'Seaside towns have always had a reputation': How Margate became the polyamory capital of England

British Ibiza. Shoreditch on Sea. Camden of the southeast. For a small seaside town, Margate has an impressive array of nicknames. Now, it seems there is another to add to the list, because this Kent hotspot is the unofficial polyamory capital of England.  

Take the train down to Tracy Emin's hometown in mid-August and you'll find any lingering association between the region and Nigel Farage's UKIP glory days swept away. In its place are abundant art galleries, fancy boutiques, artisan cafes and trendy bars.

The town even has its very own Banksy, and in summer, it plays host to one of the hottest parties on the south coast - Margate Pride where rainbow flags fly proudly. Drag queens and allies dance on tables. '90s pop queens strut their stuff. And tourists and locals party till dawn.

For the uninitiated, polyamory means having romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. It's not cheating because it's all consensual and out in the open, and often, but not always, allows a blurring of the lines of sexuality.

In a small town like Margate, where the population is just over 60,000, it means there is a real risk of bumping into people your partner is dating. But this doesn't have to be awkward, says sex educator and Margate resident Ruby Rare, who is the co-host of E4's Sex Rated.

"It doesn't feel like a big deal," says Ruby, 27, who has Barbie-pink hair and a big smile. Her reaction is to share a hug rather than a death stare. "I wouldn't look at them and think 'oh God, that's my partner's partner'. Instead, I'd go 'Oh my God that's a lovely person who is in our wider friendship group'."

As a result of its newly minted hipster status, house asking prices in Margate have risen significantly. They've increased on average almost 50% faster than the rest of the country in the past five years from £245,199 to £317,036 - a rise of 29% according to Rightmove. "It's the fastest wave of gentrification I've ever seen," says Francesca*, a polyamorous person in her mid-30s, who lived in Margate from 2019 until last winter.

While it's difficult to track precisely how many people in the UK are currently practicing polyamory, let alone in one specific town, new polling shows that more than a third of (35%) Brits think that humans are not naturally monogamous.

According to the same survey, while only 1% of Brits are currently in polyamorous relationships, 10% say they'd be open to considering it. It's more common among younger age groups, with 4% of 18-24 year-olds practicing it (up from 2% in 2019), and 12% who would be open to it.

In Margate, the town's status as a place where people can eschew monogamy free of judgement is an open secret that's discussed at parties and in LGBTQIA+-friendly clubs and bars. Ruby, alongside some friends, has just started the town's first official meet-up for Ethically Non-Monogamous (ENM) people.

"There are lots of polyamorous people, it's a lovely, open community," says Ruby, who migrated from south London almost three years ago. She adds that while there is a really fun time to be had in the "pockets" of Margate that are "queer heaven", it's a seaside town that is still very "economically divided".

It's the intimacy of small-town life that, experts like Ruby say, helps the success and visibility of polyamory in places like Margate. Being open and honest about who else you are dating and sharing that with your partners is central to non-monogamous relationships. While it can feel "weird" at first, says Ruby, it's still better than keeping secrets.

"It's much harder to be an a***hole in a small community," she laughs. "It's easy to treat people in a more disposable way in a massive city where there's a good chance you'll never see them again. That's not going to happen in Margate. If you hang out with someone whether it's romantic, sexy or just platonic, there's a good chance you'll see them within a few days."

It's not just the Down From Londoners (DFLs) who are part of the polyamory scene. Kent local Genevieve Pepper, 45, is a writer and performance artist, whose comedy alter ego is a dominatrix called Jezebel Pye. After her marriage ended several years ago, she started using the dating app Feeld which caters to those seeking unconventional hook-ups. Its popularity in the UK has grown dramatically, reporting an almost 250% rise in active UK users from January 2020 to 2022. To her surprise, she discovered a whole new world of sexual adventure on her doorstep.

"Seaside towns have always had a reputation," giggles Genevieve. "A little bit seedy, a little bit crazy. There is always that slightly licentious atmosphere."

She describes herself as "solo poly" - meaning you are open to having multiple intimate relationships while maintaining an independent lifestyle. Although she lives in the adjacent town of Ramsgate, much of her work and social life takes place in Margate.

While the poly community there has welcomed Genevieve, she says there are class divisions that run deep. While out on a recent date, she was accused by other locals of being a Londoner. "We dress a bit funky… challenging the stereotype that local people are cave dwellers who didn't have any style until the Londoners turned up."

She sees herself as a bridge between the local LGBTQIA+ and polyamorous scenes and that forged by middle class creatives who have migrated from the capital. "People from London might have hastened it along, but I think it's more of a class and social thing," says Genevieve.

"The lefty, middle-class people have a bit of a woke bubble. All my friends are like me and are either ethically non-monogamous or have thought about it. It's a viral idea that's spread among under-50, trendy, educated people."

There is a "sense of privilege and resentment", Genevieve says, among some local people towards the gatekeepers of the Margate scene, who are often ex-Londoners. "There is a bit of blindness because it's so lovely in Margate and Cliftonville [the town's trendiest district] for people that can afford it. You can get artisan this, vegan everything and there are great parties.

"But if you're working a double shift and struggling to feed the kids it's hard to feel part of that. I'm more likely to be serving them coffee than I am to be invited for coffee with them."

Alongside the class divisions, are the emotional challenges that polyamory - like any relationship style - can bring.

While the visibility of small-town life can make some people more respectful, it can also create pressures of its own. "My experience is that it can cause huge problems," says Genevieve. "People lie for a start, particularly men… they'll say they've told their girlfriend and don't realise this woman is going to see their girlfriend on the school run."

Her rose-tinted view of the poly community was tainted by meeting a man who at first said he wanted a threesome, and then asked to meet her alone. "He said he wanted secret meetups with me as that would make it more exciting. I was like, 'Look, you're basically a swinger and that's still not enough for you'."

After an initial honeymoon period in the town, Francesca*, who describes herself as "solo poly", found herself similarly disillusioned. "It can get messy," she says. At first, she "bought the line" that the people she met were living this "fantastic life" in England's "polyamory capital".

Eventually, though, she found the visibility of the scene stifling. "There are plenty of people whose relationships are open and are being polyamorous, but I didn't want to get involved in their relationships," she says. "I'm essentially single but loving multiple people however that works out for me."

The normalisation of ENM relationships in parts of Margate has, in Genevieve's view, led to some people feeling pressured to participate. "Men get to behave exactly how they want," she says. "I think some women are going along with it to save the relationship or to just show they're cool. I've had people be like 'oh god you're not monogamous, are you?'"

Francesca echoes Genevieve's view. "Whatever man you're dating there will be five women in the town who are upset with him," she says. "It was hard to find a man who didn't have a trail of devastation behind him."

According to Genevieve, sex parties inspired by events such as Torture Garden - the legendary London fetish party - are also on the rise in the region both in people's homes and in public spaces. While she isn't opposed to these "cuddle puddles", she fears implanting ideas like this from London could lead to problems as the scene grows.

Ruby says she hasn't witnessed any sex parties. From her perspective, the secret of Margate's growing appeal is more about connection and community. "It's not sex first, or scandal first," she says.

The close-knit nature of the scene has helped her practise an open relationship style called Kitchen Table Polyamory. "Everyone involved is able to sit together at the kitchen table, have a cup of tea and chat," she explains.

But while open relationships are accepted in certain circles in this seaside town, it's far from universal. As gentrification continues apace, there are moments of culture clash as locals and new arrivals work out how best to co-exist amid the surge in property prices and the cost of living crisis.

"There's a lot of homophobia," says Genevieve. "One of my friends got egged at Pride during the parade… It's still a day of protest as well as celebration."

But despite the odd negative experience, she is still happier being part of the poly scene than she was being monogamous. In a region like Thanet, which voted 64% in favour of Brexit, she says traditional dating, for someone like her with left-leaning views, can be a political minefield.

"I have yet to meet a Tory," she jokes. "With conventional dating, you don't know if you're talking to someone that's voted for Nigel Farage in the past. It's nice to have that level playing field of - you're fairly woke, and so am I, and we're not going to fall out over asylum seekers."

So, is Margate the polyamory capital of England? Different people we spoke to had different experiences, but they all agreed it is a place where alternative lifestyles and relationship choices can thrive. Whatever you choose to call it and whatever experience you might be in search of, it's clear that this seaside town is swinging.

*Name has been changed

Sex Rated was shown on E4 and is now available on Channel 4

The Assumption of Jezebel Pye is at The Guildhall, Faversham, Saturday 28 October, you can also catch her at @sugar_rush_ramsgate.