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.