February 20, 2023 - 10:09am

Is the number of people practising polyamory really growing? London-based millennial journalists seem to think so: I’ve seen three columns about the practice just since December. The New Statesman‘s Pravina Rudra wrote two months ago that a ‘growing’ number of her friends insist ‘monogamy isn’t natural’; earlier this month, again in the New Statesman, Lamorna Ash described how dating a couple ‘set me free’. Now the Sunday Times is on board, declaring that ‘more and more Britons are exploring relationships with multiple partners’ and promoting The Ethical Slut as ‘the ultimate guide to polyamory without heartbreak’.

But is this true? The actual number of people who practise polyamory is unknown, though the Sunday Times reports that this year’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles will ask respondents for the first time about open relationships. YouGov polling, meanwhile, suggests that it’s debatable (to say the least) that we’re opening up our relationships en masse. British attitudes to polyamory are fairly consistent over recent years: 80% are not up for it at all, around 10% might be ‘open’ to it and less than 1% are actually doing it. There is no sign that the number open to it, or actually doing it, has changed over recent years. 

Why, then, this perception among London’s media class that this is a growing trend? Perhaps, in their social circles, it is: this is so much so for one of the above writers that she reports that her friends suggest she’s ‘close-minded and conservative’ for not being into it. It’s hardly original to note, of course, that a values gap exists between the media class and the British people more generally. A similar gap, where the EU was concerned, famously produced the ‘surprise’ Brexit vote. And while polyamory hardly has the same political weight as Brexit, it seems at least likely that attitudes to the practice are unevenly distributed, perhaps along similar lines. 

And this raises a further question. Should the media class report something that seems normal or even appealing to them, but is at best niche among the wider population, as though it’s a growing trend across the board? Do journalists have a duty to reflect wider moral norms, or to shape them? Aside from Brexit, there are plenty of other similar efforts, some more absurd than others. The Economist, for example, is often remarked on for its determination to persuade us that eating insects is not disgusting, but a “crunchy solution to boosting the food supply” and something all of us would really like to try. Insects nonetheless continue not being a popular food choice. 

The fact that the British public voted Leave despite the best efforts of the media class suggests that there are limits to how far popular opinion at scale can be ‘shaped’ by even the most determined media. I suspect this goes, too, for niche preoccupations such as polyamory and edible insects. But to the extent that the press does have a measure of moral influence, it’s worth asking what, if any, public good might be served by promoting any given unpopular cause. 

Insect-boosters, for example, might argue that the environmental impact and manifest cruelty of intensive meat production requires us to seek alternative protein sources and therefore, normalising the consumption of insects is in the public interest. But even on this metric it’s hard to see what public good is served by promoting a form of relationship desired by a third of straight men but only 5% of women, that increases the risk of harm to dependent children by increasing exposure to a parent’s unrelated partner, and that — if it is on the rise — doesn’t even seem to be increasing the amount of sex Britons are having.

The media also has a public responsibility. However avant-garde and thrilling it may seem among a handful of childless London millennials, seeking to normalise polyamory is a dereliction of this responsibility.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.