Jenkins’ contradictions run deep. Her stance may be confrontational, but she hates confrontation. ‘I’m a terrible rebel. I am by nature a people-pleaser. I once got told off for laughing too much in class; I’ve never got over that. The idea that I displeased my teacher was devastating. I was that kind of kid and I’m still that kind of adult.’ Diagnosed with anxiety as a teenager, she is a self-described introvert and highly sensitive to criticism.
Those two sides of her character collided spectacularly after the publication of her first book, when its radical views on intimacy turned Jenkins into a target of abuse. Strangers threatened her on Twitter: ‘Why are you acting like this is an OK thing?’ ‘Get herpes and die, slut.’ Every time a high-profile article or interview came out, the hate kept coming.
‘I started internalising those comments in a way that was very painful and upsetting. Once they’re in your head, you can’t unhear them.’
Her sleep worsened, mistakes at work increased and her mood slumped. She’d had depression before, she says, ‘but the period after the book came out was one of the worst depressive periods of my life’.
And yet, despite the heat, Jenkins applied her logician’s mind and coolly appraised the hate directed at her. ‘I can’t switch that part off!’ she says. In large part, she concluded, it was slut-shaming. ‘I am a woman who talks openly about being polyamorous, so I’ve been called all the derogatory words you can think of for a promiscuous woman.’
But one of the advantages of polyamory, she says, is there are more caring partners to catch you if you fall, while a doctor and psychiatrist helped her to stop the downward spiral. She is still on antidepressants.
So, why put yourself in the firing line again? ‘I have an agenda. I want to push what’s normal. I want polyamory to be as normal and boring as learning that somebody has a kitten.’ Besides, keeping quiet was never an option. ‘If I stop talking and stop engaging the game is up.’
Jenkins grew up in a small village on the west coast of Wales. Her parents separated when she was young, and her father, an IT teacher, was largely absent. She credits her social worker mother, a Left-leaning feminist and ‘a bit of a hippy’, as an influence. ‘She was interested in ways of thinking that didn’t conform to social norms.’ The family income was modest and a turning point was getting a scholarship to an independent school in Monmouth. She went on to study analytic philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, and stayed on to write a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of mathematics. Her first book was on this subject, but she began thinking more and more about love. Her first publication on the subject was an article written with her husband about their relationship, ‘On Being the Only Ones’, published in the journal Off Topic in 2011. Newly married, they were about to move to the University of British Columbia: ‘We didn’t want to have to lie about who we are or how we work or who we love. We didn’t like having to keep it a secret.’
They listed the common charges against non-monogamy and refuted them one by one. On the perceived health risk to having multiple sexual partners, they pointed out that someone in an open relationship is more likely to practise safe sex than a frustrated partner who resorts to ‘drunken flings, clandestine affairs’.
The fallout was dramatic. She lost friends and nearly her family, too. ‘Close family members’ – she declines to say who – ‘were shocked and expressed that in ways that were hurtful.’ One of her brothers, himself an academic, stepped in; happily, the situation is now resolved.
But she understands why she provokes such extreme reactions. She brings people face-to-face with huge and troubling questions. Why not live out your desires? Why only be in love with one person at a time? ‘People feel a threat or a challenge to themselves or to something they value deeply,’ she says. Some people are temperamentally monogamous and can only see pain and hurt. But for others, Jenkins’ life represents a part of themselves they have buried: as she puts it, ‘I wasn’t able to do that, so you shouldn’t either.’
But the needle may be moving. As the Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel has put it: ‘The conversation about consensual non-monogamy today is the conversation about virginity 60 years ago. Or the conversation about divorce 20 years before that.’ And it’s inarguable that the concept is becoming more mainstream. The Oxford English Dictionary added the word ‘polyamory’ in 2006. And according to recent research by YouGov, one in 100 British adults were in an open relationship, while nine per cent were open to the idea. Polyamory is a subset of consensual non-monogamy, along with open relationships, swinging and casual sex. You can also be ‘monogamish’ – where partners in a long-term relationship allow each other to have flings.