it is not inconceivable that poly people currently in their forties might legally marry more than one person before they die, but this will only happen if the movement expands considerably. If polyamory slows down or contracts, the current generation will be left out in the cold as they age, much like we are seeing with organized nudism. I have met a lot of folks who were part of the free love and hippy movements who tend to talk about their younger years with a wistful tone. There is a certain sadness to seeing one’s movement disappear or fall into disrepute as one ages. I would rather not have that happen to me or other poly aficionados.
Section 2: Analysis
Reasons for Age-Specific Socializing and Dating
When I have discussed the age distribution at events with older poly folks in my area, they tend to blame the younger folks. Specifically, they claim that younger poly people are unwilling to hang out with older people because they are ageist. And certainly this is true for some people: they have an “ew, ick, these people are my parents’ age” reaction that I can classify as ageism. But for most younger poly people I have talked to, the concern is that they want to spend time with people their own age, which seems entirely reasonable. The issue is not that there are older people in the room, but rather that there are no younger people. (The exception seems to be people who are still in college or their early twenties, who often have a visceral reaction to being at a sexualized event with older people. More on this below.)
And I want to point out that it is in fact weird that we are expecting younger and older folks to get along great. US culture is incredibly age-striated, and the culture generally expects that people will only associate with their own age group. Dating guides tend to recommend that people date within five years of their own age, and they reflect the common expectations of the culture at large. Similarly, we expect to socialize within a relatively narrow age range, only making friends with people within a decade of our own age. These dating and friend age ranges generally expand as people get older, but I would still characterize the limit as being fifteen years for people in their fifties. Interactions outside the expected age ranges are usually limited to formalized (and notably, de-sexualized) roles, like teacher/student, coworkers, relatives, and so on.
So it is a little goofy that we are expecting poly people in their twenties to primarily socialize with poly people in their forties or fifties, given our cultural context. It seems like this expectation is born of the assumption that our polyamorous identity or shared experience will trump other concerns like age. While this is true to some extent for other sexual minorities (namely LBGT folks), it is simply not true for polyamory. Most poly people I know (of any age) would prefer to hang out with monogamous people close to their own age instead of polyamorous people outside their age range.
Or perhaps we expect intergenerational socialization because we expect poly people to be more enlightened about age than the general population. And indeed, the poly movement as a whole is surprisingly friendly across generations. Polyamory itself tends to support intergenerational dating much more than monogamy: when a person does not have to be your one and only, it is much easier for them to be outside the standard cultural age range for dating. But while poly people are somewhat less likely to care about age compared to the culture at large, for most it is still a significant concern. People act surprised about this, but if we remember the culture we live in, what is surprising is our relative flexibility about age, not the fact that it remains a concern.
To be clear, there are plenty of good and understandable reasons for primarily socializing close to one’s age. The first is that it is easier to relate to people one’s own age, due to being at the same life stage. It is easy to underestimate the strength of this effect.
We see this in discussion group topics. A young friend of mine recently went to a poly discussion group, and the primary topic of discussion was raising children in a poly household. This is a hugely important topic for many poly people, but at the same time it is unlikely to interest most poly folks in their early twenties. In general, many discussion topics vary widely in importance depending on age. Some examples of such topics: moving a quad in together, coming out to parents, concerns about job security, and dealing with divorce. Even when general topics are important across the age spectrum, often the particular concerns or solutions involved are specific to one’s life stage. For example, many poly people are interested in how to find other poly people, regardless of age. However, the manner in which they can find people varies widely: a twenty year old person will successfully locate poly people differently than a thirty year old person, who in turn will use different tactics than a fifty year old. Also, the reasons for looking are quite possibly different depending on age: somewhat more likely to be validation for the twenty year old, dating partners for the thirty year old, and community for the fifty year old.
The life stage effects also impact our polyamorous practice itself. People’s relationship needs are different at different ages. There is a shift from a focus on sex to companionship as people age. Middle-aged people tend to be looking for stable child-rearing arrangements or good economic partners, more so than people in their twenties or sixties. Poly style tends to be age-specific due to these reasons. In my personal experience, younger people tend towards loose relationship networks while older poly folks tend to have a smaller set of stable established relationships.
In addition to life stage effects that make it more attractive to spend time with people close to one’s age, there are a whole series of generational changes. In other words, a thirty year old today will have very different attitudes than a thirty year old twenty years ago. Even though people do tend to change with the culture as they age, individual people do not change as fast as the culture. So the fifty year old today who was that thirty year old twenty years ago will still retain many of the attitudes of the thirty year old self, making them different from the thirty year old today. Culture has been moving fast these days, and generation gaps are significant.
The most obvious of these is a general trend towards liberal or left-wing attitudes. People are generally more liberal than their parents. Younger people are much more likely than the older generation to support queer rights, understand what it means to be queer, or be queer themselves. Most of my friends were raised in an era of feminist advance, and as a result we generally consider men and women to be the same. When an older person starts spouting off about the basic and intrinsic differences between men and women (which happens with distressing frequency at poly discussion groups), people from my age cohort are immediately alienated. And so on – I have only scratched the surface here.
In addition, there are much more subtle generational changes in the way that people date and socialize. I noticed one of these at the under-forty social group Jen and I started. Nobody at the events seemed to be hitting on each other, even though many of them were quite clearly available and looking. But at the same time, people who barely knew each other one month would show up at the next month’s event all snuggly and clearly dating. It turns out that the general strategy for propositions is to wait until after the event and contact someone via email or social networking websites. There have been almost zero face-to-face propositions at the events itself. In comparison, in-person propositions are very common at the poly events in the area attended by older folks. What happens when you mix these two age groups? The older people (in particular but not exclusively older men) are not shy about propositioning folks, including the younger cohort. Younger people experience this as pushy or threatening, even when the come-ons are perfectly polite and respectful. When you are not used to having any in-person propositions, they can be very tiring to handle, especially if they are from people you have just met.
Of course, there are lots of other generational changes to the way we date. Due to being raised during the AIDS crisis, younger people are somewhat more likely to use condoms for intercourse, and heterosexual young folks generally do not view their heterosexuality as proof against STDs. Younger folks tend to be better with the online personals, or at using social network websites for dating. Due to the queer revolution, younger folks are more likely to identify as bisexual (or otherwise not gay/straight/lesbian), or to be willing to experiment by having sex with various genders. Younger folks are less likely to view marriage and children as inevitable in their lives. Younger people are more likely to have tried anal sex. The concept of not having access to birth control or abortion is completely alien to us. In other words, there are a whole host of subtle generational changes to sexuality, relationship goals, and dating styles. These changes can make it much harder to socialize with or date older people, though it certainly does not stop many of us.
In the US, we like to pretend that our culture does not change, despite incredible evidence to the contrary. There is this sort of universalizing myth, that people are essentially the same from generation to generation, even as technology advances and the outer world changes. To prop up this myth, there is a fevered push for evidence of biological tendencies, focused on whatever the current insecurity is. In the 1920’s, they were desperately trying to prove that people of different races were deeply and inevitably different based on their race. Today, they are desperately trying to prove that women are different from men, and that gay men are different from straight men (somehow they neglect to consider lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people). The idea that people basically stay the same is comforting, building a conceptual wall to protect us from the speedy cultural changes all around us. This purposeful blindness to change is at its base a conservative impulse.
In the case of age-based politics, this refusal to embrace change shows up as a universalizing impulse towards age. We want to pretend that everyone is the same, whether they are twenty-five or sixty. We are sometimes willing to give ground on life stages, admitting that older people are of necessity different from younger due to their current life needs. Though just as often we seem to want to pretend that everyone in the category “adult” is basically the the same. We are much less likely to admit (or try to understand) the fundamental generational changes that are occurring. The universalizing urge shows up as the impulse to view each generation as largely identical, minus some differences due to technological advance. Times of turmoil are just seen as temporary deviations, allowing people to deny their permanent effects. I have heard “the sixties are over” more times than I can count, despite the fact that most of the effects of the sixties continue to this day. It is our cutural conceit that we live in the best possible world (from a cultural perspective as opposed to a technological perspective), and to maintain that conceit we have to assume that the future will be culturally identical, which of necessity means the next generation is also identical.
The universalizing impulse towards age tends to create a certain blindness around age at events. When people are at events where the attendees are their own age, they tend to stop noticing age entirely. This is reasonable – they are being well-served, and we only tend to notice when things are going wrong. This is true no matter what the age of the viewer, twenty-five or fifty. People go to events that are effectively age-segregated, and generally fail to notice the age segregation.
For similar reasons, people tend to be blind to intergenerational differences and issues, and to age-related interaction problems. As I have discovered in discussions around age at polyamory events, any discussion of age concerns triggers a certain defensiveness. People do not want to notice age, and even when forced to notice age, they want to pretend that age is less important than it ends up being. Any discussion of actual personal differences based on age (due to life stage or generational change) is apparently highly threatening. In their defensiveness, they throw out accusations of ageism, where the justification seems only to be that age is being discussed.
I call this purposeful blindness “agewashing”, a made-up word based on “whitewashing”. Agewashing is the urge to not see age, or to pretend that age is not a concern when it is, or to shut down discussion of very real age-related differences or tensions.
Culture and Age
To be sure, I do not blame individual people for their urge to agewash. I blame society and the media. Our culture has a frankly ridiculous approach to age, that embeds all kinds of age-related neuroses in us.
Let us start with the cultural obsession with youth and young bodies. While this is changing, it is still relatively rare to see television shows or movies where the actors are older than forty. Apparently we actually only live from age fourteen to age thirty-five or so, and then the interesting parts of our lives are over. In particular, the focus on high school and college is just ridiculous. If you judged based on screen time alone, we would spend half our lives as students. This mapping of youth to life means that people of any age have the urge to think of themselves as still young, or at least to think of themselves as having not changed since they were young. Because if we admit that older people are different simply due to being older, we end up with no role model for how to be old. Instead, people of any adult age are forced to model themselves on people in the media, who are all either young or pretending to be young. This modeling gets extreme in the case of high school movies: the way people act in high school movies is nothing at all like the way people actually act in high school. Also, the actors all have specific kinds of early-twenties bodies, not high school bodies. We are really using high school settings to stage movies that model the lives of people in middle age.
On a side note, this tendency to represent the entire culture via young people is a conservative strategy. By playing out adult dramas in the context of high school, college, or one’s twenties, cultural media effectively infantilizes adult issues. To put it differently, by focusing on young people, the media avoids serious discussion of many adult concerns. For example, it is hard to find good representation of the struggles involved in: changing jobs, long-term relationships, retirement, sending children to college, divorce, and so on. Instead the media focuses on situations that are most relevant to folks in their twenties: getting that first job, starting a relationship, accidentally getting pregnant, and so on.
If you are older, the media focus on youth creates a strong conceptual incentive to avoid thinking of yourself as different from younger people. To do otherwise is to be lost without a map. If you are younger, the absence of older protagonists means that you can largely ignore the fact that older people exist. In both cases, what we get is agewashing.
The idealization of young bodies and youth as attractive only makes this worse. We are simply not taught how older bodies and older people can be attractive. While most people grow up and figure it out for themselves to some extent, this creates a further incentive for older people to think of themselves as the same as younger folks: to do otherwise is to be consigned to a kind of conceptual desexualization.
The obsession with young bodies also tends to make younger people more defensive around interactions with older people in sexualized spaces. Young bodies basically end up as a kind of commodity, and of course people do not like feeling like commodities, so younger people opt out of sexualized spaces where older people are present. This is true for young people of any gender, but goes double for young women, due to the culture’s tendency to sexualize young women’s bodies and due to the culture’s focus on older men/younger women relationships and sex. I think that women actually get less defensive about their bodily space as they get older, because their aging means that the culture is less sexually aggressive towards them. More specifically, men are less sexually aggressive towards them. The upshot of all this is that younger people will generally refuse to share sexualized space with older people, due to an entirely understandable defensiveness brought on by the culture’s fetishization of them.
Much as we might dislike it, most polyamory spaces end up being sexualized. This is not because of anything about polyamory, but rather because the larger culture views any kind of nonmonogamy as deeply and inevitably sexual and titillating. The statement “I am not monogamous” is generally heard as “I am a nympho, please take me to your orgy”. Poly organizers go to great lengths to try to keep this sexualization out of our events: disciplining single men who seem to be looking for a good time, holding the events in public places and having people dress normally, instituting “no come-on” rules, and so on. And we are largely successful at creating space where people can talk about poly or with poly people without the orgy madness descending. But at the same time, we never fully erase the sexualizing effect of the culture’s understanding of nonmonogamy. There is a certain sexiness in the air at poly events. While they are not as sexual as sex parties or dating events, this sexual air is enough to create a problem when it comes to younger folks interacting with older folks, due to our problematic cultural programming around age (obsession with young bodies, idea that young people should only interact with young people). So, one strategy for creating good intergenerational interactions is to desexualize the interactions, either by setting up certain roles between people or by desexualizing events. I will discuss this below in a section on ways we can improve the generation gap situation.
As I have mentioned, there is a certain ageism in the culture that works against older folks, and younger poly people are in no way immune to this. This ageism can show up a number of ways: thinking that older people are icky, refusing to socialize with folks older than a certain age, developing an obsession with PYTs (“pretty young things”), and so on. This ageism is very problematic for people as they get older, as I have mentioned. It means older people are desexualized and often considered ugly, they stop seeing themselves represented in media, and so on.
While I do not mean to minimize the impact and importance of anti-old ageism, I do want to say that it is not particularly surprising to find it in younger people, poly or otherwise. We deliver a consistent message to youth: older people are gross, they will not understand you, only young bodies are beautiful, high school and college are the best times of your life, and so on. So, we should not be surprised when younger poly people have these attitudes. That said, my personal experience is that people in my social circle generally grow out of these attitudes by their mid-twenties as reality impinges. So, while this anti-old ageism is definitely a factor in the generation gap issues we are seeing in the poly community (and especially important if we are talking about people in their early twenties or younger), it is not the only factor by a long shot. For example, it does not explain why a person in their early thirties cannot find an event to attend with people their own age.
There is another factor, that is much more rarely discussed and which is not particularly well-understood: anti-young ageism. Sometimes this shows up in language, for example whenever an older person dismisses the opinion of a younger person with a statement like “oh I thought that way when I was your age too”. However, this sort of obvious ageism is relatively minor compared to the real issue.
The real issue is that older people in our culture have most of the power. If you doubt this, take a quick look at the US Congress or Senate. Or any elected body in this country, actually. How many of these people are under forty years old? How many are under thirty? If we look at CEOs or most other powerful positions (with some exceptions, like movie stars) again we see people who are at least in their middle age. And even if we put aside obviously powerful positions, people generally gain money and prestige throughout their lives, which means that older people generally have more of both than younger people. Certainly in families, people tend to control more of the family wealth the older they are, up to a point (wealth often starts to decline after retirement).
Between control of government, control of corporate resources, and control of personal finances, older people basically run the show. This is true even of the media: while young bodies and high school settings are greatly over-represented in the media, the people holding the reins (directors, producers, CEOs) are typically older than the characters and the actors, and they are generally willing to use their control to influence or censor expression. Of course, there are often younger people in mid-level corporate, government, or media positions. While these people have some latitude, the overall shape of their jobs is determined from above. This country is a top-down affair: those on top have no reluctance using their power to shape the lives and products of those below them.
The upshot of all this control is that mainstream values tend to represent the values of the older generation. Or to put it differently, those values we think of as mainstream are actually the values of the older (but not yet retired) generation. The reason for this is simple: the culture-wide means of propagating values are largely controlled the older generation, whether we are talking media, books, legislation, corporate control over employees, or what have you. This is why workers at Disney resorts cannot wear piercings aisde from simple earrings.
There is a gap of time between when a generation gains adulthood and when its values become the mainstream, perhaps twenty years. When things change quickly, this can lead to a situation where older and younger adult generations seem alien to each other, and open intergenerational clashes ensue. The most recent example of this was the 60’s and 70’s, but we can find earlier examples as well, such as the early 1900’s when a significant number of women were first able to move to cities and live mostly independently. However, the generation gap never entirely disappears. Also, the lack of modern mentorship arrangements and the culture’s obsession with (certain kinds of) youth probably makes the generation gap somewhat worse in the United States than in other cultures.
Given this sort of intergenerational power, there are certain effects we can expect in social spaces.
In particular, having one’s own values (more) aligned with mainstream values confers a kind of power. Mainstream conceptualizations are hegemonic and self-defending in certain ways. Because ideology builds out from the mainstream, there are all kinds of subtle ways to use common cultural tropes to reinforce one’s mainstream values in discussion, argument, or even socializing.
The age-related power differences I have described means that older people generally are more aligned with the mainstream and the power it represents. So, older people tend to have certain kinds of social power when compared with younger people, in addition to any other power dynamics that might be at play (race, class, gender, etc). Younger people have trouble holding an equal stance in a discussion, and often are simply not heard or cannot get a word in edgewise. Even if we get past the social issues around discussion, a younger person’s ideas will not have the more-mainstream backing that the older person’s ideas have, if the discussion is crossing one of these conceptual generation gaps. This means that the younger person’s argument is (on average) harder to articulate and strategize.
The socializing implications do not just end with discussion of topics. In the general social milieu, younger people often have trouble with social maneuvering that older people take for granted: taking up social space, protecting personal space, meeting the people you want to meet, addressing or preventing uncomfortable situations, and so on. This is a strong effect when you have a social scene that mixes younger and older folks: the older-against-younger ageist power sneaks into the socializing in various subtle ways.
Which is not to say that things are all one-sided. Some younger people are of course way ahead on socializing and arguing, and plenty of older people have problems around these acts. The younger-against-older ageism I have described also has an effect, further muddying the waters. But because the culture’s anti-older ageism is a definite mixed bag for younger people (for example, the obsession with young bodies is not positive overall), there is still a definite power effect. Younger people often leave mixed-age events (especially sexualized ones) having failed in their social goals, or with a vague (or often not-so-vague) sense of discomfort or frustration.
Of course, there is one sort of power that younger people retain: the power to “vote with their feet”. Usually, they can walk away from the conversation, argument, social group, or event. (This is not always true, for example leaving a family holiday dinner is not much of an option. But it is true for polyamory community events.) And in fact, when one is faced with a entirely hopeless discussion or argument, or a frustrating social situation, walking away starts to look good. It makes more sense to spend your time and energy in a milieu where you can make some progress. And indeed, younger poly people seem to make a habit of walking away from mixed-age polyamory events in my area.
This effect pretty much disappears when younger people are socializing primarily or entirely with other younger people. It is not that they suddenly get more socially adept or conceptually well-grounded, but rather everyone in the situation is working at a similar level, excepting any other subtle power dynamics (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc) that may be in play.
In other words, there is a need for younger-only polyamory social and discussion spaces. This need does not come out of younger-against-older ageism, but rather from older-against-younger ageism. There are certain things that go much better in younger-only spaces than they do for younger people in mixed-age spaces: discussion or debate, overcoming social awkwardness, finding people to date, and so on. I can feel this at the under-forty events I am holding: compared to the mixed-age events (which it should be noted, are exactly the same excepting the age restriction) there is a certain relaxation that happens, a kind of letting go.
This should be no surprise to people who are familiar with activism that resists power dynamics in the culture. It is typical that the group with less power is forced to hold events that exclude people from the group with more power. This is not out of animosity (though animosity certainly may be present), but is rather a logistical matter that springs directly from the power in quesion. For example, meetings of feminist women often have to exclude men. This is not because the women in question hate men or do not wish to engage them. (In fact, changing men is a primary goal of feminism.) Rather, it is because having men in the room, even really well-intentioned ones, can prevent the group from getting things done. This happens for various reasons directly derived from sexism: men’s words having more weight, men feeling it is women’s role to educate them on sexism, a number of cultural “gotchas” that men can bring into play that effectively derail any conversation, and so on.
These power dynamics often produce a certain defensiveness in younger poly people. This is an understandable reaction borne out of repeated frustrating experiences and being on the losing end of various subtle power-laced interactions, including uncomfortable sexualized situations. Typically these interactions around power are subtle enough to be invisible, and younger people find themselves getting defensive with no clear understanding of what exactly is causing the defensiveness. Of course, a lack of understanding does not prevent people from responding to emotional discomfort. I have observed the following various tactical responses that I believe are responses to the age-related power dynamics at poly events.
First, some younger poly people respond with straightforward anti-old ageism, pulling out the “ick, old people” cultural trope and swinging it around. While this is not a positive or enlightened viewpoint, I can see how people might get there: if you keep going to events with older people and the memorable experiences you have at those events are problematic interactions with those older people, then it is not much of a leap to conclude that older people (in the community at least) are icky. And seeking to avoid older people as a group starts to look like a reasonable personal strategy.
This anti-old ageism comes out various ways. It is pretty rare to hear someone actually say “old people disgust me”, but it is clear that a minority of young poly people start to feel this way. Sometimes this comes out as comparisons to parents: “everyone there was the same age as my parents” or “I don’t want to see naked people my parents’ age”, as if there is some problem with being one’s parents’ age. In other cases older people are not mentioned, but instead younger people are praised or it becomes clear that a particular person considers younger people to simply be better in some way. Again, this is building on the obsession with youth that we see in the media and culture. To be clear, I find these attitudes reprehensible. I am not trying to excuse any of this, but rather trying to explain where it comes from. Even (perhaps especially) socially reprehensible attitudes have a personally strategic purpose.
To be fair, the vast majority of poly people I know in my social group do not hold these ageist views. It is particularly hard to hold on to anti-old ageism as one ages into the mid-twenties, because one becomes the older person in comparison with teens and college students. And of course anti-old ageism is clearly ugly when expressed, and the social group has less tolerance for it as they age. My social cohort starts is primarily late twenties to early forties, and so I cannot think of any of my friends who are ageist in this way, though I have met other people in this age group who are anti-old ageist.
However, my friends still use defensive tactics in various ways. They are still defensive because they still need to actively defend: the effects of anti-young ageism that I have described do not start to significantly recede until a person is in their late thirties or forties. In addition, learned habits die hard, and I think many of these defensive tactics may carry on or be repurposed (to defend against other power dynamics) later in life.
One such tactic is to start labelling particular problematic people, engaging in a kind of social gossip defense. When someone has a particular bad experience with an older person, they may use terms like “creepy”, “skeezy”, or “sketchy” to describe them to their friends, basically warning them away. While this is a generic mechanism often used by women to defend against men of any age, the fact that age is often a factor in badly gendered sexualized interactions means that terms including age are being developed. The phrase “creepy old guy” is used enough that it has been shortened to “COG” by some people in my social cohort. In other cases, specific words are not used but people trust their emotional instincts anyways, perhaps describing a person as having a bad vibe or just saying that they felt uncomfortable. Such feelings are sufficient cause for warning one’s friends or excluding the person from social events.
Another defensive tactic is control of one’s immediate social environment. At mixed-age poly events where there is a basic critical mass of younger people, they may actively avoid older people whom they perceive as being difficult to deal with or having problematic attitudes. I have observed this at my own mixed-age events. This may seem cliquish, but in fact is entirely reasonable: what purpose is there in socializing with someone whom is going to be difficult to deal with in some way? And of course this is not exclusive if there is a critical mass of older people at the event.
This control of social environment extends to how one holds events. Younger poly people are much more likely to hold private social events than public community events, and I think this is primarily because private events give you control over the invite list. When holding events where establishing a somewhat safe (from age-related or other power dynamics) space is a concern, people tend to get very concerned with making sure that the right sort of people are at the party. For example, some party organizers do not allow people to bring their friends without explicit permission from the hosts. I have had to provide references to get into some of these parties. Such private events are not always presented as explicitly poly, though they may function primarily as poly social venues. In some cases play parties are favored, since monogamous folks tend not to attend sex parties. Losing control of the social environment, and specifically ending up with age-related power problems, is a prime difficulty facing younger poly organizers who wish to hold public events.
In this and the preceding sections I have laid out a fairly grim picture of intergenerational dynamics in my local poly community, including mainstream-derived power dynamics and various personal defensive mechanisms. I do not mean to imply that social interactions between older and younger poly people are doomed. Indeed, most of the time everyone acts like adults and everything goes well. However, it only requires that a small number of people act badly to poison the well where age differences are involved, with the result that age-related power dynamics end up determining the shape and attendance of community events in various ways.
Section 3: Age-Aware Polyamory Organizing
Let me recap briefly what I have observed in the San Francisco area. Older people are more likely to have the resources to hold events (and perhaps urge towards building community). The events they hold will tend to cater to older people in subtle ways, simply because people hold events based on their own personal preferences. Older people at the events will tend not to notice the age distribution since they are having a good time, so these events can be mostly free of younger people without anyone raising a stink. Even when people do notice, they will tend to assume that there is some issue with the younger folks that prevents them from attending.
Younger people who show up to these events (often with no idea as to the age range of the event) often find themselves the youngest person in the room, which means that people will generally not relate to their current life state. Events rarely have allowances that encourage inclusion by younger folks. (Some of these are simple and increase the general inclusiveness of the event, assigned greeters for example.) Younger folks are at a disadvantage due to older/younger power dynamics in the wider culture, and thus may trouble having fun, meeting people, or discussing difficult subjects at mixed-age events. When there are problems, there is often no recourse to the (usually older) organizers, again due to the power dynamic. Due to these issues, younger folks do not stay around, and so events usually do not develop the critical mass necessary to become truly mixed-age. And the cycle continues.
With all this at play, it is not at all surprising to see the sort of de facto age segregation I described above. In fact, we should be surprised when mixed-age events are successful at pulling a large age range. Let me again remind you that we live in a largely age-segregated society, despite the modern conceit that adults are largely the same.
This all begs the question: what can we do to bring younger people into the visible polyamory movement and hold events that appeal to them? How can we do this while not hurting the attractiveness of polyamory to people in the age range from middle age to retirement? (There is a third question which I will not be addressing here: how can we support polyamorous people who are of retirement age or older?)
What the Polyamory Movement Can Do
Pay attention to age. As I discuss above, it is easy for a movement (or for particular sub-groups within a movement) to fall into a lull where questions of age are largely ignored. Instead, we should be asking questions about the age of our participants. What is our age distribution? How old are people when they first decide to pursue polyamory? (And is this age lowering?) What are the differences in poly style or identification across ages? For example, are younger poly people less likely to go to polyamory events?
Part of paying attention to age is paying attention to power dynamics around age. I have discussed some of these above, but that discussion is only the beginning. In particular, when age-related power dynamics intersect with other kinds of power then we can see problems around inclusiveness. The problem of older men hitting on younger women to the point of making them uncomfortable (age-related power intersecting with sexism) is an ongoing issue in polyamorous organizing, one which tends to drive away younger women. Given that polyamory was built on a history of feminism, this trend could seriously prevent polyamorous progress in the next generation. Similarly, I am starting to suspect that there is some intersection of ageism and racial power dynamics occurring. I am not sure how exactly this intersection functions, but my under-forty social group is significantly more racially diverse than other poly events in the area (including other all-ages events that I hold), which are mostly white.
Encourage younger organizers. Organizing the younger crowd is hard. Younger people may not identify as polyamorous yet, or even if they do, they may yet see the value of attending polyamory events. Younger poly people are often not hooked into polyamory online or in-person resources, depending instead on friend networks or converting poly-curious folks. In addition, monogamous younger people tend to be more vicious about enforcing compulsory monogamy, so promoting nonmonogamy opens one up for attack. (This parallels homophobia, where currently the most blatant homophobic attacks can be found in high schools.) And to top it off, younger poly organizers have on average less organizing experience, and organizing is a real skill that must be learned.
So, any encouragement we can give to younger poly organizers is very important. This can take the form of how-to-organize guides, such as this one put out by the new and fabulous Young Metro Poly blog. It can also take the form of organizer-to-organizer mentorship, where a more experienced (usually but not always older) organizer helps a less experienced organizer get started. These mentorship arrangements should generally be non-sexual. And in general, the polyamory movement should provide support to its younger organizing cohort: younger poly birds-of-a-feather meetings at conferences, sharing resources (space, finances), and so on.
Also, I think the time is ripe to start looking at college organizing. While polyamory has been known on college campuses for a while (including back in my mid-90’s college days), visible polyamory organizations are rare. We are currently seeing an increasing trend of polyamory articles in college newspapers, as documented by Poly in the Media, which points to a good situation for college organizing. We can support fledgling college organizations by providing how-to-organize guides, providing materials (say, generic flyers), holding workshops or presentations at colleges, educating college counselors, getting in touch with the authors of college polyamory articles, mentoring the organizers, building relationships with national organizations, and so on. Other movements (notably, the queer movement and drug law reform movement) have managed to establish strong and enduring presences on college campuses, and tend to reap rewards in terms of membership and mindshare.
Connect younger people with polyamory resources. In addition to outreach (which I will discuss next), this means actually creating resources that are appropriate to a younger crowd. We already have some of these, like our online resources and the wide array of what I call Poly 101 resources, which focus on the process of entering polyamory or starting one’s first poly relationships. However, in some areas we fall short. For example, while there are an amazing array of polyamory classes and workshops out there, but it is relatively rare to find such classes taught by people in their 20’s. Mostly this happens because poly people in their 20’s are generally less experienced, but there is the possibility of encouraging people to start such classes. Younger poly people tend not to get the full benefit of classes taught by much older people, due to generational shift and life stage issues. Jen and I have been holding classes, and even at our age we get a lot of attendees in their early 20’s who are thrilled to go to a class taught by people in their late 20’s/early 30’s. There is a definite need out there.
We could also use mentorship programs of various sorts. Older-younger mentorship (or rather more-experienced-less-experienced) is something we should be doing. When I was in my early 20’s and trying polyamory, most of the people I knew were having trouble, often disastrous trouble. The situation has improved greatly, but there is still a huge need to transfer knowledge from people with more experience to those with less. Otherwise people fail, burn out, get stuck in a poly drama quagmire, and are often miserable or end up reverting to monogamy. This type of mentorship should be explicitly non-sexual in nature. If it is not, the sexualization of polyamory will ensure that younger people are scared off from such mentorship. There have been sexual minority communities that successfully practiced mentorship via older/younger relationships in the past (most notably the gay and lesbian communities), but the historical moment for such arrangements seems to have passed, even in those communities. Younger poly people in will on average prefer problematic poly relationships with people their own age instead of working polyamorous relationships with older people, though of course there are exceptions.
A second important type of mentorship is peer counseling. This is definitely possible: there are plenty of people already doing polyamory well in their 20’s. The big question is how to hook these people up with other folks of a similar age who are struggling. This could potentially be done using various points of contact with the community – classes, workshops, online forums. Keeping peer counseling groups going tends to be difficult, but is very rewarding for the people involved. Keeping peer mentorship desexualized is not nearly as high of a priority as desexualizing older-younger mentorship, but should definitely be considered, to avoid non-age-related power issues. For example, a queer woman might balk at consulting a peer counselor who is a straight man if the counseling relation is potentially sexual.
Attract younger people via outreach and representation. If younger poly or nonmonogamous people are going to join the poly movement or a particular poly community, they must be attracted to it. There is this tendency for people to self-identify as poly or nonmonogamous for a long period of time before seeking out poly community. (It took me twelve years.) From the outside it is often unclear what purpose organized polyamory serves, especially if one already has nonmonogamous friends and lovers. Once people find community that works for them, they tend to stick with it or at least view it as a useful resource in the future. So we should make it a priority to get people through the door that first time.
Overall, the polyamory movement has a lot of work to do on improving and expanding our outreach channels. At the same time as we improve outreach generally, we should consider ways that we can deliver outreach efforts to younger people. One way this has already been happening is via presentations at college classes. Human sexuality classes like to bring in speakers from sexual minorities of various sorts, and some professors specifically seek out poly people. This is great, but has mostly been informal up to this point, with professors approaching people they know or being referred from their other speakers. Every couple years there is a push to form a speakers’ bureau and start actively seeking out these engagements. If we could get this together and facilitate frequent presentations of this sort, it would be an amazing outreach coup.
While college classes are going surprisingly well, there are a host of other outreach opportunities that we are not taking advantage of. For example, BDSM TNG groups are relatively common at this point and are generally friendly to polyamory. Simply flyering or even just showing up as poly representatives at these groups would do a lot to alert poly kinksters to the existence of poly resources. Along more formal lines, educating college and high school counselors is an important step, though one that is a large effort of its own and should happen in tandem with general therapist education.
Youth-oriented sexuality websites such as Scarleteen or the Midwest Teen Sex Show tend to not mention polyamory (or even nonmonogamy) at all, or at best in passing, even though they prominently cover other relatively advanced topics such as BDSM. I think there is this sense that nonmonogamy is not yet an appropriate topic for youth, which is kind of odd given that nonmonogamous experimentation definitely happens. We could offer to help them generate such materials.
When doing outreach, there is a certain “ladder strategy” that can be helpful. It is important to usually have the people doing the outreach in the same general age range as the target audience. In the best case, this means having peers show up. For example, if we want to do outreach to BDSM TNG groups, the people doing it should be under the age limit of the groups in question. If we are unable to find experienced poly people in the given age range, then selecting people who are slightly older is a good second bet. So for example, people in their thirties approach people in their twenties, and people in their twenties approach teens. This nicely creates a way to transmit poly knowledge across generations. The thirty year old learns at a class taught by a forty-five year old, and then in turn teaches a twenty-four year old, who in turn teaches people at a college.
In addition to outreach, representation is key. By representation I mean having young poly people visible in various forums, in media and on the internet. Getting good media representation has proven to be tricky for the poly movement in general. In addition to the usual issues of screening out sensationalist producers and avoiding reporters out blindside us, we have an additional problem in that younger nonmonogamous people are somewhat less likely to be fully out, as well as being less likely to identify as polyamorous or be hooked into poly media channels. We should identify a pool of younger spokespeople and refer some set of media opportunities to them.
However, this should not be at the expense of older media representation, and there is definitely a danger that this might happen. Due to the media’s obsession with young people (and their bodies), media producers will usually favor younger subjects over older. To date, we have had a lot of success putting middle-aged and older poly people in front of the cameras. We should ensure that media opportunities continue to flow to older spokespeople despite industry pressure for young subjects. Along the same lines, we should front a variety of looks and body types, resisting the media’s proclivity for people who look like models.
We should also encourage self-representation of younger poly people. This can happen many ways (for example, by publishing a book) but the internet is currently the most vibrant medium for self-representation. Blogging has taken off, and many poly people are blogging their experiences and issues around polyamory, including some younger folks. In addition, polyamory already features prominently on some social networking sites. The two I know best are livejournal and fetlife. Just today I heard rumor that some folks are considering putting together a social networking site or sub-site specifically for young poly people. I am not entirely sure that we need to do anything to encourage these efforts (since they are already well underway) but finding ways to track them and refer people to them would be a great start.
Recognize the necessity of age-limited groups. The BDSM community took a while to get used to the existence of TNG groups and events. Initially there was a lot of bitterness, accusations of exclusivity and ageism, and what have you. Over time the flames died down. These days the larger community generally recognizes the utility of TNG organizing, though resentment still flares up from time to time.
In the polyamorous community, we seem to be in that initial discomfort phase. People (especially but not always people over the age limit) tend to come down really hard on “under-X only” groups, and there is a general failure to understand that these groups are necessary if we want younger people to join polyamory in significant numbers.
Age-limited groups prevent the various problematic power dynamics I have described, and they give younger poly people a landing place where they can meet other poly people in a similar life stage. In the BDSM community, we have seen these groups function in various ways, and we can expect the same in the poly community. In some cases they serve as a springboard into the larger community, but in other cases they allow a group of people to meet folks from their own generation and form a network of enduring connections. Also, these groups make easier to discuss poly and find support in one’s own age cohort. This is not to say that age limits do not have drawbacks – I will discuss some of these issues below.
Because age-limited groups serve these various useful purposes, they are going to start springing up more frequently as the movement ages. If nothing else, frustrated younger organizers will start them. Unfortunately, these organizers often face a nasty backlash. This can prevent a younger organizer from using pre-existing local poly resources. For example, younger organizers are currently unwilling to post events on some of the SF-area polyamory lists because they have seen the flame wars that have already occurred. In other words, the anti-young backlash that happens around age-limited groups can severely hamper younger organizers. This of course does not stop them from organizing. Instead, it prompts them to create alternate organization resources (say, email lists) and further alienates them from the pre-existing poly community in the area. If we want to prevent schisms in local communities, the backlash against these groups has to stop. And for that to happen, people need to get educated about polyamory and age issues.
What Older Event Organizers Can Do
Pay attention to age. Start by paying attention to the age of people attending your event. Are they all from a similar age range? If so, try to figure out what dynamics are maintaining that situation. Usually there is more going on than just people preferring to socialize with their own age group. This awareness is a good idea even if you have no intention of altering the age cohort at your events, because understanding the event dynamics generally makes one a better organizer.
Also, pay attention to exceptions. If new people show up from a different age group (older or younger), try to figure out what happens. Are they comfortable or uncomfortable? What sort of interactions do they have with the frequent guests? If people from different age groups show up only once or a couple times and then disappear, try to figure out why. One way to do this is by respectfully contacting them and asking them after the event. If you do this, make it clear that your motivation is improving the event and be willing to take criticism.
In general, try to pay attention to age-related power dynamics. In a discussion group, are people from different age groups talking the same amount? Are their opinions heard and respected to the same degree? In a social group, are there subtle kinds of exclusion happening? For example, I have been at events where it was implicitly assumed that everyone would get really touchy in the hot tub, and this kept some people (notably, not just younger people) from being willing to get in the tub. Are people from poorly-represented age cohorts (again, younger or older) able to socialize with others at the event, or do they tend to be ignored? And so on.
Pay attention to sexualization and sexual dynamics. This is not just an age-related issue. It is generally a good idea to look for and address problematic sexual dynamics. As most organizers know, a failure to maintain personal boundaries at an event will quickly drive polyamorous women away, which is fatal to most events. Similarly, people of color have to contend with a lot of sexual exoticization, and an atmosphere where such fetishization runs rampant will drive away people who would otherwise attend.
Boundaries are a good starting place here. Is the event one where people can set and maintain personal space, or does the event have implicit (or for that matter explicit) expectations that tend to violate such boundaries?
Casual touching is a big deal here, and as I have mentioned, there seems to be a generational or at least age-correlated component. When I am with people my own age in a social context, we pretty much do not touch each other, except when greeting or saying goodbye or if we are already good friends. But older people in my area will casually touch others frequently during social interactions. This means that even when everyone has the best of intentions, mixing up touchy older folks with not-touchy younger folks tends to make the younger folks uncomfortable. Strangely, BDSM dungeons might be more attractive to younger folks than mixed-age poly events, for the simple reason that they have very strong customs and policies that prohibit casual touching.
However, touching is not the only way that boundaries can be violated. There can also be problems with staring, crowding, inappropriate comments or propositions, aggressive nudity, social pressure, among other things. Even when everyone is being totally polite and respectful, there is a tendency for conventionally attractive people (usually but not always women) to be mobbed over the course of an evening, which tends to be draining and prevent comfortable socializing.
Try to keep an eye out for these issues, and try to find ways to make it easy for people to complain and have those complaints addressed. Again, one possibility is to ask people who have been going to the event if they ever felt sexually uncomfortable and what could be done to prevent that discomfort.
Having sexy events is great, and as I have mentioned, it is generally not possible to hold fully desexualized polyamory events. However, it can be very difficult to successfully hold a heavily sexualized mixed-age event, because of the various power dynamics I have described. For example, I rarely find sex parties that actually have a mixed-age attendance, even here in progressive San Francisco. So if one wants to hold mixed-age events, it is crucial to either desexualize the event or find a way to formalize the sexual aspect of the event.
For social non-sexy events, I have at various points considered explicit rules against coming on to people at the event. If this seems like it would cut off flirtation in a bad way, there are various ways to formalize propositions. For example, an organizer could make a rule where people can only hand others their phone number when one or the other is leaving the event. At poly speed dating events in San Francisco, we have been enforcing a strict rule against propositions outside of the dates, but at the same time allowing attendees to note down random others in the room and have their information delivered to those people.
When I describe these sorts of rules to organizers, they often balk, claiming that such strictures would take all the fun out of the event. However, that begs the question of exactly what sort of fun the event is supposed to be for. I am starting to realize that poly events are often meat markets by design, though this is rarely mentioned in the invites. If you are holding an event that is designed for flirting, come-ons, or finding dates, please say so explicitly when announcing the event.
Take steps to increase inclusiveness. Again, this is a good idea whether or not you intend to create a mixed-age event. There are a number of steps an event can take that generally increase inclusiveness, without even specifically targeting a particular group to include.
My favorite among these is assigned greeters. I personally tend to be very nervous when arriving at a new event, and I have felt much more at home when the event assigned someone to show me around, introduce me to people, and so on. One of the more successful play parties in my area has volunteers that do exactly that. Even at the small poly social gatherings I hold, I purposefully play this role myself, meeting new people and introducing them around until they seem to drop into conversations on their own. This is a very simple technique for making events much friendlier to new people, and in particular people who might not fit into the established group in some particular way. If the event is large enough, try to have greeters who are a mix of genders, ages, racial groups, etc. And of course, greeters should not be greeting with the purpose of finding sex or dating partners, as this will creep into their interactions and drive new people away from the event.
For discussion groups, people often put talking rules in place, to ensure that the louder and more aggressive attendees do not monopolize the conversation. Often these take the form of a round-robin ordering of who gets to talk. This is a great thing to do, but keeping people from talking over each other is only the beginning, because there is no guarantee that well-ordered speaking will lead to mutual respect or a willingness to hear the viewpoints of others. If possible, have someone (or multiple someones) with strong active moderation skills run the discussion group, someone who can do things like halt circular conversations, identify disagreements that are not going to resolve, get people to speak from their own experience instead of universalizing, and so on.
For any kind of event, it is a good idea to have a well-understood complaint mechanism. For example, at poly speed dating we have been handing out exit surveys at every event. While this is unusually formalized, it is a good idea to at least designate some route for complaints and comments (dropping a note in a box, a particular person, etc) and frequently remind people that it exists. Of course, complaint mechanisms are only as good as the response to the complaint by the event organizers. As an organizer, it is easy to get defensive when hearing complaints. Try to remember that complaints are a gift – someone is going out of their way to help you make your event better. Also, try to keep in mind that other people at the event have different backgrounds and qualities and may have certain sorts of bad experiences that are not visible to the organizer, for example the differences around age that I have covered in this essay. So please try to take complaints seriously and follow up, even if they initially seem unbelievable. There are of course bad, cruel, and greedy complaints that should generally be ignored, and organizers will need to make judgement calls on which complaints should be addressed, but try to see things from the complainant’s point of view as much as possible.
Include age information in event announcements. There is no problem with wanting to hold an event that caters to your specific age group, or with being satisfied when an event mostly draws people of a particular age. However, it is a good idea to be honest in event advertising when this is happening, for example with a note that “this event mostly draws people in their fifties but we welcome folks of any age”. Or if you want, make an explicit age rule – I have heard of an explicitly over-40 poly group. Marking the age of the event in announcements helps prevent the “show up once” syndrome. People who care about the age of folks at events can check through the event listings and see which ones tend to cater to their age segment. Instead of showing up to various events in the area, getting discouraged, and quitting the community entirely, people can narrow in on the events that suit them the best, or at least quickly identify that no such events currently exist.
Also, marking the age of events opens up a conversation around age in the area. If all the events in an area are announcing the age groups that show up, it is really easy to then identify which age groups are not being served, and then to start a conversation around age-related dynamics in the community, and also to find ways to refer people to age-appropriate poly resources.
Mentor younger organizers. Organizing is a wacky skill set, and one that is not taught in college classrooms. There are a lot of little hidden tricks to organizing, like how to find the right sort of venue, where to advertise, learning to not give up when attendance is low, and so on. While some people just slide into organizing naturally, and others figure it out by trial and error, probably the best way to get used to holding events is with the help of someone who has been doing it a while. I learned a lot of organizing skills while doing queer activism in college from slightly older activists (and in one case a representative from a national queer organization), and those lessons still inform my event organizing today.
So, consider being open to the idea of mentoring younger organizers. This could take place in the context of a large organized poly group, where the more experienced organizers help the less experienced organizers get started on holding their own events. Or it could happen in an ad-hoc manner, typically when a less experienced organizer asks someone they know for advice. My under-40 group turned out to be a touchstone for this sort of interaction – since starting it, I have been approached by three different people in my age cohort or younger for advice on holding events.
Consider holding events that attract a mix of ages. This is harder than it sounds, which is why these events are relatively rare. The suggestions above (inclusiveness, monitoring sexual dynamics) go a long way towards making an event friendly to younger folks while still including older folks. However, perhaps the most important step is partnering with one or more younger organizers. While not strictly necessary, the tendency of event demographics to mirror the organizers means that it will be difficult to attract a mix of ages with only older organizers. Partnering does not just mean putting their name on the event, but also that they should take an active hand in designing and carrying off the event.
Advertising appropriately is a big part of attracting a mix of ages to an event. If there is one poly email list in the area and it tends to draw people of a particular age segment, then only advertising the mixed-age event on that list will probably not result in the desired mix of ages. Consider advertising on social networking sites, or finding ways of advertising through friend networks. Approach other groups in the area, like BDSM groups or the local sex-positive sex toy store.
Formalizing events tends to make it easier for people of different age groups to interact. As I mentioned above, discussion groups tend to be more friendly to a mix of ages than social events, and I think this is largely due to the more formal structure. So, consider ways that the event could be made more formal while still being attractive across age groups. For example, add a (desexualized) activity that is fun or useful to people across age.
At more formal events, it may be possible to build age-awareness directly into the event itself. For example, if a support group is above a certain size on a given night, it could be split into two groups by age. Even if it is small, there could be communication exercises that people do in pairs or small groups, giving them the chance to break off with just their cohort. Because we were already doing matching by gender and sexuality at poly speed dating, we took the chance to also allow people to specify the age of the folks they would like to meet. This meant that even though the overall event has had a huge age range (teens to seventies), any particular person’s experience would actually be with their desired age cohort.
There is of course no requirement for older organizers to work towards mixed-age events. If an older organizer would rather only hold events targeted at their own age cohort, more power to them.
What Individuals Can Do
Pay attention to age. Is this starting to sound familiar? Try to actually notice the ages of people around you, and then try to pay attention to how age might be affecting interactions between people.
In particular, check out the ages of people at poly events you go to. It is very easy to go to an event where everyone is about the same age and walk out afterwards having not noticed that fact. Interacting with people our own age is generally comfortable, and so it is very hard to notice who is not present. Are significantly younger people present at the event? Significantly older people?
Try to pay attention to age-related power dynamics. Check your own interactions with people who are in a different age cohort. Do you get uncomfortable in some way? Do you make assumptions based on their age? If you are older, do you assume that the younger person does not have any experience or views that will be new and informative to you? If you are younger, do you find yourself automatically getting defensive?
The goal here is to start actually identifying patterns of age-related power in your own interactions and the interactions of people at the events you attend. Once we get past the obvious ones, these can get pretty subtle, like the propositioning dynamics I describe above. Figuring out age-related power dynamics helps us address those dynamics in our own lives, improving our interactions with older and younger people.
At the same time, try to keep abreast of how things are changing in the younger generation. Every generation has its own set of assumptions about the world and issues to deal with, and these change fast. I am only thirty-four, and I keep being surprised by how different things are for people in their early twenties.
Listen to younger people. While many older folks are very good about really listening and trying to understand the viewpoint of people much younger than themselves, others are not so good about this. It is a bad cliche, but there are plenty of older people who dismiss the opinions of younger people with some variant of “oh, you’ll understand when you’ve grown up a bit”. This is of course shortsighted: people walk many different paths in life, and younger people have often walked a path that someone older has not trod on.
In particular, do not talk over younger people. In discussion groups, this means actually listening and responding to the points that younger people make instead of just ignoring them as the discussion moves on. In social situations, this means literally not interrupting or talking over younger people. I know this sounds silly and obvious, but it is a real concern. I know a younger poly man who does not go to social poly events that have older people because they consistently interrupt him.
Recognize the necessity of age-limited groups. As I have mentioned, getting backlash from the community around age-targeted events only serves to drive younger poly folks away and prevents younger poly organizers from using community resources. But despite all this, the backlash is real and can be very vicious. Do not be a part of it.
Many older people find themselves feeling defensive and excluded when age-limited events (that cater to younger folks) are announced. But this begs the question of why these feelings arise. The sense I have gotten from people responding to my event is that they often feel like the younger crowd is walling itself off and somehow taking something of value away from the rest of the community by doing so. This seems to be the source of the feelings of exclusion, that age-limited events keep older people away from some valuable thing embodied in the younger poly people.
But what is this valuable thing? Younger poly people are in no way more special, important, interesting, or sexy than older poly people. Younger poly people are just people. At the under-forty poly events, we have all sorts of people, just like any other poly group. The only thing different about this poly group is that the people in it are younger. The people in this group are only more valuable if you buy into the cultural myth that younger people (and younger bodies) are more desirable, sexy, and interesting. I think a lot of older people have bought into this cultural myth, and this is why they go on the attack when under-X events are announced. Note that it does not go the other way: younger poly folks do not get particularly upset about the existence of events targeted at or limited to older poly folks.
If you find yourself feeling this way, please spend some time examining your own feelings before lashing out at younger poly event organizers. Why do you care so much? Are poly events aimed at your own age cohort (and the people at those events) somehow insufficient? Have you bought into the cultural myth that young people are simply more valuable?
For some people, the existence of under-X events creates concern that the community is splintering. As I have described above, these events become necessary when the community is already failing to serve all its members, or in other words after the community has already splintered. If you are concerned about making sure that the community brings together both younger and older poly people, I recommend starting viable mixed-age events, as described above.
Do not proposition much younger people. Because of the way gendered power dynamics operate in the culture, the biggest come-on problem is older men propositioning younger women for sex and/or romance. Older men propositioning younger men can also be a problem in some contexts. In general, there is no issue with older women propositioning younger people of any gender, because women are generally taught to be less forward when it comes to sexual advances. So, this section is primarily aimed at men (of any age).
Younger women (and sometimes younger queer men) who come to poly events often end up feeling harassed just due to the sheer number of compliments and come-ons. Once you get past the first one or two in an evening, a younger person tends to start feeling like a piece of meat, even if the people approaching are totally polite and respectful. Also, often these propositions happen out of the blue or right after meeting someone, which only adds to that meaty feeling.
In addition, the significant majority of younger women are really just not interested in anyone twenty years their senior. But, at mixed-age poly events it is not uncommon for men that much older to hit on younger women. This again produces a fresh meat feeling and tends to discourage younger women from returning to the event.
So, I would like to propose two simple rules for self-policing. I think every man (of every age) at a poly social event should be following these rules, both to keep from annoying other people and as a matter of personal integrity and self-respect.
1) Respect a lower age limit. If a person is below a certain age in comparison to your own, chances are they are different enough that you are not going to get along with you, and chances are they are not going to be interested in you. If someone is this age or younger, do not hit on them, no matter how cute they are.
The culture largely determines what this lower age limit is. It starts small after high school and widens out as you get older. At thirty, the lower age limit is around twenty-two (or “out of college”). At forty, the lower age limit is somewhere around the late twenties, or perhaps thirty. At sixty, the lower age limit might be forty or forty-five. The XKCD comic created a formulaic version of this rule, though I suspect it gets too wide past the fifties.
Of course, some people get along better with the younger crowd, and others get along worse, so I am not going to tell anyone exactly what their cutoff should be. You can judge for yourself – if you are talking to a group of people and they seem to be in a different world, they are under the age limit.
To use myself as an example, I am thirty-four and my current lower age limit is twenty-five. People younger than their mid-twenties are different enough from me that I usually do not interact well with them, and the chances of us getting along well enough to date or even have sex drops precipitously as ages cross that mid-twenties line. (Whereas I seem to have no problems dating folks in their late twenties.) So, I simply will not come onto someone younger than twenty-five, period, ever. On the recent occasions where something has happened with someone that age, it has been because they came on to me.
My point here is that having a strict lower age limit is a matter of self-respect and pragmatism. Coming on to people who are in a wildly differentiated group tends to be a recipe for consistent rejection and/or bad relationships. Abiding by a strict lower age limit helps us to step away from the older-man-younger-woman cultural myth and actually focus on people who are more likely to match us.
If you are an older man who is constantly chasing after women much younger than yourself, I think you should consider whether you have fallen prey to the dual myth that younger women are much more attractive than older women, and that younger women are available to and interested in much older men. This myth not only makes life hard for younger women, but also seems to cause endless trouble for older men. If you are somehow incapable of finding women near your own age attractive, then you are setting yourself up for a life of rejection, loneliness, and/or difficult relationships. Maybe take some time and try to re-enable your attraction to women your own age or older.
Nothing I say in this section should be taken as a criticism of intergenerational relationships or people who are into them. I think they are lovely and I have been involved in a couple myself, but I also think that the way they happen involves the active participation of a fairly precocious younger person. These are generally not people you can go looking for. Much like the endless quest for the Hot Bi Babe, if you are actively searching for much younger partners, the search itself is creating a situation that ensures you will not find them.
2) The half-hour rule. Do not compliment or come on to someone unless you have been talking to them for at least half an hour. If you have been interacting that long, and you both still seem very excited and interested in the other person, then clearly you have some chemistry. If you just met the person or saw them from across the room, then you have not established that chemistry, and hitting on them is a serious crap shoot, even though you might be physically attracted to them. You would be surprised at how well this rule operates, and this is simply because it creates an avenue for feedback. Very few people will hang around for half an hour unless they think you are at least pretty neat. Of course, whether or not they are physically attracted to you is another matter, but this is still a good start.
Note that this rule is in addition to the lower age limit rule. Talking with someone below your cutoff for half an hour does not make them fair game. Also, this rule clearly does not apply (or is very different) in certain situations: sex parties, BDSM play parties, and personals websites.
Again, this is a matter of pragmatism and integrity. If someone is not even willing to talk with you for thirty minutes, clearly they are not dateable. Are they even someone you want to have sex with? I don’t know about you, but when I have sex (even hookup sex) the encounter lasts longer than thirty minutes, so hooking up with someone I cannot stand is a recipe for disaster or at the very least bad sex. I think a lot of men put the horse before the cart and try to establish mutual physical attraction before chemistry, often by basically spamming a large number of people with low-effort come-ons that will almost certainly end in rejection. This is not a strategy that promotes self-esteem, and this sort of approach tends to be incompatible with maintaining one’s own high standards. Overall, really focusing in on a much smaller number of people who are very, very interesting and attractive tends to actually get a person more dates than low-effort approaches to a large number of people, partly because there is a more focused effort and partly because the matches are just better.
Holding Events Targeted at Younger People
In this final section, I would like to describe some of the challenges and successes in creating events that are targeted at a younger crowd. The last two years have been an illuminating journey, and hopefully this section will help others start and run events oriented towards younger poly people in their area.
While most of my experience has been with a group that has an explicit under-forty age limit, there are ways to hold events that are mostly attended by younger folks without instituting an explicit age limit. One way to do this is to create other attendance limits that effectively end up limiting the age of attendees. For example, a college polyamory group could limit attendance to polyamorous people at the college, which would definitely skew things towards a younger crowd. However, recent experience in my area has shown that these events can still drift older to a point where they are dominated by the older people at the college (grad students, postdocs, faculty), so there is an argument for limiting the group to undergraduates if the purpose is really to hold a youth group.
Another way to unofficially skew attendance towards a younger crowd is to center the event around an activity that younger people prefer. The most obvious way to do this is to hold the event late at night. If things get started at eleven or later, then the people who will show will be mostly younger. There is a (not particularly polyamorous) popular sex party in San Francisco where the action really does not get rolling until one or two in the morning, and the party continues until the sun rises. While the party gets a mix of ages, the event manages to hold the interest of the younger crowd. Similarly, there is a BDSM club night here that consistently attracts kinky college-age folks in the area, because the door price is cheap (or free with a local dungeon membership) and it has that late-night club atmosphere that keeps the average age down. I have been thinking about putting together a regular poly event at a local goth club, which I think would have similar age skew effects.
In addition to late-night activities, there are certain daytime activities that younger people are just going to be more interested in. There was a recent lasertag event in San Francisco that seemed to draw a mix of ages, I think because running around in the woods all day shooting at people is somewhat more attractive to younger folks. I have been thinking about a polyamory-oriented outing to a nearby amusement park, which I think will draw a similar crowd, as most people eventually grow out of the experience of being beaten up by roller coasters all day long. Note that sheer physical exertion does not seem to be a strict determinant of which activities are more popular with younger people. As a counterexample, poly hiking groups seem to be popular primarily among the older crowd in my area.
Also, centering an event around a fun activity is a really good idea in general. As I have recently discussed, I think the poly community (in my area at least) is moving on from the standard small discussion group or social group model, and people who are thinking of going to poly events often need a stronger draw than “a lot of poly people will be there”. Planning a unique activity tends to create a lot more interest.
Using this sort of activity-based age skew avoids the backlash towards age-limited groups. However, requiring a certain sort of activity tends to exclude certain younger folks, namely those who do want to attend a quiet social dinner or a thoughtful discussion group. Also, there tends to be some exclusion of folks with different ability levels: if a person is on crutches, they may not want to play lasertag or going to an amusement park.
Events with explicit age limits help to close these gaps. Also, an explicit age limit serves as a certain sort of advertising, drawing in those people who have given up on local poly events because they keep being the youngest person in the room. Age limits are troublesome in certain ways (described just below), but they really do work and are straightforward to set up and enforce. Creating a public “under-X” event is a an easy shortcut to having an event that younger poly people can enjoy, without the headache of trying to keep an invite list private or planning a trip to an amusement park.
Of course, explicit age limits are a blunt instrument, imperfect in the way they separate people. (Though it should be noted, no more of a blunt instrument than using activities to filter one’s events.) There will be people above the age limit who really would fit in at the event, in some cases including friends of the organizers. There will be people below the numerical age limit who are old for their age and do not fit in well. Also, the exact enforcement of the age limit can be tricky. At our under-forty events, we originally had a hard limit where no one over the age limit was welcome. However, as it turns out there are enough intergenerational poly relationships in our area that this rule ended up splitting a lot of couples (triads, etc), and people were typically not willing to show up on their own. We later modified the rule to allow older partners of people who were under the age limit, so long as the older people showed up with their younger partners.
Also, picking the exact age cutoff is tricky. We just picked the higher age limit of our social group, which extended up to age forty at the time of the group’s creation. As it turns out, setting the age limit at forty was a little too high if we wanted to include folks in their early twenties. Our under-forty group was not really hospitable to people who were under twenty-five. We would see people show up once, and never come back (though one of the people who did not come back was inspired to start holding events in her own age cohort). So, I think I can say with confidence that forty is too high of an age limit if you want to serve a college-age crowd in addition to folks in their twenties and thirties. In comparison, a local TNG BDSM group has an age limit of thirty-five, and seems to attract and retain college-age youth. This speaks of a need to have different age-limited poly groups with different age limits: college-age or under-twenty-five groups alongside under-forty or under-thirty-five groups.
Another general problem with events aimed at the under-twenty-five or college ages is that poly identity starts getting slippery in that age range. Once you hit the late twenties, enough people have taken on the poly identity that it is much easier to get a critical mass at poly events. In the late teens and early twenties, there are plenty of nonmonogamous people but in most cases their practice has not become an identity of any sort, much less a poly identity. This makes it hard to assemble a critical mass of poly-identified youth. So for youth events, it may be helpful to hold events that are generally targeted at nonmonogamous practice rather than labelling them polyamorous. I have seen something similar in the bisexual community, where an explicitly bisexual youth group does not do as well as one labelled “Fluid” or something similar.
In the BDSM world, we have seen a lot of problems around what happens when the people who meet and bond at the social group start getting older. As people start to cross the upper age limit of the group, the cutoff ends up fracturing those social networks, since some folks can stay but others have to leave. In some cases this has created pressure to steadily move the age limit higher as people age, which starts effectively excluding younger folks but keeps the base social group together. One very popular east coast TNG group gave up at one point and decided to become a generational group, still excluding people older than themselves but keeping their own generation together.
Because of this issue, it is important to identify the exact reasons that an age-limited group is required. I have listed the reasons I have seen above, and some of them are generational (flirting styles) while others are related to stage-of-life (older-vs-younger ageism) and will repeat across generations. If the particular issues involved (which exclude people from general poly events) are generational in nature, then it might make more sense to create a generational age-limited group where the age limit moves, and call it something like “Gen X” or “Millenials” or whatever the name of that generation is. If the issues are more due to stage of life, then it is preferable to keep the group around as a resource to people entering that age cohort and find other social venues for the people who are aging out.
Of course, any group with an explicit age limit has the potential to trigger a backlash in the local poly community, for the reasons I have described above. Age-limited groups seem to be popping up all over the place (I know of at least four in different geographic locations) and I suspect the poly community will eventually make peace with them. But in the meantime, the expected reprisals can really limit the advertising and outreach an organizer is able to do. There are area lists I have never posted the under-forty group to, because I am not willing to slog through yet another flame war on the topic. On the largest email list in the area, one influential member demanded that my event posts be banned, a request that was fortunately was ignored by the list moderators. As mentioned, I have gotten vicious hate mail. There is a certain (thankfully small) subset of the local community who will probably permanently avoid me over this issue. All these things make it hard to organize age-targeted events and serve to discourage younger organizers. My hope is that this essay can be used as a reference to explain why these groups are necessary.