Hippies in Paradise: the Kerista Commune

Post-reading “Sex at Dawn” I found myself browsing through the web for information on nonstandard sexual relationships. I came across discussion of “polyfidelity” which is essentially group marriage. This led me to a website for the “Kerista Commune,” a polyfidelous experiment that took place in San Francisco (where else?) from the early 70s to the early 90s.

The website, maintained by ex-members of the commune, is fascinating and includes a pretty honest assessment of the whole project. On one hand, the advantages of living in such a society are unpretentiously listed.

…once you were in Kerista, you had a real sense of belonging to a tribe. You always had a group of friends to move around with. You didn’t have to worry about paying your bills – the community took care of that. Those of us who were parents did not have to bear the stress and strain of raising kids alone. You always had help figuring out a difficult problem. And, somewhat more abstract, yet still significant, you always had a sense or belief that you were doing something good for the world.

But there’s also much discussion of the downsides.

Our living spaces were disgustingly messy and unaesthetic, largely because no one felt any personal responsibility for them. It was everyone’s – and therefore, no one’s – problem. People felt free to spend money on all kinds of things in a way that they would never do if they were solely responsible for balancing their chequebooks and making ends meet. (And, as it turns out, when the accounting was done after the commune’s demise, we found that our communal fund had been running in the red for years.)

Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently… There are memories of this sort about which many of us will probably continue to cringe for years to come . . . times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn’t synch with current Keristan doctrine.

Though we had never considered ourselves to be guru-centred (after all, we believed in democracy, equality of the sexes, and other “politically correct” positions), from our perspective today, Kerista was in many respects a cult with a charismatic leader. Jud’s forceful personal style of conversation and confrontation became the model for how Keristans related to each other and outsiders; only the most courageous Keristans dared to openly disagree with Jud.

We used to scoff at people who would show up at one of our rap groups and ask, “But what if you end up in a group with someone you aren’t attracted to?” We would tell them they obviously didn’t understand-you only joined a group if you wanted to be with all the people in it, and they all, wanted to be with you. That was the ideal, which made sense. In reality it was often not that way. Many of us did find ourselves at different times in bed with people that, on our own, there was no way on earth we’d have ended up with. The way it sometimes worked was that a few influential members of a group would be interested in a new person, and they would “gestalt” (read, harangue) others who didn’t share that feeling until they assented to accept the new person.

So how exactly did they arrange these polyfedilous relationships? There was a schedule which mandated whom would be sleeping with whom each night. In strict egalitarian fashion, after a person slept with a partner, they would sleep with every other potential partner before returning to that first partner*.

Did being paired with a person mandate sex?

Sex was not mandatory, but it was expected. Most people did have sex, as far as I know. If you weren’t having sex with a certain someone then something was probably wrong in your dyad. Rotating partners every night is a sure way to feel like you should fuck this person who you hadn’t been with in several days.

The whole website appears to be an interesting overview of the appeal and follies of hippie culture.

* The modern classical composer Arnold Schonberg had a similar system devised for music. He would create orders of musical notes containing all the notes in the chromatic scale, and then dictate that his compositions had to use every other note in the order, before reusing the first note.

4 Responses to “Hippies in Paradise: the Kerista Commune”

  1. CPR

    Man, all these schedules and rules sort of miss the point, don’t they? Rhythm, from a white man’s perspective. There’s nothing quite as irritating as a rule-driven hippie. Except maybe a red-faced priest.

  2. Wil

    Leave it to hippies to screw up something as simple as having sex with everybody.

  3. Kelly

    Okay, the Keristans had utopian ideals, and they didn’t always live up to their ideals. But they had the courage to try and bring their ideals to life. They also formed group marriages that lasted longer than many traditional marriages.

    First make your own marriage last twenty years, then think about how much harder it would have been to make a non-traditional marriage last that long, and see if you’re still so quick to criticize.

  4. Wil

    Frankly, I don’t see where I’m so quick to criticize. Most of the “criticisms” in the post are simply quotes from Keristans themselves.