Let’s Get it On(line)

As it has with most things once regarded as taboo, the Internet has acted like a dinner bell for anyone with even a passing interest in polyamory. Locally, the hottest address for the poly-curious is www.lovetribe.org. Launched in 2002 by a Portland-based couple’s counselor who goes by the screen name Jas, the site purports “to give people space and permission to be playful and alive.”

Who are these people who thumb their noses at convention, with their threesomes and spouse-swapping, while silly, one-woman-lovin’ me putters along with a girlfriend I’d be a dumbass to want to share? The gall. But still, I couldn’t shake my curiosity. So I closed my eyes, swallowed hard and joined the Tribe.

It’s pretty simple: Log in, choose a nickname (I am SouthernMan1) and wait for an e-mail verification. Click. Just like that, an entire underworld materialized beneath my fingers. I could search for potential partners by age, sex or location, or find a litany of poly-themed events, described with saucy adjectives. Snuggly. Tantric. Erotic. Edgy.

I could also access a social calendar that sounded like something out of Penthouse Forum. There’s a “Men’s Spirit Pajama Party” on Thursday, in which I could engage in massage circles and something called a “puppy pile.” A clothing-optional hot-tub party/baby shower on Friday. Or the “Rapture” on Saturday, a sexually charged dance party that promised to end in one of two ways—in the Snuggle Den, a room that’s meant for clothes-on touching, or in the Play Space, where sex was A-OK. There, the only rule, other than safe sex, was that you couldn’t expose your genitals on the dance floor—at least, not until midnight.

For this all-American monogamist, every option seemed absolutely horrifying. Strangers touching strangers? Strangers touching me? I nearly blacked out thinking about all the Purell this excursion would require. And then I saw something more my speed: the First Thursday Art Snuggle. The description promised a fully clothed group groping amid poetry readings and lightly strummed music. More important, there would also be liquor. And cookies.

In Old Town, near the corner of NW Everett and 6th, my girlfriend and I find a door propped open. She’s come to the art snuggle with me for support, of course, but also for the masochistic glee she gets from watching me squirm in uncomfortable situations. A sandwich board out front painted with two of Dr. Suess’s star-bellied Sneetches poking each other in the stomach advertises something called “Sensation: A Touching Show.” This is the place.

The puppy pile is just one of many gateway drugs that feed a polyamorist’s need for nonsexual connection.

In the private loft building, we weave past exquisitely disheveled hipsters and purple-haired teenagers sipping from plastic cups of wine. We end up in a long room lined with etchings, drawings and finger paintings. Twenty people mill around, perusing the art on the walls and fiddling with colorful wads of Play-Doh laid out on a center table. Near the bank of windows in the back, a woman reads aloud a poem about her menstrual cycle. Or maybe it’s a miscarriage?

Whatever. We’re here to witness the puppy pile, a cooing mass of arms and legs also known as “the snuggle.” And upstairs in a tiny 8-by-8 loft area covered in blankets and pillows, we find it: six people dressed in their pajamas, cuddling, caressing, stroking, massaging. They’re nearly lying on top of each other, faces relaxed in some state of silent bliss.

The puppy pile is just one of many gateway drugs that feed a polyamorist’s need for nonsexual connection (although not all attendees necessarily call themselves polyamorists). There’s also “ecstatic dance,” where participants purge the kinetic funk from their minds by flailing and screaming to the rhythm of a tribal beat; and “pujas,” in which attendees circle up and continually switch partners in short, intense, touch-free bouts of “soul gazing.” It’s like speed dating without the emphasis on flesh-based attraction or even the requisite “Hi, my name is _____.”

“You see a lot of relationships start in snuggles and pujas,” says Julie Avena, an Ashland-based intimacy and love coach. “It’s more intimate than a one-night stand. That mousy person you might not have noticed at first? You open up your heart to her and you realize that she could be your soul mate.” As long as your current soul mate (yeah, that girl in the corner with the ring on her finger) doesn’t mind, of course. Because within the chest of most polys beats a heart that’s longing for connection, says Avena. Deep connection. Something that goes beyond looks.

The brains-over-beauty ethos sounds like a great idea. I want to believe it. So my girlfriend and I push ourselves to the edge of the stairs and gaze into the eye of the puppy pile. Should we dive in? Get a taste of that love buzz that so many polys rave about? An older woman with short gray hair notices our gawking. In excruciating slow-motion she releases one hand from someone else’s neck, untangling herself just enough to extend a come-hither arm to us. The question printed on her oversized sleep-shirt does all the talking: “Wanna Snuggle?”

Rather uncomfortably, I reply. No ma’am. I do not. That’s what my dogs are for. With a gaggle of bedroom eyes following us out the door, we slink away. But why do I feel so guilty for not being able to open myself up?