Inside Hong Kong’s secretive free-love scene: don’t call it swinging – this is polyamory, where sex is just one option
Lea and Judy are part of a small community that enjoys giving and receiving love with multiple partners. Despite polyamory not being all about sex, no one sees it crossing cultural barriers in Hong Kong any time soon
Polyamory is absolutely not about swinging, insists Lea, who declines to reveal her full name because she believes her lifestyle choice is widely misperceived in her home city of Hong Kong.
Polyamory is defined as the state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at a time. Hong Kong has a small but passionate scene that plays out in the “Polyamory Hong Kong” Facebook group, of which Lea, 46, is the administrator.
“It is about relationships that allow the other person, their partner, to experience everything that outside relationships have to offer,” she says. “Sometimes those are things not available within the primary relationship.”
There are certainly sexual connotations to polyamory, but there is also an emotional side to the lifestyle choice, says Lea, a senior corporate leader in the global apparel industry.
The Facebook group, which was set up in 2013 by another administrator, has just 45 followers. Many have already left Hong Kong and there are now fewer than 10 active members in the city. “It is a very Western lifestyle and contrary to Asian culture, so it wouldn’t be a local thing,” Lea says.
Lea insists that polyamory is no more unusual than any other lifestyle choice.
“Maybe someone craves touch and holding hands, kissing or just talking with someone who is experiencing the same day-to-day challenges in the work environment. Their primary partner may not be able to offer those things, but they want to allow that person to be fulfilled and experience everything they need and want intimately,” she says.
“They also want to stay together as life partners, and embrace everything they cherish and love about the primary relationship.”
Lea and her partner have been together for almost 15 years and have children. “We are best friends and life partners,” she says, adding that they are both involved in long-term relationships other than their own. Sometimes Lea and her partner experience awkward moments when they run into people they know while out on a date with another person, she says.
Lea says part of the attraction of her alternative lifestyle is that she has the chance to experience more intellectual conversation, romantic dinners out and exciting, intimate connections.
She also experiences the giddiness and excitement of being with someone new – the fun side of intimacy – and cites the thrill of having someone delightedly grabbing her hand.
Lea says she does not expect to see the polyamorous lifestyle crossing cultural barriers in Hong Kong any time soon. It will always appeal more to liberal-minded Western residents, she believes, because it does not conform to the conservative local culture.
Non-monogamous lifestyles are not exactly unheard of in Hong Kong, however. Concubinage – in which married men with the financial means provided for “minor wives”, preferably if the women could provide him with sons – was only banned by the British colonial government in 1971. Nevertheless, the practice could not necessarily be described as polyamory. The British banned concubinage because women other than the first wife did not enjoy legal rights and could be banished by their man if, for example, they failed to give birth to boys or talked too much.
Kowloon-based Judy, 37, a member of Lea’s group, says she has always been partial to polyamory. Judy, who works as a researcher in both Hong Kong and the Austrian capital, Vienna, has lived the lifestyle since 2008.
“I’ve always been like that in my mind. Basically I was just being true to myself,” she says of her decision. Judy adds that she had discussed the ideals of polyamory with a pen pal when she was younger, but at the time had not regarded it as a realistic choice.
“It always has to do a little bit with having somebody to do it with … I think a lot of changes have come with the internet and people being able to connect better,” she says.
The polyamory scene is thriving in other cities she has lived in, Judy says, with people attending discussion groups regularly. In Vienna, for example, monthly meet-ups are held in bars or coffee shops.
“So you can go there every month, and of course that keeps my options open. I mean, we are all social beings, right? You cannot be polyamorous alone,” she says with a laugh.
Judy says she has also been active in the fetish community, which is more open to “consensual non-monogamy” – the scientific term for polyamory.
Polyamory is not a numbers game, Judy explains. She is not interested in having 10 inconsequential relationships, nor sleeping around. “It’s not about having sexual contact, or more sexual contact than other people.”
She describes those polyamorous people that she feels closely connected to, and sometimes has erotic encounters with, as “family”.
Whether her “family” consists of two men or two women makes no difference to Judy, and no distinction exists between friendships, relationships and love affairs.
In Judy’s circle, everyone knows how many relationships she is involved in. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t do polyamory. Otherwise, it would be called cheating. That’s the basic point,” she says.
She denies that being polyamorous is any more complicated than being in a conventional relationship.
“If you do a normal relationship, don’t you communicate about your needs with your partner? And don’t you have to work on creating that basis for intimacy and build trust every day in a normal relationship?”
Judy believes the conventional “relationship escalator” is becoming a thing of the past. Today, unlike during her parents’ time, regular dating no longer automatically ends in marriage and children. “Doing normal” is complicated, she says.
Nevertheless, Judy comes across as being uneasy about being wrongly interpreted. She says she has noticed that there is a limit to how much she can control the public perception of her lifestyle choice when she opens up about it.
“It will always have the, ‘Oh my god, this is weird’ effect [from people] first,” she says.
Polyamory is a much more acceptable option in Europe, she says. There, she sees more media interviews on the subject and even interviews with polyamory researchers on television.
Dedeker Winston is a US relationship coach who wrote The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory and hosts a podcast called “Multiamory”. She says that only 17 per cent of world cultures are strictly monogamous.
Globally, most cultures mix various relationship styles, including polygamy (multiple spouses), polygyny (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands) in addition to traditional monogamy, Winston says. Monogamy, she explains, has only been “enforced” as a social norm for a few hundred years.
“To look beyond our own species, it’s interesting to note that monogamy in general is rare on the planet,” she adds. “Under 5 per cent of mammals form lifelong pair bonds, and many of those species have been observed cheating on or abandoning their bonded partners.”
Still, she says, monogamy has become a universal norm because it is part of a cultural narrative around relationships and love that has been largely promoted by films, TV programmes, books and other cultural mediums.
The influence of Christianity has undeniably been a key force in upholding the image of heterosexual monogamous marriage as the ideal personal relationship type in the West, Winston says. She adds that centuries of missionary work have imposed the concept on many non-Western, non-Christian cultures around the world.
Some people pursue polyamory because they find joy in giving and receiving love with multiple partners, Winston says, and many turn to it because traditional monogamy has failed them.
Studies show that swingers and polyamorous couples have higher relationship satisfaction and a lower divorce rate than monogamous couples, she insists.
“I don’t know very much about the Hong Kong scene, but from what I’ve heard from friends who are more active in it, the fear of a backlash and stigmatisation drives many people to remain closeted about their relationships,” she says.