As I write this, I am caught up in yet another email argument over exactly what is polyamory and what it is not. Generally, when the same exact argument surfaces again and again, it is a sign that the particular question is a point of pain for the people involved, a sore spot that they keep rubbing again and again. It is also a sign that the argument in question has a subtext: people are using the argument as a stand-in for something else, something that they are unwilling to argue directly. Because the subtext argument does not come out, it is never addressed or resolved, and the argument repeats itself a couple months later in a different forum.
Sick of these roundabout discussions, many poly people have started to simply refuse the question, shooting down any definitional arguments with groans about how defining polyamory is impossible. This is reasonable and effective, in that it short-circuits people who are trying to argue some sort of subtext. However, it does not change the fact that most poly people are walking around with some sort of operational definition in their heads, and will pull these out at some point, even if they are reluctant to do so on online forums. Also, we leave the various subtext conversations untouched, and again have no resolution on these sore-spot issues.
In this essay, I attempt to take on the definitional question of polyamory. I will delineate all the subtext issues that I am familiar with, and why each is a point of pain, and the sorts of agendas that people attempt to promote via definitional fiat.
Part of the problem here is that we tend to approach all these questions from a behavioral perspective. In other words, instead of understanding polyamory through a lens of community, identity, or ideology, we attempt to define a set of physical behaviors that qualify one as polyamorous.
We do this because we come from a culture obsessed with medical diagnosis when it comes to sex and relationships. The whole concept of a sexual identity sprang out of the efforts of sexologists in the late 1800’s to pathologize homosexuality. They approached the question of a person’s sexuality from a diagnostic perspective. It was convenient for them to assume that they would know more about the people they were diagnosing than those people would themselves. In this way doctors used a diagnosis model to push a certain understanding of (homo)sexuality into the culture, one that was often at odds with the thinking of the people who supposedly had that sexuality. This was a fifty-year process, culminating in the heavy anti-homosexual pathologization and witch hunts of the 40’s and 50’s, when the sexologists’ ideological victory was complete.
Today we are left with a legacy of a diagnostic approach to matters of sexuality and relationships, one that favors behavioral criteria over thoughts or feelings, because behavior can be properly diagnosed by an outside authority. Historically that outside authority has been a doctor, self-proclaimed expert, government official, or the like, but today we constantly perform these sorts of diagnoses on each other, stepping into the role of diagnostic authority even though we have no particular expertise. For a more complete discussion of the historical effects of sexuality diagnosis, see my previous posts on sexuality and medicalization and respecting sexual identity.
This diagnostic focus leads to the creation of behavioral definitions. People attempt to define polyamory by what a polyamorous person does, instead of by what they feel or think, or by what communities or social groups they belong to. Not only that, but people want these behavioral definitions to be simple and reductionist, easy to state in a couple words.
Unfortunately, a reductionist behavioral approach to something as complex and nuanced as polyamory ends up quickly leading us into definitional absurdity. The current definitions floating around the community tend to be things like “open, responsible nonmonogamy” or “ethical, consensual nonmonogamy”. These give a decent sense of polyamorous priorities, and they are nice and widely defined, which makes them inclusive in a positive way. However, as it turns out, they end up including and excluding people in a fairly odd way. For example, most swingers, traditional religious polygamists, gay men who attend bathhouses, and sex radicals are polyamorous under this definition, even though many of them would argue that they are not. On the other side, these definitions do not address the question of whether or not a person has to be currently practicing nonmonogamy (which most people define has having sex with more than one person) in order to qualify, so we get an unending series of “I’m not seeing two people – am I poly?” questions on poly forums. Also, the question of whether platonic polyamorists (who are not having sex with two or more people) are really polyamorous comes up on a regular basis.
In short, the definitions of words like “open”, “ethical”, and “nonmonogamy” are up for grabs, and even “consensual” can be a bit iffy. Scratch the surface of any one of these, and all of a sudden you have poly people arguing over what polyamory is. Even worse, people tend to include things as polyamory requirements that are not included in the behavioral definition, like a focus on romantic love versus sex. Perhaps these definitions are in wide circulation specifically because they are vague, allowing people to assume that their particular take on polyamory is the right one (since they see themselves reflected in the definition) while still providing an ostensibly behavioral basis for the poly identity. This behavioral basis is weak (for example, what qualifies as “open” or “ethical” behavior here?) but is enough for folks to hang their hat on. Of course, this only works until a poly person comes across someone who does not fit their particular take on the reductionist behavioral definition, at which point we have another argument on the topic. This can go both ways: either our poly person thinks the other person is not poly despite their claims that they are, or our poly person thinks the other person is poly even when they say they are not.
Now let us turn to some of the agendas that poly people are promoting when we get into spats defining polyamory. First among these is the question of inclusion and exclusion. Which people share similar values to us, and should be welcomed into the community? Which people can we simply not stand for some reason, and then make an attempt to exclude? Who is practicing a form of nonmonogamy that is wildly different from general poly practice, so much so that we cannot imagine getting along with them?
Of course, poly people will tend to answer these questions differently, depending on other nonmonogamous communities they belong to, their particular political or religious affiliation, or their particular position on various questions of poly practice (sex versus love, polyfidelity versus poly network, primary/secondary versus non-hierarchical, etc).
So we often end up with disagreement on these questions. But instead of just directly addressing whether some group should be excluded or included based on that group’s merits and qualities, people in any given argument instead start coming up with behavioral definitions, and throwing them around. Someone in favor of inclusion will argue that the wide behavioral definition of polyamory includes their particular favored group (since it includes most nonmonogamy), while people opposed will argue some particular point, that the group is not “open”, or “ethical”, or that they are focused on sex instead of love, and so on. Typically, neither side will put their affiliations, motivations, and fears on the line.
Nobody says “I think we should include swingers because I go to swing parties and I want to bring my swinger friends to poly events without worrying that they will catch shit for their sex practices”. Or “I think the Mormon polygamists will win their court cases so we should affiliate ourselves with them”. On the other side, “everything I’ve heard about swinger parties makes me think they are creepy places full of oversexed men with mustaches who will grope you”, or “I don’t want to be associated with religious nutjobs”. While these sorts of things may actually be the underlying motivation for inclusion or exclusion, there tends to be a certain unwillingness to state them aloud.
Instead, people throw around the above definitions. They will pull out dictionaries as well, now that polyamory is actually in some dictionaries. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart quoted as saying polyamory was this or that or the other. While I appreciate all the hard ideological work that our poly pioneers put in, this is ridiculous. Definitions change and evolve. There is no central authority here, neither Merriam-Webster nor Ravenheart.
In many ways, inclusion versus exclusion is the wrong question. In some of the cases I will cover below, there are clear separate communities that are not part of the polyamory community, for example swingers and religious polygamists. In these cases we really need to just get away from behavioral definitions and understand that community affiliation can trump behavior. There may be people in both communities (poly and another), and there may be a certain cross-pollination of ideas and politics (or there may not), but that is the extent of it. One community is not subsumed under another.
In other cases, there are people whose identity or practice does not fit perfectly with whatever we might think the standard poly model is. Again, “are they poly?” is the wrong question. A much better question is, “is polyamory useful to them?”, which gets at the idea that polyamory is a series of complex practices, ideologies, and communities rather than an easily definable behavior.
“Well, that sounds more like swinging than polyamory to me.”
I have read this sentence, or some variant on it, more times than I can count. Usually it comes in response to someone who has either expressed an actual interest in the sexual benefits of nonmonogamy, or they are looking to date as a couple, or some sort of gendered expectation shows up in what they say.
But of course, there are polyamorous people doing all of these things. Lots of poly people like sex, and require it in their relationships, and sexuality is usually a strong motivator for our nonmonogamous behavior, among other things. Some poly people only date as a couple or group, in some cases because they are looking to build a polyfidelitous situation, which is generally a very different beast from swinging. And of course there are plenty of poly people who make bad assumptions about gender.
And once we start going down this behavioral rat hole, things just get more and more difficult. Some swingers see their swinging as very heavily political. Other swingers end up in long-term relationships with their swing buddies, creating situations that look a lot like standard poly arrangements. Some poly people hold sex or play parties. I am one of them, and most of the people at my parties are poly, which is what gives them license to go out to such parties while maintaining relationships. So it is accurate to call my parties “poly play parties”, much as that would send some poly folks into conniptions.
The problem with the statement I have quoted here is that it assumes there is some sort of swinging behavior, and there is some sort of polyamorous behavior, and we can slot people into one or the other based on how they are behaving, or what sort of behavior they are looking for. To be sure, there are vague generalizations that we can apply: polyamory tends to involve more one-on-one dating, swinging involves more parties, swinging is more likely to be seen as recreational or sexual, and so on. But when we get down to the level of any individual person and their personal nonmonogamous strategies, generalizations stop working.
Even better, the above statement assumes that the speaker is capable of making that judgment, usually after having read a short post or question from the person they are talking to. It is notable that the person making this statement is never a swinger, despite the fact that there are swingers on most poly forums. Indeed, there is almost always a subtext of “the thing you are doing is different than the thing I am doing, which I call polyamory, and therefore you should not call your thing polyamory”, typically because the speaker is offended by the other person’s practice in some way.
Indeed, usually the person being accused of being a swinger has no interest in swinging, or they would be posting in a swinger forum, of which there are plenty. Presumably they have their reasons for being in a polyamory forum, and are looking for certain things there, things other than “I don’t think you should be here”.
In other words, we are seeing a process of exclusion in action, where polyamorous people exclude other possibly poly people by calling them “swingers” or referring to what they do as “swinging”. I have added quotes here, since there are typically no actual swingers in the equation. In most cases, the person or people in the conversation have not been to swinger parties, they have not signed up on swinger websites, they have not had contact with the swinger community or ethos, and they do not consider themselves to be swingers. So it is a little goofy to be referring to their activities as swinging. Indeed, the person making the statement typically does not know anything about swinging either, and is relying on general mainstream stereotypes of swinging, which tend to be flat-out wrong, as is the case with any sexualized subculture.
This gets an important point: the idea of swinging is being used as a free-floating stereotype here, with no actual reference to actual swingers, swinger literature, or the like. Instead, swinging is being brought in as form of general negativity, some thing or other that the speaker objects to. Rather than making the objection directly, they pull in a negative stereotype of swinging and use that to dismiss the person they are speaking to.
This begs the question, what are these objections? Presumably there are actual objections motivating the comparison to swinging, and if we can get at those actual objections, we may have a more productive or at least clearer conversation.
First among these is an objection by the speaker to the other person’s focus on sex. As I have discussed at length in a previous post on sex and love, many poly people have a personal strategy of distancing themselves and their nonmonogamous practice from the sex act or from sexuality. This is largely a defensive response to the mainstream’s habit of sexualizing anyone practicing nonmonogamy. When someone introduces sex as a subject in a poly forum, or frankly admits that sexual motivations are involved in their nonmonogamy, it invokes various defensive reactions, one of which is “that’s more like swinging”. Another common reaction is to call someone “polysexual” or call what they are doing “polyfuckery”. However, the speaker often means something more like, “your discussion of sexuality in the context of nonmonogamy makes me uncomfortable, so I am going to distance my nonmonogamous practice from yours by saying you are not polyamorous”.
While a certain defensiveness is inevitable given the mainstream tendency to dismiss sexual minorities by sexualizing them, this leads us into problems, as I discussed in the sex and love post. Certainly, covering up a discomfort around sexuality by invoking swinger stereotypes does not help the situation. And excluding people because their sexuality makes us uncomfortable is not a positive thing for a sexual minority community to do.
Note that some people enter the polyamory community even though they are not necessarily interested in multiple romantic relationships. Sometimes they will take on the lingo in order to make this clear, for example by describing themselves as “emotionally monogamous but polysexual”. Clearly these folks are getting something out of the poly community, such as advice on handling jealousy, or a ready pool of possible partners. Really, they are probably here for about the same reasons that the other poly people are. So it seems silly to exclude these people or somehow claim that they are not fit for polyamory. And indeed, most poly people are perfectly happy to have primarily sexually nonmonogamous folks around, despite all the love versus sex rhetoric. Again, this is getting at the point that polyamory can be seen as a complex set of practices and tools, and we cannot take any one particular practice or distinction and use it to perfectly define polyamory.
Second, a common objection is to some expression of sexism, or reliance upon sexist ideas about nonmonogamy. Sometimes this is only responding to phrasing that commonly points to sexism. For example, if someone starts referring to men and women as males and females, most readers will assume that they have some odd gender essentialist ideas, just due to their word choice.
However, plenty of times people, particularly men, do express sexism. This can show up in discussions on nonmonogamy in various ways: men in relationships with women who want certain nonmonogamous liberties but do not want their partner to have the same liberties, men who expect that nonmonogamous women somehow owe them sex, couples lost in Hot Bi Babe syndrome, and so on. I have enumerated a number of ways that sexism shows up in nonmonogamy in a previous post.
I am all for calling out sexism as it relates to nonmonogamy, but we should do so explicitly. My sense is that sometimes people fall back on swinger stereotypes as a shortcut instead of actually addressing a person’s double standard or how they are making women uncomfortable. Swinging is typically (hopefully incorrectly, though it seems to depend on the swing scene) seen as a sexist kind of nonmonogamy, so referring to a particular practice as swinging is a way to express displeasure with its gender politics without actually having to say so. If you have a problem with someone’s attitudes towards gender, please say so explicitly instead of covering up in this manner.
We can use the above two objections to get at the bad portions of the swinger stereotype. Uninformed people will typically view swinging as a kind of recreational sexual activity, one that is centered around the desires of men. Media depictions like Eyes Wide Shut tend to promulgate this stereotype, and notably mix in the idea that women are paid to attend. In other words, swinger events are seen as a close cousin to strip clubs or other sex work venues. This stereotype is particularly insulting to swinger women, who are assumed to have no sexual agency of their own, and are assumed to be attending at the behest of a man.
Some poly people use this negative stereotype of swinging as a kind of bludgeon, an easy way to dismiss or exclude people they do not like or disagree with. Relying on stereotypes in this way, while sometimes effective in the moment, tends to sweep the actual conversation at hand into subtext, making it impossible to resolve in the long term. And even in the moment, mis-categorizing a person is rarely an effective way to express displeasure with their words or actions. It is much more direct and effective (for everyone involved) to identify and call out the particular issue at hand. Also, this sort of backhand dismissal promulgates the false idea that we can somehow nail down a polyamorous behavior, and promotes behavioral models of polyamory ahead of community or ideological models, the end result of which is a lot of “am I poly?” insecurity, among other problems.
On a side note, in this essay I am staying away from any discussion of what swinging is actually like. There are documentaries on swinging and critiques out there, which I encourage you to check out. My point here is that the actual practice of swinging is pretty much divorced from the ways that poly people use negative stereotypes about swingers against each other.
So far I have focused on swinger exclusion in this section, but there are poly folks who are taking a definitional tack towards including swingers in polyamory. More than once I have seen the claim that swinging is a type of polyamory. From a definitional sense, there is an argument there. If polyamory is an umbrella of “open, ethical nonmonogamy”, then swinging qualifies.
However, this argument ignores the realities of two different communities and identities. Swinging is a large movement, and most swingers do not consider themselves polyamorous. Indeed, many have never heard of polyamory, though I suspect that is changing.
More to the point, there are more self-identified swingers than poly people. Most estimates of swingers run in the two to four million range. While there are no hard numbers, it is unlikely that there are even half a million poly people. There is a certain arrogance in claiming that a much larger community is a subset of polyamory. Indeed, since many swingers have similarly expansive definitions of swinging that would include polyamory, it is more appropriate to consider polyamory a subset of swinging given the relative population sizes, much as that might horrify some poly folks.
In fact, the swinger propaganda book The Lifestyle has a chapter whose inclusion implies that polyamory is a small offshoot of swinging. Notably, polyamory is wildly mischaracterized in the chapter, based on the author’s experience at one small poly event. Also, a recent swinger event press release listed polyamory as one kind of swinging in the first sentence (thank you to Anita Wagner for the link). So there are swingers pushing the idea that polyamory is a type of swinging, and given their position and ours, they have a good argument so long as expansive definitions are being tossed around, even though most poly people would disagree heartily. I bring up this reversal to illustrate the sort of ridiculousness that inclusion-by-definition tends to lead to.
So the question is, what sort of motivations underly the urge to definitionally include swinging under polyamory? In some cases, I think it is a reaction to the defensiveness around sexuality that I have outlined above. “Swinging is a kind of polyamory” is a quick response to “that sounds more like swinging than polyamory”. There are other reasons out there as well, for example the political urge to swell polyamory’s numbers by somehow claiming swingers as poly, or the urge to validate other forms of nonmonogamy by including them in the polyamory umbrella.
However, I think the most likely motivation is a personal interest in swinging, either because the speaker is a swinger, or they like the idea of sex parties or couple-based sexuality or group sex, or they have friends who are swingers, or similar. Because of the various stereotyping tactics I have described, people could be a bit worried to admit any of these things, and perhaps they turn to inclusion-by-definition as a roundabout way of trying to create a positive discourse on swinging.
But again, these conversations then get bogged down in definitional jockeying, and the particular subtext in question is never resolved. Rather than rely on definitions, we need to bring up the topic in question, or find other ways to approach it.
One of my favorite tactics for this particular purpose was the introduction of the word “swolly”, to describe a person who is both a swinger and polyamorous. While many people read this as “a person who acts out both polyamorous and swinger behavior”, the use of this term as an identification opens up the possibility of understanding swinging and polyamory as separate but overlapping movements or communities. This starts getting at the complexity of the situation, and leads us towards accomplishing inclusion goals without getting bogged down in behavior-based identity definition struggles.
“Polygamy is a type of polyamory.”
Next up on our list of definitional inclusions and exclusions is traditional polygamy, which tends to be based in a particular religious tradition. Here in the United States, we mostly deal with Mormon polygamy, though there are Christian and Muslim practitioners as well.
The term “polygamy” as it is used here is at odds with its anthropological usage, which means “multiple marriage”, without regard to gender. These multiple marriages are always one man married to more than one woman, not the other way around, so they are strictly a type of polygyny. Indeed, this little word trick gets at the perniciousness of the sexism inherent in these marriage forms: the usage of terms like “plural marriage” and “polygamy” for polygyny makes the hidden sexist assumption that the only kind of multiple marriage out there involves exactly one man. However, polyamorous practitioners of group marriage have been creating multiple-person marriages with more than one man, or no men at all.
Activism around Mormon polygamy has been making strides in recent years, most notably with the advent of the TV show Big Love. While Big Love is not produced by polygamists, and definitely portrays them in a mixed manner, it is a huge step away from common stereotypes of Mormon polygamists as patriarchal child abusers. Also, there are various court cases filed by polygamists seeking to invalidate state bans on polygamy. A recent Child Protective Services raid on a polygamist town has been rebuffed by a court in Texas.
I think that polyamorous people see these things happening, and tend to get excited. There was a lot of poly excitement around the release of Big Love two years ago. People were batting around the idea that this would be our big media break, and people in the mainstream would start understanding how multiple relationships work, leading to acceptance of polyamory. Of course, this has not happened, and the excitement died down as people realized that a relatively pro-polygamy show had little to do with polyamorists, to the point where I had to do some googling for this essay to figure out whether the show was even still on the air. (It is, heading into its third season.)
Similarly, we get excited about court cases. Perhaps one of the Utah cases will make it to the US Supreme Court, and group marriage will be legalized for the polyamorous. Or on a smaller scale, maybe the Texas case will make it harder for CPS to take away the children of polyamorists. Unfortunately, all of these things are very unlikely. The Supreme Court will rule against polygamy in the absence of a large increase in mainstream acceptance. The cases in Texas focused on pregnant child brides, whereas polyamorous people have trouble with CPS because it is assumed we are perverts or sex addicts and thus unfit parents. I do not mean to be a total downer on this: there is some chance of positive change that affects multiple movements, as happened with the swinger court case in Canada that may help to legalize bathhouses, sex parties, and BDSM events. However, courts almost never rule in a manner that strongly contradicts the current general morality, and so it is unlikely that any of these polygamist cases will bear fruit for poly people.
Unfortunately, the way real political progress happens is via the long-term person-by-person effort to educate the public, and it is rare that one TV show or court case is a big break that somehow forces the public into acceptance, or convinces them in one fell swoop. It is tempting to think that polygamist efforts will crack the wall of compulsory monogamy in our society, but it is really unlikely. Indeed, the religious conservatism of polygamists ensures that most of the mainstream will have trouble identifying with them or their struggle.
However, the upshot of this excitement is continuing efforts on the part of polyamorous people to somehow associate ourselves with traditional polygamy, in the hopes of facilitating one of these big breaks. As usual, people try to do this by definitional fiat. And indeed, Mormon polygamy is a kind of openly practiced ethical nonmonogamy (if you are willing to accept structural sexism in your ethics), so there is a good argument that polygamy qualifies as a kind of polyamory.
However, as with swinging, the actual makeup and ordering of communities and movements makes this a laughable claim. Not only are traditional polygamy and polyamory separated into different communities, but the values of the two groups are so different as to be at odds with each other: polyamorous people are more liberal, more gender egalitarian, less traditionally religious, more mainstream, and so on. As a result, there is no community overlap, unlike the “swollies” overlap with swinging. Really, with the exception of some folks who post polygamist press releases on polyamorous lists, we cannot even talk to each other.
I used to be concerned (specifically, in this post) that some poly people would attempt to build an alliance with traditional polygamists, and we would end up dragged down into their backwater political position. Said position is due to the fact that their nonmonogamy is only for men, something that is simply unpalatable to the modern mainstream. However, the ensuing discussions have made it clear that we are too different to form any such alliance, despite any attempts to do so by definitional inclusion.
Indeed, as with swingers, there is a chance that any such inclusion would go the other way, with polyamory being claimed as a kind of polygamy. Polygamists do not have the kinds of numbers that the swinger movement has, but they can still make the attempt. For example, this article from a paper in Utah (which unfortunately no longer has the full version online) introduces polyamory as “a twist on polygamy”, and uses other language that sets up polyamory as a modern offshoot of polygamy. While most traditional polygamists would rather have nothing to do with us, framing polyamory as a branch or offshoot in this manner conveniently validates their own historical importance. And mainstream media seems fairly willing to introduce polyamory in this manner, even outside of Utah.
If we want to discuss alliances with the polygamist or swinger movements, by all means, we should have those conversations, weigh the pros and cons, potentially come up with a plan, and so on. But it never happens that way. For some reason, the pro-alliance folks start with inclusion-by-definition, and the conversation gets bogged down in endless circles over what kind of relationship structure qualifies for what word. So, the alliance conversation gets lost in subtext, and never really gets resolved. You would think that folks would recognize this as a losing strategy, but they persist anyways.
Perhaps the root problem is that an alliance involves clear give-and-take on both sides, a situation where benefits flow both directions. The people arguing for alliance-via-definition seem to be expecting polyamorous people to unconditionally throw their support behind polygamists or swingers, because of some vague similarity (“not monogamy”) in relationship structure. Of course, this rarely succeeds. Please, if you want to ally or associate polyamory with other communities, say so openly, and do not try to create an alliance by definitional fiat.
I have painted a picture here of various movements practicing a sort of conquest-by-definition, where one movement seeks to include another under its wide-angle umbrella, starting with the assumption that their movement is the biggest or most important. Therefore other movements are either parts of one’s own movement, or offshoots of one’s own movement, due to the centrality of one’s movement. Polyamorous people attempt to claim swinging and polygamy, swingers attempt to establish polyamory as a kind of swinging, and polygamists describe polyamory as a variation on their own practice.
There is an important point here: nonmonogamous movements are in competition for a certain mainstream mindshare, angling to be considered the primary or central form of nonmonogamy, perhaps the opposite of monogamy. (I have discussed how polyamory attempts to claim this position in my post on the media treatment of polyamory.) This competition seems to happen whether or not two movements are actually competing for members: swinging and polyamory do compete for some folks, but polyamory and traditional polygamy draw from very different populations. The competition is not so much over people, but perhaps more over ideological importance or centrality, and one way it shows up is in this conquest-by-definition. Each community brings certain advantages: polyamory is new and includes a diverse array of relationship structures, swinging has a large number of people and can attract mainstream folks, polygamy is in the history books, and so on.
Of course, I am probably making too much of this ideological competition. Certainly once people recognize that these are largely different practices and communities, it is possible to drop the competitive attitude and cooperate. Swinging and polyamory have been somewhat successful at this: swingers are invited to present at some poly conferences, there are poly 101 presentations at swinger conferences, polyamorous people have largely gotten over their “why do people keep asking if I am a swinger?” insecurities during the last decade, swollies are generally accepted on both sides, and so on. However, even with all of this in place, there is a certain tendency for conquest-by-definition in both directions, as in the examples I have given. Such attempted conquests, while sometimes angling to actually bring the communities together, end up creating friction and driving them apart.
So far in this section, I have discussed poly folks who attempt to include polygamy via definition, but I have not talked about people who identify others as polygamist in order to exclude them, as happens with swinging. Really, this does not happen via Mormon polygamy, since it is strongly identified with a religion and it would seem silly to tell a random person that their relationship form is actually a religion. Perhaps people are actually respectful of others’ religious or cultural identifications, where they fail to respect others’ sexual minority identifications.
However, this does happen in a different way, when people throw around the word “harem”. Sometimes this is something that a man brings up on his own, when a harem is actually what he is looking for, but such men typically do not find what they are looking for in the polyamory community. More often, a person will bring up the word in response to someone else, as in “if you are looking for a harem here, you need to rethink your approach”.
“Harem” can be used this way much like “swinger”, as a general negative stereotype that can be tossed around in lieu of making actual objections. Harems do not actually exist, unlike swingers, so there is little danger of confusing an actual community with the stereotype, but the stereotype has its own problems. Specifically, the Western popularity of the concept of the harem is rooted in racist and misrepresentative imagery of the Middle East, alongside sheikhs and camels. Please do not use this word as a free-floating relationship descriptor: to do so is to unwittingly propagate racism.
The usual actual objection is around a (straight or bi) guy’s double standard, where he is expecting to be able to see multiple women, but then starts objecting when the women he is seeing want to see other men. From what I have seen in polyamory forums, we have gotten very good at objecting to this kind of double standard, and often we do it without using the word “harem”. We should try to do it every time without depending on incorrect polygynist images of another culture.
“Everyone has to know what’s going on and be okay with it, or it’s not polyamory.”
This statement, fairly common on the poly boards, neatly sums up two moral imperatives that poly folks hold dear: disclosure and consent in one’s nonmonogamous practice. Disclosure is the practice of letting one’s partners or lovers know who else one is dating or having sex with. Consent is the practice of gaining approval from one’s partners or lovers for dating or having sex with others.
We like disclosure and consent because in many ways we are fleeing the practice of cheating. Some poly folks are directly fleeing cheating, having been cheated on or having cheated themselves. But we are all fleeing the stigma of cheating, even those of us who have never been involved in a cheating situation.
While statistics on nonmonogamy are spotty, it is clear that cheating is much more common than any kind of non-paid-for consensual nonmonogamy. (Note that I had to put the “non-paid-for” in that last sentence. If we view men who visit or call multiple sex workers as engaging in a type of consensual nonmonogamy, then those rates could rival men’s rates of cheating.) This means that the overwhelming cultural model for nonmonogamy is cheating, and also that when men are cheating, we tend to expect money to be involved.
People who are attempting polyamory therefore constantly face off against cheating on various levels. First, when we talk to monogamous people, they tend to assume we are cheating. Even when they intellectually know that we are not cheating, they will make assumptions based on their underlying model of nonmonogamy-as-cheating. For example, a monogamous person might assume that you would never take two people you were dating out to dinner together, for fear they might physically attack each other. Second, we ourselves are in danger of falling into patterns that resemble cheating, since most of us have grown up in monogamous culture and still carry many of its imperatives. For example, sometimes poly people fail to mention important things that are really uncomfortable to talk about, like that time the condom broke. Third, we are subject to people entering our communities with the intention of cheating, either on their current partner, or on people they are dating within the community. For a longer discussion of the relationship between polyamory and cheating, see my paper on the subject.
So a little defensiveness around cheating is entirely appropriate. And it is also entirely appropriate that we have created twin moral imperatives around disclosure and consent in our nonmonogamy.
However, again we run into the problem that poly people attempt a definitional approach to distancing our practice from cheating. Perhaps in recognition of the prevalence of cheating, we build anti-cheating into even our basic short-form polyamory definitions, tacking on words like “open”, “ethical”, and “consensual”. When people get in discussions of borderline-ethical cases, they sometimes degrade into definitional conversations, where people are discussing whether the ethical practices in question count as polyamory, when instead the conversation should be about whether they are a good idea. To be sure, practical outcomes do typically show up in these conversations, but the definitional question still operates as a sort of distraction.
Also, this approach of building heavy anti-cheating into our definitions has the effect of perhaps unintentionally excluding various poly people who are somehow borderline. Let us look at four separate groups:
1) Poly people who used to cheat. Some people become polyamorous specifically because they seem to be unable to stop cheating in monogamous relationships. These folks are typically welcomed into poly community, but I think we are often too harsh on them.
It is fine that we expect them to no longer cheat when in the context of polyamory, but we seem to also require a quasi-religious conversion on the part of the former cheater. They must renounce their former sinful (well, cheating) ways at length and whenever possible, even many years after the fact. Even with this, some poly folks will approach an acknowledged former cheater with some distrust when considering dating them. Which is a bit odd, considering the probable number of former cheaters in the community who are not speaking up. It is generally safer to go with someone who can acknowledge a bad history than someone who is covering it up.
There is this general sense that poly folks are downright angelic when it comes to disclosure, which is frankly not all that accurate. Even the poly folks who have never cheated have probably failed to disclose something at some point that turned out to be important, or have agonized over “the right time” to bring up that painful subject. There is a lot of gray area here, and most of us have spent some time in that intermediate zone.
While I am all for taking a strong stance against cheating, I think we need to do so from a sympathetic stance, rather than a moralistic one. Taking a moralizing tone just feeds into the general public’s anti-cheating hysteria, which in the end is used to buttress monogamy by making a spectacle of those who have fallen from monogamous ways. Taking a sympathetic stance helps people move away from deceitful relationship models and towards disclosure.
It is important to remember that cheating and polyamory are different responses to the same problem: compulsory monogamy. In some ways, we are uniquely suited to understand the urges that drive people to cheat, and we only help them and ourselves when we approach cheating with healing in mind. Attempting to exclude former cheaters shrinks our communities and drives them back towards cheating.
2) Poly people who date someone who is cheating. This is a occasional occurrence, where a person in a supposedly monogamous relationship starts dating a poly person on the side. This tends to be preferable to dating a monogamous person on the side, since the poly person tends to be less antagonistic towards the primary relationship.
To be sure, this is a sticky ethical situation. Clearly not everyone knows what is going on, and presumably would not be okay with it if they did. Dating a cheating person is possibly enabling their cheating, and enabling cheating in general. Also, people tend to worry that they are somehow wrecking the primary relationship, though I personally take the attitude that the primary relationship is the responsibility of the cheater, and they are doing the wrecking all on their own.
And of course, there are all kinds of practical considerations, such as having to worry about sneaking around, the eventual reaction of the primary partner if they find out, whether there is any long-term potential to the relationship, and so on.
That said, excluding these poly people from the community, via definition or otherwise, is unproductive. I once was at a poly support group where a woman almost broke down crying when she admitted that the man she was seeing was cheating on his wife. She had not mentioned that at the first four meetings she attended, because she was worried we would ostracize her. To our credit, we did not. Folks in her situation need support, either to figure out how to manage their under-the-covers relationship, or to make the decision to break up. Again, when we take a moralistic tone regarding cheating, we tend to lose these folks.
3) Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. Don’t-ask-don’t-tell (DADT) relationships are relationships where one or both people have license to play or date outside the relationship, but they do not discuss the outside relationships. Typically the don’t-discuss rule is used for various reasons: ensuring the outside relationships stay unimportant, protecting one’s insecurities, and so on.
In our consent and disclosure model, DADT relationships supposedly have the consent with a minimum of disclosure. Which ends up being kind of sticky, both on a practical and ethical level, depending on how the disclosure works. When people check in relatively frequently, then DADT can work fine. However, sometimes when you scratch one of these DADT situations, you discover that there was this sort-of conversation that happened maybe five years ago. In these cases, it is likely that the other partner has entirely forgotten or suppressed the conversation, or the original conversation was interpreted differently on both sides. And the actual situation is pretty much cheating, where the other partner would be extremely upset to find out what is going on.
There is a further danger, that the person who says they are in a DADT relationship is in fact simply cheating and using DADT language to cover it up. Often verifying the arrangement would require breaking the DADT rule. Poly people are often hesitant to date such a person, for all the reasons we hesitate to date folks who cheat, since we cannot be sure that cheating is not going on.
All that said, sometimes DADT works great. I have read about or discussed various DADT situations that are working out, where both people involved really are okay with what is going on, and the DADT rule is used to just to smooth out the rough edges or as a shortcut to avoid a particular insecurity. In particular, DADT-style arrangements seem relatively common in the open-relationship-style nonmonogamy practiced by gay men in my area.
Unfortunately, the poly community tends to be unable to integrate folks who are doing this well, because we have a general moral imperative towards disclosure. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we end up excluding well-functioning DADT folks by pummeling them with a disclosure imperative and failing to address their concerns in our literature and forums.
Which is too bad, because I think successful DADT relationships may have things to teach the rest of us. In particular, poly folks spend an astounding amount of time and energy working through the same insecurities that DADT tends to work around. While DADT is clearly not for most poly people, perhaps there are choose-your-battle techniques in there that could be helpful to many of us. Also, I think DADT is more attractive than high-disclosure polyamory to many nonmonogamous folks. Perhaps creating guides describing healthy DADT would create a larger pool of nonmonogamous people, or integrate DADT folks into polyamory. I think we tend to just assume that DADT is always unhealthy, which is a mistake.
Indeed, I just do not know much about how one creates a healthy DADT relationship, despite being someone who writes guides to nonmonogamy. How often does one need to check in on the DADT arrangement? Yearly? Monthly? Does it work well to have fairly frequent reminders of what is going on, like “Thursday nights you go out and I don’t ask you what you do”? Does it work best with situations where partners are not always around each other, for example if they live apart or travel frequently? How is safe sex negotiated? How does one deal with crises, like breaking a condom or realizing that the person you have been fucking is about to be hired to work for your partner? I really do not know the answer to these questions, and moreover they are not available in the poly literature or the poly common wisdom, which I think is to our detriment.
4) Disclosure with minimal consent. Many poly people take a really hard line with their sexual and relationship freedoms, refusing to give their partner(s) veto power over new relationships or lovers.
I must admit that I am one of these. For a long time, my line to partners was “do not tell me to not have sex with someone”. These days I am a bit more flexible, but holding a hard line has been pretty useful for me in the past, helping me break with monogamous patterns, making sure my partners had no illusions about the situation, and establishing a baseline expectation of nonmonogamy. To be fair, it has also caused problems, for example making it difficult to negotiate anything around nonmonogamy within the relationship.
Previous to my hard line, I had a really bad experience with nonmonogamous negotiation, where no matter how much I compromised, it was not enough for my partner. Eventually I compromised myself right back into monogamy. Unfortunately, this experience is pretty common for poly people: when dealing with a cultural imperative like compulsory monogamy, negotiation is often a farce, and a partner who prefers that you are monogamous (whether or not they are) will rarely hesitate to push compromises that result in your de facto monogamy. Poly people who have been through this get kind of touchy about vetos and compromises. This is reasonable.
However, this all brings up some interesting questions about consent. What exactly do we mean by “consensual”, when applied to nonmonogamy? When a poly person throws down a hard line and says “I am going to do this no matter what”, what option do their partners have? Sure, they could break up with the poly person, removing themselves from the situation, so there is some level of consent. But this is a crappy kind of consent in the context of relationships: such a step would possibly involve heartbreak, moving out, custody issues, financial issues, and so on.
At the same time, I am a big fan of people actually being able to be openly nonmonogamous, which often requires that a person make this sort of ultimatum sooner or later. What I am getting at is that consent is kind of an odd model for discussing nonmonogamy. A person in “consensual nonmonogamy” is actually not consenting to something that they themselves are doing, but rather something that their partner is doing. This differs from most discussions of consent, like consensual sex or consensual crime or consensual divorce settlements. We are doing something kind of sketchy here, placing the agency to consent on a person who is not actually involved in the activity at hand.
There is a problematic underlying assumption here, that one’s partner always has the right of consent over one’s sexual or relationship activities with others. Or that they are somehow directly involved, even though they are probably not present and not necessarily invested. The idea that one must consent to one’s partner’s sexual or romantic activities with others is at its base a monogamous assumption, none other than the usual monogamous assumption that one owns the sexuality and love of one’s partner.
We should get away from the idea of consent here, due to this problem. I prefer terms like “negotiated nonmonogamy”, that still differentiate us from cheating while not implying monogamous-style ownership. This illustrates the sort of problems we get into when we try to rely on three-word definitions.
Also, I think we need to take a look at the “everyone wins” model of polyamory that we are trying to imply when we say “everyone is okay with it”. We like to emphasize the possibility that everyone can win, because monogamous culture says that win-win nonmonogamy is not possible and someone must be losing out. And indeed, sometimes everyone wins. But other times, it does not go so well. I have seen “who gets to be the primary” struggles that were just as competitive as anything in Bridget Jones’s Diary, and which left plenty of wreckage behind.
While I am all for promoting polyamory, I think we get caught up in “everyone wins” a bit too much sometimes, and perhaps oversell ourselves. We can lose the possibility of taking a hard line, forgetting that it is an option and sometimes it is the only option for a person who wants to be nonmonogamous.
“I haven’t been with anyone but my primary for a year. Am I still poly?”
“Am I poly?” is usually the wrong question in these situations, and it does not tell us much about the real question. The real question might be: “Am I losing interest in dating others, and should I rethink polyamory?” or “Should I be trying harder to date and meet people?” or “How do I deal with the fact that my primary is dating around successfully and I am not?” or one of a number of other possibilities. Asking a question about self-identity is often a cover for asking questions about one’s practice of polyamory.
And indeed, this gets really messy really quickly. If polyamory is the practice of a certain kind of nonmonogamy, as it shows up in our short definitions, is a person polyamorous if they are not engaging in that practice? And really, what is nonmonogamy, exactly? Sex with multiple people, in a certain time period? What’s the time period? A week? A year? Or is it having sex with someone who is having sex with someone else? Or is sex not really the only thing going on here, and we have to think about romantic attachment as well? Is the practice of nonmonogamy actually having a certain attitude towards sex and relationships, and if so, which attitude exactly?
Our three-word definitions for polyamory lose out big on two points here. First, we seem to be unable to figure out whether we are talking about a practice or a state of being or a self-identification. Second, even if we are talking about a practice (which we usually assume since we like behavior-based definitions), we get lost in exactly what that practice is supposed to be.
But because we are very concerned with defining polyamory, we end up creating problematic borderline cases, where the people involved do not know if they belong in poly community. While this is not so much of a “you’re not poly” active exclusion, we still end up with a lot of confusion in the borderlands. Here are four such borderline cases:
1) People who are open to polyamory, but are not currently involved with multiple people. Poly people often take breaks to be single for multiple years, or give up dating new people for a period of time while in a relationship with one person. Sometimes this is due to practical concerns (time, money, pregnancy, location), and other times it is due to the particular emotional state the person is in, for example healing after a tough breakup.
While most poly folks will readily tell you that taking a break does not invalidate one’s polyamory, most people read our behavior-based definitions as requiring an actual current practice. And indeed, if a person is not in multiple relationships and is not looking for the same, or is in a temporary monogamous arrangement, they can have trouble connecting with poly community, since folks start wondering if they are “really poly”. Note that these people may have a motivation, in that they are trying to ensure conformity within their community.
This illustrates how we should be paying more attention to desire and intent when talking about polyamory. Behavior-based definitions fail to acknowledge these things, but intent and desire are the primary differences between a non-practicing polyamorist and a monogamous person.
At the same time, being a non-practicing polyamorist (aka “theoretically nonmonogamous”) is its own conceptual position, one which is different from being monogamous, whether one is single or in a relationship. Greta Christina recently described this difference well on the Blowfish Blog.
I feel like we lose out again, in that we do not spend a lot of time discussing non-practicing nonmonogamy in poly circles. We forget that we can take breaks from nonmonogamous practice (or at least some of us can), and it does not need to involve an identity crisis. We also fail to describe many of the advantages provided by nonmonogamy that do not involve sex and/or relationships with multiple people, like the general sense of freedom or the ability to randomly flirt.
2) Monogamous people dating poly people. Also known as mono/poly relationships, these are fairly common and increasingly well-documented in poly literature. These raise the question of the status of the monogamous person. Are they monogamous, since they are only seeing one person, and they are not interested in seeing anyone else? Are they nonmonogamous (or polyamorous?) since they are seeing someone who is seeing someone else, a situation most monogamous people would balk at?
When faced with these questions in the past, I have broken monogamy up into two separate sets of desires. “Me-monogamy” is the desire to date only one person. “You-monogamy” is the desire to have the person you are seeing date only you. These desires are independent, and some people have one but not the other. Someone who is me-monogamous but not you-monogamous can operate fine in a monogamous or mono/poly relationship. And they typically call themselves monogamous, since arguably a person’s personal dating preference (me-monogamy) is more important than their preferences for their partner (you-monogamy).
This gets at an important point: monogamy is just as messy to define as polyamory, and starts falling apart pretty quickly when we analyze it. And indeed, we can directly trace our messiness to the fact that polyamory is largely defined in opposition to monogamy.
And there is a second important point: how do we create space in our communities for folks who are in gray areas? For example, who are willing to date poly people but are not poly themselves? Our poly literature tends to include a lot of revolutionary anti-compulsory-monogamy concepts which are hard for a self-identified monogamous person to read, even though they are correct statements. At the same time, our literature includes important info for a monogamous person in a mono/poly relationship, like how to deal with jealousy. We need resources specifically for the monogamous partner in a mono/poly relationship, and to our credit we have been developing them.
3) People who are monogamous or polyamorous depending on context. Some people in the poly community prefer not to describe themselves as polyamorous, since they do not actually need polyamory. Rather, they go with whatever their partner(s) want: they may be monogamous in one relationship because their partner wants to be monogamous, and polyamorous in a later relationship because their partner or partners are polyamorous. They are not mono/poly since they do take advantage of a poly situation and date multiple people at once.
This brings up an important point, in that identity models of polyamory fail to handle certain gray areas, like these people who are not interested in identifying as polyamorous or monogamous. So while it is tempting to throw out practice entirely, and just say that people are polyamorous if they say they are, this fails a certain segment of poly communities.
Folks who are poly only when in polyamorous relationships are generally included in the community, but tend to chafe at the way we insist that folks renounce monogamy. This is very similar to the way we handle former cheaters, in that we expect the journey to polyamory to be a one-way trip, and there is a lot of disdain for monogamy floating around poly circles. This is changing: there is a section in Tristan Taormino’s new book on transitioning back to monogamy, which warns that ostracization from nonmonogamous community is one of the difficulties of such a transition.
We should take a liberal view regarding folks who have practiced polyamory or nonmonogamy at one time, and include them when possible. Much as we welcome poly-curious folks, who might be poly in the future, we should try to include people who have practiced poly in the past. I have seen some painful social shunning when people have decided to return to monogamy, and we just do not need it.
It is easy to get caught up in the revolutionary flavor of polyamory, and forget that monogamy has a lot of fine qualities. While it is important to critique compulsory monogamy, it is also important to remember that often monogamy is chosen, and to respect people who make that choice.
4) Platonic polyamory. Platonic polyamory is the practice of having multiple romantic relationships, some or all of which are non-sexual. People engage in platonic relationships of this sort for a variety of reasons: because they fall in love with someone they are not sexually attracted to, because they are asexual or celibate, because they have arrangements with other partners that preclude sex, and so on.
People engaging in platonic relationships of this sort often face a lot of misunderstanding on polyamory boards. I have seen a lot of “I call those close friends” comments, and a general unwillingness to admit that it might be possible to love someone without having sex with them.
What is interesting here is that poly people tend to focus on romance and loving multiple people, but yet when faced with someone who is doing this without sex, we are likely to be flummoxed. We are buying into the larger culture’s general association of sex with relationships, and the premise that nonmonogamy of any sort must be sexual nonmonogamy. Again, this is because we see polyamory in opposition to monogamy. Because the prime requirement for monogamy is “don’t have sex with anyone else”, we invert that and consider the prime requirement for nonmonogamy to be “having sex with multiple people”. I discussed this at length in my post on sex and love.
This brings up another interesting point, which is that our behavioral definitions fall apart because the idea of a relationship is itself murky. We often describe polyamory as “multiple relationships”, but what exactly is a relationship? As in platonic polyamory, some relationships include romance but no sex. On the other side, play buddy relationships include sex or kink play, but not a lot of emotional attachment.
In the long term, we need to expand or otherwise deconstruct the idea of being in a relationship, in order to get away from privileging certain behaviors as relationship-worthy and others as not. This helps make polyamory inclusive, and also gives us conceptual tools for discussing secondary-style relationships, which are often not fully recognized as relationships in their own right.
Getting Away From Definitions
As many poly folks have come to realize, arguing endlessly over the proper definition of polyamory tends to be a largely fruitless task. We end up going in circles for two reasons, first because there is no solid behavior-based or even identity-based definition that we can fall back on, and second because people bring their own agendas to the table, and rarely identify them as such. Let us review these two issues.
We imagine that polyamory is a kind of nonmonogamy, but when pressed we are unable to say exactly what behaviors constitute nonmonogamy. We can say that nonmonogamy is simply “not monogamy”, but then we are faced with the question of what monogamy is. As the mono/poly example illustrates, monogamy itself has a number of component pieces, and a particular monogamous person may have only some of them. We have trouble distinguishing our nonmonogamous practice from other well-known types of nonmonogamy, such as swinging or traditional polygamy. We have trouble saying if a person is nonmonogamous or polyamorous, if they are single or involved with only one person.
We bring in the idea of ethics or openness to distinguish what we are doing from cheating or adultery, but in our zeal to do so we push away former cheaters and people dating cheaters, and we lose the ability to work with people practicing DADT. We stretch the idea of consent to the breaking point, losing the idea of personal agency and making it into a sort of groupthink phenomenon.
If we give up on behavioral definitions entirely, we can make a bit of progress. If we use community definitions, we can easily distinguish ourselves from swingers and polygamists, but we leave out the large number of self-identified poly people who do not associate with poly community. If we depend on identity alone, then we lose the people who consider polyamory to be a practice, some of whom are equally as happy being monogamous. Among behavior, community, and identity, we cannot pick one to be the final word on what is polyamory or who is polyamorous.
In other words, we are shit out of luck. Sometimes we can recognize polyamory when we see it, but other times we simply cannot, or we would rather not.
This definitional murk emphasizes the importance of being flexible with our words. Polyamory is at the same time a kind of nonmonogamous practice, a number of communities and social circles, an ideological movement, a sexual minority identity, and a toolbox of nonmonogamous techniques. For any one polyamorous person, polyamory is some but not necessarily all of these. When we are dealing with each other, we need to recognize this, and be able to step away from our own investments in polyamory to see what polyamory is for someone else.
I have described a number of agendas that people bring to definitional discussions of polyamory. I want to recap these here, in order to give the full scope of what is going on. I expect this is a partial list.
People may be pushing a particular definition of polyamory in order to:
1) Distinguish themselves from a particular stigmatized group, for example swingers, cheaters, and traditional polygamists.
2) Encourage tolerance for another type of nonmonogamy, for example swinging or polygamy, or political alliance with the same.
3) Claim other nonmonogamous movements as part of polyamory, or claim polyamory for another nonmonogamous movement.
4) Make polyamory look better or sound more politically palatable.
5) Argue against sexism or exclude someone whose practice is sexist.
6) Disassociate themselves from sexuality, and/or protect themselves against accusations of sluttiness, sex addiction, or hedonism.
7) Validate their own sexual or relationship practice.
8) Encourage conformity in polyamorous practice or community, typically conformity with one’s own type of practice.
9) Disassociate themselves from polyamory, either because it does not fit properly or because polyamory is stigmatized.
10) Encourage disclosure and negotiation around nonmonogamy.
11) Decry ethical choices (in particular, those that may come with cheating or monogamy) that they disagree with.
12) Oppose certain cheating or monogamy practices that tend to creep into poly lives.
The reason we keep having these conversations is due to this stew of competing agendas. Most of these items are worth discussing, but we sometimes fail to actually discuss them, instead diverting the argument into definitional struggles. In most cases, we do this because we lack the language to discuss the matter directly, or because we refuse to put our own motivations on the table, or because we know our position is unpalatable if stated directly.
We need to declare a truce on definitional struggles. Much of the community has already gone this direction, refusing to take part or making fun of the idea of defining polyamory. We should take the next step: encourage people to state their motivations baldly, and then discuss what they are saying hopefully without putdowns or exclusionary tactics.
June 10, 2008 at 8:32 pm
[…] Defining Polyamory: Inclusion and Exclusion « freaksexual It is also a sign that the argument in question has a subtext: people are using the argument as a stand-in for something else, something that they are unwilling to argue directly. Because the subtext argument does not come out, it is never addressed or re (tags: polyamory relationships) […]
June 11, 2008 at 11:58 pm
Another excellent analysis :)
I think you’re exactly right on, and that it’s important to address the real issues underlying the staking of territory. In some ways I feel it’s a lot like the way bisexual identities can be fraught – i.e., the whole “well how can you call yourself bisexual if you’ve never dated x gender” type of thing, in which identity is based more on behaviour than on desires and attitudes. It’s about more than just x behaviour, at that point; it’s about insecurities and alliances and all the things you’ve just discussed.
I’m also glad that you talked about the ways in which the discourses around defining polyamory can be exclusive at least as much as they’re inclusive. I know I’ve never personally thought of the “consensual” bit as problematic, but you’re absolutely right in your critique of the loose use of the term. I don’t exactly take the hard line you do/did, but neither do I give my partner(s) strict veto power – in the end, it’s not a matter of yes/no, but of negotiation, and finding patterns and people that work. For example I don’t necessarily ask permission to begin seeing another person; I tend to ask, sure, but less for permission than to feel out the way my partner feels about the person in question. If there’s no problem, then there’s a green light. If there’s a problem, we talk about it and try to make compromises that will allow both of us to be happy. So I like the use of “negotiated” here much more, because it’s more specific and less – combative, like you said, less against-cheating within the context of compulsory monogamy.
I’m sure this post will continue to provide brain fodder for weeks to come – thanks :)
July 21, 2010 at 2:54 am
Sara (and pepomint),
I agree so whole-heartedly with your thoughts on negotiation and consent. As I have explored different avenues of being poly over the last five years I have come to realize that I, at least, have struggled to define what exactly that means for me. Communication and negotiation are so integral to the process in a successful nonmonogamous relationship! I had never before thought of consent as a tenet of monogamy, but I see now that it most definitely is. My partner and I have also redefined “veto” as something that is used only when we feel that our partner may be in danger, physically or emotionally. Even then it is used only after serious discussion and negotiation, and never as a weapon or as a way to cope with our own jealousy.
June 13, 2008 at 5:01 pm
Sara no H:
Thanks! And I’m glad to hear you liked the bit on consent. I kind of just ran across that while thinking about the whole disclosure/approval fetish that we seem to have developed in response to being labeled as cheaters. But it seems to have struck a chord.
And you are so right about bisexuality. Let’s see what motives are floating around out there:
1) Non-bisexuals tend to create more and more restrictive definitions of bisexuality, presumably in the hopes that it will disappear entirely. The evil NYT article is an example of this: they measured men’s sexual responses, and because no man had exactly the same level of sexual response to men and women in their test, they concluded that bi men don’t exist, conveniently ignoring all those men in their study who had a sexual response to both men and women.
Along the same lines, there’s the whole “you aren’t bisexual unless you are seeing a man and a women right now” problem, which totally invalidates the lives of monogamous bisexuals. And conveniently feeds the “bisexuals are sluts” stereotype.
2) Depending on how bisexuals solidify our own identity (which can be hard to do, and varies from person to person), we end up excluding other bisexuals. For example, if one person does it based on the sex they have had with men and women, then they might say a person is not bisexual without those sexual experiences. Or you have the bisexuals who say that bisexuality is about not seeing gender in your partners at all, which then messes up those bisexuals who definitely see men and women differently. And so on.
3) On top of all this you have the problem that the number of people who identify as bi is much smaller than the number of people who admit attraction to men and women or even the number of people who have had sex with men and women in the last year. There’s all kinds of discussion in bi/pan communities over what to do with these folks. Are they bisexual? I think we see something similar in poly communities, around the huge number of open relationships and unnamed arrangements out there.
4) Then there are all the people who don’t identify as bi or pan because they just don’t like the associated stereotypes and stigma. It’s amazing to see the “well bisexuality is this” convolutions these folks will go through, to make sure it doesn’t apply to them. To be sure, some people have good reasons to not identify as bi, but for many of them it just seems to be this insecurity.
Yeah. It’s all a big messy stew. And because there’s been very little institutional support of bi/pan identities, the whole thing is going to be up for grabs for quite some time to come.
June 13, 2008 at 7:37 pm
Re #3: Oh, do I ever know what you mean there. My primary partner identifies as straight, because he feels like it would be appropriating an identity and a community he doesn’t really feel part of “based on the handful of guys I’d fuck given the opportunity.” On the one hand, I really appreciate his awareness of issues around appropriation (I’d be equally concerned if, for example, he chose to identify as Cherokee because he’s technically 1/16, even though he looks like your average third-or-fourth gen Scotsman).
On the other … gah! You like girls, and you like guys, what other definition of “bi” is there?!
His poly identity is similarly fraught – he’s I think what you’d call me-monogamous, because although he’s open to having additional relationships, he doesn’t make a point of seeking them out, and doesn’t particularly mind (most of the time) having just the one partner in me. So he’ll say that he doesn’t think he’s “really” polyamorous.
This is, essentially, where I just throw up my hands and go bake something. At least the headaches that accompany that can be solved with the end result :p
June 15, 2008 at 2:12 am
Ugh – yeah – the “bi” label is very frustrating. Full of pitfalls. I’ve been using “queer” but even that one is kind of loaded for me.
I like this essay and I keep making parallels between the poly label and how people police the definition of “person of color.” It’s not that there’s a huge amount of similarity but it’s always interesting to read about my different communities and how people decide who gets to use the title…
June 15, 2008 at 6:30 pm
Yeah, living in the identity borderlands can be tough. And there’s a lot of pressure to hold on to straight identity, and a lot of stigma around bisexual identities. People end up making up new words: heteroflexible, gayish, and so on.
This seems to be part of the tactic of defining bisexuality so narrowly that it disappears. I feel like 50/50 bisexuals (equal attraction to men and women) are elevated as the standard (by non-bi folks), and there are actually a large number of 70/30 or 80/20 (in either direction) bisexuals out there.
I don’t think any bi folks consider it appropriation if these “leaners” identify as bi – we prefer it. I lean straight myself.
As for the poly thing, if someone can handle their jealousy enough to have their partner date, they are ahead of a number of self-identified poly folks.
June 15, 2008 at 6:46 pm
Yeah, “queer” isn’t really useful for me, because with my effeminate behavior, people assume I am gay if I use it, which is way off the mark since I lean straight. I’ve been considering using “pansexual” for myself, much as that brings confusion in my listeners.
If you don’t mind me asking, in what ways does “bi” not work for you? I’ve been trying to keep track of the reasons bi identity fails people. So far I have: because they don’t believe in two genders, or because (for bi women) people assume this means they are interested in cisgendered men or primarily in men.
Re: people of color. I think this sort of identity policing happens for pretty much any identity label. For POC, I can see a number of borderline cases: some bi- and multi-racial folks, POC who are read as white on the street, and people from other countries where racial categories are different. I’m probably just scratching the surface here. Also, I’ve occasionally noticed people using “people of color” when the group they are primarily talking about is African-Americans, much like “queer” often effectively means “gay or lesbian”.
This brings up the question of whether identity border policing is inevitable or any politicized identity. I would like to think it isn’t, but we could probably get into this same definition-for-agenda analysis around any such identity. Certainly it applies to BDSM. And the main thrust of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was to get people to stop arguing their feminism by defining who qualified as a woman. So it’s all over the place.
June 16, 2008 at 9:45 am
I really get that whole point you raised about some conflicts being built on unspecified subtexts which are seldom explicitly stated. I think this is an issue which arises everywhere, on every topic. I think that those kinds of conflicts can be particularly problematic between or within groups of people who share similar, but slightly different outlooks.
Recently on my blog there were some comments exploring the nature of those conflicts.
I also get that sometimes those conflicts are built on differing interpretations of some common terms. I really appreciate the struggle to find appropriate terms for the purposes of mutual understanding. I think words are so important, it makes sense to me to debate and clarify and confirm meanings so we can all be clear on what’s being discussed.
I do like the idea of having a more inclusive and less emotive term for what some of us call “polyamory”. I liked the inclusive way you used “nonmonogamy” in this post.
Having said that, one problem I have with the term “nonmonogamy”, is that it is defining something in terms of what it isn’t, or distinguishing it by features which are absent. I prefer, where possible, to choose terms which positively identify something in terms of what it is, and which distinguish something by the identifying features which are present. “Polyamory” is a a term I like for that reason.
Perhaps something like “polyrelationshipy” might be more positive and inclusive than “nonmonogamy” (if a bit linguistically awkward), since it could be considered applicable regardless of what kinds of relationships are enjoyed.
(and, as a new word, has [at the moment] no stigmas or preconceptions attached to it)
But then somebody’s just as likely to have issues with the inclusion of the “relationship” element. In my experience, people will always conflict in some way, so I reckon these conflicts are likely to continue for awhile yet.
I did enjoy your exploration of this topic, thank you for all the work you put into its construction. :)
June 16, 2008 at 10:22 am
and thank you for the interesting analysis (again!). I’m more or less new here, and I’ve been reading your papers with great interest.
Lots of food for thought here. I especially appreciated your points about the issues surrounding the concept of consensuality. For me, this part of the essay brought up a lot of questions about what we mean by consent in the first place — a tremendously complex question, to be sure. I hope it’s not out of place for me to ponder those a little (?) here.
I’ve been thinking about consent lately (partly thanks to sexgeek’s wonderful post on http://sexgeek.wordpress.com/2008/04/22/the-dominants-consent/), and remain pretty confused about it all. It seems to me that for the concept of consent to be meaningful (in the way it is usually used) it needs to indicate specifically _informed_ consent. Consent that is based on false or too limited information is usually held to be to some degree non-binding or not “real”. (The concept of “openness” in relationships seems to connote both the dimension of nonmonogamy and the dimension of disclosure, in one handy word.)
Thus, it’s interesting to ask e.g. what does consent mean in DADT arrangements? I have no first-hand knowledge of them, but it’s been my vague perception that the arrangement is based on certain possibly non-verbalized assumptions about what one is consenting TO. (Is this perception correct?) How do you ascertain consensuality in changing circumstances when the negotiations themselves may threaten the limits of the arrangement?
More fundamentally, I suspect the concept of consent is connected on a very basic level to our concepts of autonomy and agency, as you pointed out. In our modern western culture, a human being (of certain age and with certain mental faculty) is conceptualized as having autonomy and agency, and is thus assigned the power to consent. But what does that consent mean? who can consent, and to what? It seems simple beyond words to say that consent is only relevant insofar as it applies to that person’s sphere of autonomy. What does a person have autonomy over? Once we move beyond the body, the question of autonomy becomes much more unclear as well as problematic and contested.
Can a person be considered to have autonomy over his life, or her finances, or relationships? To what extent? If a person has only limited autonomy, can he be said to give his consent over issues touching on that autonomy, or should we use some other word for the expression of his will regarding the circumstances?
For me, this relates very strongly to the question of consent in polyamory. Am I involved in my partner’s relationships with others to the extent that I could even give consent to them? Do my partner’s relationships or life choices affect my life to the extent that I could give my consent to those effects?
Even further, the concept of consent seems to embrace a fundamental on-off dualism. Either consent is given, or not; and legally this might be a necessary hard line. But — when we are not quite at that hard line (say, ready to issue an ultimatum or leave the relationship), is consent meaningless? Would there be another, more meaningful concept to discuss the nuances of interaction and relationships in that grey area?
Here, it seems to me that the demands for disclosure and consensuality try to reach a more nuanced understanding, but fall short because of the limitations of the concepts themselves. Not that both concepts wouldn’t be useful and valuable in themselves! But it seems to me that they can’t quite reach the quality they are aimed at. Thus, concepts like “negotiated nonmonogamy” feel very welcome.
(I wonder if we could reach further into that grey area, if we shifted our understanding of ethical behaviour away from the centrality of “consent” to, say, “acceptance” or “inclusion” or something else altogether? Just musing here…)
Anyway, thank you for the fascinating topic, and sorry to ramble on so :)
June 16, 2008 at 1:02 pm
You may possibly be interested in what I’ve written about consent.
I agree that as a topic, it deserves much more in-depth coverage than it gets.
June 16, 2008 at 4:35 pm
“Nonmonogamy” works well specifically because it is vague and unassociated with any particular movement. I think because it is a negative term, people understandably do not want to use it for their own nonmonogamous practice. So it remains vague and a good umbrella term. That said, I have the same issues with it you do: defining something in terms of what it is not. And as I’ve said here, “not monogamy” is no more of an accurate definition than something like “polyamory”, because “monogamy” is up for grabs in so many ways, despite being culturally prescribed.
I think you’re right too, that new words have less baggage and are therefore more attractive. One of the reasons the word “polyamory” is so attractive to people is because we do not yet have a decades-long history of mainstream culture crapping on it, unlike “swinging”, “free love”, or “open relationships”.
Currently reading through the links to your blog – thank you for posting them.
June 16, 2008 at 4:57 pm
Pondering consent is entirely appropriate here. =)
Let’s start with DADT, since that is easy. DADT relationships that work (where “working” means “don’t eventually blow up into accusations of cheating”) require that the arrangement be verbalized, both initially and possibly as a regular update or checkin. Otherwise it is very easy for one person to let the idea slide or purposefully forget, and for the other to go hog-wild outside the relationship.
And of course, without that initial very clear and verbalized conversation, it’s fairly inevitable that one party will feel cheated on if things come out. Given the culture’s predisposition to monogamy, I don’t think there are any clear non-verbal signals that say “when you’re out of town I’ll be picking up people in bars”. So it must be spelled out.
Poly people are really wary of any supposed DADT arrangement that they cannot verify with the other partner, and rightly so. At least half the time, these are just covering or justifying someone’s cheating.
Re: consent. Consent tends to be a relatively hard line in legal terms or in discussions of rape, but I think that it is more useful to consider levels of consent. And to do that it is good to get into intent: is the person doing this because they want to? Because they feel they have to? Because they will be financially inconvenienced if they do not?
There’s a lot of influences in any particular act of consent, ranging from the situational to the conceptual. So we can say that some acts are high-agency, where the person had few influences other than the act itself, or low-agency, where there was a high level of coercion of some sort.
But my objection to consent around nonmonogamy is on a different axis. The concept of agency is being able to do things one wants to do. When we attempt to apply consent to nonmonogamy, we are saying that one person should have agency over acts that someone else is going to do. That’s not agency – it’s control over someone else. And it should not be confused with consent.
Certainly, a person is affected by their partner’s choices, and they should have some influence over those choices. But that is not the same as having agency or right of consent.
Rather, where nonmonogamy is concerned, we should attempt to chain influence between people. So, the person in the relationship who is doing things with other people has agency in that situation, and can consent to acts with other people. Their partner has agency in their relationship, and can consent to being in or remaining in the relationship. Through the relationship, the partner may have some level of influence over what the person does with other people, but this is not consent or agency – it is interpersonal control. Unlike consent or agency, it is not good by its very nature, and it should be limited in most healthy relationships.
Indeed, interpersonal control is the opposite of agency, forming one of those influences that reduces consent. While it is entirely appropriate to have some level of interpersonal control as part of the compromises and negotiations that make up a relationship, this control can grow out of bounds and turn abusive. We should be sure to think of this control as a matter of compromise and negotiation and not as a right. When we use the term “consent” for it, we confuse it with an inherent right, and lose the idea that it must be negotiated to not be an abuse of power.
For a longer discussion on the relationship between jealousy and this kind of interpersonal control, see my paper on the subject.
June 17, 2008 at 1:25 am
ascian and pepomint – I’m really lovin’ the brainfood re: consent. I agree that it’s definitely important that, within the context of interpersonal relationships (as opposed to, say, the law), we learn to talk about levels of consent/agency; I really agree with what you’ve got to say here, pepomint. At the end of the day, I think that the only “consent” we really have with regard to our loved ones having other loved ones is whether we continue to love them and remain in a relationship with them, which doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all when it comes down to that line. Using “consensual” to define your nonmonogamy provides the illusion of control, nothing more, and I think that more than anything is what becomes so difficult about boundary navigation in poly relationships – the realisation that no, you really don’t have as much control, or right to control, as you think you do when you fall into the trap of thinking that you “let” your partner have other partners, or that you’re “allowed” to date around. Some weird ownership issues there, eh?
All the more reason to prefer words like “negotiated,” which is far more accurate both in terms of what’s actually happening (navigating and balancing wants, needs, expectations, and boundaries) and the extent to which all involved have agency in their choices. It’s just more honest, all around.
June 17, 2008 at 10:56 am
Oh, what a welter of dense concepts and thoughts… thank you all.
Lubyanka, thank you for pointing out your writings. Much appreciated. While I haven’t had time to read carefully yet, can I ask you as a somewhat trivial aside — re: fanmat and gender/sexual politics, how do you see slash fiction? it seems to be largely written by people identifying as het women, and features m/m romance or erotica — does it suffer from the same distortions in representation?
Re: consent; I’m just playing around with ideas here, since I don’t have any solid points of view to relate, and I suspect most of you are much better-read on conceptual history and philosophy than I am :)
I’ll take this sentence of pepomint’s out of context (sorry): “Unlike consent or agency, [interpersonal control] is not good by its very nature, and it should be limited in most healthy relationships.” I’d certainly agree with this, on the surface of things, and I think awareness of interpersonal control and one’s subconscious wishes to wield it is very important in any relationship.
My question is — IS consent or agency good by its very nature? How can we determine or evaluate their goodness, apart from the concepts’ usefulness or the accepted ethicality of the kind of human dignity and autonomy they are based on?
Here is a point where I’d appreciate further pointers since I find myself somewhat ignorant: it’s my understanding that the concept of autonomy as we currently understand it is a child of the enlightenment era and its philosophers. It’s been a very important and meaningful concept culturally and politically and socially, certainly. However, as I’ve understood it, the concepts of autonomy and consent have at that point been formulated with regard to a certain societal situation, informed by the importance of limits on the power of the sovereign, and somewhat later adopted firmly to the service of developments on the market and what became private law.
Now, we are in need of concepts related to consent, autonomy, and interpersonal control, in an area of the intimate — not only private, but further than that; an area I suspect is very different from the areas of public and private where the concepts developed. I suspect that there may be a kind of breakpoint here in the ethics of polyamory and BDSM, where the previous conceptualizations cannot quite handle the issues we’d need to grasp. I wonder if the growing discussion of consent might show just that: the old conceptualization of consent is not subtle enough, powerful enough, or flexible enough to discuss the questions we need to ask.
For instance — what is at stake, what are we talking about, when we consider levels of consent — or consent given when one’s capacity for agency does not meet one or more of the criteria Lubyanka described? (I fully and completely agree that we need a concept for true consent, for practical reasons at least, of course.)
What I’m wondering about is, what kinds of social control or power are being wielded when the community or society or culture defines whose consent is valid, who can give consent. It is a very important form of power, since it’s tied up in such fundamental questions of what it means to be human; and it’s a very beneficial form of power since it can be used to protect e.g. children or people with impairments of mental capacities from exploitation. However, at the same time I feel it’s important to ask, how could that power be used to control certain groups of people “for their own good”? As a self-identified feminist, I can’t help but wonder about the same forms of power that have historically been used to protect/control adult women…
I guess I could say that my wonderings about the meaning of consent are a way of asking, has the way we construct consensuality or autonomy become on some level naturalized? Could we deconstruct the concepts of consent and autonomy, say, to achieve a more informed understanding of the social power and cultural baggage tied up in them…? For me, this is connected to at least some of the questions analyzed in this essay, since deconstructing consensuality of nonmonogamy reveals the social constructions of monogamy and its ethic of interpersonal control.
(I realize I may sound pretty argumentative here, pepomint — it’s not my intention; I suspect my grasp of the English language is not strong enough to handle the nuances… sorry ’bout it if that’s the case! I just love brainstorming about these questions when given such lovely incentive :) )
June 17, 2008 at 5:00 pm
Pepomint and Ascian, you’re very welcome. :)
And hello Sara, sorry to jump in without saying hi. :)
Unfortunately I’ve never knowingly read any slash fiction Ascian, so I couldn’t tell you about my perceptions of any distortions in representation. Why do you ask?
I’ve never been a huge consumer of published erotica, possibly because I feel most of it doesn’t move me, possibly because there often appear to be transgressions of consent as I understand it (which bothers me a lot), and possibly because my imagination is vivid. ;)
I’ve always felt strongly that consent doesn’t have levels, that it is either on or off – either a thing is consented to, or it is not. I can’t understand how there can possibly be a middle ground between consenting or not consenting.
Essentially my general rule is that I consider each person to be the ultimate sovereign over their own body, belongings, personal space, and how they spend their time. I consider that person to be the only person who has jurisdiction to consent regarding those things, and has no jurisdiction over anything else. The one exception I can think of, is if they are asked, and therefore given jurisdiction over another person by that other person.
I also have always strongly felt that a person can (and should) express discomfort to their partner about something that partner is doing, and a person can (and should) express precise limits to their partner regarding just where that discomfort begins and ends for them. If the partner isn’t prepared to accommodate that person’s discomfort, then this is what negotiation is for. I don’t feel that it is within a person’s jurisdiction to consent or not consent to what their partner is doing when it doesn’t involve them.
For example, I might legitimately consent or not consent to my partner bringing somebody else to sleep in my bed (enter Goldilocks and the three bears), but I don’t feel I can legitimately consent to choosing whether my partner chooses to go to bed with somebody, or who they go to bed with, or why. But I can consent to spend time with my partner’s partner, or not.
Oops, that went on a bit.
Ok, done now. :)
June 17, 2008 at 5:24 pm
Sara no H:
Using “consensual” to define your nonmonogamy provides the illusion of control, nothing more
You’ve hit the nail on the head here: there’s only so much actual control over what a partner does, and yet we insist on it as a general principle. Really, even in monogamous relationships, this control is limited, which I think is a prime source of insecurity in monogamy, for those who cannot get over their control issues.
My partner Jen and I hit this issue when doing our nonmonogamy 101 workshops, because the people coming in really want to think that they have this kind of control, and it’s easiest to talk to them using this sort of language. But at the same time, as you say, it’s an illusion that falls apart as soon as the serious nonmonogamy negotiations get rolling.
It’s kind of funny that we are able to break with sexual monogamy, but somehow we just carry over its ownership aspects, even though the nominal reason for those ownership tropes (sexual fidelity) is gone. Just another example of how waking up one day and saying “I’m poly!” doesn’t actually change all those monogamous attitudes we’ve been indoctrinated in.
June 18, 2008 at 9:14 am
Thank you for explaining your view of consent so concisely :) I think I understand the distinctions you are making.
Re: slash, I wanted to ask you since your writings made an impression on me, and I got curious about how you’d see this other (and to my mind related) phenomenon… I’d explain slash as a form of fanfic where the fans of e.g. a scifi series go on to explore relationships that were (at most) implied in the original work itself. For some reason, that exploration seems to focus heavily on m/m pairings, to the extent that that is held as the sine qua non of slash. The most iconic slash is possibly Kirk/Spock, based on the original Star Trek, but I guess most anything is being slashed these days :) I’ve felt it to be a very interesting form of romance/erotica, especially because of its roots in fandom. At its best, it portrays the borrowed characters with insight and perceptiveness, and combines skilled writing with a tangible freshness and enthusiasm. However, there’s something strange and interesting going on in the politics of its representations, I’ve thought, even though I can’t quite grasp it…
Re: Consent and interpersonal control;
Thanks for the link to the paper on jealousy, too. I finally had time to reread the essay, though I’m afraid I foundered a bit on the sheer density of it :) There’s a lot of v. interesting analysis there, but regarding consent I’ll just pick up one part (if that’s okay).
I found the idea of discoursive control mechanisms in nonmonogamous relationships very illuminating and useful. It’s been my impression that even when we want to extricate ourselves from monogamous indoctrination and its insinuating concepts of ownership, we still use some forms of interpersonal control or at least influence. I am somewhat unclear on where to draw the lines between those too, to be honest… it’s easy to express or perceive subtle forms of control as caring or acceptable influence, and drawing the borders between care and control seems to be an important use of ideological and discoursive power in today’s society.
Anyway, I’d say that insofar as we have interpersonal influence on each other in relationships, there is a dimension of control there — to be embraced or denounced or guarded against as suits the participants. Each of the participants can have a stance regarding the influence or control involved; they can accept, acquiesce, deny, etc… what I’m wondering about is, can they be said to consent to that influence?
Thus, if a person lives in a monogamy-flavoured open relationship and has a lover “on the side” (interesting expression, that), are they acquiescing to their partner’s interpersonal control when they consider themselves as “allowed to date”? (Thanks to Sara no H for bringing that up so clearly!) I would say, definitely yes. If this can be called consent as well, it would definitely give an interesting implication to the concept of consensual nonmonogamy :) It would seem to be better-founded to see the consensuality as something the hinge in that situation does, in accepting the monogamy-based influence of their partner, and not as something the partner does…. dunno.
But yes, I definitely see the problems in deconstructing the concept of consent – it’s a rather powerful tool in safeguarding human dignity and autonomy, and it may be best to leave it untouched and turn instead to the concepts of negotiation and compromises to discuss relationships.
June 18, 2008 at 6:46 pm
Re: consent. I probably shouldn’t have used “by its very nature”. Consent is of course what we make of it. But, if we start with the standard sexual definition of consent, two people agreeing to an act that they both will participate in, then it is pretty clear that in most cases consent is a good thing. Or at least, not having consent in most cases is a bad thing.
And if you look at most of the places where consent is being extended, this remains true. For example, bodily or reproductive consent: the ability of a person to approve or disapprove of medical intervention in their body. Or consent for being gendered or having one’s sexual identity read.
However, “consensual nonmonogamy” kind of loses this, because again the person giving the consent is not either of the people who are bodily active in the act being consented to. This is why I felt it was worth a warning: because we’re taking consent, which is normally restricted to control over one’s body, and extending it into social interactions, redefining it to be a matter of someone’s else’s control over one’s body.
I think that you’re right that we should retain a concept of “true consent”, but at the same time recognize that there are always outside influences, so true consent is more of an ideal than an actuality. The question is always, in any given situation, how much of what is happening is the person’s personal agency and how much is them being convinced by outside influences?
There’s some important distinctions here between consent and agency: consent is mostly applied to the body, and typically involves acts between two people. Agency is a particular person’s ability to do or to speak.
As for the realm of social influence, I think we can say of most kinds of social influence (aka control) that they are good in certain ways or certain amounts, but can turn bad if overdone or used negatively. Indeed, what I’m calling interpersonal control is really nothing more than the social fabric itself, and having a minimum level of that is good for everyone involved.
But at the same time, particular pieces of (normally benign) interpersonal control can be used for unreasonable influence, abuse, or to reinforce systems of unequal power. My point in the jealousy paper is that jealousy is ripe for this kind of abuse, and indeed that seems to be its primary purpose. (Sorry that the paper is so dense – it’s one of my older pieces.)
I think the idea of “consenting to influence” is perhaps not so useful, because influence by its definition is nonconsensual to an extent. But, I think we can definitely distinguish between types of influence that are anti-agency or which perpetuate power imbalance, and types of influence that are in place to facilitate cooperation and power balance.
As you get at, while concepts of ownership in relationships definitely derive from monogamy, some number of nonmonogamous people are actually perfectly fine retaining the ownership tropes (and thus being “allowed” to date) since it enables their cooperative negotiation with their partner(s). I think what Sara and I are getting at is that the basis for that ownership trope is pretty weak, since really one’s control over another’s romantic or sexual life is only at their acquiescence, and sometimes not even then, if we assume that some level of sexual/romantic feeling is out of their control. This underlies the whole problematic monogamy/cheating/insecurity complex in our culture. Often a nonmonogamous person has a painful moment where they realize that the ownership they thought they retained in the move from monogamy is largely illusory – something that monogamous people are not as likely to see.
June 18, 2008 at 9:22 pm
Very good points, and thank you for taking the time to write them out. I think I’m almost or maybe completely in agreement with what you said, even as I keep questioning my own stances regarding these complex issues.
… I’m afraid my thinking here reflects my own current struggle of evaluating what amount and quality of influence and acceptance of influence in relationships is appropriate and even necessary for the relationship to exist. I guess I’ve more often tended to denounce interpersonal control too firmly, but I’m now wondering if that does not lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were :) thus, this point you made really resonated with me: “[…] what I’m calling interpersonal control is really nothing more than the social fabric itself, and having a minimum level of that is good for everyone involved. […] But at the same time, particular pieces of (normally benign) interpersonal control can be used for unreasonable influence, abuse, or to reinforce systems of unequal power.”
Btw, I may have picked the wrong word to describe the weightiness of that essay — I definitely meant no slight, more like a feeling of frustration with my own slow brain :)
Regarding consent; I see what you mean by the inapplicability of it wrt influence. Perhaps the quality I’m thinking about might be more properly described as acceptance or awareness. It seems to me that one central feature of the jealousy mechanisms you described is the way they have been naturalized and thus made invisible and inevitable; and I feel that an important issue in the development of more inherently polyamorous (polyrelationshipy?) ethics will be to avoid that kind of naturalization of whatever mechanisms we adopt in their stead. I feel we need to stay aware of the way influence flows even in perfectly healthy relationships — which I suspect is what you meant in the jealousy paper, as well (?)
Anyway, thank you for the interesting discussion, and I hope I haven’t derailed the comment thread too badly!
June 19, 2008 at 5:08 am
And there’s yet another blurry area that you’ve glossed right over: that sticky word “sex.” Is a female-dominant couple practicing chastity having “sex”? How about an elderly or disabled couple who are physically intimate but non-genital? In this as in so many other definitional issues, I’ve given up and simply started letting people self-define — swinger, poly, slut, whatever they say they are, they are, as far as I’m concerned.
I also think that the whole DADT thing is a bit grayer than you make it out. In a fair number of DADT-type couples, the agreement seems to be, “Do what you want as long as I never have to think about it and it never brings any kind of shame or attention to our household.” However, it’s sort of in the nature of such agreements to be implicit: if the un-poly partner has to speak about the agreement, it’s inherently broken. I don’t think this is an ideal agreement, and I’ve counseled many people to work toward fuller disclosure to their spouses — but the reality is that I’m not the marriage police, and such relationships often last a lifetime and fulfill the needs of everyone involved.
Really: why is it so important to decide who’s poly and who isn’t? It seems to me that the real question is who we want to sleep with/hang out with/spend the rest of our lives with, and the rest is just in-crowdiness.
June 19, 2008 at 11:30 am
“Bi” doesn’t work for me mostly because I feel like people hearing it assume that I’m equally attracted to men and women. These days, I tend mostly toward sex with cis men, but have BDSM goings-on with all sorts of different genders and sexes. I don’t like the baggage that comes with the word (which to me is the emphasis on sex and the assumption that there’s only cis men and women) and I don’t like that it doesn’t describe my behavior accurately. I question whether I have the right to use “queer” as a straightish kinky person, and yes, people often assume I’m a lesbian if I use it. So that’s where it doesn’t quite fit me.
June 20, 2008 at 3:44 am
I think what Sara and I are getting at is that the basis for that ownership trope is pretty weak, since really one’s control over another’s romantic or sexual life is only at their acquiescence, and sometimes not even then, if we assume that some level of sexual/romantic feeling is out of their control.
*nods* Right in one. It’s funny how that works, mind, because once you pause to examine it, it all falls apart – and yet it works in the by-and-large of relationshippery.
why is it so important to decide who’s poly and who isn’t? It seems to me that the real question is who we want to sleep with/hang out with/spend the rest of our lives with, and the rest is just in-crowdiness.
Hmm. I think the boundary-policing is both inevitable and ultimately necessary where identity and identity politics are concerned. Particularly as a nascent movement attempting to gain social clout and acceptance, it’s important (to me, at least) to not be associated with certain kinds of people who I feel are hindering that acceptance. For example, I don’t particularly want to be aligned with polygynous religious folk; for all that I theoretically support their right to do as consenting adults will (there’s that word again!), I ultimately feel that the sexism and control mechanisms inherent in the structure of their relationships are poisonous, and I would not want someone to associate me with them. I fall under agendas 1 and 4 that pepomint listed (but at least I’m honest about it :p).
I mean granted, at the end of the day, if someone identifies as poly even though I think they shouldn’t, it’s not up to me to tell them how to identify. But I probably would keep my distance from them, and I’d be sure to emphasize to my monogamy-minded friends that my polyamory is not like that. :p
June 20, 2008 at 6:38 pm
Perhaps the quality I’m thinking about might be more properly described as acceptance or awareness.
Yes, I think you’ve described the difference better here. Influence that a person is both aware of and accepts is vastly preferable to influence that is uninspected, or jealousy used like a hammer. That said, even awareness and acceptance does not necessarily make a piece of influence unproblematic. “Acceptance” faces the same problems as “consent”: with what level of emotional coercion, financial motive, etc does it stop being one’s own acceptance and start being something one is pushed into doing? I’m not sure we’ll ever find a hard line there, but at the same time most influence between partners in relationships is clearly on the acceptable side of that line.
I feel that an important issue in the development of more inherently polyamorous (polyrelationshipy?) ethics will be to avoid that kind of naturalization of whatever mechanisms we adopt in their stead.
Well, there’s no guarantee this will happen. For example, some poly people use “you’re just being jealous (so change your behavior)” as a argument point with no examination, the mirror of a monogamous person saying “you must do this because I’m jealous”. Similarly, most of what I’ve covered in this essay is non-examined conceptual tactics of this sort. And I can come up with others. For example, most poly people redefine cheating from the monogamous definition (which is really just having sex with someone else), but they do it in two distinct ways, either by attaching it to monogamy or by saying that it is “breaking the rules”. Then people with these different tactics end up arguing over whether poly people can cheat, not admitting the shared subtext of “we’re not cheaters, really”.
Poly folks are a lot more likely to embrace explicit negotiation in their relationships(which I think is what the communication fetish is all about), and that’s definitely good, but at the same time poly people are perfectly capable of producing new invisible power dynamics to replace the discarded monogamous ones, or simply carrying the old ones over when they still work.
Anyway, thank you for the interesting discussion, and I hope I haven’t derailed the comment thread too badly!
There’s no derailing here. It’s all on topic. Thank you for fascinating and challenging thoughts on the subject of consent.
June 20, 2008 at 6:55 pm
And there’s yet another blurry area that you’ve glossed right over: that sticky word “sex.”
Yes, that undermines what gets to be nonmonogamy if we take the borders of our nonmonogamy to be defined by sex, which some people do and some don’t, even though the mainstream definitely does this. And of course people bring their own personal investments into these questions: that monogamous person who has been kissing all their friends for the past ten years doesn’t want to hear that they are a slut or sex fiend because of it.
I also think that the whole DADT thing is a bit grayer than you make it out.
Indeed, you are right here and I am doing that poly thing where we devalue working DADT arrangements due to our own investment in disclosure.
The fact that no-disclosure DADT relationships sometimes work out points out something we forget. Namely, cheating relationships sometimes work out, stabilizing the primary relationship, lasting for decades, whatever your measure of success might be. Indeed, it’s hard to draw a solid line between cheating and these no-disclosure DADT arrangements. This brings up the possibility that perhaps infidelity is sometimes actually a good and preferable choice – a conclusion that horrifies monogamous and poly folks alike. The large number of people who commit infidelity are not dumb, and presumably not all of them are doing it for entirely selfish reasons.
Really: why is it so important to decide who’s poly and who isn’t?
I’m with you that self-identity is the most important thing here, but at the same time I think there’s an inevitable sort of identity policing that goes on around attitudes and behavior, and which is not entirely a bad thing, much as I’ve portrayed it as such in this essay. For example, I frequently see this sort of policing applied to men who enter poly community with sexist ideas, and it forces them to clean up their attitudes if they want to remain. Ditto for people who have crappy attitudes towards bisexuals. It would be nice if we could stick to the “your attitudes are crappy” approach instead of getting into definitional struggles, but I’m doubtful we can escape diagnosis tropes so easily.
Good to hear from you again!
June 20, 2008 at 7:01 pm
I’m mostly in your boat in the borderlands, in that I mostly date women but have occasional sex with men. The bi label works for me because it holds open the possibility of seeing men. I wonder if there’s a gender thing here, where bi women are more readily accepted as being 50/50 (which then gives you trouble with the label) but bi men are assumed to be straight-ish (which means it works well for me)? Or maybe it’s the BDSM vs. sex issue, as you’ve laid it out. Certainly if I only did kink with men I might reconsider my bi identity.
Pesky labels, never quite matching up with who we actually are.
June 20, 2008 at 7:16 pm
Sara no H:
I fall under agendas 1 and 4 that pepomint listed (but at least I’m honest about it :p).
I do want to emphasize that I actually support a number of the agendas I’ve listed, especially things like “keeping rank sexism out of poly community”.
Really, being honest about these agendas is all I’m asking. I would love it if more people said “you don’t belong on a poly forum because you are sexist” when that’s what’s actually going on in their heads.
June 24, 2008 at 1:22 am
Thanks for this and all of your other wonderful insight. You have a very good deconstructionist approach that helps me come to my own conclusions in a more clear manner.
Specifically, in this case, you helped me and my primary (that would be my wife) clarify a rule that wasn’t working for us. We had a rule that she came up with that I had some small issues with but not enough of an objection to insist it be tossed. The rule was that we’d have to meet whomever the other was planning on having a full-blown (sexual) relationship with. Yes, I know there’s some serious issues with this plan, but its what we had, and I figured I would object if it ever became an issue, even if it killed a little spontaneity.
Funny enough, she was the one who broke the rule first, and in an “instant karma” kind of way it (the budding relationship) all went to shit inside of 24-hours. So, seeing as she couldn’t stick to her own rule (no, I swear I didn’t gloat… really), we were searching for a way to amend/replace the rule so that we’d both feel comfortable. Then I read this, and this is what stuck out:
“Everyone has to know what’s going on and be okay with it, or it’s not polyamory.”
We fit your category of poly people who are fully there, but simply haven’t done much with it, far various reasons. She’s now had a couple of abortive attempts at outside relationships that have basically failed because we didn’t have the above-quoted mindset in the toolbox. Both of the guys have had this incredulous attitude about their good luck with my hot wife that boils down to “Hell yea, I wanna f*ck, but does he really have to know?!” or my favorite “couldn’t you just tell him you sucked my dick?”
They were clearly okay with cheating, but not polyamory. So, by extension, not really okay with it. So thanks, that kinda wrapped up a loose end that we had from the start.
But to follow up on your inclusive/exclusive thing, other than these two non-relationships she’s had, we haven’t been happier and stronger in our relationship since the first year or three so than we’ve been this past 18 months. Neither one of us is a particularly jealous person, so it kinda fits us naturally. And the last little fling/blowup she had pointed out another insidious way a monogamous relationship might not survive a cheating incident: as this brief weird thing swept her up and dropped her on her ass, I was there to help her get through it. Yea, I was a little hurt that she blew off her own rule that cramped my style a little, but she was feeling particularly used and hurt my him so I can’t tell you how cool it was that we had each other through this episode.
In any case, it’s really cool to be able to talk to your partner about little crushes on what we jokingly refer to as “straight” people, and how to turn them to the dark side. We also make jokes about “coming out the closet” to our families, but we figure we’ll burn that bridge once one of us has something going on for real.
We recently attended our first poly event of any sort, and I thought it was really kinda neat. She was less into it, but mostly because she wasn’t into any of the guys there.
Anyhow thanks again for your deep thoughts. You addressed in a past post the issue of possibly having to be a “relationship geek” to pull off poly… well, not if you read your blog!
June 24, 2008 at 3:43 pm
I have to disagree about the consent issue. I think it’s quite valid to say that “allowing” one’s partner to have other partners is a form of consent.
(To keep things simple for the purposes of this comment, I’ll adopt the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ labels but of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that only pri/sec poly relationships will have this dynamic, or that all such relationships embrace the pri/sec labels.)
If you give “consent” to your primary to have a secondary partner, what you’re consenting to is not really the secondary per se, but rather the change in the primary relationship that will be caused by having that secondary. While love may be infinite, time and resources are not, and to take on a secondary partner means that there may be some time and resources taken away from the primary relationship. I think that’s where consent, in the “true” sense, applies.
June 24, 2008 at 6:08 pm
billyb: I’m glad this post has been useful to you! If you haven’t already, you may want to check out the practical nonmonogamy guide earlier in the blog.
I would encourage you and your wife to find poly community and stick with it. Do not be discouraged if you are not interested in dating the particular people at any particular event – the goal is actually to socialize with like-minded people, which will help you settle into whatever your nonmonogamy is going to look like. Also, what my girlfriend discovered is that it is worth going to ten events where you find no one attractive, so that when someone attractive shows up the eleventh time, you’re there to meet them.
June 24, 2008 at 6:18 pm
While love may be infinite, time and resources are not, and to take on a secondary partner means that there may be some time and resources taken away from the primary relationship.
What if the secondary partner is actually a play buddy, and takes up very little time and energy (like, one date a month)? Does the other partner still have some sort of right to consent, or do they simply have to let their partner go have sex with someone else, since there’s very little effect on the primary relationship?
See, most people would say that the partner still has to approve, which says to me that this “consent” is actually about who has sex with whom, not about time or energy or impact on the primary relationship.
Certainly, I agree that primary (and secondary, actually) partners should have some sort of say in what their partner does, since there will often be some effect on the relationship. But this is a back-and-forth negotiation, and it is not the black-and-white matter of consent, and not having their say is not a violation, which is what is implied when we talk about consent. For example, if someone does not consent to sex, that directly implies that they were subject to violence and bodily violated, which is serious bad business. However, if someone does not “consent” to their partner seeing someone else, they have not been violated to the same level (though some monogamous folks would argue otherwise, but I don’t buy this “I am violated by your sex with someone else” stuff), even though we might say that they’ve got a non-optimal relationship situation.
Again, “consent” is the wrong word. It implies some sort of direct bodily investment in the sex that is happening, even though the person in question is not present at the sex act. And as I’ve pointed out with the play buddy example, when people think about this supposed consent, they are really thinking about the sex act itself. Let’s use words that don’t mix up a two-way negotiation with bodily integrity.
June 24, 2008 at 8:09 pm
musqrat – If you give “consent” to your primary to have a secondary partner, what you’re consenting to is not really the secondary per se, but rather the change in the primary relationship that will be caused by having that secondary.
I’m not so sure that’s necessarily what’s on most folks’ minds, though, when they talk about “allowing” their partners to date around. Like pepomint, I think it’s actually a great deal more about the who and the what than the concept. I think that’s why some polyfolk use tools like “veto” – which is just as problematic as the concept of consent, for similar reasons, because again we’re talking about someone else’s autonomy and choices. It goes back to the illusion of control that we tend to carry with us from the culture of monogamy.
July 7, 2008 at 12:53 am
Thanks, Pepper, for another interesting essay. Always fun seeing another take on what this poly thing is anyway. We batted this one around recently at our local poly discussion group, no earthshattering conclusions but lots of good insights. Similarly here – lots of great food for thought as we all stumble through this “I know it when I see it” definition of poly, which honestly might be as good as we get for right now. Not that it isn’t interesting and instructional to kick it all around every so often. Just so long as we don’t get so caught up in the definitions to actually do it :)
I especially liked the part where you noted the problems with the behavioral definition of poly. Well said. For what it’s worth, my own definition of being poly is when you give yourself the right to define for yourself the sexual/loving relationship style you prefer, without reference to external (community, state, religious, etc.) definitions. In other words, if you truly feel the right to decide this rests with you, you’re poly.
Broad? You betcha. Fuzzy around the edges? Sure. But so are all the other definitions. This self-empowerment frame kind of works for me, and that’s all I need in a definition, so there you go.
Sure, there are lots of loose ends. Self-empowered to do what? With who? Does sex need to be involved? How much sex, and how often? And (as you say) what’s sex, anyway? By this definition, does “poly = multiple loving relationships” mean Mother Teresa was poly? How about swing-ish behaviors, which are typically defined as de-emphasizing the relationship part? (Though having said that I totally agree with you that swing-ish stuff and poly stuff, as actually practiced by actual people, are much more similar than different.)
Me, I think all we can say is that people will do what they do, and for me, I’m fine labeling as poly anyone who is with honesty willing to look all the options, possibilities, and cultural stereotypes in the face and consciously consider which behaviors and attitudes they want to choose as their own. For me the key is knowing the choice is yours, in this moment now as well as later when it might arise again. For me, if you really feel that it’s you who gets to decide, you’re poly.
I submit this only as a bit more food for thought in this interesting discussion. This definition is just mine, and I mention it only as such. I don’t pretend it will fit every situation and/or every person any better than any other definition, but it’s the one that works for me.
Thanks again for doing this blog. It’s always a pleasure to read.
July 7, 2008 at 10:12 pm
Barry: Great to hear from you, as always.
Well said. For what it’s worth, my own definition of being poly is when you give yourself the right to define for yourself the sexual/loving relationship style you prefer, without reference to external (community, state, religious, etc.) definitions.
As you say, this is fuzzy. Really, we never do anything without some reference to external meanings: we are embedded in culture, and our lives take shape from ideas that were filtered through that culture. Also, there are poly people who are pulling their own relationship style information from poly community, which could count as an external source.
That said, I really like your definition because it focuses on people finding their own individual path. It is a bit odd to talk about monogamous people who are also taking their own path as polyamorous, which this definition seems to do. Fortunately, there’s the related categories of “conscious monogamy” or “intentional monogamy”, monogamy practiced by people who are aware that there are alternatives, and who are trying to put in the same sort of effort that we find in polyamory relationships.
In any case, your definition is in the same direction of one of my favorite definitions, polyamory-as-toolbox. In other words, polyamory is a sort of toolbox of ideas and relationship techniques, which many people use (some of whom call themselves polyamorous). I think this actually describes what is going on pretty well, in that the poly movement could be described as a technique-sharing movement more than anything else. Still, it has problems on the edges, giving short shrift people who feel that they are deep-down instinctively polyamorous, since “polyamorous” stops being a useful word for describing people. So like any other definition we come up with, it’s going to include some folks improperly and exclude others improperly.
July 7, 2008 at 11:17 pm
Yes, it is a bit odd. But you’re right, it’s right there in my definition, and truthfully I think it fits. We all know people who have defined themselves as poly to the world, but their life took them to a place where they only wanted to be with one person. People in new primary relationships often do this, at least for a while. (I know I did.) Calling that “intentional monogamy” is okay, if you like, but then shouldn’t we call that other thing “intentional polyamory”?
I’ve come to a place where I think that anytime it’s intentional it’s okay. It’s the intentional-ness that defines poly for me. What if I intentionally choose to only be sexually and/or emotionally intimate with two people right now, because I feel that’s all I have time and emotional bandwidth for. Am I poly? Sure. Now make it that I looked at all the possibilities and decided that I only have time and emotional bandwidth for one person. Am I poly now? If not, why not?
It’s interesting that you mention “giving short shrift people who feel that they are deep-down instinctively polyamorous” here, as I have a good friend who went on and on (and on and on…sigh) about being “deep-down instinctively polyamorous” for years. Now she’s monogamous. [Note: I’ve obfuscated many details for privacy reasons, but trust me, it wasn’t Poly While Looking or anything like that. It was the real deal.]
What changed? Her choice changed, and she exercised her options. It happens. People like her are part of the reason I feel poly is at base the certainty that you have the choice in your relationship options, rather than poly being the particular option that you decide to pick.
I like your idea of poly-as-toolbox. As you’ve noted in your own “how to do poly” posts here, most of the good poly ideas and techniques are equally applicable to any kind of relationship. Talking about what’s really happening, options on the table, getting past culturally induced shame around sexuality and pleasure in all its variations … people who are navigating poly relationships often successfully model these behaviors.
“If they can do it, why not us?” Showing that it can be done is, I think, a key poly contribution. And then, more and more will, and it’ll snowball. Personally, I think in twenty or thirty years there’ll be no such thing as “polyamorous” relationships – just “relationships”. Same as the way “mixed marriage” used to mean when a Catholic married a Lutheran. Now it’s just “marriage” and if it makes happy the people involved, it’s all good. (God, did I really just say “it’s all good”? I’ve been in California too long.)
Other distinctions in how we pleasure and bond with each other will fade as well, to the point that terms like gay, bi, BDSM, and swing will become anachronisms. People will just enjoy each other’s company.
Pie in the sky? I don’t think so. Look at all the other relationship barriers that have fallen, even in just the last hundred years or so. The idea of poly as a distinct option will fall too, and people will just do what they do. In the end I think the poly concept and movement will be mostly remembered as the crucible from which emerged many useful relationship-positive tools that everyone will use, for whatever relationship style they feel they want to do. All options will be open. And we’ll all be healthier and less wacked out for that.
July 8, 2008 at 5:48 pm
Calling that “intentional monogamy” is okay, if you like, but then shouldn’t we call that other thing “intentional polyamory”?
Polyamory always has to be at least a little bit intentional, because we live in a monogamous world. People always know that monogamy is an option. It is really not possible to sleepwalk into polyamory the way you can default into monogamy, even though some people do enter polyamory without enough self-reflection. So while adding the “intentional” to monogamy makes sense, to distinguish it from the common act of defaulting into monogamy, with polyamory it is somewhat redundant.
Other distinctions in how we pleasure and bond with each other will fade as well, to the point that terms like gay, bi, BDSM, and swing will become anachronisms. People will just enjoy each other’s company.
I think it will actually go the other direction in terms of language. As folks get more accepting of various alternatives, we will develop language around people’s proclivities, so we can accurately describe them. We can see this already within the BDSM world, which has literally hundreds of words for various acts and interests. Similarly, within the poly world we have many more names for relationship styles than are found in the monogamous world.
I do hope that we’ll get to a place where there is very little stigma associated with alternative relationships or sexuality. I think that we’re a ways off, and it will be a long journey, unfortunately. After all, there are still Catholics who get very upset if their child marries a Lutheran.
But even if we do, acceptance may produce distinctions instead of removing them. A good analogy here is alcohol consumption. Alcohol is legal and widely accepted, and we have hundreds of words for different types of booze. Whereas there are only a handful of words for any particular illegal drug, with the possible exception of marijuana. So in this case acceptance leads to a flowering of distinctions, as people suss out what particular types of alcohol they want.
July 22, 2008 at 9:32 pm
[…] Defining Polyamory: Inclusion and Exclusion In this essay, I attempt to take on the definitional question of polyamory. I will delineate all the subtext issues that I am familiar with, and why each is a point of pain, and the sorts of agendas that people attempt to promote via definitional fiat. (tags: polyamory relationships mlf) […]
August 31, 2008 at 2:58 pm
Hi, all. I am happy that this was my first choice in which blog to read. Felt like a kid at a candy store because there was a lot to choose from.
As an older not so experienced poly person by self definition, I found this discussion extremely helpful. I feel at this point in my life there is a flowering within me in how I define “possibilities” in my relationships. At this point I am not in any relationship, but I am open in my immersion in the poly group that I find I really like to see what presents itself over time. There is new joy also in not having an agenda other than learning and growing.
To me, the feeling of openness is what feels most true and real within as opposed to the agendas I used to have in who and what I wanted in any a partner. Certainly, two forays into serial monogamy taught me a lot about programming vs real life experience.
The other thing that I find extremely exciting is that I can learn from poly f2f discussions as well as online since the workshops such as the HI ones are priced out of bounds for me.
Thanks, all, for much food for thought.
January 9, 2009 at 9:24 pm
[…] linked to a fascinating blog, which I’ll be popping in my sidebar shortly, and specifically this blog entry, which expanded upon the difficulties of defining a polyamorous relationship, or really anything. […]
January 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm
The discussion of DADT is interesting– as you say, it can work well, but it’s hard to verify without violating the “don’t tell” part. (I’ve heard the argument that you’re not responsible for your partner’s other relationships, but as a practical matter, I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of someone else’s marital squabbles, even if it’s not technically my fault.)
Maybe we could come up with an alternative, like “private disclosure”. If a man says something like “I know my wife likes to sleep with other guys, but I don’t want anyone else to know, and I don’t want to talk about it”, he’d be implicitly acknowledging that his wife might want to sleep with this particular guy, and putting some boundaries around it. (I use this example because I’m interested in women, but it could work the other way around).
The problem with the way DADT seems to work in the military is that it also implies “don’t let me find out by accident, even if you didn’t tell anyone”, which is much harder to accomplish. If the response to accidental disclosure were more like “hey, keep that stuff private”, it would work a lot better.
I think personally I’d still be uncomfortable with such an arrangement, but it would be a healthier alternative to “cheating”.
January 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm
Yeah, I think healthy DADT arrangements tend to be more of the “I don’t want this in my face constantly” style, where a person is perfectly aware that outside sex and/or dating is happening, and if they see evidence of that it is not such a big deal – they just don’t want to be around it a lot.
I’m actually dating someone whose primary partner does not want to meet me, and I’m okay with that because it’s clear that she knows I exist. Most poly people I know would not be okay with this sort of arrangement, but perhaps that is to their detriment, especially if they are looking for casual or otherwise lightweight sex or relating.
I like your private disclosure idea. I think if folks could be convinced to do the one-time meeting with metamours, or have some other similar failsafe ritual to prevent cheating, it would go a long ways towards making DADT acceptable within poly circles.
But of course, it is important to remember that around 50% of the time, a person who says they are in a DADT relationship is in fact just plain cheating. So while there’s a lot of wariness around such arrangements, it is not without reason. We just seem to lose the good stuff in the mix.
October 14, 2011 at 8:35 pm
[…] Defining Polyamory: Inclusion and Exclusion […]
March 13, 2012 at 9:04 am
[…] For a critique on inclusivity click here. […]