In my last post on the popularity of polyamory, I briefly discussed the important relationship between sex-positivity and polyamory. This spawned a huge comment thread, so I am treating the subject in its own post, at length and with more specific language.
The sex versus love conversation is a perennial staple in polyamorous forums and lists. Sometimes it is tense, other times it is polite, but in every case people weigh in from all sides with their personal take. Usually this sort of repeating conversation indicates a point of conceptual frustration, and indeed the sex/love/poly relationship is not clear. On the one hand, poly discourse is loaded up with love and relationship talk. On the other hand, sex of some sort is crucial to most poly relationships, and polyamory as a whole seems to be establishing itself as a sort of sexual minority.
What is the relationship between polyamory and the act of sex? Between polyamory and people’s sexuality? Can we fully separate sex and love? What are the power mechanisms behind the culture’s take on the relationship between sex, love, and monogamy? In what ways does this make it difficult to be polyamorous, and how are poly people resisting these ways? Why exactly is it important to discuss sex and sexuality in a poly context?
People who are new to analysis writing often find my essays confusing, so let me go over the basics in this paragraph. I am a conceptual strategist. This means that when I talk about things like “sex”, “monogamy”, and “polyamory”, I am not referring to the dictionary definition. Rather, I am referring to the overall way we think about and practice these things, which tends to include all kinds of assumptions, connotations, and details that one cannot find in the dictionary.
Also, while I frequently refer to monogamy and monogamous power structures in this essay, I am talking about the overall cultural system of monogamous conformity, which makes monogamy the only viable choice. I am not disparaging people’s individual monogamous practice, or saying that no one should be monogamous. Monogamy has plenty of good things going for it, there are non-problematic ways to be monogamous, and there are people (lots of them) who are happiest with monogamy and should be practicing it.
One further disclaimer: this essay is aimed at a specific segment of the poly community, namely the visibly organized poly community, which I am a part of. There are certain strains of ideology in these groups that I find problematic. When I refer to unqualified “poly people” or “we”, I am addressing this group. It is not my intention to marginalize or erase poly people who are not in this group. Indeed, I suspect that the visibly organized community is a minority of poly people.
This essay is heavy on the deconstruction. If you are not a fan of theory, I encourage you to skip down to Putting the Sex Back in Polyamory.
Sex and Love
Sex and love are separate in the mainstream imagination. Sex is a physical act between two people. Love is a bit more murky. Mostly we use it to discuss a certain feeling, though people are remarkably cagey on what that feeling is exactly. It has been described as giddying, comfortable, stomach-churning, fluttery, insane, happy, and/or out of control. Some of these contradict each other, and the culture seems to revel in these contradictions. Perhaps we can say that love is feeling good about a person in that romantic way, but then we run into the same issues with “romance”.
In any case, it is clear that love is strongly associated with relationships. Love is supposed to be a requirement for relationships. No love means there should be no relationship. If the love in a relationship dies out, we consider it best if the relationship ends at that point. If two people fall in love, we think that they should get into a relationship. Love that is hopeless or doomed is love between two people who cannot be in a relationship for some reason, for example Romeo and Juliet. There is a certain direct mapping between love and relationships: one implies the other.
We like to talk about love. We expect love to show up in our books and movies. This is carried to the point of ridiculousness in some cases. For example, action movies seem to have an underlying requirement for a love plot that must be worked into the main plot, even though the point of the movie is action. We turn on the radio and every other song is about love. Love is revered. It is an ideal.
When the culture talks about sex, it goes a bit differently. Just the act of discussing sex is itself titillating and kind of dirty, as if there is a certain dirtiness in the act of sex that transfers into anything we say about it. The dirtiness in sex talk relegates it to advice columns in alternative weekly papers, or in daytime talk shows. Sometimes sex is treated with reverence, but rarely, and only then in the context of a loving marriage. We do talk about sex a lot, but at least the public portion of this discourse is largely uninformative, and even private talk about sex tends to stay away from the mechanics involved. We build a kind of silence around the actual mechanics of sex, perhaps in response to its supposed dirtiness. Sex education classes purposefully omit any sort of education about the sex act itself, and instead spend their time telling you not to do it and putting up pictures of bad STD cases. Sex is all over the magazines in the grocery store checkout, but if you actually open them up and read the supposedly amazing sex tips inside, they are bland and unimaginative, nothing that you couldn’t come up with on your own. This is how people get to age twenty without knowing that you (usually) shouldn’t bite the clitoris, or that lube is (usually) a prerequisite for any kind of anal play.
So, sex and love are treated fairly differently, and they tend to be treated distinctly, in that we tend not to mix up our sex and love discourse. The action movies with the love plots do not discuss oral sex techniques. There tend to be different advice columnists for dating and for sex. There is a dichotomy happening here: our culture separates out sex and love and treats them differently, love much more positively than sex.
However, while this dichotomy is conceptually quite strong, on another level we seem to be mixing up sex and love. Having sex is often referred to as “making love”. When the folks in the 60’s said “make love, not war”, they were not talking about engagement rings, going steady, and other traditional elements of romance. They were talking about sex, but bringing in the idea of love, perhaps as cover. When people talk about a “loveless” marriage, they are often saying that there is no sex in the marriage.
Simply, love implies sex. Sex is a required undercurrent of love, a prerequisite. This applies even to doomed love: Romeo and Juliet got it on exactly once after getting married and before committing suicide. There can be love without sex for a period of time, but that is only because we are looking forward to the sex that will happen some day, or dwelling on the sex that cannot happen for some reason. Love without sex is described as “unconsummated”, somehow incomplete or deficient. Sex is not necessarily the most important part of love, but the presence of or potential for sex is a mandatory requirement for love. Because the actual feelings involved in love are largely undefined, sex seems to be the sole well-understood mandatory requirement for love.
So the connection between love and sex is an “A is not B, but A requires B” relationship. The interplay of relationships and love follows a similar pattern: relationships definitely require love, though they are conceptualized separately. If we chain our requirements, we find that relationships also require sex. Indeed, when people talk about relationships without sex, they say their needs are not being met, or that the love has died. A sexless relationship is sufficient reason for visiting a therapist, or for a breakup.
Relationships and love impact various parts of one’s life, from living arrangements, to personal happiness, to the structure of social spaces. And relationships and love are dependent on the act of sex, and one’s sex drive. Which means that the arrangement and structure of one’s life are largely dependent on one’s sex life and sexuality.
I call this process of dependency “genital attachment”. Genital attachment is the attachment of consequences to one’s genitals, or the actions that one performs with one’s genitals, and it is a general mechanism of culture, used in numerous ways. When a person is born, a doctor looks at their genitals to determine gender and writes their gender down on their birth certificate, and that gender means that people are probably going to treat them in certain gender-specific ways for the rest of their life. If a person does something non-normative with their genitals, this is seen as reflecting on their entire lives and character, and removes them from the realm of the normal. This is why queer people or BDSM practitioners have trouble in custody court: what we do with our crotches is seen as branching out and affecting or reflecting the rest of our lives.
Genital attachment is a significant power mechanism within mainstream culture. If you can train a young boy to only be attracted to thin women, then he will probably view large women negatively his entire life. If you can convince a young girl that having sex requires being sexy, and being sexy requires long hair, then she will never shave her head. This goes the other way as well: if a person thinks that an act of deviant sexuality will reshape their entire lives, then they will avoid that act even against their own desires. In other words, genital attachment becomes a particularly significant point for cultural control, because it mixes up cultural power with pleasures of the flesh.
(To give credit where credit is due, this is not my argument. I am paraphrasing Foucault’s idea of sexuality as a technique of power. If you are up for reading heavy theory, I encourage you to pick up his History of Sexuality.)
With this idea of genital attachment in mind, we can revisit the cultural treatment of sex and love. There is a kind of sex that is implied by love, and we rarely talk about it. There is a certain sleight-of-hand occurring here: when we want to talk about normative sex (that is, sex in loving relationships), we do not discuss it directly. Instead we talk about love or relationships, and we seem to have an endless amount to say on these subjects. Not all talk of love or relationships is actually about sex, but this talk serves to obscure talk about sex, providing a way to talk about it that is not actually talking about it.
We can see this in mainstream movies, which show just enough to imply that the sex happened, without actually showing explicit details of the sex itself. Often this means showing people kissing, or lying naked in bed. Sex scenes in these movies are short, so there is no danger of titillation. This is why you rarely see a condom in movies: condoms are considered part of the mechanism of sex, and therefore are not appropriate. However, at the same time these movies must somehow imply that the sex happened, because the love and relationship plots are empty without it.
This is a second common mechanism in the culture, the unexamined norm. Supposedly normal sex is not looked at or talked about. It is absent from sex education courses. It is absent in the media or pop culture. There are books and advice columns on the mechanisms of sex, but they are eminently avoidable. We receive no training in this normal sex: it is a mystery that is just supposed to happen magically. If it does not happen that way, we discuss it in the private setting of the therapist’s office, and it is seen as a personal failure. We replace any discussions of sex with discussions of love and relationship, pulling them in to cover any discussion of the mechanisms involved. This also serves to hide the power arrangements supported by genital attachment.
To facilitate this hiding, we scrub out sex and desire from discussions of love or relationships, leaving in just enough to prove that it is there. We maintain a certain surface pretense that love is entirely independent from sex, but at the same time we almost never actually practice this independence.
All this hiding of the normative leads to an odd situation where when someone does get around to investigating the normative, they tend to find surprising things, things that have always been there but no one has been talking about. Kinsey was an example of this. Another good one is My Secret Garden, a book that solicited and printed women’s sexual fantasies without much in the way of culling or editing.
When we do discuss sex in public, it is not normative sex. We discuss deviant sex instead, and in this way we can lay out the parameters of normal sex, this time by talking about what it is not. This is why swinging and BDSM are fodder for the media (as I discussed last time), but only in the negative sense of “don’t do this”. This discussion of deviant sex is another outlet for talking about normative sex without actually talking about it. By investigating every possible deviance from the norm, we can state what the norm is without actually saying that we are doing so.
In this way, deviance is associated with any actual discussion of sex, and sex talk feels dirty. This is opposed to talk about love, which feels clean and wholesome even when it is standing in for talk about sex. There is a value judgment happening here: love (and sex-in-love) is transcendental and magical and revered, but sex (deviant sex, sex-not-in-love) is dirty and carnal and physical.
To recap, there are two types of sex in the mainstream imagination, sex in a culturally validated loving relationship, and deviant sex. The latter is discussed at length and those discussions take on an authoritarian tone or an air of hedonism. The former is not discussed directly, but instead is talked about indirectly through discussions of deviance or discussions of love and relationships. We consider love and relationships to transcend the sex within them, but we retain the requirement that the sex happen, as it is useful for a number of cultural power projects.
This is not to say that the distinction between sex and love is useless: being able to discuss romantic feelings separately from carnality is a good conceptual distinction. My point here is that mainstream culture does not actually allow us to do this. Instead our culture maintains a vague conceptual pretense that the two are separate, while feverishly conflating them and setting up interdependencies under the conceptual covers. As a result, it is nearly impossible to have a conversation on love without some subtext of sex, and conversations of sex contain a constant subtext around the emotional connection that is or should be there. Indeed, most people have trouble having sex without an emotional connection, or sex creates an emotional connection for them. So-called casual sex is certainly possible and common, but many people have to train themselves to be able to do it. Along the same lines, love without sex (or the hint of sex) is possible, but again requires training and a certain break with mainstream ideology.
Sex radical movements have spent a lot of energy trying to break out of this cultural power pattern by making the connections between sex and love clear. One such strategy is to break down the sex/love dichotomy and speak of relationships as having both, which makes sexuality visible. The word “sexualoving” was one product of this, an effort to point out that sex happens in relationships and emotional connection happens in supposedly deviant situations.
A second approach to escaping the sex/love power pattern is to actually invest in the separation of sex and love, and create versions of love that actually do not depend on sex. This is easy conceptually because it just extends the culture’s surface conceptualization, but hard to pull off in practice because the culture is sneaky and persistent in undermining its own dichotomy, due to its heavy investment in the genital attachment of love. But this can be done, and is revolutionary in its own right: we see this in platonic polyamorous arrangements, which I will discuss further below. Notably, this approach can be at conceptual odds with the sex radical approach of exposing the underlying connections between sex and love: while sex radicals are busy unearthing the sex/love links, this second approach is trying to actually break those links.
The sex/love dichotomy does provide one sort of conceptual escape hatch to deviant sexualities: if we can show that what we are doing is love, then it becomes valued despite its deviance. I call this the “love escape hatch”.
We have seen this happen in the last forty years with the gay and lesbian movements. A discourse of anal sex, bathroom cruising, lesbians with hopeless passions, and girls in prison has been steadily replaced with smiling couples, preferably on their way to (attempt to) get married. Most same-gender sex is still considered fairly revolting by the mainstream, but the discussion of such sex is disappearing under the cover of love discourse, allowing gay men and lesbians to become non-deviant subjects. Bisexuals and transgender people have been largely absent from this progress, and are still heavily sexualized, and are still considered deviant.
We can see the operation of the love escape hatch in various other contexts as well. The love escape hatch was the premise for the strong romantic friendships between women in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and served to cover for the fact that plenty of these women were having sex that was considered deviant. Also, people who cheat will typically claim that they must do so because they are in love, as an attempt to personally legitimize a deviant practice. (The book Lust in Translation notes this tendency in a number of westernized cultures.)
In general, the mainstream will attempt to focus on the sexual aspects of any counterculture sexual movement. This is why swingers are constantly denigrated as hedonists, and kinksters as perverts. This is why mainstream people want to know where everyone sleeps when they first encounter polyamory. This sexualization has a purpose: keeping sex in the discussion prevents use of the love escape hatch and ensures that the deviant group will be seen as deviant, keeping mainstream desire comfortably unchallenged.
Sex and Monogamy
We have established a certain pattern with sex and love. As it turns out, the same general mechanisms apply to the relationship between sex and monogamy, though the details differ significantly. Monogamy is genitally attached, and again that genital attachment is hidden even though it is quite strict. Also, monogamy is revered and unexamined, and when we wish to discuss monogamy we do it by examining deviations from monogamy.
Let us start with the genital attachment, since that tends to be the part people have trouble believing. The genital rule of monogamy is that you cannot get up to genital play with people other than the one person you are monogamous with. To do so is to be by definition not monogamous, according to mainstream culture. The genital attachment of love was the requirement that sex happen. The genital attachment of monogamy is a requirement that sex not happen, specifically sex with the wrong person.
And indeed, it is by investigating violations of monogamy that we can get a handle on the sexual requirements for monogamy.
First, the legal definition of a violation of monogamy (typically referred to as “adultery”) always involves sexual infidelity. There is one counterexample in obsolete “alienation of affection” laws, where a person could be sued if they broke up a marriage. However, this is because the laws were addressing divorce rather than specifically addressing violations of monogamy: a therapist who advised a wife to leave her husband could also be sued for alienation of affection.
Second, our culture has a stark image of the worst violation of monogamy, and that is finding your lover in bed with someone else. This scene is central because it is the sexual violation of monogamy witnessed by the supposed victim. Books and movies that address infidelity rely on this scene heavily. There have been laws that address this situation specifically, such as a 1911 Texas law (see article 1102 here)that allowed a man to kill another man if he found that man in bed with his wife. A quick google search reveals that catching someone in the act of adultery has been a successful defense for homicide in several states and as recently as 1977, and I suspect it would work to at least reduce sentences even today.
Third, it turns out that sex is needed to consummate infidelity, similar to the way it is needed to consummate love. Infidelitous sex functions as a sort of “point of no return” in the cultural imagination. This has led to interesting scenes in mass-market movies or television shows where a person considers infidelity or has feelings for others but stops short of actually having sex, and is thus redeemed. Eyes Wide Shut is a great example of this: nobody actually has infidelitous sex in the movie, and thus the relationship can be redeemed at the end, despite all kinds of attempts at infidelity and feelings for other people. Of course, in real life sexual infidelity typically does not actually end the original relationship even when discovered, due to people having a decent sense of priorities, but the formula is none the less pervasive in popular culture.
Of course, sex with the wrong person is not the only violation of monogamy. Monogamy has been expanded so as to define all sorts of other situations as violations. Having lustful thoughts or romantic feelings for the wrong person violates monogamy. Watching too much porn can be seen as a violation. Vacationing with the wrong person is another potential violation. However, all of these depend on the intimation that sex with the wrong person is happening or will happen. (Though sometimes that wrong person is a person on the screen.) Sex is the archetypical violation of monogamy, and other violations are conceptually dependent on sex. This includes romantic violations, like getting flowers for the wrong person. While in fact the extra-relationship romance is more directly threatening to a monogamous relationship than extra-relationship sex (and people with their priorities in order will recognize this), mainstream culture reverses this ordering and builds out our understanding of infidelity from a sexual base. Language betrays us here: in order to discuss romantic infidelity we have to use recently popularized terms like “emotional affair”, whereas there is no similar need for the term “sexual affair”. “Sexual affair” is redundant because we consider affairs (or cheating, or infidelity) inevitably sexual.
In fact, if we reverse things and look at extra-relationship sex, it always qualifies as nonmonogamy of some sort. Sometimes this is imagined by the culture as cheating and other times as out-of-control hedonism (rarely as responsible or ethical nonmonogamy), but it is never monogamy, whereas other violations of monogamy (including romantic violations) are seen as dangerous but are not nonmonogamy by definition. We can establish a contrapositive relationship here: sex with the wrong person is always nonmonogamy in the cultural imagination, so monogamy strictly requires not having sex with the wrong person.
Of course, there are plenty of other perhaps more important things about monogamy, and the culture likes to focus on these. Monogamy is seen as loving, reverential, and wholesome. Monogamy is considered synonymous with commitment, often to the detriment of those of us who are nonmonogamous. Monogamy is generally thought of as a prerequisite for love, relationships, marriage, and children, again causing problems for the nonmonogamous. Monogamy is considered good, proper, and desirable, to the point that alternatives are largely unimaginable. But despite all this, there is only one strict requirement for monogamy, and that is a sexual (or more properly, not-sexual) requirement. We just rarely examine this prerequisite directly.
Instead, discussions of monogamy focus on supposed deviance, either cheating or nonmonogamous hedonism. There is a huge and ongoing discourse on cheating, including piles of self-help books, endless numbers of talk show segments, websites where they essentially do cheating-discovery background checks, and so on. This is all in addition to a solid and fairly constant drumbeat of interpersonal talk on cheating. Condemnation of cheating is persistent and frequent in social circles, and I have repeatedly heard people threaten violence if they were ever cheated on. (For more investigation of the construction of cheating and its use to define monogamy, see my paper on the topic.)
While the discourse on out-of-control hedonism is not as strong, it is still fairly consistent. Right-wing condemnations of sexuality often carry an undertone that promiscuity (that is, nonmonogamy) is a constant danger inevitably resulting from any deviance. Sexually sensational news is common in the media and provides a heady mix of deviance, supposed promiscuity, and the negative fallout that results. As I mentioned last time, swinging and BDSM end up reported in this way.
These discussions of cheating and promiscuity give us the ability to create a meaning and positive feeling around monogamy without actually doing so directly. If cheating is selfish and untrustworthy and infidelitous, then monogamy is self-sacrificing and trusting and carries connotations of integrity. If promiscuity is irresponsible and addictive and leads to disease, then monogamy is responsible and healthy and disease-free.
All this indirect talk performs the important function of protecting monogamy from direct examination. In addition to preventing people from asking themselves whether monogamy is worth it, this hiding also draws attention away from the strict (not)sexual requirement of monogamy, while still making sure this requirement is in place. Again there is a two-faced conceptualization happening: on the surface monogamy is about love and commitment and trust, but under the covers there is a constant drumbeat that sets up sexual fidelity as the prime requirement of monogamy.
The genital attachment of monogamy (like the genital attachment of love) is extremely useful for power relations within the culture, in the following ways.
It is the basis for a scarcity economy of sex. If you are not supposed to have sex with more than one person in a given period of time, then sex becomes scarce, highly desirable, and worth competing for. And since love requires sex, love becomes scarce as well. Both love and sex end up being a sort of competitive game, one where you can lose to other people. All of this scarcity and competition form fertile grounds for sales, creating a “sex sells” situation that pushes everything from cars to cosmetics. But that is a minor issue compared to the other effects of the sex/love scarcity: the isolating effect on single people and couples, the problematic codependency that happens in relationships which makes abuse and control easy, general ignorance of sexual mechanisms due to lack of variety (and a refusal to directly discuss the mechanisms), and so on.
Also, scarcity provides a motivating backdrop for the various cultural control mechanisms provided by the genital attachment of love. If love is scarce, then conforming in order to get it is that much more crucial, and the mechanisms I have described above kick into high gear.
Similarly, the genital attachment of monogamy is important for the maintenance of ideas of sexual deviance, by providing a promiscuous cast to any non-normative sex. All those Republican lawmakers and preachers who have been caught with men recently were not just doing something sexually deviant, they were also cheating on their wives. This provides a baseline level of condemnation even when media is reluctant to condemn sex between men in general. Along the same lines, Clinton’s problem was not that he had gotten up to oral hijinks in the oval office with a much younger intern, it was that he had done so while married. Presumably the moral scorn would have been less intense if he had been single, but of course you cannot even contemplate running for president without being married (and monogamous). This sets up a nice trap where a person must be sexually unavailable (to everyone but their spouse) while in public office, and any sex they have with the wrong person can automatically be condemned as deviant because it is a violation of monogamy. In general, genitally-attached monogamy is used to amplify the problems of deviance in the public imagination using conceptual traps such as these.
There is a minor escape hatch to the genital attachment of monogamy: “dating around” is generally considered reasonable, so long as you do not do it with too many people or for too long. This is the basis for the popularity of Sex in the City and similar shows. I have known people to date around for years while considering themselves nominally monogamous. However, there is a toll exacted, because if any one relationship intensifies then any further dating around is considered cheating. In order to remain in a dating mode it is necessary to purposefully keep relationships casual, or to end relationships quickly, or one must be duplicitous about what else one might be doing.
It is important to note that the genital attachment of monogamy is denied in certain nonmonogamous circles. In particular, some subset of swingers claim that they are monogamous despite their recreational sex with others. They rightly point out that they are reserving the most important functions of monogamy to one person: love, commitment, and those other things that we like to talk about when discussing monogamy. Similarly, in poly circles people will talk about “emotional monogamy” which can be combined with (sexual) nonmonogamy. There have been similar recent attempts in the mainstream to create a “new monogamy” or “managed monogamy” which includes some level of sexual nonmonogamy. These attempts are useful in that they allow one to escape many of the conceptual traps that the culture lays to trip up nonmonogamy.
This strategy seeks to create an escape hatch similar to the love escape hatch. If we can strengthen the surface conception of monogamy as love and commitment, then the genital attachment of monogamy disappears along with the various mind/body power mechanisms that use it.
I definitely support this effort, but it has been entirely unsuccessful so far, and I expect that it will not succeed any time soon. Some subset of swingers have been making this argument since the 70’s, with almost no effect on the mainstream. Notably, swingers are still typically closeted, and saying that one is “emotionally monogamous” does not make it any easier to come out as a swinger in the mainstream. Similarly, “emotionally monogamous” poly people still have to meet their needs in the polyamory community: there is no place for them to be emotionally monogamous in the monogamous mainstream. People from the mainstream simply do not believe that they are monogamous, even over their self-identification.
The fact that we need to define terms like “emotionally monogamous” betrays the conceptual wall that we are up against. “Sexually monogamous” is typically only used in scientific or sociological circles, to compare with “socially monogamous”, the practice of appearing in public as if sexually monogamous. “Sexually monogamous” is rarely used to compare with “emotionally monogamous” because we assume that monogamy always carries a sexual requirement.
The issue here is that the genital attachment of monogamy is deeply crucial to power arrangements around sex within the culture, and so the culture is strongly invested in the current two-faced conceptualization of monogamy. Attempting to redefine monogamy away from sex is noble but currently ineffective, and it is generally more effective to try to forge a practice that is not monogamy but also not cheating, and which hopefully cannot be dismissed as out-of-control hedonism.
Sex and Polyamory
Keeping the mainstream sex/love/monogamy conceptual apparatus in mind, we can now take a look at the relationship between sex and polyamory.
First off, polyamory is a kind of nonmonogamy, and this dictates certain things about its relationship to sex so long as we are building on mainstream concepts. The most crucial requirement of monogamy is that one does not have sex with more than one person. If we take the contrapositive, then being nonmonogamous in the mainstream imagination means that one has more than one sex partner, or at least the potential to have sex with more than one person. This becomes a requirement for polyamory if it is to remain nonmonogamy. (There is an exception to this in people who are platonically polyamorous, which I will discuss below.)
In other words, polyamory is genitally attached, not because we particularly want it to be, but because we are stuck within a certain conceptual framework that values sex acts above most other things when determining the parameters of love, relationships, and (non)monogamy. Like monogamy or love, the genital attachment of polyamory is not the most important thing about it by a long shot, but it tends to be the most crucial prerequisite. If you cut off the potential for sex with multiple people from polyamory, it turns into a different beast, sometimes platonic polyamory, sometimes something like monogamy.
If we recall that the purpose of genital attachment is to facilitate power arrangements, that begs the question of what power arrangements are enabled by the genital attachment of polyamory.
Polyamory is largely a counter-movement, a resistance to monogamy, so its purpose in terms of power tends to be to tear down monogamous arrangements. For example, polyamory denies the controlling aspect of jealousy, which I have discussed in an earlier paper. Similarly, polyamory denies the ownership and possessiveness aspects of monogamy, and faces off against the deceitful aspect of the cheating dynamic. Polyamory also provides a starting point for upending common assumptions about living situations, marriage, parenting arrangements, coupledom, and how we treat relationships in social spaces.
If you have not lived polyamorously, it is hard to understand the sheer scope of these changes. I have taken to calling it “living in polyland”, as opposed to monogamyland which is where most people live. In polyland, you get upset when someone else dumps your lover. In polyland, you join forces with your lover’s lover to get your lover a nice present. In polyland, you (hopefully) cannot blame any third party for your breakups. (In polyland, you generally tend to have breakups more often, as a natural outgrowth of having more relationships.) In polyland, getting into a romantic competition means that everyone involved has already lost. In polyland, double dates can get really weird. In polyland, it is common practice to get references from a person’s exes before you start dating them. In polykinkland, you and your live-in lover have to split up the pain toys as both of you are heading out on dates. In polyland, you quickly lose track of who is romantically involved in your social circle and often have to play it by ear. In polyland, I am typing this as my life partner gets it on with someone in the next room.
Not all of the power upheavals engendered by polyamory are dependent on its genital attachment, but most of them are. Love, relationships, and nonmonogamy all conceptually branch out from the sex act in webs of dependency, and so nonmonogamous power upheavals in the domain of love and relationships tend to be dependent on the fact of having sex with more than one person. Let us look at some examples to make this clear.
First, it is impossible to fully subvert the jealousy narrative without having sex with multiple people, because jealousy is genitally attached. Sex with only one person does not fully trigger jealousy, and so jealousy cannot be fully challenged/managed/overcome in this situation. This shows up in the poly community as a sort of jealousy surprise: you can prepare endlessly for your lover or partner to have sex with someone else, and still there will usually be some sort of surprising jealousy reaction on your part. We do not fully understand the scope or mechanism of each person’s particular jealousy except in a situation with multiple lovers.
Second, a similar effect happens with the subversion or bypassing of the cheating dynamic. Poly people resist the cultural understanding of cheating in numerous ways: by replacing a dynamic of deceit with one of disclosure, by replacing competition among one’s paramours with cooperation, by creating visible nonmonogamy in social spaces, by eliminating the relationship ownership assumptions that make cheating a matter of stealing someone’s affections away, and so on. However, if one is not actually (at least potentially) getting it on with others, most of these changes drop away, for the simple reason that having one or zero lovers means that the various cheating dynamics are not triggered. To resist cheating, one must be doing something that many monogamous people would (initially at least) see as cheating. For example, it is impossible to fully break down people’s expectations of owning the sexuality of their partner without there being multiple sexual partners. Also, even though it is possible to include disclosure around outside attractions in a monogamous relationship, actually acting on those attractions requires either deceit or a radical shift from monogamy, and so fully exploring a dynamic of sexual disclosure around outside attraction strictly requires sexual nonmonogamy.
Third, even when sex with multiple people is not strictly required for some of these power upheavals, they are more likely to happen with it. A good example of this is in co-parenting arrangements: it is perfectly possible to rearrange who parents a child in any way without reference to people’s sexual relationships, and people do this, especially queer people. But because the culture has a heavy implication chain from parenting to sex (co-parenting requires relationship requires love requires sex), there seems to be a greater likelihood that any particular polyamorous person will challenge cultural parenting standards than if they were monogamous. Another example can be found in the poly practice of eliminating or reducing hierarchy among one’s relationships. This is somewhat dependent on having sex in those relationships, otherwise we tend to fall into the monogamous world’s assumption that any relationship with sex is more important than a relationship (friendship, etc) without sex.
With these examples, it becomes possible to see that polyamorous forms of resistance to monogamous power are genitally attached: they have a certain dependence on sex with multiple people. And if we are to believe the social theorists, the power aspect of polyamory is its motivating force. Now, there are power aspects to polyamory other than resistance to monogamy, but it is easy to claim that polyamory’s primary motivation is doing something other than monogamy. If monogamy worked fine for all of us, there would be no poly community, poly identity, or poly language.
Many of the important things that are happening in polyamory (overcoming jealousy, rearranging family structure, moving from deceit to disclosure, etc) are not obviously related to the sexual aspects of polyamory, and it is sometimes possible to imagine situations where sex with multiple people would not be required for these changes. However, doing so ignores the wide scope and influence of monogamous power and the stage that it sets for cultural influence over love and relationships. Actually resisting these forms of cultural influence tends to require or at least be heavily aided by a certain break with monogamy. And fully breaking with monogamy means breaking its only strict rule: the sexual one. Ergo, the sexual aspect of polyamory is a prerequisite for most of its power operations, and therefore for the movement as a whole.
Note that what I have stated so far does not depend heavily on polyamorous ideology or ideals, the way poly people operate, polyamorous practice, or anything else specific to polyamory aside from the fact that it is a kind of nonmonogamy. This is because most of what is going on here is determined by operations of power in the monogamous mainstream. Cultural monogamous conformity is not only the ideological starting point for any kind of nonmonogamy, but also continually affects any nonmonogamous movement because the movement must remain at least vaguely intelligible to the mainstream. To say it differently, we live in a monogamous world and this sets the stage so that any nonmonogamy is shaped by certain conceptual parameters laid down by the mainstream.
And indeed, I could have done a similar analysis for any other sort of nonmonogamous movement, including swinging, open relationships, free love (of the 60’s and 70’s), traditional polygamy, or the unnamed kinds of nonmonogamy that seem to arise in queer and BDSM communities. We would have to adjust the examples somewhat, since different movements tend to challenge monogamy in different ways and to different extents. For example, the swinger movement generally does not bring nonmonogamous dynamics into public space in the same manner as polyamory, but at the same time swingers are probably ahead of the poly movement when it comes to rethinking the power dynamics of group sex. But overall, nonmonogamy has a certain set of basic premises that are shaped by the dictates of mainstream monogamy: sex with multiple people and forms of cultural resistance that grow out of breaking the sexual rule of monogamy.
There is a group of polyamorous people who are an exception, namely those who practice “platonic polyamory”, relationships with multiple people where one or more relationships do not have a sexual component. Some of these poly people are technically sexually monogamous, as they are having sex with one or zero people, but at the same time they typically run their relationship and social lives in a manner which does not conform to monogamous expectations. Which is to say, they have multiple relationships that are often socially visible.
This puts these particular platonically polyamorous people in a somewhat odd power position. They are not challenging the sexual rule of monogamy directly, but are interrupting monogamous power in various other ways, by challenging the romantic rule of monogamy (“love only one”) and bringing nonmonogamy into social spaces. As such, they are performing a slightly different set of power operations, one that overlaps with non-platonic polyamory but also differs in significant ways. For example, while someone dating one of these platonically poly people will probably have to deal with some of their jealousy issues, they would not have to fully address their sexual jealousy issues, sexual possessiveness issues, and so on. While they would certainly need to address some jealousy and possessiveness issues, they would be missing a pretty significant piece, since these concepts are genitally attached.
Perhaps more importantly, platonically poly people are engaged in a form of resistance that most non-platonic poly people are not addressing. Platonically poly people have to rethink what it means to be in a relationship, and specifically they must be able to step away from the mainstream’s mandatory rule that relationships must include sex or the possibility of sex. In doing so, they are challenging the sex/love dependency I described in the first section of this paper, taking the sex/love surface dichotomy and trying to strengthen it so that sex and love become entirely separate.
Unfortunately, it seems like this is a difficult challenge to take on. There are relatively few people in platonic polyamory relationships compared to non-platonic polyamorous relationships. Also, platonic polyamory seems to be largely unintelligible to the mainstream. Mainstream observers of platonic polyamory would generally assume that these people are actually having sex and just lying about it, because doing otherwise would require giving up the mainstream dependency of love on sex, which is dear to numerous mainstream operations of power. The culture learned its lesson from boston marriages, and avidly denies nonsexual romance in this day and age. In addition, there have been few mainstream observers since there has been almost zero media exposure of platonic polyamory. This is possibly due to the numbers of people involved, but I suspect the greater issue is that rethinking relationships in this way is unpalatable to the mainstream. I think that few reporters are willing to take on such a subject, which is unfortunate.
What is interesting here is that platonic polyamory is happening in the context of the polyamory movement, and not elsewhere. Many (though not all) of the people who are platonically polyamorous are technically sexually monogamous, and therefore technically do not need a nonmonogamy movement. However, polyamory is often useful to these arrangements, because it breaks down the “you must have one person for all your needs” myth. This allows groups of people to mix up platonic and sexual relationships in a manner that both enables nonsexual relationships and helps them meet any sexual needs they may have.
Polyamory challenges the “one person for everything” myth pretty heavily, and as mentioned above, sexual nonmonogamy provides a strong basis for doing so. Sexual nonmonogamy is not strictly necessary to make this leap, and indeed many marriage manuals point out that strong outside friendships tend to strengthen marriages. However, this advice stops short of recommending that the friends move in, or exchange love letters, or otherwise take on roles that supposedly should be reserved for one’s spouse. In other words, monogamous dynamics are still paramount. With polyamory, these things are actually negotiable. They are negotiable because polyamory rebuilds monogamous power dynamics from the ground up, because once the rule of sexual fidelity has been broken, everything else is up for grabs. While the sexual aspect of the polyamory movement is not strictly necessary for platonic polyamory, I am fairly certain that we would not have platonic polyamory without the sexual-level power challenges of the larger polyamory movement.
In a way there is a progression of movements happening here. General (that is to say, non-platonic) polyamory has challenged monogamous power at its linchpin, by denying its sexual rule. As a result, people who practice polyamory land in a situation where monogamous power starts crumbling from the bottom up, with various pieces weakening as we remove the things they conceptually depend on. With the base requirement of sexual fidelity broken, space opens up for addressing numerous other pieces of cultural conformity. Breaking the requirement that relationships are sexual (which we see in platonic polyamory) is one such possibility. Interestingly, sexual fidelity can be reinstated in platonic polyamory, but that does not change the progression of crumbling power dynamics that is occurring here.
Notably, platonic polyamory is not the only sub-movement taking advantage of the crumbling of monogamous power. Poly people interested in communal living are taking another stab at creating communes and otherwise revising living situations, drawing on polyamory as a basis. On the other side, people who do not want to live with any lovers are using polyamory as a way to break the mainstream dictate that relationships inevitably lead to cohabitation. Bi/poly people are using polyamory to break out of the trap created by the constant association of bisexuality with out-of-control sluttiness, as I have described in a previous paper. Some people are using polyamory as a conceptual jumping-off point to create more space for rethinking the restrictions we put on touching. One such person is Wendy-O Matik, who has been integrating discussion of nonmonogamy with rethinking touch boundaries and what we mean by relationships. Also, as I have stated, polyamory creates a certain space for rearranging parenting, either by adding parents, or giving community support to single parents, or enabling childfree living.
There is a certain branching effect here, that mirrors the structure of monogamous conceptual power. Conceptually, monogamy is based in sexual fidelity, and then builds a series of other conceptual power dynamics that depend on sexual fidelity or other monogamous dynamics that eventually depend on sexual fidelity. The progression of poly sub-movements follows this power pattern: general polyamory breaks sexual fidelity, and then other poly sub-movements (or personal power strategies that are not common enough to form sub-movements) take advantage of this basic rupture to take on other power dynamics. There is a certain evolution here, and we should pay attention to these sub-movements: we can learn much about rethinking relationships from platonic polyamory, much about sexuality and gender from bi/poly people, much about parenting from single poly parents, and much about the possibilities for nonsexual touch from those trying to break down the isolation of touch within relationships.
So, while platonic polyamory provides an important counterexample where you can be polyamorous while not violating the sexual rule of monogamy, it does not challenge my assertion that polyamory’s initial and most crucial power challenge to monogamy is via genital attachment, namely having sex with multiple people. Platonic polyamory challenges a different though overlapping set of power dynamics, and attempts to make a major revision to the way we associate sex and relationships. Platonic polyamory can make these challenges in the conceptual space opened up by non-platonic polyamory, and then can return benefits to the greater polyamorous movement in the form of rebuilt relationship concepts (though we need to get better at publishing the experiences of platonic polyamorists to fully realize this). However, in the absence of an initial challenge to the sexual rule of monogamy, it is unlikely that either form of polyamory would exist as a movement.
Polyamory and the Love Escape Hatch
Polyamory has been strongly associated with love from its initial conception. Love is of course built into the word itself, and loving multiple people has been a crucial element of group marriage, one of the primary roots of polyamory.
This focus on love has been crucial to the successes of polyamory, pushing us to challenge monogamy not just at the sexual level but to extend that challenge into romantic love and other aspects of monogamy.
The focus on love has kept us out of the conceptual trap that bedevils swinging and to some extent open relationships. Both movements have tended to try to isolate sexual nonmonogamy from the rest of one’s life. This leads to closeting and a tendency to view sexual nonmonogamy as a recreational activity. The latter plays into cultural conceptions of deviant sex as hedonistic, making it easy for the mainstream to dismiss these movements as out-of-control sexual deviance. The former makes it hard to refute mainstream attacks, since people in the movement tend not to go public about their lives. Polyamory does not have sexual isolation as an available tactic, because the conceptual focus on love means that the nonmonogamy automatically extends into romance and cannot be isolated in sexual practice.
Indeed, because love is centered in relationship discourse, centering a nonmonogamy movement on love means that most relationship structures are up for revision. This is why it seems natural for poly people to challenge monogamous institutions as diverse as parenting arrangements, living situations, weddings, and who gets invited to the holiday dinner.
So, including love in the conceptualization of polyamory reaps us a number of rewards. Note that this inclusion is alongside the implicit inclusion of sex, because love implies sex and nonmonogamy implies sex with more than one person. We typically do not talk about the sexual aspect of polyamory directly (much like people rarely discuss the sexual aspects of love or monogamy), but as noted above it is a prerequisite to the polyamorous challenges to monogamous power.
In fact, the successes so far have encouraged a tendency in polyamory activism towards an unhealthy reliance on the love escape hatch. Remember that the love escape hatch is the use of love discourse by counterculture movements to escape the mainstream’s tendency to label them as sexually deviant. This is a legitimate conceptual strategy, but as we shall see it tends to carry some drawbacks.
We are using a mainstream trick here: we are talking around sex instead of talking about it. This buys us a certain legitimacy, both in our own eyes and the eyes of the mainstream. Indeed, as I discussed in the last essay, we seem to be producing media successes by toeing the mainstream line of implying sex while refusing to actually discuss it.
Centering on love and relationship talk in our discourse is of course legitimate. Figuring out the relationship aspects of polyamory is in some ways harder than figuring out the sexual aspects. However, by using the love escape hatch we are playing a mainstream game, one that gets us things but may well undermine our position in the long run.
In particular, using the love escape hatch leaves open a major point of weakness: the mainstream can discredit us simply by bringing up the sexual aspect of polyamory.
LBGT Use of the Love Escape Hatch
We can see this problem with the love escape hatch if we take a look at queer movements that have used it. As I mentioned above, much of the current success of the lesbian and gay movements has happened by convincing the world that it is possible to have loving lesbian or gay couples. This success is very real and is reaping political gains. But it is also hollow in a sense, because it does not address straight insecurities around sexuality and gender identity. Instead, straight revulsion at queer acts and queer bodies is swept under the rug and simply not discussed. This leads to a paradoxical situation where same-sex marriage is doing fairly well in the court of public opinion but at the same time children still use “that’s so gay” as a putdown and it is still hard for two men or two women to hold hands in public without fear of violence.
In other words, the queer use of the love escape hatch has produced victories that are somewhat hollow. In particular, it has left behind people who the mainstream cannot envision in a normative monogamous love match: bisexuals, people with non-normative gender or sex, nonmonogamous gay men, leatherfolk, and so on. In other words, buying mainstream acceptance unfortunately means creating classes of “good queers” and “bad queers”.
While that is certainly bad enough, brushing queer sexuality and sex/gender under the rug means that if it should ever come out from under the rug, these political gains may well be forfeit. We see minor versions of this all the time. Police still hold stings and arrest men for having sex in bathrooms. Visibly transgender people still face horrifically high rates of violence. Bisexual men are still considered vectors of disease, when we are visible at all.
There is also the potential for major attacks on queer gains that operate through sexualization. I know this seems far-fetched, but it is unfortunately not. We can look to the example of 19-century middle- and upper-class romantic friendships between women. These used love terminology strongly, with women writing each other emotional letters full of innuendo but with very little in the way of direct sexual reference. In other words, these women were using the love escape hatch to validate their relationships, building on the supposed moral superiority of women to validate a new type of relationship. This worked well throughout the second half of the 1800’s, but right around the turn of the century sexologists got busy categorizing sexualities, and created the idea of lesbian sexuality. This idea was promulgated through the sciences and eventually took hold, supplanting the idea of romantic friendships. Love between women was sexualized, and became associated with sin, mental pathology, and hopelessness. This turned back the clock on this particular aspect of queer politics and set the stage for heavy persecution in the mid-1900’s.
This is less likely these days, partly because it is hard to pull off the same trick twice, but also because a lot of work has been put into validating queer sexuality and exporting it to the mainstream. Straight women are getting comfortable using dildos, and straight men are learning to love their butts. Bisexuality in women is becoming accepted in certain ways, creating an arena where sex between women is not as threatening and can be experimented with.
However, this work is still half-done. Sex between men is still considered yucky, dangerous, or hedonistic by much of the population. Expectations of women’s bisexuality tend to still serve straight men’s interests. Depictions of sex between women in mainstream porn are wildly unrealistic, failing to accurately portray queer women or their sex acts.
The love escape hatch has operated as a sort of side-step trick for lesbian and gay concerns, which works precisely because it does not address genitally attached forms of mainstream power. It is a real strategy that is producing real change, but at the same time the love escape hatch is only part of a much larger and longer struggle, one that requires challenging genitally attached power (namely heterosexuality and gender conformity) at its root. Depending entirely on the love escape hatch produces hollow victories, because it leaves in place the primary power arrangements that support heterosexual and sex/gender conformity.
Problems with Polyamory and the Love Escape Hatch
There seems to be a certain fear that occasionally circulates in polyamory circles, that somehow things will get too sexual or sex will take over.
Sometimes this shows up as a fear that the “wrong sort of people” will start flocking to poly events, with the implication that these people are actually sex-hungry (single?) men or perhaps hedonists. This has always been a bit odd to me. The men with sexist expectations tend to leave, as I have noted previously. The hedonists tend to fit in fine, and mix up their BDSM practice or sex party excursions with their poly socializing.
Other times this fear shows up as fear of exposure. For example, the fear that the media might get ahold of us and depict us as slavering sex addicts. I am not entirely sure how this would happen in the current conceptual milieu. Perhaps if someone slipped up and started talking sex? The one time this has happened that I know of, the radio host got embarrassed and shut them down. I think there is danger from the media if the right wing makes a concerted attack to sexualize us, but otherwise we will probably do fine on this score. Indeed, someone pointed out in comments to the last post that reporters seem to focus on the relationship aspects of polyamory. I think it is the sex with multiple people that draws them in, but they tend to be impressed by the relationship restructuring and focus on that, as there are numerous well-known ways to have sex with multiple people.
A second fear of exposure is the fear that we will somehow misrepresent polyamory in the social milieu. I think this makes the erroneous assumption that we can somehow control the image of polyamory as it circulates among non-poly people. Indeed, monogamous insecurity is the primary force shaping the understanding of polyamory in non-poly social contexts, and anything we do or say will not change that, even positive media. I have heard the wackiest things about polyamory over the years, with people assuming it exclusively means orgies, traditional polygamy, MFF threesomes, or what have you. I think we need to accept that the rumor mill is not friendly to polyamory, and just do what we can to educate people when we talk to them directly.
The tendency of polyamorous people to bear a certain animosity towards swinging seems to also come from this fear of being sexualized. Mainstream understanding of swinging uses sexualization to cast them in a fairly negative light, and poly people are (understandably) afraid of being drawn into the same trap. This tends to come out as somewhat unfair negativity towards swinging. Notably, swingers do not seem to feel the same way about poly people, and in fact the recent swinger propaganda book The Lifestyle had a positive chapter on polyamory, though it misrepresented us pretty badly.
My take on these fears is that they are showing up a certain poly insecurity, the weak spot in the love escape hatch. People understand that we have a certain conceptual weakness around polyamorous sex practice, we can be attacked on that level, and those attacks may well threaten any gains we have made. Indeed, all the talk of love and responsibility in the world cannot erase the fact that the mainstream considers us to be infidelitous at best and sex addicts at worst. The mainstream only needs one fact to make this judgment, the fact that most practicing polyamorous people have sex with multiple people. Everything else we do falls by the wayside, even if it is in fact much more important to us.
And in fact we see this in our interactions with individual monogamous people, many of whom are quick to ask us about orgies and sleeping arrangements when they first hear about polyamory. This knee-jerk mainstream reaction functions as a personal defense mechanism for people whose monogamous assumptions are being shattered: if they can convince themselves that we are sex freaks, then what we do does not have to be relevant to their lives. Fortunately, most monogamous people get over this pretty quickly after hearing about polyamory (usually by finding other differentiating factors), but the fact that sexualization is their first reaction clues us off as to where our ideology is weak.
This conceptual weak spot seems to encourage poly people to redouble their efforts around focusing on love and romance, at least in our interactions with non-poly people. While it is certainly legitimate to try to get monogamous mainstream folks to stop over-sexualizing us, this strategy does not actually close the conceptual hole created by the love escape hatch. We end up making all kinds of claims about how romance with multiple people is actually more difficult than sex with multiple people, that love is truly independent of sex, that love is much more important than sex, and so on. These claims are in fact mostly true, but we are never going to convince the mainstream of this. Indeed, people tend to hear these things and assume that we are talking about the surface level of the sex/love dichotomy, where sex and love are theoretically different. However, these same people will then happily retain the under-the-covers conflation of sex and love, which allows them to keep all the power arrangements associated with this genital attachment. From a power perspective, we can expect that the strategy of strengthening the sex/love dichotomy will fail at rearranging power structures for quite some time to come. Swingers have been making the argument that sex and love are independent for at least three decades, and they have not convinced the mainstream in the slightest. We will not do any better any time soon.
Much like in the gay and lesbian movements, the love escape hatch is useful, but using it does not address the more painful power realities, which tend to be genitally attached. Our heavy use of the love escape hatch is a side-stepping strategy, one where we gain a measure of respect but which fails to make much progress in the realm of interpersonal power, where we are constrained by the genital attachment of monogamy.
Shying away from the sexual aspects of polyamory has other negative effects. It prevents us from being sexually open in certain ways, for example talking about the possible sexual motivations for doing polyamory. It also draws a curtain over certain poly-specific sexual concerns, such as negotiating group sex within triads. And, it means that we fail to discuss the connections between polyamory and various poly sub-communities that have been sexualized, for example bisexuals.
There is the potential for sexualization to be used as a major attack on polyamory or nonmonogamy, so the insecurity we have around sexuality is based on a real danger. This could take a number of forms. One might be a new identity category or medical diagnosis, such as was used to kill romantic friendships. Another might be the expansion of the “sex addict” category to include poly people, complete with conversion therapy programs. If there is a new STD scare, polyamorous people might be scapegoated as disease vectors. All of these may seem unlikely to you, but you would be surprised by what a bit of attention from the right wing and their media machine can accomplish. Running towards a discourse of love and romance will not protect us from these attacks, because the mainstream understands love as always involving sex, and sex with multiple people as deviant. The only way to shore up our defenses in this area is to confront these attacks on sexuality head-on, using the fact that some of us have sex with multiple people as a springboard to challenge (monogamous) sexual conformity.
From a conceptual strategy perspective, the way forward is to close the hole. Closing the hole requires addressing power at the genital attachment level, and this means talking about sex instead of talking around it. This means getting away from the mainstream model where we discuss love endlessly but typically fail to bring up the sexual aspects of what we do. This means addressing certain mainstream attacks head-on: slut-shaming, scarcity-based sexual economies, the relegation of sexuality to the realms of the private or the deceitful, the over-valuing of sexual ignorance, and so on. This means bringing up the sexual possibilities inherent in polyamory: sexual variety, learning about sex from different partners, poly group sex, mixing up “casual” sex with sex in relationships, and how to negotiate safe sex in a way that still allows for nonmonogamy. This means paying attention to polyamorous overlap communities that have been sexualized, such as bisexuals, kinksters, swingers, and tantra or sacred sex practitioners.
Putting the Sex Back in Polyamory
In this section, I will review various sexual subjects that the poly community has not been able to address, due to our heavy reliance on the love escape hatch. This list is what I could come up with, and is necessarily incomplete. I will skip some subjects where the poly community is doing quite well, most notably safer sex. In addition to functioning as a list of areas where we could do better, this list also provides evidence of my central thesis: that the polyamorous conceptual strategy has been leaving out sexual conversations, to our detriment.
1) The poly movement needs slut pride. We live in a culture that heavily relies on slut-shaming to keep people’s sexuality in check and produce a scarcity economy around sex (and therefore love, since love requires sex). In particular, western cultures use the concept of the dirty (fallen, sinful, diseased, devalued) slut to control the sexuality of women.
This produces a special problem for polyamory, since the monogamous mainstream considers any kind of nonmonogamy to be slutting around, or at least evidence of one’s slutty tendencies. This holds true even though plenty of poly people are having less sex than plenty of monogamous people. In fact, labelling someone a slut has very little to do with their actual sexual practice: if a person merely admits that they might want to have sex with more than one other person, that is enough evidence to condemn them.
So, taking on the slut pride battle is fairly crucial to polyamory as a whole, even the less slutty among us. And indeed, many or most poly people are working on fighting slut-shaming. There is a strong slut pride element in poly discourse, showing up in The Ethical Slut in particular, but also in forum and email list discussions, and in interpersonal interactions. People generally recognize that anti-promiscuity prejudice is in fact directed at all poly people, and accordingly take stances against it.
At the same time, there is a certain subset of the community who persist in slut-shaming. I think this is largely a defensive reaction: by casting others as sluts, people imagine they can remove the slut stain from themselves. Sometimes this shows up in anti-swinger sentiment, or as a tendency to identify other people as swingers whenever they are more slutty than the speaker. (I think there should be a rule in place where people are not swingers until they have gone to a swinger party, logged on to a swinger website, or used the term themselves.) While this tactic of slut-shaming others may help a person get over their own guilt around nonmonogamy, we are not going to convince the mainstream any time soon.
We need to recognize slut pride as a goal that is helpful to the entire polyamory movement, whether or not you happen to consider yourself a slut. If you are polyamorous, the mainstream will think you are a slut no matter what you say, so fighting slut-shaming is a goal we should all be working on.
2) Polyamory is fun – sexually. Our tendency to gloss over the sexual aspects of polyamory unfortunately means that we are leaving out one of the prime motivations for doing polyamory. Of course different poly people get different sexual bonuses when they switch to polyamory: some get to just have more sex, others enjoy more sexual variety, others get the chance to experiment with sex and/or BDSM, others get to have less-involved sexual relationships or hookups, still others get the ability to flirt with whomever they want, yet others build loving relationships that incorporate group sex, and so on. There are of course some exceptions: poly people who are asexual or who otherwise gain no specifically sexual benefits from polyamory. However, the vast majority of poly people are reaping one or more of these benefits, and they can be really major wins. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.
We live in a culture that increasingly values sexual variety. However, at the same time our culture demands monogamy. This means that monogamous people who desire sexual variety end up adopting various problematic tactics, such as cheating, or taking long breaks to play the field between relationships, or engaging in a pattern of short serial relationships. Many types of polyamory allow one to have sex with a variety of people. Sometimes this happens through less-involved hookups, sometimes through the rotation of relationship partners, and other times because a poly person is permanently available for dating. Even people in long-term relatively closed poly situations still beat out their monogamous counterparts on this measure, because they are developing deep and long-term sexual connections with multiple people, instead of with one person.
With sexual variety comes sexual learning and experience. More sexual partners means different sorts of sexual connections, which tends to make a person a more effective lover. Good sex is a major goal in our current culture, but paradoxically actual teaching on sexual subjects is rare in the mainstream. While there are ways for monogamous people to learn about sex through a variety of partners, the tendency towards sexual variety built into polyamory means that there tend to be opportunities to learn sex.
People seem to consider sexual experimentation to be frivolous and unnecessary, perhaps something you do in college before growing up. However, many people need to find avenues of experimentation to be happy. For example, in the BDSM community, we have a big problem where people realize they are kinky ten years into a marriage to a very non-kinky spouse. In the past these people have either cheated or rolled their own nonmonogamous arrangements, but increasingly they are turning to polyamory as a way to meet their desires without losing a valuable relationship. Similarly, many bisexual people only admit their bisexuality after being in a monogamous relationship for a number of years, and polyamory can help them experiment with their sexuality in the context of an ongoing relationship. The polyamorous flexibility to experiment is incredibly important to personal growth and should not be underestimated.
In addition to all of the above, poly people seem to inventing a new kind of group sex. There has been plenty of group sex in plenty of contexts, but it is rare for someone to have simultaneous sex with multiple people that they love or are in relationship with. This is specific to polyamory, and has its own set of challenges, but has not been discussed much in poly forums or poly books, which is an unfortunate oversight. Even when poly people are not in a triad group sex situation, being poly tends to open up possibilities for group sex, which is another big sexual advantage. While some people are not into it, group sex is crucial to others – a couple months ago a woman told me that her sexual orientation is “group”.
These days our culture seems to oddly value dating and starting relationships over actually being in relationships. Weddings seem more important than the subsequent marriage, romance movies are all about meeting someone, and being single (and available) is becoming a desired lifestyle choice. For some people, polyamory has the advantage that they can be in a serious relationship (or relationships) and still be available for dating or flirting. People can combine the best parts of being involved with being single. This is just a really nice feeling, one of my favorite parts of polyamory, and something that keeps me from feeling trapped or stifled in relationships.
One of the polyamorous surrealities that hits me over the head on occasion is the fact that I am living the stereotypical straight guy’s perfect life. I have a serious live-in relationship that is deep and loving alongside two other relationships that involve less time but are still wonderful dating relationships. (And it should be noted, these dating relationships do not necessarily have to go anywhere.) In addition, I go to sex parties, I am available for random hookups, and I have a couple play buddies that I see on occasion. As if that were not enough, the sex I have is very pervy and typically extremely hot. Not only am I having my cake and eating it too, but I am having and eating two or three other cakes as well.
My life partner is similarly living a woman’s fantasy relationship life. She is seriously involved with two men right now and has had the occasional threesome with two bi men in the past. Again, she is getting up some hot and pervy acts. If we take the popularity of the Anita Blake books as due to a significant straight women’s fantasy, then she is doing very well for herself.
Now not all poly people are like us, but the fact that polyamory allows us to do these things is fairly incredible. The urge to hide these aspects of polyamory is counterproductive to our movement: in particular, it makes for crappy advertising. I do not think that it is an accident that one of the most-downloaded episodes of Polyamory Weekly is the one where the host spends a weekend in bed with two of her sweeties. Similarly, Mistress Matisse successfully mixes up relationship talk with sex and BDSM talk. In addition, there are poly/kinky sex and relationship blogs out there too numerous to count, so clearly talking about polyamory from a sexual perspective is working for some people.
In discourse with the outer world, we are doing ourselves a disservice by downplaying the sexual motivations for what we do. Indeed, our outreach efforts can tend towards an overly dour tone where we very carefully lay out all the ways that polyamory can go wrong, but fail to educate people on the really fun parts of polyamory, the reasons we are all here. Certainly some of these fun parts are unrelated to sexuality (say, holding hands with two sweeties at the movies) but some of the fun parts are definitely sexual. Those of us who have been successful at polyamory are living our dreams, and we need to share those dreams with the world, including the sexy bits.
We are definitely more open around talking sex within the community, but even so we sometimes gloss over our sexual motivations. For example, we tend to talk around the urge for sexual variety even though it is a real motivating factor for some poly people. Indeed, if someone has the urge for a new sexual partner every once in a while (in addition to their urge to have multiple partners), how does that affect their poly practice? Are there community-recognized ways to do this? How do people negotiate an option to attend sex parties with their lover(s)? Why is there no discussion of that class of poly people who get good at starting spontaneous sex parties whenever they gather in groups? There is an unrecognized skill set there, one which I think many of us would like to learn.
3) Polyamory brings sex into public spaces. This is not to say that we are all having orgies in public, much as that sounds delicious. Rather, polyamory can bring sex and sexuality into public discourse in much the same way that queer sexuality does. Because we are doing something that is sexually non-normative, our sex and sexuality become visible specifically because they do not match cultural assumptions. Often this is used against us, such as when the mainstream tries to sexualize us as deviants. However, we can use this to our benefit, both to improve mainstream culture and to improve our own situation.
Specifically, the mainstream fails to discuss the relationship between sex and monogamy, as I have pointed out above. While this is beneficial to the power structures of compulsory monogamy, it is not all that beneficial to monogamous people. However, polyamory by its very existence tends to make monogamous practice visible, which leads to various benefits. Let’s look at some examples.
Monogamy is rarely explicitly negotiated at the beginning of the relationship. Which is to say, even when both people are fully intent on being monogamous, there is no discussion on what exactly that means and where the boundaries are. Does that mean no watching porn alone? How about chaste kisses with friends? Traveling with friends? Some people seem to think that monogamy means hand jobs are okay (usually they figure this out right before they are about to get one) while others seem to think monogamy means no serious outside friendships. There is a whole range of restrictions that may or may not qualify as monogamy, and very little talk about which may apply in a given relationship. Successful monogamous couples tend to suss these out through trial and error over time.
However, one interesting thing that has been happening is that some monogamous people are availing themselves of poly communication and relationship negotiation techniques. This is still in its infancy, but we can expect that poly people can potentially teach the mainstream a thing or two about explicitly negotiating sexual boundaries in relationships. Indeed, most of my tips for practical nonmonogamy apply equally well to monogamous relationships.
The potential for exporting poly wisdom around sexuality to the mainstream does not stop at boundary negotiation, however. Poly people have great things to say around jealousy, STD prevention, getting over sexual guilt or slut shame, and so on. Certainly many of these are non-sexual in nature, like learning how to be friends with the ex of a lover. But plenty of these are sexual in nature, and hiding them does a disservice to both polyamory and the mainstream.
In particular, polyamory exposes unrealistic expectations about desire and sexuality that tend to be based in monogamous conformity. The monogamous ideal is sexual attraction to only one person in your lifetime, and that is an unrealistic ideal for the vast majority of people. The mere existence of polyamory as a recognized category makes it clear that exceptions to this are possible, which in turn shines a light on the actual lives of monogamous people.
For example, poly people have been challenging the idea that sexual monogamy is the order of the natural world. The Myth Of Monogamy is a book that basically proves that monogamy does not exist in the natural world. It was not written by poly people, but has been heavily popularized in poly channels. (Indeed, check out the section on similar books on the Amazon page.) Laying the naturalness of monogamy to rest is beneficial to both monogamous and nonmonogamous people, because it promotes a more realistic view of sexual attraction.
On a side note, the reactions to the data within The Myth of Monogamy show the deep cynicism of arguments for compulsory monogamy. First, we (or at least the women among us) were supposed to be monogamous because it was natural. Then, someone showed that monogamy does not exist in the natural kingdom. Now, we are supposed to be monogamous because we need to rise above our baser natures. It seems that no matter what behavior is “natural”, monogamy is the only appropriate choice. As it turns out this is dictated by cultural conformity, not by nature.
The poly view on sexual attraction is strongly pragmatic: people are going to be attracted to a (possibly large) number of other people over the course of their lifetime, and it is just a matter of how you deal with it. While this view is at odds with the culture’s romantic ideals, monogamous people who take this view have an easier time handling jealousy, are more realistic about STD prevention, are more likely to handle the possibility of infidelity in a realistic way, are less likely to feel guilty about having had a large number of lovers, and so on. And they are more likely to accept polyamory as a valid choice.
Covering up the sexual aspects of polyamory does not help this view gain traction. Indeed, the power of the polyamorous community is that we have so many levels and sorts of sexual attraction among our members: asexual people alongside sex party aficionados, alongside people who need to date for a couple months before getting sexual, alongside people who need four sex partners to feel sexually satisfied. Even better, we handle this diversity well, to the point where these people can actually get involved with each other. We are pretty good at exposing the relationship diversity of poly people, but we need to connect it to diversity of sexual attraction and sexual needs, in order to help the mainstream towards a more realistic view of sexual desire.
4) Polyamory overlaps with sexualized subcultures or identities. These include bisexuals, BDSM, sex workers, swingers and other sex partygoers, tantra community, and sacred sexuality. A lack of sex talk around polyamory also tends to erase these people and sub-communities within polyamory. This is not on purpose, but rather because we inadvertently replicate the mainstream habit of erasing sexualized subcultures. Let us look at some of these groups.
It happened again recently: I walked into a new poly discussion group and five of the thirteen people present were bisexual. This is typical, and bisexual percentages in poly forums tend to run between twenty and sixty percent, depending on the particular context. This is a huge over-representation of bisexuals, who clocked in at around two percent of the population in a 2002 CDC survey. (Note that this large representation does not mean that bisexuals are inherently nonmonogamous – see my paper on the subject for more details.) Basically, bisexuals are all over polyamory, to an extent that is not replicated in any other non-queer affinity group.
Despite this abundance of bisexuals in polyamory, there seems to be very little education on bisexuality within the poly community. For example, people sometimes do not know that there are different kinds of bisexuality. Some bisexuals lean straight or gay. Others oscillate back and forth, switching which way they lean over a matter of years, months, or weeks depending on the person. Still other bi people are more sexually attracted to one gender but have better romantic relationships with a different gender. There is a general air of acceptance around bisexuality in poly circles, so this education does happen, but it could be more explicit and comprehensive. I met a man a couple years back who was stunned when I told him that lots of bisexuals preferred monogamy. We should recognize the bi/poly overlap and address it. There is one place this is already happening, due to the friction that tends to spring up between bisexual women and M/F couples looking for a Hot Bi Babe.
There is a similar overlap between polyamory and the BDSM community, to the point that a number of prime poly spokespeople are also into BDSM. However, this has not translated into a solid understanding or acceptance of BDSM within poly circles. A couple years back I saw a poly email list implode after one member went on a rant about how only dogs should be wearing collars. This lack of acceptance seems to be correcting as BDSM people join the poly community in large numbers and make our presence felt. However, the poly community is still short on basic BDSM education. Many poly people would not know the basics of kinky practice, whether we are talking scening, D/S relationships, collars, or the varieties of kinky play that are out there.
While the crossover with sex workers is not as obvious, it deserves a special mention here because of the heavy silence and stigma around sex work. I suspect that polyamory is useful for integrating sex work with one’s relationship life, because I know a couple of people who are doing this. However, I do not know if this is a widespread practice, and there is almost no conversation on the polyamory/sex work crossover population within the poly community. The exception would be a handful of visible pro dommes.
We can go through this same discussion around poly people who are into tantric practice, or sacred sexuality, or swinging, or other sex party communities. In each case, there is a fairly surprising lack of understanding within the larger poly community. For example, despite the seemingly endless poly discussion about swinging, there seems to be a stunning lack of details on the actual mechanics of swinging. Indeed, most of my knowledge of swinging has come from independent reading, not through poly channels, forums, or resources. For each of these sub-communities, there are details that are important to their nonmonogamous practice, that the larger community often does not know. While there have been attempts (for example, The Ethical Slut has a chapter on sex parties), we need to keep this stuff present and available. Perhaps there should be a “things you should know about other poly people” guide out there.
Doing so is not just helpful to people who are in the particular community overlap, but also strengthens the poly community as a whole. Each one of these crossover populations spins their own variations on polyamory, and each group is investigating stuff that is useful beyond that particular subculture. For example, bisexuals can tell us things about gender and sexuality: how different genders have sex, how attraction to different genders works, the fuzziness of sexuality boundaries, and so on. BDSM folks can describe power in relationships and alternative erotic practices. Tantra practitioners have things to say about sex skills, and often about spirituality. Indeed, the most useful poly support group I have been to was run by people who came from the tantra and new age communities. Swingers can tell us all about group sex and they have their own interesting version of eroticized compersion, where watching your partner have sex with someone else makes you hot. Sex workers have all kinds of wisdom to impart about sex skills and and the sex/commerce crossover.
In other words, we are missing out big time when we do not pull this sort of information into polyamorous forums and resources. And we have largely been failing on this front, I suspect due to the negative sexual stain that attaches to each of these communities. In other words, we are replicating the mainstream tendency to divide along lines of supposedly deviant sexuality.
And indeed, failing to integrate these ideas into polyamorous ideology tends to balkanize the community. Last year I was surprised to discover that there exists a large poly tantra community in San Francisco that parallels the “mainstream poly” community. I ended up at a party where everyone was polyamorous and I knew none of them. I should not have been surprised, because there is a similar effect in the BDSM community. Most of the kinky poly people I know do not go to non-kinky poly events, usually because they do not want to have to educate others on their sexuality or face anti-BDSM sentiment. So instead they set up parallel poly events in BDSM contexts, which are sometimes more successful than the original model. Indeed, the only polyamory discussion group currently in San Francisco proper is a BDSM-oriented one. San Francisco may be ahead of the rest of the world because we have a lot of poly people here, but in that case we should serve as a warning: it is crucial to maintain a positive and informed attitude towards sexualized subcultures. To do otherwise is to lose their very valuable input and to risk them walking away and taking a chunk of your poly community with them.
Going All the Way
The phrase “going all the way” nicely sums up the connection between sex and power in our culture. It sets up a sex act as the final goal, usually heterosexual intercourse. Our culture sees sex (especially a particular kind of sex) as a certain kind of endpoint, the final arbiter of a number of interpersonal power interactions. To really be in love, you need to go all the way or at least be headed there. To have an affair, you need to go all the way with someone else. To be in a real relationship, you must have gone all the way.
All sorts of life conditions depend on “going all the way”: who you live with, who you can count on, whether you wear a ring on a particular finger, whether you should raise children or run for public office. All these things can be taken away if you lose your way. Going all the way in the wrong way gets you called a slut or a queer. Legislators attempt to ban abortion and scuttle sex education to ensure that going all the way has negative consequences. The idea of “going all the way” is used to exert cultural power in myriad ways.
If we are going to fight this sort of genitally-attached power, we need to go all the way. Which is not to say that we need to stage a revolution based in oppressive sexual assumptions, but rather that we need to recognize and resist the power that is channeled through the sex act. To do this, we as a movement need to create and support forms of resistance that contain and value a sexual element. This does not mean we should all be having more sex, but rather that we should build power around the sex we are having.
Going all the way means we need to face sexual power with sexual response. It means we need to be upfront about the various ways we are sexually deviating from the mainstream norm, instead of hiding behind ideas of love or monogamy. It means that we need to value our sexualized crossover communities and learn from them, instead of parroting mainstream prejudices. It is tempting to think that we can compromise with the mainstream, that we can use mainstream language and mainstream conceptual tricks to gain acceptance, but these will inevitably backfire on us, because the primary thing the mainstream wants from us is sexual monogamy.
Going all the way means that we need to keep up the conceptual work on all fronts: rethinking sexual codes, restructuring relationships, rebuilding social interactions. Not all of us need to do all these things, but we need a community which can support someone doing any or all of these.
In the final call, going all the way means actually being the opposite of monogamy in terms of power, not just talking as if we are. Polyamory has been doing a great job of this, adapting to a variety of nonmonogamous forms which then challenge compulsory monogamy in a number of different ways. We need to keep this up if we want polyamory to be a long-lasting and meaningful movement. Compromising with the mainstream or self-censoring will only scuttle us, setting back nonmonogamy as a whole or setting us up for censure.
January 31, 2008 at 7:27 pm
Thanks for this useful food for thought!
Our tendency to gloss over the sexual aspects of polyamory unfortunately means that we are leaving out one of the prime motivations for doing polyamory. … There are of course some exceptions: poly people who are asexual or who otherwise gain no specifically sexual benefits from polyamory.
I’d also add that if you want less sex than your partner(s), then poly gives the advantage of “taking the pressure off”, since they can (in principle) get that elsewhere.
For a completely asexual person, I’d agree that it probably doesn’t quite make sense to call that a “sexual benefit”, though it certainly is a benefit to the workability of the relationship as a whole. (Perhaps it could be called a “sexual-balance benefit”.) But for someone who’s nearly asexual or intermittently asexual, I could envisage it being beneficial to their sexual experiences too – by altering the context of whatever sex they do want to have. I suppose it depends a bit on how wide you make the definition of a “sexual benefit”.
These days our culture seems to oddly value dating and starting relationships over actually being in relationships. Weddings seem more important than the subsequent marriage, romance movies are all about meeting someone,
Not just “these days” – look at the classic fairy story “happy ending”!
January 31, 2008 at 8:14 pm
Welcome to the blog!
I suppose it depends a bit on how wide you make the definition of a “sexual benefit”.
I had not thought about it this way, but you’re right. The advantages to less-sexual or asexual people can be seen as “sexual benefits”, or at least as benefits around sex practice and sexuality, even if they do not include sex itself.
Not just “these days” – look at the classic fairy story “happy ending”!
“These days” is not quite right, as you point out – there’s a long and glorious history of privileging the getting-together part over actually being in the relationship.
That said, if we go far enough back (late 1700’s, I think) marriage-for-love didn’t really exist, and marriage was mostly an economic undertaking. Which means that getting married to the prince, princess, or rich person was the point – it ensured a comfortable and safe life from that point onwards.
February 3, 2008 at 4:17 am
Thanks for this. I particularly like the first part of the essay, where you walk through chains of assumptions between genitals, sex, relationships, and love. You always start interesting conversations.
That said, I find myself frustrated when you begin talking about the mainstream poly comunity. I don’t recognize myself in your descriptions, even though I am poly and run with a bunch of other poly folks. As best I can tell, you’re defining the mainstream poly community as :
* Your particular group of poly friends;
* Folks who are only marginalized by their poly-ness; ie, no BDSmers, trannies, etc, and/or;
* Folks who are multiply marginalized, but willing to prioritize being poly above all other things that differentiate them in the US.
If you’re using another definition for mainstream poly community, please clarify– in this essay, it seems to be mostly defined by contrast with folks you define as non-mainstream poly communities– sex-party goers, BDSMers, Tantric folks, and I’m guessing people of color as well as trannies– though bi folks are apparently included in your mainstream.
I believe that you are using the term mainstream poly community in the service of advocating for inclusiveness. Nonetheless, as soon as you refer to a mainstream community containing subcultures, you’re setting up a hierarchy where mainstreamers have legitimacy over subculturals folks. It gets even worse when you tell mainstreamers they need to include subculturals in order to learn valuable lessons and avoid losing subsets of “our” community.
I’m reminded of the community of queer Arab women and trans men I used to participate in– several years after we formed, a gay man created a new group for gay Arabs, and created a website claiming our community as a subset of his new gay group. We were all pretty upset at this appropriation– we had done the work of organizing on our own, and were offended that a man later tried to claim our efforts and community as a subculture subsumed within his grand scheme.
Rather then seeing a mainstream poly community and various poly subcultures that are not on an equal footing with the mainstream “polyland”, I move in a world of overlapping queer nests or friendship circles. Poly folks are included in many of my nests, and predominate in several. I don’t like a new vision of a poly mainstream that marginalizes my nests of queers, kinksters, Arabs, trannies, and artists. We are already creating poly community– if we aren’t included in yours, it certainly isn’t because we are a subset of your mainstream.
I’d encourage you to read the Riki Anne Wilkins book _Read My Lips_ for some descriptions of what can go wrong when one minority– lesbians– was privileged over lesbians who were also marginalized in another way– by class, color, or transgender status, for example. There’s been a lot of theory in feminist and dyke activism on the perils of claiming that the least marginalized members of a minority should be centered in theory, organizing, and activism.
I agree with some of your arguments, ut I think the way you frame the discusion is further marginalizing folks even as you argue for their/our inclusion.
Thanks, as always, for the food for thought. It’s good when I start talking back to my computer.
February 4, 2008 at 6:46 am
Thanks for the insightful comments. You bring up something that I hadn’t considered. I agree that there is a certain danger to conceptualizing a poly mainstream.
In particular, even if we are talking the visible mixed-gender poly community, once you take out the queer folk and the BDSM practitioners, you’ve got less than half the community left, at least in my circles. Also, a number of the most visible poly authors and media personas are into BDSM.
So it is a bit disingenuous to describe a “poly mainstream”. That said, I don’t think I’m making one up, but rather describing something that is already happening. While my circles are somewhat self-selecting, I’m also on most of the relevant poly lists and a couple different forums. Also, I go to events in the area that are advertised solely as poly events (as opposed to poly/BDSM or poly/queer or what have you). In these forums and at these events I see a certain mentality, and in particular a certain approach to sexual subjects. It is this approach that I am critiquing in this essay.
That said, I think I do have a voice problem here, which is perhaps what is rubbing you wrong. The people I address (as just “poly people”) are this kind-of-mainstream, or people who hold certain ideas that I associate with it. Partly this is because I’m targeting this group for critique. Though it gets fuzzy here again – the approach I’m labeling as mainstream is often actually held by people I’m identifying as non-mainstream. For example, I know of a couple different poly media personages who are into BDSM but do not advertise that when dealing with the media around polyamory. In other words, I’m critiquing a mainstream-style idea held by various poly folks.
I should have been more explicit about this, and address and voice in general.
I think you know this, but to be clear, I do not consider myself in the supposed mainstream that I am critiquing. Due to my bisexuality, BDSM, and sex radical politics I’m outside of it. (Though I’m inside in other ways at the same time, for example due to my whiteness, which presumably helps me function within these circles.) That said, with the voice issue I have fallen prey to the same inclusion/exclusion traps that I am critiquing in others.
One interesting thing that has happened with polyamory is that two further marginalized groups (bisexuals and practitioners of BDSM) both have a large chunk of the overall pie as I know it, including media access and voice. This has I think prevented at least these groups from being marginalized, and has kept things loose in particular around queer sexuality.
I do see lines drawn in certain ways that have excluded people in other typically marginalized groups, in particular people of color, sex workers, and people with less wealth/income, though I’m sure I’m missing some. There should be more focus on these subjects.
Which means I should get off my butt and write that post on whiteness issues in the visibly organized poly community. Given my viewpoint, a lot of that is going to be a “stop dismissing racism talk” targeted at the white readers. I’ll take your point and be more careful about voice, address, and locating myself in the conversation.
I think I got what you were saying, but let me know if I’m missing the point.
February 4, 2008 at 8:20 pm
I think there’s a thing people do, when they are marginalized in one way but not in others, which is to say “Hey! I know! I’ll just wield the cultural privilege I have in other areas to gain acceptance for my one aspect of freakhood, it’ll be totally revolutionary!”. Of course, actual revolution requires that we stop doing this, because wielding your privileges pretty much always means marginalizing those without them.
There’s always a variation in any movement in how much other privilege people have, and how committed they are to learning how to stop wielding it in destructive ways. Typically, those parts of a movement who thoughtlessly wield the greatest amount of cultural privilege will end up positioned as the “mainstream” – and Pepper, I think you were simultaneously trying to object to this use of privilege while being suckered in by the results. As you’ve outlined, the dynamics of sex and the “love escape hatch” are a little more complicated than just a privileged/not-privileged spectrum, but in many ways pulling this hatch still operates as an exercise of cultural privilege.
February 7, 2008 at 9:22 pm
Penny: I really like your idea of approaching this from a privilege standpoint – it’s something that I had not considered.
I have been trying to think about the relationship between polyamory and privilege, and consequently between polyamory and unprivileged demographics. From the queer world, I know that coming out is a privilege, or rather that coming out takes a certain amount of privilege to pull of comfortably in most cases.
Perhaps polyamory itself is a similar privilege? Or at least, being visibly out and poly is such a privilege? If so, it would explain the failure of polyamory to gain traction in various less-privileged groups (including perhaps gay men and lesbians).
And indeed, the love escape hatch requires privilege to pull off. In particular, one’s (monogamous) relationships must already be in the non-deviant love category when viewed from the mainstream. Which begs the question of which groups do not get to be in that category. The groups I’ve listed above all seem to have that particular problem, presumably along with other groups. I think trans people might lack this privilege, for example.
There’s probably other privileges involved in polyamory. This post gets at the intersection of sexual/relationship exploration and race in a way that I found really illuminating.
Also, I’ve added a disclaimer at the top of the essay that clarifies who I am addressing. Doesn’t really fix the problem, but perhaps makes it visible.
February 8, 2008 at 3:28 pm
While the crossover with sex workers is not as obvious, it deserves a special mention here because of the heavy silence and stigma around sex work. I suspect that polyamory is useful for integrating sex work with one’s relationship life, because I know a couple of people who are doing this.
This is a bit of a side issue, but it is something I have been thinking about lately. I find it hard to see how being a sex worker and being poly can sit that well together at all, simply because a lot of sex work would seem to be about monogamous men cheating on their partners. (Am I stereotyping? – this seems to be confirmed by everything I read and I read a lot)
Most people who do poly wouldn’t consider getting involved with someone – or even sleeping with them – if their partner considered them monogamous and was unaware of what was happening. Obviously the cheater is *most* responsible, but most poly people I am pretty sure would view knowingly helping someone cheat as not okay. So although if the sex worker was poly I can see how that might help *them* – but it is hard to see how sex work can be part of responsible poly behaviour.
I would also think that a lot of sex work comes about because of the whole scarcity deal. Do many poly people visit sex workers?
I wish I had some figures but I doubt I would ever find them, so I am stabbing away in the dark here. But, bluntly: cross over with sex work and responsible poly behaviour – I’m not seeing it.
February 8, 2008 at 10:05 pm
I should have been more clear in that paragraph. I’m referring to the potential crossover between polyamory and sex workers, not the potential crossover between polyamory and sex worker clients.
And the main use of polyamory in this situation would not be to expand polyamory into one’s sex work (since sex work is a monetary transaction more than a relationship) but rather integrating sex work with the rest of one’s life. Given the fact that we’re dealing with a business here, I suspect that poly sex workers are not particularly concerned the fact that their clients are possibly cheating, any more than monogamous sex workers.
For example, having non-jealous (non-sex-work) partners is something that is probably good both if you are a sex worker and if you are polyamorous. Ditto with getting past STD fear panic attacks, dealing with sexual overscheduling, and so on. As I said in the essay, I am not entirely sure there is a useful crossover here, but I have seen some of my friends (who do erotic massage) doing this, so it seems like there is potential.
You have a good point here, that I have not considered. Definitely, some people go to sex workers because they are in a position of scarcity or cheating. And if you’re poly, both of those tend to go out the window, though it is not a sure thing. But, others go to sex workers in between relationships, or for particular acts or specialties, and so on. So I expect some poly people are visiting sex workers, even though poly tends to remove or reduce two of the main reasons for doing so.
(On a side note, maybe all those folks who are so invested in eliminating/illegalizing/punishing sex work should be promoting polyamory and other forms of sexual abundance instead. Instead of attacking the supply side, work on the demand side. Just sayin’.)
February 11, 2008 at 11:57 am
“On a side note, maybe all those folks who are so invested in eliminating/illegalizing/punishing sex work should be promoting polyamory and other forms of sexual abundance instead. Instead of attacking the supply side, work on the demand side”
ah, but then it will just be one man with a coiterie of women who are being abused by him for his own gain whilst they feel shitty and unable to leave the relationship, don’t you know? anything which isn’t strictly monogamous lesbianism is abuse. mostly because it involves men, i suspect.
February 16, 2008 at 6:55 pm
pepomint — I found this article extremely helpful and interesting. For my particular situation, your description and discussion of platonic polyamory was especially useful. Within our fMf triad, the “sexual” relating is exclusively heterosexual. My “wife, or “sister-heart” and I are not sexual with one another, and we often encounter exactly the sorts of reactions that you described — people give us that “yeah, right!” kind of knowing wink, and just go on assuming that we are having sex and just not admitting it. Even within the poly community, we find that we are confronted with questions about the “reality” of our relationship since it it not sexual. The fact that we are intensely emotionally intimate and almost eerily psychically connected, seems to go nowhere at all in those conversations. I don’t believe that having the language or concepts will change anything much, but it does give me and us a bit of context for the discussion.
February 18, 2008 at 10:18 pm
Yeah, I really don’t like the way that “abuse” is stretched to cover much more subtle power situations. We see the same with talk of violation and whatnot. I feel like this cheapens actual abuse, rape, violation or what have you, and people forget just how nasty these things are or can be.
There is a good argument that patriarchal gender dynamics tend to poison situations, but that doesn’t mean the situations are hopeless. It is certainly possible to have M/F relationships free of abuse, often despite the larger culture’s sexist leanings.
February 18, 2008 at 10:33 pm
swan: Welcome to the blog!
I’m glad my description of platonic polyamory was useful to you. From what I’ve heard from others (and now you), trying to convince even other poly people as to the legitimacy of your relationship can be extremely frustrating.
You’re hitting what I refer to as the genital attachment of relationships. People either want to believe that you are having sex with your wife, or they want to believe that you two are really not together in any meaningful way. Understanding what you are actually doing would break their conception of relationships, and perhaps threaten them in some way.
There’s a long road ahead here, towards convincing people to embrace nonsexual relationships as legitimate. It’s somewhat detached from the monogamy/nonmonogamy question, though the two are often mixed, like in your situation. But in any case it is going to be a big problem for a long time to come.
February 19, 2008 at 1:25 am
I feel like this cheapens actual abuse, rape, violation or what have you
“Abuse” isn’t a binary state, though, where you reach a certain level of fair treatment and all of a sudden you lose the right to complain about your situation using these familiar terms and frames of reference. It’s a continuum. I know you know this, but after seeing enough people use this “cheapening real problems” as a way to silence discussion of poison in the light gray areas, I have kind of a button about it.
February 19, 2008 at 7:25 am
Right. I don’t mean to erase or diminish the importance of those in-between areas or subtle effects. Indeed, sometimes the subtle forms of power are more common and therefore potentially more problematic than direct violence or similar.
What I am concerned about here is when people stretch the metaphor to the point of breaking. I have seen this happen at a discussion about abuse where an *abuse recovery therapist* was presenting. He basically extended the idea of abuse to encompass any kind of power dynamic or interpersonal interaction, and as a result there was zero discussion or acknowledgement of fairly hardcore abuse. Instead the whole room got into this whole “we are all abusers and abused simultaneously” stuff. While this sort of thing is useful for pointing out the pervasiveness of power and the possibility of anyone wielding it, in this case it was really being used to skirt hard subjects and avoid discussion of the real damage that happens to people.
So I’m all for talking about the in-between stuff, but in some cases we need to do so with different words or find other ways to not erase the really bad end of the spectrum.
Of course, naming in-between states is also used to water down discussion of hard subjects. We’ve seen this recently with “gray rape”, which as it turns out is just plain old rape gussied up in new language. There’s a bit of a catch-22 going on here, where we run into the culture’s primary goal of not acknowledging or discussing rape or abuse.
February 24, 2008 at 7:53 pm
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February 28, 2008 at 8:52 am
If I have time, I’ll write a bit a more later, but one of the things that I’m very interested in wrt polyamory is the rather unexamined relationship between nonmonogamy and economics, especially in terms of the personal power imbalances it can create.
February 28, 2008 at 10:55 pm
Ella: Welcome! I am interested in hearing your thoughts on economics and nonmonogamy. There’s all kinds of stuff going on:
1) The polygamy model, where one man has lots of money, and so gets lots of wives, who do not get anyone else. There is a potential for this to extend into other kinds of nonmonogamy, for example well-off men hiring escorts for the night in order to attend couples-only sex parties.
2) The economic support networks that can form in polyamory communities. These are no joke – I have seen one three-person household support one member who is trying to start a writing career, another three-person household where one or two people are between jobs at any one time, a four-person arrangement that allows for a full-time child parent, a woman who was able to move in with a lover right after a divorce, and so on.
3) Any discussion of economic inequality and nonmonogamy should also take note of the economic inequality problems that we see in monogamy: men winning out in divorce/custody court due to simply having more money, the economic dependency (and possible eventual bereavement) that happens when one partner has significantly more financial resources than the other, and so on.
March 14, 2008 at 1:21 am
Wow, absolutely loads of stuff to think about here…
A couple of points that come to mind:
1) I’m sure you weren’t trying to say it was, but i would like to strongly state that “sex” isn’t necessarily genital (as your use of the term “genitally attached” sort of seemed to me to imply) – because to define sex as exclusively involving genitals can exclude or (falsely) define as asexual people who don’t or can’t feel sexual about their genitals, but do have a sexuality regardless of that (some pre-op transsexuals, some disabled people whose impairments mean they have no genital feeling or function, and some abuse survivors with PTSD type stuff associated with genital touch being 3 obvious examples).
2) I’d also like to assert that there’s nothing wrong with hedonism (an it harm none) ;)
3) The stuff about (paraphrasing here) how, to truly overcome monogamy, you need to be actually having sex with multiple people, leaves me kind of wondering where i fit in. I’m not capable of having a sexual relationship with more than one person at a time (and, in fact, when i’m with someone, tend not to even fancy other people). But i would never dream of demanding exclusivity from a lover – in fact, that idea fills me with abhorrence, and i’d probably actually encourage them to have sex with other people (in fact, tho it’s never happened, i suspect i’d be highly turned on by hearing about it). Exclusivity, to me, implies a claim of ownership, and to me that is the antithesis of love – I couldn’t even dream of having the “right” to “ban” my lover from having other lovers too, that feels to me as a libertarian like a “right” (or privilege?) that no human being has.
… so, i don’t really think i can fairly call myself “poly”, but i would still like to live in “polyland”, and to utterly smash the concept of monogamy as normative state. Is that allowed?
(I absolutely love your description of “polyland”… it sounds like practically a utopia…)
Not meaning to negatively criticise an utterly awesome article, but i would quite like some advice on if it’s possible, and if so how, to work towards dismantling monogamy while being (by some definitions) “naturally” monogamous oneself…
March 14, 2008 at 1:22 am
Also, is there a way of viewing this site with the text being wider than the central third of my screen? Having only a 800 x 640 pixel monitor, i find such a narrow column of text quite difficult to read…
March 14, 2008 at 11:02 pm
shiva: Welcome! And thank you for the thoughtful comments.
i would like to strongly state that “sex” isn’t necessarily genital (as your use of the term “genitally attached” sort of seemed to me to imply)
I agree. Nothing I say should be taken to mean that actual sex (the sex that people actually have with each other) is necessarily genital.
That said, in this essay I am describing the mainstream cultural view of sex and relationships, and I think we can say that the mainstream definitely considers sex to be a genital act, and sex-not-involving-genitals almost never happens in mainstream depictions. Genital attachment is a kind of mainstream power, and so people in the mainstream tend to be very attached to this whole “sex needs genitals” thing, because without it their power structures fall apart, since they heavily use the idea of genitals to transfer power via sex.
What this brings up is: another way to resist normative sexual power is to detach sexuality from genital acts. We see this happening in queer and BDSM communities, for example. This detaching project is a different approach than the political project I am describing in this essay, resisting normative sexual power by having non-normative sexual practice. However, it is equally valid.
The stuff about (paraphrasing here) how, to truly overcome monogamy, you need to be actually having sex with multiple people, leaves me kind of wondering where i fit in.
What I am trying to say in this article is that there are parts of resisting monogamous conformity that cannot take place without *someone* having sex with multiple people.
That said, there’s a lot of monogamous power out there: in addition to sexual monogamy, there’s all the social trappings of monogamy, there’s the ideological stuff built around monogamy, and so on.
Which means that even monogamous people can resist compulsory monogamy, they just end up resisting different parts of it. On the outskirts of the poly community, we see a lot of people practicing “conscious monogamy”, monogamy that is specifically chosen, where they develop a monogamous ethos that does not involve jealousy, possessiveness, the social privileges that attach to presenting as monogamous, and so on.
It sounds like you are doing something like this, and that’s great.
… so, i don’t really think i can fairly call myself “poly”, but i would still like to live in “polyland”, and to utterly smash the concept of monogamy as normative state. Is that allowed?
Of course! There’s actually a whole poly sub-community known as mono/poly, consisting of monogamous people in relationships with poly people.
Also, there’s different types of monogamy. There’s “me monogamy”, only wanting to be with one person, and then “you monogamy”, only wanting the people you’re with to be with you. It sounds like you are me-monogamous but not you-monogamous.
What I’m getting at is that if you are seeing people who are seeing other people, you’re practicing a sort of nonmonogamy, even if you yourself are monogamous. Certainly you are doing most of the hard parts: getting over jealousy, leaving exclusivity behind, and so on. So in your case you are definitely challenging compulsory monogamy at its root, because you are in a nonmonogamous situation.
if it’s possible, and if so how, to work towards dismantling monogamy while being (by some definitions) “naturally” monogamous oneself…
I’m actually not interested in dismantling the practice of monogamy itself. For some people, like yourself, monogamy is preferable. Rather I’m trying to dismantle compulsory monogamy, the way our culture tries to make everyone monogamous whether they want it or not.
So really, what you are already doing/saying is awesome. No complaints from me.
I absolutely love your description of “polyland”… it sounds like practically a utopia…
Well, it isn’t really. Poly people tend to be screwed-up human beings just like everyone else. What I was trying to get across in that paragraph is that polyland is *really different*, and it is hard to understand how different unless you’ve actually lived there.
Having only a 800 x 640 pixel monitor, i find such a narrow column of text quite difficult to read…
That sucks. I’ll look into either expanding the center column or switching to one of the two-column formats. Unfortunately being hosted on WordPress gives me limited options, but I should be able to do something.
June 12, 2010 at 1:40 am
There’s “me monogamy”, only wanting to be with one person, and then “you monogamy”, only wanting the people you’re with to be with you.
This phrasing bugs me, perhaps because it centres monogamy. I think something interesting happens when we look at as “me-poly” and “you-poly” instead.
“Me-poly” is someone who can fall in love while maintaing an existing romantic relationship. Some, but not all, cheaters are “me-poly”. Not everyone can do this! Many people lose interest in previous relationships when falling in love, or do not romantically engage with other people once they are in a healthy, loving relationship. We tend to take “me-poly” as a given in the community, however, and devote little in the way of intellectual resources to it, or to getting people to this place. There are, for instance, very few articles discussing how to let oneself fall in love with new people, and relatively few on how to maintain current relationships in the face of NRE. This is weird, because creating resources to encourage more “me-poly” behaviour would expand the poly- movement.
“You-poly”, then, is being in a place where it is okay for your partner to have multiple romantic relationships. This is where we focus almost all of our attention. We expect “me-poly” people to get to this place, out of a sense of fairness. The endless discussions and advice about dealing with jealousy is aimed at making more “you-poly” people, whather they identify as poly- or not. Nevertheless, there’s still work that is almost untouched here; critiquing the trope that jealousy is equivalent to caring is an important part of the project in creating more “you-poly” people, but we seem to miss this because we centre monogamy and jealousy as normal and in need of our attention to deviate from, and so focus on that.
This is just off the top of my head, but I feel confident that adopting this framework could yield further insights without trampling over the identities of people who want to identify as monogamous. For instance, does it make sense that every “me-poly” person needs to be a “you-poly” person? We don’t expect the inverse, so why do we expect that? I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t, but we should be able to justify that expectation in terms centred on poly- instead of monogamy. Why are our “conversion” efforts solely dedicated to creating more “you-poly” people? Maybe they should be, but again, what’s our justification?
To sum up, it’s not clear to me that centring monogamy does us any favours, and it may be that we’re missing some fertile analytic territory by doing so.
June 14, 2010 at 7:09 pm
Jkelly: Thanks for bringing this up! I hadn’t considered that there might be poly equivalents for the me/you terminology I’ve created around monogamy. But you’re right, and as you say it makes for fertile thinking.
As for centering monogamy, my general pattern is to start with mainstream constructs, since everyone (mainstream or not) ends up dealing with them. Then I move on to how those constructs are altered or play out in resistance movements, like I’ve done in this essay overall. In other words, because everyone ends up speaking the language of monogamy whether or not they want to, centering monogamy in analysis is not necessarily problematic.
We can see this if we think about me/you-poly in relation to non-poly nonmonogamies. For example, how would we talk about swingers using this language? I don’t know if we could, but the me/you-monogamy construct still applies. To center swingers, we’d have to create me/you-swinger constructs or something similar.
That said, if we’re talking about poly people, the me/you-poly terminology is useful and brings up some great questions.
We tend to take “me-poly” as a given in the community, however, and devote little in the way of intellectual resources to it, or to getting people to this place.
It’s true – this is a bit of a blind spot in our literature. There’s other examples I can come up with. One is that we don’t have a lot of information (beyond NRE stuff) on how two relationships interact across a person. If someone is breaking up in one relationship, what does that do to others? Are there good ways to translate sexual excitement from one relationship to another? And so on.
For instance, does it make sense that every “me-poly” person needs to be a “you-poly” person?
Well, yes and no. In theory, not at all. And in fact when people end up in mono/poly situations, sometimes people who are me-poly but not you-poly do fine.
But in practice, this is usually one of the things where living in a monogamous world screws us. In the monogamous world, monogamy is often seen as striking a deal of sorts, where one person gives up seeing other people so that the other person will give up seeing other people. This is ingrained enough that it is very hard for people to give up their part without getting the other person’s monogamy, which makes mono/poly relatively rare, though still workable if people can get past this.
Why are our “conversion” efforts solely dedicated to creating more “you-poly” people? Maybe they should be, but again, what’s our justification?
I think there’s this general idea that the mainstream is already creating me-poly people. Getting to have relationships with multiple people is generally seen as a personal good to be desired, just something that is unworkable or will lead to heartbreak later. Thus, the high rates of infidelity.
Now, I’m not sure that’s actually the case as much as we might think. Certainly, many monogamous folks make it clear that they are not actually interested. So there is some need to sell me-poly, though not as much as selling you-poly. Indeed, in my workshops and poly 101 presentations I usually have a section on why people do poly, which goes over reasons beyond just getting more sex.
Thanks again! This is excellent.
March 15, 2008 at 12:36 am
Thank you for your deep analysis and thinking. Brain….spinnning….
I want to address your concept on platonic polyamory. I believe that the sorts of strong, intimate relationships you are describing are also commonly known as friendships? I have a group of women friends who refer to each other as wives, and over the years I’ve had many friendships that are just as deep and close as my sexual relationships. I’ve had friends that I love, friends that I’ve been in love with, and friends I’ve considered my soulmates. Some of these friendships definitely fill niches that my husband does not. But would I consider myself a polyamorist? Nope, definitely not, nor do I think any of my friends would describe our relationships that way (except, of course, the friends who are actually polyamorous, but then they wouldn’t be referring to me). And while I think there is a huge need for different configurations outside of monogamy in relationships , I don’t know if I really want to put myself in that camp.
I was directed to your site by someone on a sacred sexuality email list, and I find a similar thing there: so much of the talk is about polyamory, and the two often feel conflated. Qadishtu can be polyamorists, and polyamorists can be qadishtu, but the one is not necessarily the other. This is frustrating to me, because while my work often entails sleeping with others, I consider my relationship with my husband to be monogamous. It is a calling, an avocation, and feels much closer to a doctor-patient relationship than to anything I’ve traditionally considered to be polyamory. Again, I would never think to describe myself – or my relationship – polyamorist.
I think it is vitally important for sexual subcultures to band together and support each other, and to find ways to work together, but I don’t know if they can/should be collapsed under one umbrella in people’s minds.
Perhaps this has already been done, but would it be possible to put together a sexual or relationship bill of rights or manifesto that might encompass freedom, choice, pleasure, consensuality, perversion, intimacy, gender, sexual orientation, family and egalitarianism in their myriad permutations? I bet you are just the man to write such a document!
March 19, 2008 at 5:22 am
I want to address your concept on platonic polyamory. I believe that the sorts of strong, intimate relationships you are describing are also commonly known as friendships?
See, the people practicing platonic polyamory typically assert that they are actually involved in a romantic endeavor, only one that is nonsexual. Or, it is not romantic, but it is of an intensity such that they do not feel that describing it as a friendship (even a close friendship) is appropriate.
Also, note that many people doing platonic polyamory are actually not even sexually monogamous: they will often have more than one sexual partner in addition to their platonic polyamory relationship(s). Often these come about because people develop intense (but nonsexual) relationships with the lovers of their lovers. See above in the comment thread for one example.
One thing we’re getting at here is that different people will see these things differently, and it is important to respect their conceptual approach. So you may see something as a friendship, but someone else may see it as a platonic relationship, and I try to be respectful and use whatever terms that the person in the relationship wants to use.
Qadishtu can be polyamorists, and polyamorists can be qadishtu, but the one is not necessarily the other. This is frustrating to me, because while my work often entails sleeping with others, I consider my relationship with my husband to be monogamous.
I definitely agree that one can be monogamous and still have sex with others. This goes doubly true if the sex occurs in a ritual or sex work context (not sure if either of these applies to you). Also, many swingers consider themselves monogamous even though they are sexually nonmonogamous, because the sexual connections they make (outside of their primary relationship) carry little emotional content.
Unfortunately mainstream culture does not agree with us: the mainstream is obsessed with the sex act, and uses that as the marker of monogamy or nonmonogamy. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to convince them otherwise, but it is an uphill battle.
I would love to hear more about the sacred sexuality crossover with polyamory that you describe, because I have no experience in such communities. Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you are interested in chatting off the blog.
I think it is vitally important for sexual subcultures to band together and support each other, and to find ways to work together, but I don’t know if they can/should be collapsed under one umbrella in people’s minds.
I definitely think that they should not be collapsed. There are very real differences between the BDSM, polyamory, swinger, and sacred sexuality/tantra communities, to name just a few. Nothing I say should be seen as a call to absorb any one of these communities into another. However, I do think it is important for each community to recognize members in its midst that belong to other groups: for example, poly people recognizing swingers or BDSM folks who are also members of the poly community.
As for the sex radical manifesto you describe, I’m sure it is out there. Maybe I’ll hunt around and see if I can find something along those lines.
March 29, 2008 at 3:03 am
Hilariously, my mother walked into the room as I was reading this to ask what I was up to. Instead of clicking back to Looking For Group, I tried to explain the beginning of the paper to her – “Um, it’s a paper by this guy about the ways we talk and don’t talk about love and sex and relationships within the context of nonmonogamy” – and she listened for a little bit, and read a little bit, and eventually pursed her lips and said, “Well, but that’s what differentiates us from animals, you know. Any two dogs can screw, but for people it’s different. We need more than just that primal instinct.”
And then she went back to watching No Country For Old Men before I could find a way to continue the conversation.
Sigh. Baby steps, I guess.
Anyway, I really liked what you had to say here, and your deconstructive analysis was extraordinary. I’ve never been able to digest Foucault in a way that still made sense a couple hours later, but your presentation here makes it very accessible and powerful.
I noticed myself getting a little rankled over the bits you covered about needing to actually be in multiple relationships to do the work of subverting monogamy, but I think that’s just because I actually agree and dislike that I’m not doing as much to subvert monogamy as I could be :p It’s true, to a great extent in my experience, that theory can differ quite widely from practice, and that being “effectively” monogamous doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the nonmonogamy you want to engage.
Which means I should get off my butt and write that post on whiteness issues in the visibly organized poly community. Given my viewpoint, a lot of that is going to be a “stop dismissing racism talk” targeted at the white readers. I’ll take your point and be more careful about voice, address, and locating myself in the conversation.
Oh, I would really look forward to reading that! As a poc myself it can be very daunting to be in these odd mostly-white environments – and particularly as a Pinay woman, I worry about the hypersexualisation of Asian women and the way that may or may not alter someone’s approach to me.
March 31, 2008 at 7:53 pm
Sara no H:
I noticed myself getting a little rankled over the bits you covered about needing to actually be in multiple relationships to do the work of subverting monogamy
I want to say that subverting monogamy is not the primary personal goal of most poly folks. The primary goal is usually “living the way I want to”, and as it turns out a certain amount of subversion is required to do that. And while I am a big fan of being politically aware and changing one’s life for political reasons, at the same time I think that people generally should approach polyamory because it is something that works well for them or something they desire. Approaching solely from a political agenda perspective means that one’s own (non-political) tendencies on this matter can get lost in the wash, and I’ve seen it go badly as a result. There are plenty of ways to subvert monogamy even when one is “effectively monogamous”, just slightly different ones. As you’re seeing with your parents, it’s real work.
That said, the stuff about fully subverting monogamy via multiple sexual partners is important if we take the wide-angle movement-level view. *As a movement*, it is important that we do not sweep the sexually subversive aspects of nonmonogamy under the rug, because *as a movement* such cover-ups will hurt us politically in the long run.
As a poc myself it can be very daunting to be in these odd mostly-white environments – and particularly as a Pinay woman, I worry about the hypersexualisation of Asian women and the way that may or may not alter someone’s approach to me.
Unfortunately I don’t have the same kind of depth of understanding around race issues that I have around sexuality, partly because of my white perspective and partly because I just have not read enough. So mostly it will be a basic primer for white poly folks on how to be less racist and more welcoming. Not dismissing concerns around racism, not pulling white privilege cards, being aware of race, and so on. I also want to put in a bit about how it takes privilege of various sorts to actually pull off polyamory in the face of compulsory monogamy, which is relevant to various issues of inclusion (such as racism and classism).
Yeah, I could see hypersexualization being really bad, though I don’t have any direct experiences to back that up. (And of course, I wouldn’t necessarily.) I did get a report elsewhere on the blog from a black man, who said that the double-whammy of hypersexualization from being a black poly man (in the US south) was really difficult, but his race/gender-based hypersexualization and yours are two different animals and not particularly comparable.
I would love to hear anything further you have to say on your experiences dealing with poly community or the poly movement (or similar mostly-white environments), if you have the time and inclination. If you’d rather speak offline, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 13, 2008 at 11:18 am
[…] or start at the beginning or however you do it, but I’d recommend you make reading “Polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is” a priority either way. […]
April 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm
[…] to a good blogger buddy of mine, my attention was drawn to this incredible article on polyamory over a Freaksexual. I’d never been over to that particular blog before, but I’m […]
May 15, 2008 at 8:40 pm
My name is Kyrsten and I work at Seal Press. I came across your blog while I was doing research for our book Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage (Seal Press / June 2008 / $24.95), by Jenny Block. Since you discuss polyamory in such great depth, I just wanted to mention that Block is going to be doing a number of readings from Portland to Texas and I thought perhaps you or your readers might be interested in attending or hearing about the book.
Open is a book about open marriage that grapples with the problems surrounding monogamy and fidelity in an honest, heartfelt, and non-fringe manner. In Open, Block paints a down-to-earth picture of how an open marriage can work, and specifically why it works for her and her husband. In dissecting other people’s strong reactions to her choice, she explores the question of why cheating is more socially acceptable than open marriage. In part, she concludes, the lack of models for successful functional open marriages is such that the general public is not yet equipped to handle treating it as anything other than abnormal.
Open challenges our notions of what traditional marriage looks like, and presents one woman’s journey down an uncertain path that ultimately proves that open marriage is a viable option, and one that’s in fact better for some couples than conventional marriage.
We’d love to send you an advanced readers copy to preview, and/or review/giveaway on your blog to your community. Please let us know if there is any way we can work with you!
Feel free to contact us for more information! We love your site!
May 15, 2008 at 10:26 pm
I am very enthusiastic about Jenny’s book, and I am already planning on buying it.
I do not do book reviews on this blog, but I am planning on starting a new blog in relatively short order, and I will try to put up a review there.
I would be happy to help spread the word in my area (San Francisco) when and if she comes to town for a book reading. If this is something you’d be interested in, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I want to say that I have been following the various Seal Press vs. feminist women of color problems, and I want to voice my support for having more WOC authors published out of Seal Press.
In particular, there is a serious whiteness issue in nonmonogamy activism and writing. I encourage you to seek out and publish WOC authors who wish to write about nonmonogamy, open relationships, and/or polyamory. There’s very little published in this domain, and whoever publishes the first well-known books will probably make very good money.
You can see some of Jenny’s Block’s writing on polyamory and open relationships at the following link:
She has an excellent writing style and I am looking forward to reading her book. Also, she has been active in various online polyamory communities of late, and is clearly part of the polyamory movement.
May 27, 2008 at 6:36 pm
Wanted to thank you here as well! I really appreciate your including me in your blog.
Author of “Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage”
October 15, 2008 at 7:37 am
[…] Polyamory Is Not About The Sex, Except When It Is […]
November 20, 2008 at 2:29 am
WOW. Okay, I am now officially bowled over by the sheer torrent of thoughtful words. Archives ahoy! (And I thought I was completist about my explanations… My hat is off to you, sir.)
March 14, 2011 at 6:52 am
Hello again – I come back to this essay every now and then, because I tend to pull something new from it each time. :3 It’s been an extraordinary resource as well, to judge from the number of times I have told people to go forth and read.
This time around, as I was reading, this teensy bit caught my eye: The culture learned its lesson from boston marriages, and avidly denies nonsexual romance in this day and age.
And this is something that interests me from a fandom perspective, in that, in the US we are beginning to see more and more shows that have a clear homoerotic subtext between one or more characters (House/Wilson, if you watch House; Merlin/Arthur, if you watch Merlin; there are lots and lots of others also), but one which may be vehemently denied by some fans of the show who absolutely DO NOT WANT the queer subtext, and may also get stamped out by the show itself if the powers that be determine no, we are scaring the straight people away, do something else now. Which, arguably, this has more to do with the perception of romance (which is then linked to sex) between same-gender characters; as you’ve pointed out, the way that we talk about all of it gets conflated, so the insistence that, say, House and Wilson “do not have feelings for each other” is implicitly saying “and are not not NOT having sex.”
What are your thoughts on that?
March 16, 2011 at 12:55 am
Hello! It’s good to hear from you again.
With the boston marriages comment, I was briefly pointing out that there had been periods of U.S. history where love was significantly more detached from sex. In the Victorian era, romantic love was the cover for hiding sex. But they hid sex a little too well, and that proved to be disadvantageous from a control perspective. Because sex was invisible (which is to say, inconceivable in certain ways) and the language of romance was everywhere, it was possible to get away with quite a bit using the cover of romance.
This is how boston marriages and some other liaisons among women worked – they would express flowery love for each other in public and no one thought it was strange, and people rarely considered what they might do in private. Similarly, a number of bohemian groups from the early 1900’s used the conceptual cover of romance for rampant nonmonogamy (the Bloomsbury Group, Kahlo and Rivera, etc). The rise of psychoanalysis and the witch hunts of mid-century were partially a reaction to these liberties, and appropriately focused on the exposure of private practice, and arguably its sexualization.
Which leaves us in our current situation, where the concept of platonic love has been thoroughly jettisoned by the mainstream. And the speech about sex is now required in a certain form of confession, but at the same time only certain types of speech are acceptable, a complex dance of showing and hiding, which is how we get the incredibly banal and yet ever-repeating “hot sex tips” in Cosmo along with the equally banal sex talk in men’s magazines.
As for your actual question regarding homoerotic subtext, I agree that it is actually there, but I would disagree that it is new. This method of teasing queerness but not actually presenting it has a long history, one that is well-documented in The Celluloid Closet. This tendency goes in and out of fashion, and as you mention it is only taken so far, so it is hard to say if it is in a steady growth pattern right now. On the one hand, media producers are often queer or queer-friendly, and the overall culture is rapidly becoming more queer friendly, so this sort of vague man-love may be becoming more acceptable in media.
On the other hand, if we combine it with what I’ve said about sex being a mandatory requirement for relationships, we can actually view this tendency as an advance of heteronormativity. From the 40’s to 90’s, any strong friendship between men was viewed with some suspicion due to the possibility of homosexual urges. If we’ve reached a point where the culture has definitively decided that it can’t be love without sex, then that opens up space for reasserted man-to-man platonic closeness, which has long been a goal of the social right. Because it can’t be actual romance between them if they are not having sex. Which is to say, we’re never going to see Merlin and Arthur fuck on screen, or even kiss or engage in strong innuendo, and that way the assumed-straight viewing audience will be able to safely assume that they are just best buddies. Roswell is another good example of this in action.
Contrast that with an episode of Weeds I just saw, where there was zero queer innuendo around a bit character until the show had him in bed having sex with a man. Showtime is presenting queerness – these other shows are perhaps hinting it, or perhaps actively dismantling queer potential by depicting straight best-buddies.
In reaction, we see a lot of queer and queer-friendly alternative media producers poking fun at this tendency, via slash and various skits like No Homo and Rad Bromance. They are trying to re-establish the sexual potential in same-sex close friendships, which was originally an oppressive witch hunt technique but is currently advantageous as it keeps queerness common.
Both sides in this mini-struggle are depending on the conflation of love and sex, but they are reversing the causality: one side says that it cannot be romantic love because there is no sex, and the other side is saying that with all that closeness going on there must be sex.
Note that the above does not apply to women. The mechanisms that make queer women invisible are different.
April 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm
[…] probably sully your chakras and end the projection if you tried, regardless. Plus, it’s not about the sex, […]
October 14, 2011 at 8:35 pm
[…] Polyamory Is Not About The Sex, Except When It Is […]
December 15, 2011 at 8:28 am
I’d like to question your assumption that the BDSM/kink community is not mainstream poly. In my communities, it seems to be the dominant (no pun intended) orientation for any sex positive events and groups including poly ones. This excludes those of us (like me) who are sexual violence survivors and find such play triggering to be around. It would nice to have a warning or some compartmentalization so I can leave for part of it and avoid it or even hold some events that were known in advance to be sexual violence trigger free. My mainstream poly community’s Christmas party was held in a dungeon with a mandatory kink wardrobe, so I wasn’t able to attend. I never ever want to see someone in a ball gag again, and I won’t tell you why. If you don’t know what having PTSD is like here’s a description that sums it up: http://sworddancewarrior.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/car-crash/ So yes, let’s all support one another, but don’t let one group dominate at the expense of others who may be less free to advocate for themselves.
December 16, 2011 at 6:37 am
I would argue with you that BDSM folks are in the majority in poly circles. Certainly, the poly BDSM population seems to have been growing rapidly in the last five years, and so there are definitely venues where kinky poly people overwhelm non-kinky poly people.
However, this is all very specific to the region and even the particular group. Here in the San Francisco area, we have a long history of polyamory associated with geeky crowds, with pagans, and with new age types. These folks outnumber the BDSM poly folks, I’m pretty sure. Indeed, in order to have poly events that catered to a kinky crowd, I had to start holding them myself.
So, I would say that if the current local poly community is not meeting your needs (and the organizers are unwilling to accommodate you), I would recommend starting up your own local poly group more in line with what you are looking for. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of triggering – I understand that it is quite serious. Rather, I’m trying to say that starting alternate groups usually works surprising well. Usually there are some number of people hanging around the fringes of the current group but not really satisfied with it, and if you can offer them a better alternative they will flock to it.
All that aside, I want to say that being “mainstream” is not a matter of numbers. There are certain qualities that are mainstream even though the people with those qualities are a minority, for example “wealthy” or “thin”.
Rather, when something is mainstream it means that it is reflected constantly in the culture. When something is not mainstream, it is invisible. A simple test is to ask yourself, “can I see this on TV?” There is very little BDSM on TV, and though that’s started to change in recent years the depictions are wildly inaccurate, often to the point of being offensive. Whereas non-kinky sexuality (well, heterosexuality) is constantly portrayed in a positive manner. So we can say that BDSM is non-mainstream, and non-kinky sex is mainstream.
Or to put it differently, non-kinky poly people find their sexuality largely reflected and supported by the culture, though not their nonmonogamy. Kinky poly people find that their sexuality and nonmonogamy are both unsupported in the culture. So, non-kinky poly people find themselves in a position of relative power when compared with kinky poly people. The fact that there are a LOT of kinky poly people and that sometimes this polarity is reversed in local situations does not actually change the overall power dynamic between the two groups. Indeed, all it means is that non-kinky poly people are sometimes surprised to discover that they are not able to have the overall poly community consistently reflect their particular (sexual style) needs, which they assumed they were entitled to.
January 16, 2015 at 12:14 am
I’m sorry I haven’t read through all of this yet, but I do notice early on that you presume (ass*u*me…as we know) that “sex” is what happens between at least *TWO* cis-hetero adults. Can we not deconstruct “sex” to one?
April 14, 2015 at 2:15 pm
Reblogged this on kinky7.