Love the Ones You’re With

Originally published in print and online at City on a Hill Press February 10, 2011

Polyamory, or relationships with multiple consenting partners, attracts a high profile 

Love the Ones You’re With

Republished with permission

Dawn Davidson doesn’t live her life by Disney standards.

When you have more than one Prince Charming, fairy-tale clichés go out the window.

“In our culture, the only acceptable, long-term relationship style is monogamy,” said Davidson, a relationship coach and veteran in the polyamory community. “We’re taught that literally from childhood. What happens when the prince rescues the princess? They ride off into the sunset, and they live happily ever after. Just the two of them. Except she leaves behind her seven vertically-challenged, very hard-working housemates.”

Davidson laughs at this allusion and continues, “That seems like it might be kind of a light example, but it’s just the beginning.”

Davidson is one of the estimated half a million Americans who identify as polyamorous, meaning they carry on romantic relationships with two or more individuals simultaneously. As of 2005, there were an estimated 2,000 poly people residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Santa Cruz alone, 238 people participate in an online group that meets regularly to discuss polyamory.

In recent years these numbers have received significant media attention — notably, Newsweek described polyamory as “the next sexual revolution.” Poly books such as “The Ethical Slut,” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, have achieved mainstream success, bringing new faces to poly community groups in large cities throughout the country. As polls show younger generations growing more accepting of all lifestyles and non-hetero-normative relationships are in and out of federal courtrooms, polyamory is becoming more high-profile.

The poly community has received some negative attention. Conservative groups like Focus on the Family have publicly denounced polyamory as immoral, and a threat to the current federal marriage laws. A pamphlet released by the Family Research Council describes a polyamorous home as “a frat house with revolving doors.”

“This nebulous, free-for-all model of the family looms ahead for our society unless a bulwark is created in the form of a constitutional amendment protecting marriage,” according to the pamphlet.

Davidson said people in polyamorous relationships have similar motivations as those in monogamous ones, and they face similar challenges, just in greater numbers. As the number of members within a relationship increases, so does the potential for common dating and familial problems.

“Socially, it’s very similar,” she said. “We still have to negotiate around who gets to see whom, Thanksgiving and Christmas, ‘Are we driving to so-and-so’s this year? Are we getting together, and is there a big enough place to hold us all?’ It’s not an uncommon discussion. It’s just in a very different context.”

Many conservative groups wouldn’t agree with Davidson. Publications on the Family Research Council website warn that “the rising polyamorous culture is out to get your children.” Stigmas like this drive many poly people to keep their relationships relatively private.

Santa Cruz County resident Steve Jones* said he is openly polyamorous around his friends, but he chose to remain anonymous in this story to avoid becoming the subject of “malicious gossip.”

“If I’m close enough to people to talk about dating, then they probably know,” he said. “If we just have a business relationship and don’t talk about personal stuff, then I’m not going to talk about that any more than anything else that’s personal.”

The roots of polyamory, originally referred to as “responsible” or “ethical” non-monogamy, can be traced back to the 19th century. The term was not used with its contemporary meaning until 1990 and was not included in the Oxford English Dictionary until 2009. In the early ’90s, prominent figures in several poly communities used the Internet, which was still in its infancy, to organize networks of poly people and create resources for people interested in consensual non-monogamy.

Though Davidson has been in polyamorous relationships for more than 30 years, she “didn’t have a name to put on it” until the mid ’90s, she said. Since then, she has married, had children and become a prominent figure in the Bay Area polyamory community. Davidson also teaches classes for the local poly community at Pure Pleasure, an adult store located in downtown Santa Cruz.

Polyamorous relationships are not unlike monogamous ones, Davidson said.

“A lot of families are doing polyamory-style relating,” she said. “We just call it divorce and remarriage. There are a lot of people who have two moms and two dads.”

As the number of people in the relationship increases, so does the potential for common dating and familial problems, Davidson said.

“We tend to have more relationships, so the opportunity for all kinds of feelings comes up more in terms of sheer numbers,” Davidson said.

Jealousy is a common concern of people outside the community. But the issue is less common than many think, she said.

“I would actually say that the context of monogamy tends to generate some really strong jealousy behaviors,” Davidson said. “Again, it’s condoned and even supported by our culture — ‘A real man will protect his woman’ kind of thing, and it gets into that patriarchal property kind of stuff. Or conversely, you’ll hear about women using jealousy to get their man to pay more attention to them. It’s my take on it that at least the ideals of the polyamorous community, based on openness and honesty, everybody really has to be on board with what’s going on.”

Having multiple partners is common among people who identify as monogamous as well. “Open relationships” and “friends with benefits” arrangements remain common, as does infidelity. A recent study at Oregon State University of 434 young heterosexual couples found that, even among those with an explicit agreement to be monogamous, almost 30 percent had broken the agreement, with at least one partner having had sex outside the relationship.

While some might assume polyamory and cheating are the same, members of the poly community are quick to differentiate between the two.

Polyamorous relationships usually include primary and secondary partners. Primary partners often function in a spousal role, and there is less expectation for serious commitment and partnership in secondary relationships.

“A lot of men cheat — and a lot of women do too — but they sneak around, and that’s not what polyamory is all about,” said Santa Cruz County resident and polyamorist Pat Smith*. “If you really want somebody in your life, you need to work it out with your primary partner. Quite honestly, if you look at the original tenants of polyamory, the primary partner gets a veto. If this doesn’t work for them or they’re threatened in any way, you shouldn’t go there. They have to accept what’s going on. If they don’t … it’s considered cheating, to me.”

The differences between what some poly people see as undefined polyamory in monogamous relationships and open polyamory in multi-person partnerships can come down to semantics.

“There are a lot of cases where two people, often close friends, have mutual attraction but don’t act on it because of their agreement of monogamy with their primary relationship,” Larry Colen, a Santa Cruz County resident and long-time polyamorist, said in an e-mail. “These people are often lovers in everything but the sexual consummation. Since polyamory is, in theory, more about the emotional attachment rather than the physical expression, one could argue that these are, in reality, polyamorous relationships.”

Davidson says mainstream reluctance to accept polyamory is because of societal pressure.

“A lot of people just don’t realize it could be called that,” she said. “We have a really strong monogamous cultural assumption.”

While many people interested in polyamory seek out local and online groups, Jones guesses there are many more people who are not active in the community. These unaccounted-for polyamorists may fly under the official radar simply because they do not consider their relationships polyamorous.

“I know a lot of people of a younger generation who just don’t identify it as polyamory,” Davidson said. “But if you ask them if they are monogamous, they’d say no. They might call it responsible non-monogamy. They might call it open relationships … One group I used to know used to say their relationships are ‘in the flow.’”


Republished with permission

People within the community say the term “polyamory” encompasses many different approaches to non-monogamy.

“In the poly community you’ll find everything from people having a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement, where it is OK to have other relationships as long as you don’t talk about it,” Jones said. “That’s on one extreme. The other extreme would be a group marriage, where you have people living together and pooling their resources and doing all of the things that a family does together.”

Jones and his wife are friendly with each other’s partners and discuss their relationships, he said, but their relationships are separate. They only have two people in their marriage, he said.

While every relationship is unique, the poly community has terminology to distinguish between the more common types of polyamorous relationships. Relationships can be primary, secondary and casual. A primary relationship is mostly comparable to a traditional monogamous relationship and may be prioritized over secondary relationships.

“Often, people will only have one primary relationship, and that person takes priority,” Colen said. “A secondary relationship is very important to the person but usually not the person you live with. A long-term mistress could be a classic example of a secondary relationship.”

Smith and her husband have been in polyamorous relationships since they moved to California more than 30 years ago. Both had been previously married, and monogamy had not worked, she said. After listening to a lecture by polyamorist author Deborah Anapol, Smith and her husband began to consider multiple partners.

“We kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘That might work,’” she said. “It wasn’t about sleeping around — it was about needing more in a relationship. Not everybody can give everybody everything. And we had tried to work within the paradigm we were raised to acknowledge, [and] it wasn’t working.”

Smith is open about her relationships to her friends and family, and while she has received much support, she acknowledges that her traditionally-minded relatives do not understand her lifestyle.

“My sister is still married to the first man she ever went to bed with, and she doesn’t want to castigate me, but I’m sure she thinks I’m awful,” she said with a laugh. “They sort of consider me the batty aunt.”

Though polyamory may not be mainstream, the community is not small.

Pure Pleasure co-owner Janis Baldwin said Davidson’s classes have met a need for many Santa Cruzans, who used to drive to San Francisco for poly classes and resources.

“No one was teaching classes like that,” Smith said of Davidson’s poly workshops. “The last class was standing-room only.”

Davidson teaches Polamory 101, which is intended to be an introduction to polyamory. Participants learn definitions and terminology, and discuss basic issues that do and do not work in polyamorous relationships, like the importance of time management and how to deal with jealousy.

Amy Baldwin, who owns the store with her mother, said there is “definitely” a large poly community in Santa Cruz that utilizes this resource.

“Some people come who have been in poly relationships for years, and others are just dabbling in [polyamory],” Amy said. “Everyone leaves with something different.”

One of the most important things to take away from investigating polyamory, Davidson said, is that love is the same, regardless of how many people are involved.

“Honestly, poly relationships are just relationships,” she said. “We just have more of them.”

Published online at

Students Walk On for AIDS

Published in print and online at City on a Hill Press April 8, 2010

Students lined the aisles in the Biology of AIDS classroom on the last day of lecture, cash in hand, ready to turn in their final projects. About 130 students of the 294 enrolled in the class chose to raise $100 each for the Santa Cruz AIDS walk instead of turning in a term paper for the class, to help fund the efforts of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP).

As they waited, the students compared fundraising success stories and nightmares, from the aunt who generously gave $50 to the neighbor whose dog chased them out of the house before they could even ask for a donation. Every dollar they raised and experience they relayed spoke volumes of what they’d learned about AIDS outside the classroom this quarter. And every dollar would become part of the almost $15,000 donation the students of UC Santa Cruz made to the 20th annual Santa Cruz AIDS Walk in 2010, which will take place this Saturday, April 10.

Public health care in California has suffered since the recent state budget cuts, and the funding for AIDS programs has been no exception. SCAP, which puts on the AIDS walk every year, was dealt a crushing blow when funding for HIV/AIDS education and prevention was cut completely from the state budget after California slashed $85 million from AIDS programs last year.

California has consistently had high HIV/AIDS infection rates. The Center for Disease Control ranked the state second highest among the 50 states in cumulative reported AIDS cases in 2008. Because of the prevalence of infection in California, the decrease in funding for these programs has hit organizations like SCAP hard. SCAP Executive Director Merle Smith said the organization has since been kept afloat by the efforts of the Santa Cruz community, especially volunteers from UCSC.

“We could not manage without the support we get from the community,” she said. “The support of the community and the support we get from students, the free labor, it literally keeps us going.”

In the SCAP food pantry volunteer Justin White, a Cowell first-year, describes how various individuals and organizations host food drives for the organization and stock the pantry. Photo by Alex Zamora.

For years both local and student volunteers have played a huge role at SCAP. The organization was founded by a group of concerned citizens in the early 80s at a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the country, Santa Cruz County included. The organization is in its 25th year of operation, and with the help of student volunteers, has weathered the storm of the recent cuts to their state funding to provide much-needed services to the community.

Though some programs have fallen victim to lack of funding, SCAP continues to offer HIV testing, mentoring and a food pantry and transitional housing, among other important services, from their new offices on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz. The unspecatacular building looks much like any other professional office, and the plain façade doesn’t even hint at the exceptional work that goes on inside.

Every quarter, about 50 students from various classes and majors make room in their packed schedules to devote a minimum of two hours each week to helping the community cope with the effects of HIV/AIDS.

Volunteer Coordinator Alice H. Sebastian, a UCSC alumna herself, said she works primarily with students from her alma mater and is continuously amazed at the hard work students are willing to put in to help members of the community living with HIV.

“They really are doing everything we’re doing,” Sebastian said of the students she manages.

As she speaks, the unmistakably youthful voices of volunteers float into her cubicle in the SCAP building from the nearby rooms. Her words are occasionally cut by the loud thump of a paper cutter. Even in the days after spring break, the SCAP offices are alive with the energy of students.

The option to volunteer as a final project allows students to put their classroom education into the context of the real world, said UCSC biology professor Mary Zavanelli.

Zavanelli requires students who take her Biology of AIDS class to either commit several hours of their time to volunteer organization like SCAP or write a term paper. Not surprisingly, many students opt to spend time with SCAP rather than sit down to write a multiple-page paper.

“I [am] interested in getting the students out and volunteering in the community, because with an issue as complex as AIDS the only way to understand is to get in to that community,” she said. “It’s more broad than you think it is.”

And Zavanelli’s students do get out, in a big way. Sebastian said the class consistently raises at least $15,000 for the AIDS walk each year. UCSC students also comprise the majority of the walkers.

Sebastian’s words quicken as her professional demeanor gives way to one of excitement while describing the reactions of SCAP clients to student volunteers.

“Clients will come out [to the AIDS walk] and just stop and say ‘Look at all these people who care,’ and there’ll be 300 people and of that 250 of them will be UCSC students,” she said. “And they’ll say ‘Look at all these young people who care.’ That’s a beautiful thing.”

SCAP also has long-standing ties to the school, in many different programs. Sebastian said they regularly employ community studies, health sciences, sociology and psychology students, and they work hard to find a place for each individual.

“If you go to other places to volunteer they’re going to say ‘These are our positions, we’re looking for this number of hours to do these kind of things,’” Sebastian said. “We have a very grassroots-based kind of method to doing our work, and even though it’s 25 years later we’re still uniquely designed to use volunteers.”

SCAP Executive Director Merle Smith has piloted the organization through recent budget cut woes, and credits the work of student volunteers with much of the group’s success. Photo by Alex Zamora.

After consultation with Sebastian, volunteers are placed in positions that allow them to work within their skill set and area of interest, and apply it to AIDS advocacy. Students primarily interested in health care, for example, will be encouraged to find ways to apply their interest to public service.

Sebastian remembered one student who volunteered with SCAP who took his knowledge of health science and applied it to education and outreach to provide a resource for individuals at the drop-in center to identify if they had a staph infection, and then to find their options for treatment.

Selfless as they are, student interns at SCAP get back just as much as they give. Students who work with the organization gain real-world job experience while still being allowed the flexibility needed to put their education first.

“The vast majority of our volunteers are coming from the UC because of the miraculous combination of educated, driven, competent people who are already so busy they don’t mind shoving in an extra five or 10 hours, but they are in this position where they have these skills but they can’t get paid yet — they’re not certified yet to go get the job,” Sebastian said. “So we’re going to help them while they work at the dining hall on campus, or the grocery store, or the retail shop or as a nanny,” she added. “We’re going to help them build their resume so when it comes time to graduate they’re going have a this great recommendation and great experience.”

Emily Bluffi, who graduated from UCSC this winter with a degree in anthropology, said the work she’s done as an HIV test counselor both on campus and with SCAP has given her invaluable experience for a career in the public health field.

“If you’re going to help people in any sort of personal way, sex education or anything that affects their health, I think you have to have a good understanding of people, have a respect for them and be able to respect where they’re coming from,” she said.

Bluffi also emphasized the importance of volunteering within the Santa Cruz community.

“Your college experience should not just be one-dimensional,” she said. “As a student it’s good to have some kind of volunteer job or in some way connect to the community because once you graduate you’re no longer a student, you’re part of the community.”

Students also benefit from working in the field as it takes their study beyond theory and lecture. UCSC fourth-year politics major Eve Pourzan has been able to channel her interest in women’s access to affordable, high-quality health care into her internship with SCAP as she works to help the organization re-establish a community resource center, their former resource center having been a victim of the governor’s cuts to AIDS programs.

“At an organization such as SCAP, you can see direct results,” Pourzan said. “You work with people, you aren’t five steps removed from the actual progress that is taking place.”

The work Bluffi does as an HIV test counselor is one of the results of Pourzan’s work that she gets to watch happen. The organization was recently able to offer testing for the first time since the HIV testing program was cut this summer, a product of Pourzan and many others’ hard work.

UCSC alumnus Sean Lowry stayed on as a SCAP volunteer well past his school-mandated internship because of the opportunity for hands-on learning it allowed. Despite having graduated, Lowry can still be found lounging in the SCAP lobby talking with volunteers and lending a hand where needed, and he seems to be very much at home in the office as he leans back in a desk chair and explains his reasons for sticking around.

“I finished my internship and kept working here because it was more fun to get independent study credit working here than being in class,” Lowry said. “I felt like I was out in the field for six months doing real work, so going back into the classroom just seemed like a step backward.”

Many students like Lowry receive credit from the university toward their major for their volunteer work. But a lot of them stay on because of the things they get from their internships that don’t go on their transcript. SCAP Executive Director Smith believes that volunteering gives students an opportunity to see their education mean something more than grade points.

“It also gives them an opportunity to feel valued. Because a lot of times students get their education and feel like some of the work they’re doing is just to get through. Where, if they’re here, it’s a personal experience that is probably as rewarding as anything they will ever do in their lives,” she said. “When they’re able to take someone who is suffering from the disease but is also hungry back and help them build a food bag to take home to eat — I think that would be moving to anyone, but especially to a student.”

The value of student volunteers goes beyond the general need for unpaid workers. As new developments in science and medicine change the way AIDS is treated, so does the way society treats AIDS. As new vaccines and medications are developed, the problems of the disease have evolved from a death sentence to managing the diagnosis in daily life.

Sebastian explained that students are uniquely equipped to deal with this new era of AIDS advocacy.

“The beauty of having young student volunteers and interns is they can take all this education and bring a new face to it — it’s a new generation of HIV activists,” she said. “This isn’t the HIV community, this isn’t the group that started this organization, these are new people bringing all this in, and they’re not the ones who watched HIV from the beginning, but there’s this totally new perspective on it and that’s amazing,” she added. “There’s something beautiful about having student interns who are coming in at this time and shifting the concept around HIV activism. It looks different, and it needs to look different.”

The face of AIDS advocacy is changing, providing opportunities for students to make a much larger contribution to society than they have in the past. SCAP’s volunteers are using their education to utilize their skills in ways students haven’t before.

“Youth aren’t just a resource tomorrow,” Sebastian said. “They’re a resource right now.”

Originally published in print and online by City on a Hill Press

Walking With A Ghost

Published in print and online at City on a Hill Press November 18, 2010

Walking With A Ghost

Rising interest in paranormal activity prompts investigation into Santa Cruz’s spooky history

“You know how when someone stands close to you, you can feel it? It’s like that. Or it’s a static energy-type feeling, that’s what makes your hair stand up,” Nancy Bowmen described.

The co-founder of Paranormal Zone TV (PZTV) is certainly qualified to describe the presence of a ghost. Since she predicted her father’s death at the age of nine, Bowmen has had numerous experiences with paranormal entities, including witnessing two full-body apparitions and developing a personal relationship with Sarah Logan of the Brookdale Lodge, one of Santa Cruz’s most famous ghosts.

For Bowmen, investigating supernatural activities is not just a job but a deeply rooted passion that is evident in her willingness to express her belief in ghosts with an emphatic “yes.” Her interest can be traced back to a paranormal incident from her childhood.

“I was sitting on the lawn with a girlfriend and I was picking at the grass — but you know, when you’re … doing something mundane, and you kind of go blank in your mind?” Bowmen said. “In a heartbeat I got this little message. I couldn’t hear a voice but it was like a message, telepathically, saying, ‘Your father is going to die.’ And a week later, he passed away. I really think it was what you would call your guide which prepared me. I looked at my girlfriend and told her, ‘My dad’s gonna die. My dad’s gonna die…’”

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Uniting Youth to Form Community

Published in print and online at City on a Hill Press September 23, 2010

Uniting Youth to Form Community

Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez does not pretend to be perfect. Thirty-three years after founding the now nationwide nonprofit Barrios Unidos, Alejandrez speaks openly and frankly about his own battles with violence and addiction. He bears the scars and tattoos of a former gang member and a former drug addict, and the roomy fit of his dark jeans and buttoned-up short-sleeved shirt make no apologies for who he is, who he has been and who his people are. He is proud of his heritage as a member of the Latino community, and he would fit in just as comfortably were he sitting at a picnic table at a backyard barbecue with friends and family instead of in his office.

Perhaps it is because he is so honest about his past — in his words and in his appearance — that he is able to convince so many people, young and old, to choose a path of nonviolence.

Speaking from his Santa Cruz office, Alejandrez tells the story of Barrios Unidos (BU) and the thousands of men and women whose lives it has changed. The organization is devoted to preventing youth violence by providing young people with  alternative opportunities to survive and succeed…

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