In my last post on the popularity of polyamory, I briefly discussed the important relationship between sex-positivity and polyamory. This spawned a huge comment thread, so I am treating the subject in its own post, at length and with more specific language.
The sex versus love conversation is a perennial staple in polyamorous forums and lists. Sometimes it is tense, other times it is polite, but in every case people weigh in from all sides with their personal take. Usually this sort of repeating conversation indicates a point of conceptual frustration, and indeed the sex/love/poly relationship is not clear. On the one hand, poly discourse is loaded up with love and relationship talk. On the other hand, sex of some sort is crucial to most poly relationships, and polyamory as a whole seems to be establishing itself as a sort of sexual minority.
What is the relationship between polyamory and the act of sex? Between polyamory and people’s sexuality? Can we fully separate sex and love? What are the power mechanisms behind the culture’s take on the relationship between sex, love, and monogamy? In what ways does this make it difficult to be polyamorous, and how are poly people resisting these ways? Why exactly is it important to discuss sex and sexuality in a poly context?
People who are new to analysis writing often find my essays confusing, so let me go over the basics in this paragraph. I am a conceptual strategist. This means that when I talk about things like “sex”, “monogamy”, and “polyamory”, I am not referring to the dictionary definition. Rather, I am referring to the overall way we think about and practice these things, which tends to include all kinds of assumptions, connotations, and details that one cannot find in the dictionary.
Also, while I frequently refer to monogamy and monogamous power structures in this essay, I am talking about the overall cultural system of monogamous conformity, which makes monogamy the only viable choice. I am not disparaging people’s individual monogamous practice, or saying that no one should be monogamous. Monogamy has plenty of good things going for it, there are non-problematic ways to be monogamous, and there are people (lots of them) who are happiest with monogamy and should be practicing it.
One further disclaimer: this essay is aimed at a specific segment of the poly community, namely the visibly organized poly community, which I am a part of. There are certain strains of ideology in these groups that I find problematic. When I refer to unqualified “poly people” or “we”, I am addressing this group. It is not my intention to marginalize or erase poly people who are not in this group. Indeed, I suspect that the visibly organized community is a minority of poly people.
This essay is heavy on the deconstruction. If you are not a fan of theory, I encourage you to skip down to Putting the Sex Back in Polyamory.
Sex and Love
Sex and love are separate in the mainstream imagination. Sex is a physical act between two people. Love is a bit more murky. Mostly we use it to discuss a certain feeling, though people are remarkably cagey on what that feeling is exactly. It has been described as giddying, comfortable, stomach-churning, fluttery, insane, happy, and/or out of control. Some of these contradict each other, and the culture seems to revel in these contradictions. Perhaps we can say that love is feeling good about a person in that romantic way, but then we run into the same issues with “romance”.
In any case, it is clear that love is strongly associated with relationships. Love is supposed to be a requirement for relationships. No love means there should be no relationship. If the love in a relationship dies out, we consider it best if the relationship ends at that point. If two people fall in love, we think that they should get into a relationship. Love that is hopeless or doomed is love between two people who cannot be in a relationship for some reason, for example Romeo and Juliet. There is a certain direct mapping between love and relationships: one implies the other.
We like to talk about love. We expect love to show up in our books and movies. This is carried to the point of ridiculousness in some cases. For example, action movies seem to have an underlying requirement for a love plot that must be worked into the main plot, even though the point of the movie is action. We turn on the radio and every other song is about love. Love is revered. It is an ideal.
When the culture talks about sex, it goes a bit differently. Just the act of discussing sex is itself titillating and kind of dirty, as if there is a certain dirtiness in the act of sex that transfers into anything we say about it. The dirtiness in sex talk relegates it to advice columns in alternative weekly papers, or in daytime talk shows. Sometimes sex is treated with reverence, but rarely, and only then in the context of a loving marriage. We do talk about sex a lot, but at least the public portion of this discourse is largely uninformative, and even private talk about sex tends to stay away from the mechanics involved. We build a kind of silence around the actual mechanics of sex, perhaps in response to its supposed dirtiness. Sex education classes purposefully omit any sort of education about the sex act itself, and instead spend their time telling you not to do it and putting up pictures of bad STD cases. Sex is all over the magazines in the grocery store checkout, but if you actually open them up and read the supposedly amazing sex tips inside, they are bland and unimaginative, nothing that you couldn’t come up with on your own. This is how people get to age twenty without knowing that you (usually) shouldn’t bite the clitoris, or that lube is (usually) a prerequisite for any kind of anal play.
So, sex and love are treated fairly differently, and they tend to be treated distinctly, in that we tend not to mix up our sex and love discourse. The action movies with the love plots do not discuss oral sex techniques. There tend to be different advice columnists for dating and for sex. There is a dichotomy happening here: our culture separates out sex and love and treats them differently, love much more positively than sex.
However, while this dichotomy is conceptually quite strong, on another level we seem to be mixing up sex and love. Having sex is often referred to as “making love”. When the folks in the 60’s said “make love, not war”, they were not talking about engagement rings, going steady, and other traditional elements of romance. They were talking about sex, but bringing in the idea of love, perhaps as cover. When people talk about a “loveless” marriage, they are often saying that there is no sex in the marriage.
Simply, love implies sex. Sex is a required undercurrent of love, a prerequisite. This applies even to doomed love: Romeo and Juliet got it on exactly once after getting married and before committing suicide. There can be love without sex for a period of time, but that is only because we are looking forward to the sex that will happen some day, or dwelling on the sex that cannot happen for some reason. Love without sex is described as “unconsummated”, somehow incomplete or deficient. Sex is not necessarily the most important part of love, but the presence of or potential for sex is a mandatory requirement for love. Because the actual feelings involved in love are largely undefined, sex seems to be the sole well-understood mandatory requirement for love.
So the connection between love and sex is an “A is not B, but A requires B” relationship. The interplay of relationships and love follows a similar pattern: relationships definitely require love, though they are conceptualized separately. If we chain our requirements, we find that relationships also require sex. Indeed, when people talk about relationships without sex, they say their needs are not being met, or that the love has died. A sexless relationship is sufficient reason for visiting a therapist, or for a breakup.
Relationships and love impact various parts of one’s life, from living arrangements, to personal happiness, to the structure of social spaces. And relationships and love are dependent on the act of sex, and one’s sex drive. Which means that the arrangement and structure of one’s life are largely dependent on one’s sex life and sexuality.
I call this process of dependency “genital attachment”. Genital attachment is the attachment of consequences to one’s genitals, or the actions that one performs with one’s genitals, and it is a general mechanism of culture, used in numerous ways. When a person is born, a doctor looks at their genitals to determine gender and writes their gender down on their birth certificate, and that gender means that people are probably going to treat them in certain gender-specific ways for the rest of their life. If a person does something non-normative with their genitals, this is seen as reflecting on their entire lives and character, and removes them from the realm of the normal. This is why queer people or BDSM practitioners have trouble in custody court: what we do with our crotches is seen as branching out and affecting or reflecting the rest of our lives.
Genital attachment is a significant power mechanism within mainstream culture. If you can train a young boy to only be attracted to thin women, then he will probably view large women negatively his entire life. If you can convince a young girl that having sex requires being sexy, and being sexy requires long hair, then she will never shave her head. This goes the other way as well: if a person thinks that an act of deviant sexuality will reshape their entire lives, then they will avoid that act even against their own desires. In other words, genital attachment becomes a particularly significant point for cultural control, because it mixes up cultural power with pleasures of the flesh.
(To give credit where credit is due, this is not my argument. I am paraphrasing Foucault’s idea of sexuality as a technique of power. If you are up for reading heavy theory, I encourage you to pick up his History of Sexuality.)
With this idea of genital attachment in mind, we can revisit the cultural treatment of sex and love. There is a kind of sex that is implied by love, and we rarely talk about it. There is a certain sleight-of-hand occurring here: when we want to talk about normative sex (that is, sex in loving relationships), we do not discuss it directly. Instead we talk about love or relationships, and we seem to have an endless amount to say on these subjects. Not all talk of love or relationships is actually about sex, but this talk serves to obscure talk about sex, providing a way to talk about it that is not actually talking about it.
We can see this in mainstream movies, which show just enough to imply that the sex happened, without actually showing explicit details of the sex itself. Often this means showing people kissing, or lying naked in bed. Sex scenes in these movies are short, so there is no danger of titillation. This is why you rarely see a condom in movies: condoms are considered part of the mechanism of sex, and therefore are not appropriate. However, at the same time these movies must somehow imply that the sex happened, because the love and relationship plots are empty without it.
This is a second common mechanism in the culture, the unexamined norm. Supposedly normal sex is not looked at or talked about. It is absent from sex education courses. It is absent in the media or pop culture. There are books and advice columns on the mechanisms of sex, but they are eminently avoidable. We receive no training in this normal sex: it is a mystery that is just supposed to happen magically. If it does not happen that way, we discuss it in the private setting of the therapist’s office, and it is seen as a personal failure. We replace any discussions of sex with discussions of love and relationship, pulling them in to cover any discussion of the mechanisms involved. This also serves to hide the power arrangements supported by genital attachment.
To facilitate this hiding, we scrub out sex and desire from discussions of love or relationships, leaving in just enough to prove that it is there. We maintain a certain surface pretense that love is entirely independent from sex, but at the same time we almost never actually practice this independence.
All this hiding of the normative leads to an odd situation where when someone does get around to investigating the normative, they tend to find surprising things, things that have always been there but no one has been talking about. Kinsey was an example of this. Another good one is My Secret Garden, a book that solicited and printed women’s sexual fantasies without much in the way of culling or editing.
When we do discuss sex in public, it is not normative sex. We discuss deviant sex instead, and in this way we can lay out the parameters of normal sex, this time by talking about what it is not. This is why swinging and BDSM are fodder for the media (as I discussed last time), but only in the negative sense of “don’t do this”. This discussion of deviant sex is another outlet for talking about normative sex without actually talking about it. By investigating every possible deviance from the norm, we can state what the norm is without actually saying that we are doing so.
In this way, deviance is associated with any actual discussion of sex, and sex talk feels dirty. This is opposed to talk about love, which feels clean and wholesome even when it is standing in for talk about sex. There is a value judgment happening here: love (and sex-in-love) is transcendental and magical and revered, but sex (deviant sex, sex-not-in-love) is dirty and carnal and physical.
To recap, there are two types of sex in the mainstream imagination, sex in a culturally validated loving relationship, and deviant sex. The latter is discussed at length and those discussions take on an authoritarian tone or an air of hedonism. The former is not discussed directly, but instead is talked about indirectly through discussions of deviance or discussions of love and relationships. We consider love and relationships to transcend the sex within them, but we retain the requirement that the sex happen, as it is useful for a number of cultural power projects.
This is not to say that the distinction between sex and love is useless: being able to discuss romantic feelings separately from carnality is a good conceptual distinction. My point here is that mainstream culture does not actually allow us to do this. Instead our culture maintains a vague conceptual pretense that the two are separate, while feverishly conflating them and setting up interdependencies under the conceptual covers. As a result, it is nearly impossible to have a conversation on love without some subtext of sex, and conversations of sex contain a constant subtext around the emotional connection that is or should be there. Indeed, most people have trouble having sex without an emotional connection, or sex creates an emotional connection for them. So-called casual sex is certainly possible and common, but many people have to train themselves to be able to do it. Along the same lines, love without sex (or the hint of sex) is possible, but again requires training and a certain break with mainstream ideology.
Sex radical movements have spent a lot of energy trying to break out of this cultural power pattern by making the connections between sex and love clear. One such strategy is to break down the sex/love dichotomy and speak of relationships as having both, which makes sexuality visible. The word “sexualoving” was one product of this, an effort to point out that sex happens in relationships and emotional connection happens in supposedly deviant situations.
A second approach to escaping the sex/love power pattern is to actually invest in the separation of sex and love, and create versions of love that actually do not depend on sex. This is easy conceptually because it just extends the culture’s surface conceptualization, but hard to pull off in practice because the culture is sneaky and persistent in undermining its own dichotomy, due to its heavy investment in the genital attachment of love. But this can be done, and is revolutionary in its own right: we see this in platonic polyamorous arrangements, which I will discuss further below. Notably, this approach can be at conceptual odds with the sex radical approach of exposing the underlying connections between sex and love: while sex radicals are busy unearthing the sex/love links, this second approach is trying to actually break those links.
The sex/love dichotomy does provide one sort of conceptual escape hatch to deviant sexualities: if we can show that what we are doing is love, then it becomes valued despite its deviance. I call this the “love escape hatch”.
We have seen this happen in the last forty years with the gay and lesbian movements. A discourse of anal sex, bathroom cruising, lesbians with hopeless passions, and girls in prison has been steadily replaced with smiling couples, preferably on their way to (attempt to) get married. Most same-gender sex is still considered fairly revolting by the mainstream, but the discussion of such sex is disappearing under the cover of love discourse, allowing gay men and lesbians to become non-deviant subjects. Bisexuals and transgender people have been largely absent from this progress, and are still heavily sexualized, and are still considered deviant.
We can see the operation of the love escape hatch in various other contexts as well. The love escape hatch was the premise for the strong romantic friendships between women in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and served to cover for the fact that plenty of these women were having sex that was considered deviant. Also, people who cheat will typically claim that they must do so because they are in love, as an attempt to personally legitimize a deviant practice. (The book Lust in Translation notes this tendency in a number of westernized cultures.)
In general, the mainstream will attempt to focus on the sexual aspects of any counterculture sexual movement. This is why swingers are constantly denigrated as hedonists, and kinksters as perverts. This is why mainstream people want to know where everyone sleeps when they first encounter polyamory. This sexualization has a purpose: keeping sex in the discussion prevents use of the love escape hatch and ensures that the deviant group will be seen as deviant, keeping mainstream desire comfortably unchallenged.
Sex and Monogamy
We have established a certain pattern with sex and love. As it turns out, the same general mechanisms apply to the relationship between sex and monogamy, though the details differ significantly. Monogamy is genitally attached, and again that genital attachment is hidden even though it is quite strict. Also, monogamy is revered and unexamined, and when we wish to discuss monogamy we do it by examining deviations from monogamy.
Let us start with the genital attachment, since that tends to be the part people have trouble believing. The genital rule of monogamy is that you cannot get up to genital play with people other than the one person you are monogamous with. To do so is to be by definition not monogamous, according to mainstream culture. The genital attachment of love was the requirement that sex happen. The genital attachment of monogamy is a requirement that sex not happen, specifically sex with the wrong person.
And indeed, it is by investigating violations of monogamy that we can get a handle on the sexual requirements for monogamy.
First, the legal definition of a violation of monogamy (typically referred to as “adultery”) always involves sexual infidelity. There is one counterexample in obsolete “alienation of affection” laws, where a person could be sued if they broke up a marriage. However, this is because the laws were addressing divorce rather than specifically addressing violations of monogamy: a therapist who advised a wife to leave her husband could also be sued for alienation of affection.
Second, our culture has a stark image of the worst violation of monogamy, and that is finding your lover in bed with someone else. This scene is central because it is the sexual violation of monogamy witnessed by the supposed victim. Books and movies that address infidelity rely on this scene heavily. There have been laws that address this situation specifically, such as a 1911 Texas law (see article 1102 here)that allowed a man to kill another man if he found that man in bed with his wife. A quick google search reveals that catching someone in the act of adultery has been a successful defense for homicide in several states and as recently as 1977, and I suspect it would work to at least reduce sentences even today.
Third, it turns out that sex is needed to consummate infidelity, similar to the way it is needed to consummate love. Infidelitous sex functions as a sort of “point of no return” in the cultural imagination. This has led to interesting scenes in mass-market movies or television shows where a person considers infidelity or has feelings for others but stops short of actually having sex, and is thus redeemed. Eyes Wide Shut is a great example of this: nobody actually has infidelitous sex in the movie, and thus the relationship can be redeemed at the end, despite all kinds of attempts at infidelity and feelings for other people. Of course, in real life sexual infidelity typically does not actually end the original relationship even when discovered, due to people having a decent sense of priorities, but the formula is none the less pervasive in popular culture.
Of course, sex with the wrong person is not the only violation of monogamy. Monogamy has been expanded so as to define all sorts of other situations as violations. Having lustful thoughts or romantic feelings for the wrong person violates monogamy. Watching too much porn can be seen as a violation. Vacationing with the wrong person is another potential violation. However, all of these depend on the intimation that sex with the wrong person is happening or will happen. (Though sometimes that wrong person is a person on the screen.) Sex is the archetypical violation of monogamy, and other violations are conceptually dependent on sex. This includes romantic violations, like getting flowers for the wrong person. While in fact the extra-relationship romance is more directly threatening to a monogamous relationship than extra-relationship sex (and people with their priorities in order will recognize this), mainstream culture reverses this ordering and builds out our understanding of infidelity from a sexual base. Language betrays us here: in order to discuss romantic infidelity we have to use recently popularized terms like “emotional affair”, whereas there is no similar need for the term “sexual affair”. “Sexual affair” is redundant because we consider affairs (or cheating, or infidelity) inevitably sexual.
In fact, if we reverse things and look at extra-relationship sex, it always qualifies as nonmonogamy of some sort. Sometimes this is imagined by the culture as cheating and other times as out-of-control hedonism (rarely as responsible or ethical nonmonogamy), but it is never monogamy, whereas other violations of monogamy (including romantic violations) are seen as dangerous but are not nonmonogamy by definition. We can establish a contrapositive relationship here: sex with the wrong person is always nonmonogamy in the cultural imagination, so monogamy strictly requires not having sex with the wrong person.
Of course, there are plenty of other perhaps more important things about monogamy, and the culture likes to focus on these. Monogamy is seen as loving, reverential, and wholesome. Monogamy is considered synonymous with commitment, often to the detriment of those of us who are nonmonogamous. Monogamy is generally thought of as a prerequisite for love, relationships, marriage, and children, again causing problems for the nonmonogamous. Monogamy is considered good, proper, and desirable, to the point that alternatives are largely unimaginable. But despite all this, there is only one strict requirement for monogamy, and that is a sexual (or more properly, not-sexual) requirement. We just rarely examine this prerequisite directly.
Instead, discussions of monogamy focus on supposed deviance, either cheating or nonmonogamous hedonism. There is a huge and ongoing discourse on cheating, including piles of self-help books, endless numbers of talk show segments, websites where they essentially do cheating-discovery background checks, and so on. This is all in addition to a solid and fairly constant drumbeat of interpersonal talk on cheating. Condemnation of cheating is persistent and frequent in social circles, and I have repeatedly heard people threaten violence if they were ever cheated on. (For more investigation of the construction of cheating and its use to define monogamy, see my paper on the topic.)
While the discourse on out-of-control hedonism is not as strong, it is still fairly consistent. Right-wing condemnations of sexuality often carry an undertone that promiscuity (that is, nonmonogamy) is a constant danger inevitably resulting from any deviance. Sexually sensational news is common in the media and provides a heady mix of deviance, supposed promiscuity, and the negative fallout that results. As I mentioned last time, swinging and BDSM end up reported in this way.
These discussions of cheating and promiscuity give us the ability to create a meaning and positive feeling around monogamy without actually doing so directly. If cheating is selfish and untrustworthy and infidelitous, then monogamy is self-sacrificing and trusting and carries connotations of integrity. If promiscuity is irresponsible and addictive and leads to disease, then monogamy is responsible and healthy and disease-free.
All this indirect talk performs the important function of protecting monogamy from direct examination. In addition to preventing people from asking themselves whether monogamy is worth it, this hiding also draws attention away from the strict (not)sexual requirement of monogamy, while still making sure this requirement is in place. Again there is a two-faced conceptualization happening: on the surface monogamy is about love and commitment and trust, but under the covers there is a constant drumbeat that sets up sexual fidelity as the prime requirement of monogamy.
The genital attachment of monogamy (like the genital attachment of love) is extremely useful for power relations within the culture, in the following ways.
It is the basis for a scarcity economy of sex. If you are not supposed to have sex with more than one person in a given period of time, then sex becomes scarce, highly desirable, and worth competing for. And since love requires sex, love becomes scarce as well. Both love and sex end up being a sort of competitive game, one where you can lose to other people. All of this scarcity and competition form fertile grounds for sales, creating a “sex sells” situation that pushes everything from cars to cosmetics. But that is a minor issue compared to the other effects of the sex/love scarcity: the isolating effect on single people and couples, the problematic codependency that happens in relationships which makes abuse and control easy, general ignorance of sexual mechanisms due to lack of variety (and a refusal to directly discuss the mechanisms), and so on.
Also, scarcity provides a motivating backdrop for the various cultural control mechanisms provided by the genital attachment of love. If love is scarce, then conforming in order to get it is that much more crucial, and the mechanisms I have described above kick into high gear.
Similarly, the genital attachment of monogamy is important for the maintenance of ideas of sexual deviance, by providing a promiscuous cast to any non-normative sex. All those Republican lawmakers and preachers who have been caught with men recently were not just doing something sexually deviant, they were also cheating on their wives. This provides a baseline level of condemnation even when media is reluctant to condemn sex between men in general. Along the same lines, Clinton’s problem was not that he had gotten up to oral hijinks in the oval office with a much younger intern, it was that he had done so while married. Presumably the moral scorn would have been less intense if he had been single, but of course you cannot even contemplate running for president without being married (and monogamous). This sets up a nice trap where a person must be sexually unavailable (to everyone but their spouse) while in public office, and any sex they have with the wrong person can automatically be condemned as deviant because it is a violation of monogamy. In general, genitally-attached monogamy is used to amplify the problems of deviance in the public imagination using conceptual traps such as these.
There is a minor escape hatch to the genital attachment of monogamy: “dating around” is generally considered reasonable, so long as you do not do it with too many people or for too long. This is the basis for the popularity of Sex in the City and similar shows. I have known people to date around for years while considering themselves nominally monogamous. However, there is a toll exacted, because if any one relationship intensifies then any further dating around is considered cheating. In order to remain in a dating mode it is necessary to purposefully keep relationships casual, or to end relationships quickly, or one must be duplicitous about what else one might be doing.
It is important to note that the genital attachment of monogamy is denied in certain nonmonogamous circles. In particular, some subset of swingers claim that they are monogamous despite their recreational sex with others. They rightly point out that they are reserving the most important functions of monogamy to one person: love, commitment, and those other things that we like to talk about when discussing monogamy. Similarly, in poly circles people will talk about “emotional monogamy” which can be combined with (sexual) nonmonogamy. There have been similar recent attempts in the mainstream to create a “new monogamy” or “managed monogamy” which includes some level of sexual nonmonogamy. These attempts are useful in that they allow one to escape many of the conceptual traps that the culture lays to trip up nonmonogamy.
This strategy seeks to create an escape hatch similar to the love escape hatch. If we can strengthen the surface conception of monogamy as love and commitment, then the genital attachment of monogamy disappears along with the various mind/body power mechanisms that use it.
I definitely support this effort, but it has been entirely unsuccessful so far, and I expect that it will not succeed any time soon. Some subset of swingers have been making this argument since the 70’s, with almost no effect on the mainstream. Notably, swingers are still typically closeted, and saying that one is “emotionally monogamous” does not make it any easier to come out as a swinger in the mainstream. Similarly, “emotionally monogamous” poly people still have to meet their needs in the polyamory community: there is no place for them to be emotionally monogamous in the monogamous mainstream. People from the mainstream simply do not believe that they are monogamous, even over their self-identification.
The fact that we need to define terms like “emotionally monogamous” betrays the conceptual wall that we are up against. “Sexually monogamous” is typically only used in scientific or sociological circles, to compare with “socially monogamous”, the practice of appearing in public as if sexually monogamous. “Sexually monogamous” is rarely used to compare with “emotionally monogamous” because we assume that monogamy always carries a sexual requirement.
The issue here is that the genital attachment of monogamy is deeply crucial to power arrangements around sex within the culture, and so the culture is strongly invested in the current two-faced conceptualization of monogamy. Attempting to redefine monogamy away from sex is noble but currently ineffective, and it is generally more effective to try to forge a practice that is not monogamy but also not cheating, and which hopefully cannot be dismissed as out-of-control hedonism.
Sex and Polyamory
Keeping the mainstream sex/love/monogamy conceptual apparatus in mind, we can now take a look at the relationship between sex and polyamory.
First off, polyamory is a kind of nonmonogamy, and this dictates certain things about its relationship to sex so long as we are building on mainstream concepts. The most crucial requirement of monogamy is that one does not have sex with more than one person. If we take the contrapositive, then being nonmonogamous in the mainstream imagination means that one has more than one sex partner, or at least the potential to have sex with more than one person. This becomes a requirement for polyamory if it is to remain nonmonogamy. (There is an exception to this in people who are platonically polyamorous, which I will discuss below.)
In other words, polyamory is genitally attached, not because we particularly want it to be, but because we are stuck within a certain conceptual framework that values sex acts above most other things when determining the parameters of love, relationships, and (non)monogamy. Like monogamy or love, the genital attachment of polyamory is not the most important thing about it by a long shot, but it tends to be the most crucial prerequisite. If you cut off the potential for sex with multiple people from polyamory, it turns into a different beast, sometimes platonic polyamory, sometimes something like monogamy.
If we recall that the purpose of genital attachment is to facilitate power arrangements, that begs the question of what power arrangements are enabled by the genital attachment of polyamory.
Polyamory is largely a counter-movement, a resistance to monogamy, so its purpose in terms of power tends to be to tear down monogamous arrangements. For example, polyamory denies the controlling aspect of jealousy, which I have discussed in an earlier paper. Similarly, polyamory denies the ownership and possessiveness aspects of monogamy, and faces off against the deceitful aspect of the cheating dynamic. Polyamory also provides a starting point for upending common assumptions about living situations, marriage, parenting arrangements, coupledom, and how we treat relationships in social spaces.
If you have not lived polyamorously, it is hard to understand the sheer scope of these changes. I have taken to calling it “living in polyland”, as opposed to monogamyland which is where most people live. In polyland, you get upset when someone else dumps your lover. In polyland, you join forces with your lover’s lover to get your lover a nice present. In polyland, you (hopefully) cannot blame any third party for your breakups. (In polyland, you generally tend to have breakups more often, as a natural outgrowth of having more relationships.) In polyland, getting into a romantic competition means that everyone involved has already lost. In polyland, double dates can get really weird. In polyland, it is common practice to get references from a person’s exes before you start dating them. In polykinkland, you and your live-in lover have to split up the pain toys as both of you are heading out on dates. In polyland, you quickly lose track of who is romantically involved in your social circle and often have to play it by ear. In polyland, I am typing this as my life partner gets it on with someone in the next room.
Not all of the power upheavals engendered by polyamory are dependent on its genital attachment, but most of them are. Love, relationships, and nonmonogamy all conceptually branch out from the sex act in webs of dependency, and so nonmonogamous power upheavals in the domain of love and relationships tend to be dependent on the fact of having sex with more than one person. Let us look at some examples to make this clear.
First, it is impossible to fully subvert the jealousy narrative without having sex with multiple people, because jealousy is genitally attached. Sex with only one person does not fully trigger jealousy, and so jealousy cannot be fully challenged/managed/overcome in this situation. This shows up in the poly community as a sort of jealousy surprise: you can prepare endlessly for your lover or partner to have sex with someone else, and still there will usually be some sort of surprising jealousy reaction on your part. We do not fully understand the scope or mechanism of each person’s particular jealousy except in a situation with multiple lovers.
Second, a similar effect happens with the subversion or bypassing of the cheating dynamic. Poly people resist the cultural understanding of cheating in numerous ways: by replacing a dynamic of deceit with one of disclosure, by replacing competition among one’s paramours with cooperation, by creating visible nonmonogamy in social spaces, by eliminating the relationship ownership assumptions that make cheating a matter of stealing someone’s affections away, and so on. However, if one is not actually (at least potentially) getting it on with others, most of these changes drop away, for the simple reason that having one or zero lovers means that the various cheating dynamics are not triggered. To resist cheating, one must be doing something that many monogamous people would (initially at least) see as cheating. For example, it is impossible to fully break down people’s expectations of owning the sexuality of their partner without there being multiple sexual partners. Also, even though it is possible to include disclosure around outside attractions in a monogamous relationship, actually acting on those attractions requires either deceit or a radical shift from monogamy, and so fully exploring a dynamic of sexual disclosure around outside attraction strictly requires sexual nonmonogamy.
Third, even when sex with multiple people is not strictly required for some of these power upheavals, they are more likely to happen with it. A good example of this is in co-parenting arrangements: it is perfectly possible to rearrange who parents a child in any way without reference to people’s sexual relationships, and people do this, especially queer people. But because the culture has a heavy implication chain from parenting to sex (co-parenting requires relationship requires love requires sex), there seems to be a greater likelihood that any particular polyamorous person will challenge cultural parenting standards than if they were monogamous. Another example can be found in the poly practice of eliminating or reducing hierarchy among one’s relationships. This is somewhat dependent on having sex in those relationships, otherwise we tend to fall into the monogamous world’s assumption that any relationship with sex is more important than a relationship (friendship, etc) without sex.
With these examples, it becomes possible to see that polyamorous forms of resistance to monogamous power are genitally attached: they have a certain dependence on sex with multiple people. And if we are to believe the social theorists, the power aspect of polyamory is its motivating force. Now, there are power aspects to polyamory other than resistance to monogamy, but it is easy to claim that polyamory’s primary motivation is doing something other than monogamy. If monogamy worked fine for all of us, there would be no poly community, poly identity, or poly language.
Many of the important things that are happening in polyamory (overcoming jealousy, rearranging family structure, moving from deceit to disclosure, etc) are not obviously related to the sexual aspects of polyamory, and it is sometimes possible to imagine situations where sex with multiple people would not be required for these changes. However, doing so ignores the wide scope and influence of monogamous power and the stage that it sets for cultural influence over love and relationships. Actually resisting these forms of cultural influence tends to require or at least be heavily aided by a certain break with monogamy. And fully breaking with monogamy means breaking its only strict rule: the sexual one. Ergo, the sexual aspect of polyamory is a prerequisite for most of its power operations, and therefore for the movement as a whole.
Note that what I have stated so far does not depend heavily on polyamorous ideology or ideals, the way poly people operate, polyamorous practice, or anything else specific to polyamory aside from the fact that it is a kind of nonmonogamy. This is because most of what is going on here is determined by operations of power in the monogamous mainstream. Cultural monogamous conformity is not only the ideological starting point for any kind of nonmonogamy, but also continually affects any nonmonogamous movement because the movement must remain at least vaguely intelligible to the mainstream. To say it differently, we live in a monogamous world and this sets the stage so that any nonmonogamy is shaped by certain conceptual parameters laid down by the mainstream.
And indeed, I could have done a similar analysis for any other sort of nonmonogamous movement, including swinging, open relationships, free love (of the 60’s and 70’s), traditional polygamy, or the unnamed kinds of nonmonogamy that seem to arise in queer and BDSM communities. We would have to adjust the examples somewhat, since different movements tend to challenge monogamy in different ways and to different extents. For example, the swinger movement generally does not bring nonmonogamous dynamics into public space in the same manner as polyamory, but at the same time swingers are probably ahead of the poly movement when it comes to rethinking the power dynamics of group sex. But overall, nonmonogamy has a certain set of basic premises that are shaped by the dictates of mainstream monogamy: sex with multiple people and forms of cultural resistance that grow out of breaking the sexual rule of monogamy.
There is a group of polyamorous people who are an exception, namely those who practice “platonic polyamory”, relationships with multiple people where one or more relationships do not have a sexual component. Some of these poly people are technically sexually monogamous, as they are having sex with one or zero people, but at the same time they typically run their relationship and social lives in a manner which does not conform to monogamous expectations. Which is to say, they have multiple relationships that are often socially visible.
This puts these particular platonically polyamorous people in a somewhat odd power position. They are not challenging the sexual rule of monogamy directly, but are interrupting monogamous power in various other ways, by challenging the romantic rule of monogamy (“love only one”) and bringing nonmonogamy into social spaces. As such, they are performing a slightly different set of power operations, one that overlaps with non-platonic polyamory but also differs in significant ways. For example, while someone dating one of these platonically poly people will probably have to deal with some of their jealousy issues, they would not have to fully address their sexual jealousy issues, sexual possessiveness issues, and so on. While they would certainly need to address some jealousy and possessiveness issues, they would be missing a pretty significant piece, since these concepts are genitally attached.
Perhaps more importantly, platonically poly people are engaged in a form of resistance that most non-platonic poly people are not addressing. Platonically poly people have to rethink what it means to be in a relationship, and specifically they must be able to step away from the mainstream’s mandatory rule that relationships must include sex or the possibility of sex. In doing so, they are challenging the sex/love dependency I described in the first section of this paper, taking the sex/love surface dichotomy and trying to strengthen it so that sex and love become entirely separate.
Unfortunately, it seems like this is a difficult challenge to take on. There are relatively few people in platonic polyamory relationships compared to non-platonic polyamorous relationships. Also, platonic polyamory seems to be largely unintelligible to the mainstream. Mainstream observers of platonic polyamory would generally assume that these people are actually having sex and just lying about it, because doing otherwise would require giving up the mainstream dependency of love on sex, which is dear to numerous mainstream operations of power. The culture learned its lesson from boston marriages, and avidly denies nonsexual romance in this day and age. In addition, there have been few mainstream observers since there has been almost zero media exposure of platonic polyamory. This is possibly due to the numbers of people involved, but I suspect the greater issue is that rethinking relationships in this way is unpalatable to the mainstream. I think that few reporters are willing to take on such a subject, which is unfortunate.
What is interesting here is that platonic polyamory is happening in the context of the polyamory movement, and not elsewhere. Many (though not all) of the people who are platonically polyamorous are technically sexually monogamous, and therefore technically do not need a nonmonogamy movement. However, polyamory is often useful to these arrangements, because it breaks down the “you must have one person for all your needs” myth. This allows groups of people to mix up platonic and sexual relationships in a manner that both enables nonsexual relationships and helps them meet any sexual needs they may have.
Polyamory challenges the “one person for everything” myth pretty heavily, and as mentioned above, sexual nonmonogamy provides a strong basis for doing so. Sexual nonmonogamy is not strictly necessary to make this leap, and indeed many marriage manuals point out that strong outside friendships tend to strengthen marriages. However, this advice stops short of recommending that the friends move in, or exchange love letters, or otherwise take on roles that supposedly should be reserved for one’s spouse. In other words, monogamous dynamics are still paramount. With polyamory, these things are actually negotiable. They are negotiable because polyamory rebuilds monogamous power dynamics from the ground up, because once the rule of sexual fidelity has been broken, everything else is up for grabs. While the sexual aspect of the polyamory movement is not strictly necessary for platonic polyamory, I am fairly certain that we would not have platonic polyamory without the sexual-level power challenges of the larger polyamory movement.
In a way there is a progression of movements happening here. General (that is to say, non-platonic) polyamory has challenged monogamous power at its linchpin, by denying its sexual rule. As a result, people who practice polyamory land in a situation where monogamous power starts crumbling from the bottom up, with various pieces weakening as we remove the things they conceptually depend on. With the base requirement of sexual fidelity broken, space opens up for addressing numerous other pieces of cultural conformity. Breaking the requirement that relationships are sexual (which we see in platonic polyamory) is one such possibility. Interestingly, sexual fidelity can be reinstated in platonic polyamory, but that does not change the progression of crumbling power dynamics that is occurring here.
Notably, platonic polyamory is not the only sub-movement taking advantage of the crumbling of monogamous power. Poly people interested in communal living are taking another stab at creating communes and otherwise revising living situations, drawing on polyamory as a basis. On the other side, people who do not want to live with any lovers are using polyamory as a way to break the mainstream dictate that relationships inevitably lead to cohabitation. Bi/poly people are using polyamory to break out of the trap created by the constant association of bisexuality with out-of-control sluttiness, as I have described in a previous paper. Some people are using polyamory as a conceptual jumping-off point to create more space for rethinking the restrictions we put on touching. One such person is Wendy-O Matik, who has been integrating discussion of nonmonogamy with rethinking touch boundaries and what we mean by relationships. Also, as I have stated, polyamory creates a certain space for rearranging parenting, either by adding parents, or giving community support to single parents, or enabling childfree living.
There is a certain branching effect here, that mirrors the structure of monogamous conceptual power. Conceptually, monogamy is based in sexual fidelity, and then builds a series of other conceptual power dynamics that depend on sexual fidelity or other monogamous dynamics that eventually depend on sexual fidelity. The progression of poly sub-movements follows this power pattern: general polyamory breaks sexual fidelity, and then other poly sub-movements (or personal power strategies that are not common enough to form sub-movements) take advantage of this basic rupture to take on other power dynamics. There is a certain evolution here, and we should pay attention to these sub-movements: we can learn much about rethinking relationships from platonic polyamory, much about sexuality and gender from bi/poly people, much about parenting from single poly parents, and much about the possibilities for nonsexual touch from those trying to break down the isolation of touch within relationships.
So, while platonic polyamory provides an important counterexample where you can be polyamorous while not violating the sexual rule of monogamy, it does not challenge my assertion that polyamory’s initial and most crucial power challenge to monogamy is via genital attachment, namely having sex with multiple people. Platonic polyamory challenges a different though overlapping set of power dynamics, and attempts to make a major revision to the way we associate sex and relationships. Platonic polyamory can make these challenges in the conceptual space opened up by non-platonic polyamory, and then can return benefits to the greater polyamorous movement in the form of rebuilt relationship concepts (though we need to get better at publishing the experiences of platonic polyamorists to fully realize this). However, in the absence of an initial challenge to the sexual rule of monogamy, it is unlikely that either form of polyamory would exist as a movement.
Polyamory and the Love Escape Hatch
Polyamory has been strongly associated with love from its initial conception. Love is of course built into the word itself, and loving multiple people has been a crucial element of group marriage, one of the primary roots of polyamory.
This focus on love has been crucial to the successes of polyamory, pushing us to challenge monogamy not just at the sexual level but to extend that challenge into romantic love and other aspects of monogamy.
The focus on love has kept us out of the conceptual trap that bedevils swinging and to some extent open relationships. Both movements have tended to try to isolate sexual nonmonogamy from the rest of one’s life. This leads to closeting and a tendency to view sexual nonmonogamy as a recreational activity. The latter plays into cultural conceptions of deviant sex as hedonistic, making it easy for the mainstream to dismiss these movements as out-of-control sexual deviance. The former makes it hard to refute mainstream attacks, since people in the movement tend not to go public about their lives. Polyamory does not have sexual isolation as an available tactic, because the conceptual focus on love means that the nonmonogamy automatically extends into romance and cannot be isolated in sexual practice.
Indeed, because love is centered in relationship discourse, centering a nonmonogamy movement on love means that most relationship structures are up for revision. This is why it seems natural for poly people to challenge monogamous institutions as diverse as parenting arrangements, living situations, weddings, and who gets invited to the holiday dinner.
So, including love in the conceptualization of polyamory reaps us a number of rewards. Note that this inclusion is alongside the implicit inclusion of sex, because love implies sex and nonmonogamy implies sex with more than one person. We typically do not talk about the sexual aspect of polyamory directly (much like people rarely discuss the sexual aspects of love or monogamy), but as noted above it is a prerequisite to the polyamorous challenges to monogamous power.
In fact, the successes so far have encouraged a tendency in polyamory activism towards an unhealthy reliance on the love escape hatch. Remember that the love escape hatch is the use of love discourse by counterculture movements to escape the mainstream’s tendency to label them as sexually deviant. This is a legitimate conceptual strategy, but as we shall see it tends to carry some drawbacks.
We are using a mainstream trick here: we are talking around sex instead of talking about it. This buys us a certain legitimacy, both in our own eyes and the eyes of the mainstream. Indeed, as I discussed in the last essay, we seem to be producing media successes by toeing the mainstream line of implying sex while refusing to actually discuss it.
Centering on love and relationship talk in our discourse is of course legitimate. Figuring out the relationship aspects of polyamory is in some ways harder than figuring out the sexual aspects. However, by using the love escape hatch we are playing a mainstream game, one that gets us things but may well undermine our position in the long run.
In particular, using the love escape hatch leaves open a major point of weakness: the mainstream can discredit us simply by bringing up the sexual aspect of polyamory.
LBGT Use of the Love Escape Hatch
We can see this problem with the love escape hatch if we take a look at queer movements that have used it. As I mentioned above, much of the current success of the lesbian and gay movements has happened by convincing the world that it is possible to have loving lesbian or gay couples. This success is very real and is reaping political gains. But it is also hollow in a sense, because it does not address straight insecurities around sexuality and gender identity. Instead, straight revulsion at queer acts and queer bodies is swept under the rug and simply not discussed. This leads to a paradoxical situation where same-sex marriage is doing fairly well in the court of public opinion but at the same time children still use “that’s so gay” as a putdown and it is still hard for two men or two women to hold hands in public without fear of violence.
In other words, the queer use of the love escape hatch has produced victories that are somewhat hollow. In particular, it has left behind people who the mainstream cannot envision in a normative monogamous love match: bisexuals, people with non-normative gender or sex, nonmonogamous gay men, leatherfolk, and so on. In other words, buying mainstream acceptance unfortunately means creating classes of “good queers” and “bad queers”.
While that is certainly bad enough, brushing queer sexuality and sex/gender under the rug means that if it should ever come out from under the rug, these political gains may well be forfeit. We see minor versions of this all the time. Police still hold stings and arrest men for having sex in bathrooms. Visibly transgender people still face horrifically high rates of violence. Bisexual men are still considered vectors of disease, when we are visible at all.
There is also the potential for major attacks on queer gains that operate through sexualization. I know this seems far-fetched, but it is unfortunately not. We can look to the example of 19-century middle- and upper-class romantic friendships between women. These used love terminology strongly, with women writing each other emotional letters full of innuendo but with very little in the way of direct sexual reference. In other words, these women were using the love escape hatch to validate their relationships, building on the supposed moral superiority of women to validate a new type of relationship. This worked well throughout the second half of the 1800’s, but right around the turn of the century sexologists got busy categorizing sexualities, and created the idea of lesbian sexuality. This idea was promulgated through the sciences and eventually took hold, supplanting the idea of romantic friendships. Love between women was sexualized, and became associated with sin, mental pathology, and hopelessness. This turned back the clock on this particular aspect of queer politics and set the stage for heavy persecution in the mid-1900’s.
This is less likely these days, partly because it is hard to pull off the same trick twice, but also because a lot of work has been put into validating queer sexuality and exporting it to the mainstream. Straight women are getting comfortable using dildos, and straight men are learning to love their butts. Bisexuality in women is becoming accepted in certain ways, creating an arena where sex between women is not as threatening and can be experimented with.
However, this work is still half-done. Sex between men is still considered yucky, dangerous, or hedonistic by much of the population. Expectations of women’s bisexuality tend to still serve straight men’s interests. Depictions of sex between women in mainstream porn are wildly unrealistic, failing to accurately portray queer women or their sex acts.
The love escape hatch has operated as a sort of side-step trick for lesbian and gay concerns, which works precisely because it does not address genitally attached forms of mainstream power. It is a real strategy that is producing real change, but at the same time the love escape hatch is only part of a much larger and longer struggle, one that requires challenging genitally attached power (namely heterosexuality and gender conformity) at its root. Depending entirely on the love escape hatch produces hollow victories, because it leaves in place the primary power arrangements that support heterosexual and sex/gender conformity.
Problems with Polyamory and the Love Escape Hatch
There seems to be a certain fear that occasionally circulates in polyamory circles, that somehow things will get too sexual or sex will take over.
Sometimes this shows up as a fear that the “wrong sort of people” will start flocking to poly events, with the implication that these people are actually sex-hungry (single?) men or perhaps hedonists. This has always been a bit odd to me. The men with sexist expectations tend to leave, as I have noted previously. The hedonists tend to fit in fine, and mix up their BDSM practice or sex party excursions with their poly socializing.
Other times this fear shows up as fear of exposure. For example, the fear that the media might get ahold of us and depict us as slavering sex addicts. I am not entirely sure how this would happen in the current conceptual milieu. Perhaps if someone slipped up and started talking sex? The one time this has happened that I know of, the radio host got embarrassed and shut them down. I think there is danger from the media if the right wing makes a concerted attack to sexualize us, but otherwise we will probably do fine on this score. Indeed, someone pointed out in comments to the last post that reporters seem to focus on the relationship aspects of polyamory. I think it is the sex with multiple people that draws them in, but they tend to be impressed by the relationship restructuring and focus on that, as there are numerous well-known ways to have sex with multiple people.
A second fear of exposure is the fear that we will somehow misrepresent polyamory in the social milieu. I think this makes the erroneous assumption that we can somehow control the image of polyamory as it circulates among non-poly people. Indeed, monogamous insecurity is the primary force shaping the understanding of polyamory in non-poly social contexts, and anything we do or say will not change that, even positive media. I have heard the wackiest things about polyamory over the years, with people assuming it exclusively means orgies, traditional polygamy, MFF threesomes, or what have you. I think we need to accept that the rumor mill is not friendly to polyamory, and just do what we can to educate people when we talk to them directly.
The tendency of polyamorous people to bear a certain animosity towards swinging seems to also come from this fear of being sexualized. Mainstream understanding of swinging uses sexualization to cast them in a fairly negative light, and poly people are (understandably) afraid of being drawn into the same trap. This tends to come out as somewhat unfair negativity towards swinging. Notably, swingers do not seem to feel the same way about poly people, and in fact the recent swinger propaganda book The Lifestyle had a positive chapter on polyamory, though it misrepresented us pretty badly.
My take on these fears is that they are showing up a certain poly insecurity, the weak spot in the love escape hatch. People understand that we have a certain conceptual weakness around polyamorous sex practice, we can be attacked on that level, and those attacks may well threaten any gains we have made. Indeed, all the talk of love and responsibility in the world cannot erase the fact that the mainstream considers us to be infidelitous at best and sex addicts at worst. The mainstream only needs one fact to make this judgment, the fact that most practicing polyamorous people have sex with multiple people. Everything else we do falls by the wayside, even if it is in fact much more important to us.
And in fact we see this in our interactions with individual monogamous people, many of whom are quick to ask us about orgies and sleeping arrangements when they first hear about polyamory. This knee-jerk mainstream reaction functions as a personal defense mechanism for people whose monogamous assumptions are being shattered: if they can convince themselves that we are sex freaks, then what we do does not have to be relevant to their lives. Fortunately, most monogamous people get over this pretty quickly after hearing about polyamory (usually by finding other differentiating factors), but the fact that sexualization is their first reaction clues us off as to where our ideology is weak.
This conceptual weak spot seems to encourage poly people to redouble their efforts around focusing on love and romance, at least in our interactions with non-poly people. While it is certainly legitimate to try to get monogamous mainstream folks to stop over-sexualizing us, this strategy does not actually close the conceptual hole created by the love escape hatch. We end up making all kinds of claims about how romance with multiple people is actually more difficult than sex with multiple people, that love is truly independent of sex, that love is much more important than sex, and so on. These claims are in fact mostly true, but we are never going to convince the mainstream of this. Indeed, people tend to hear these things and assume that we are talking about the surface level of the sex/love dichotomy, where sex and love are theoretically different. However, these same people will then happily retain the under-the-covers conflation of sex and love, which allows them to keep all the power arrangements associated with this genital attachment. From a power perspective, we can expect that the strategy of strengthening the sex/love dichotomy will fail at rearranging power structures for quite some time to come. Swingers have been making the argument that sex and love are independent for at least three decades, and they have not convinced the mainstream in the slightest. We will not do any better any time soon.
Much like in the gay and lesbian movements, the love escape hatch is useful, but using it does not address the more painful power realities, which tend to be genitally attached. Our heavy use of the love escape hatch is a side-stepping strategy, one where we gain a measure of respect but which fails to make much progress in the realm of interpersonal power, where we are constrained by the genital attachment of monogamy.
Shying away from the sexual aspects of polyamory has other negative effects. It prevents us from being sexually open in certain ways, for example talking about the possible sexual motivations for doing polyamory. It also draws a curtain over certain poly-specific sexual concerns, such as negotiating group sex within triads. And, it means that we fail to discuss the connections between polyamory and various poly sub-communities that have been sexualized, for example bisexuals.
There is the potential for sexualization to be used as a major attack on polyamory or nonmonogamy, so the insecurity we have around sexuality is based on a real danger. This could take a number of forms. One might be a new identity category or medical diagnosis, such as was used to kill romantic friendships. Another might be the expansion of the “sex addict” category to include poly people, complete with conversion therapy programs. If there is a new STD scare, polyamorous people might be scapegoated as disease vectors. All of these may seem unlikely to you, but you would be surprised by what a bit of attention from the right wing and their media machine can accomplish. Running towards a discourse of love and romance will not protect us from these attacks, because the mainstream understands love as always involving sex, and sex with multiple people as deviant. The only way to shore up our defenses in this area is to confront these attacks on sexuality head-on, using the fact that some of us have sex with multiple people as a springboard to challenge (monogamous) sexual conformity.
From a conceptual strategy perspective, the way forward is to close the hole. Closing the hole requires addressing power at the genital attachment level, and this means talking about sex instead of talking around it. This means getting away from the mainstream model where we discuss love endlessly but typically fail to bring up the sexual aspects of what we do. This means addressing certain mainstream attacks head-on: slut-shaming, scarcity-based sexual economies, the relegation of sexuality to the realms of the private or the deceitful, the over-valuing of sexual ignorance, and so on. This means bringing up the sexual possibilities inherent in polyamory: sexual variety, learning about sex from different partners, poly group sex, mixing up “casual” sex with sex in relationships, and how to negotiate safe sex in a way that still allows for nonmonogamy. This means paying attention to polyamorous overlap communities that have been sexualized, such as bisexuals, kinksters, swingers, and tantra or sacred sex practitioners.
Putting the Sex Back in Polyamory
In this section, I will review various sexual subjects that the poly community has not been able to address, due to our heavy reliance on the love escape hatch. This list is what I could come up with, and is necessarily incomplete. I will skip some subjects where the poly community is doing quite well, most notably safer sex. In addition to functioning as a list of areas where we could do better, this list also provides evidence of my central thesis: that the polyamorous conceptual strategy has been leaving out sexual conversations, to our detriment.
1) The poly movement needs slut pride. We live in a culture that heavily relies on slut-shaming to keep people’s sexuality in check and produce a scarcity economy around sex (and therefore love, since love requires sex). In particular, western cultures use the concept of the dirty (fallen, sinful, diseased, devalued) slut to control the sexuality of women.
This produces a special problem for polyamory, since the monogamous mainstream considers any kind of nonmonogamy to be slutting around, or at least evidence of one’s slutty tendencies. This holds true even though plenty of poly people are having less sex than plenty of monogamous people. In fact, labelling someone a slut has very little to do with their actual sexual practice: if a person merely admits that they might want to have sex with more than one other person, that is enough evidence to condemn them.
So, taking on the slut pride battle is fairly crucial to polyamory as a whole, even the less slutty among us. And indeed, many or most poly people are working on fighting slut-shaming. There is a strong slut pride element in poly discourse, showing up in The Ethical Slut in particular, but also in forum and email list discussions, and in interpersonal interactions. People generally recognize that anti-promiscuity prejudice is in fact directed at all poly people, and accordingly take stances against it.
At the same time, there is a certain subset of the community who persist in slut-shaming. I think this is largely a defensive reaction: by casting others as sluts, people imagine they can remove the slut stain from themselves. Sometimes this shows up in anti-swinger sentiment, or as a tendency to identify other people as swingers whenever they are more slutty than the speaker. (I think there should be a rule in place where people are not swingers until they have gone to a swinger party, logged on to a swinger website, or used the term themselves.) While this tactic of slut-shaming others may help a person get over their own guilt around nonmonogamy, we are not going to convince the mainstream any time soon.
We need to recognize slut pride as a goal that is helpful to the entire polyamory movement, whether or not you happen to consider yourself a slut. If you are polyamorous, the mainstream will think you are a slut no matter what you say, so fighting slut-shaming is a goal we should all be working on.
2) Polyamory is fun – sexually. Our tendency to gloss over the sexual aspects of polyamory unfortunately means that we are leaving out one of the prime motivations for doing polyamory. Of course different poly people get different sexual bonuses when they switch to polyamory: some get to just have more sex, others enjoy more sexual variety, others get the chance to experiment with sex and/or BDSM, others get to have less-involved sexual relationships or hookups, still others get the ability to flirt with whomever they want, yet others build loving relationships that incorporate group sex, and so on. There are of course some exceptions: poly people who are asexual or who otherwise gain no specifically sexual benefits from polyamory. However, the vast majority of poly people are reaping one or more of these benefits, and they can be really major wins. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.
We live in a culture that increasingly values sexual variety. However, at the same time our culture demands monogamy. This means that monogamous people who desire sexual variety end up adopting various problematic tactics, such as cheating, or taking long breaks to play the field between relationships, or engaging in a pattern of short serial relationships. Many types of polyamory allow one to have sex with a variety of people. Sometimes this happens through less-involved hookups, sometimes through the rotation of relationship partners, and other times because a poly person is permanently available for dating. Even people in long-term relatively closed poly situations still beat out their monogamous counterparts on this measure, because they are developing deep and long-term sexual connections with multiple people, instead of with one person.
With sexual variety comes sexual learning and experience. More sexual partners means different sorts of sexual connections, which tends to make a person a more effective lover. Good sex is a major goal in our current culture, but paradoxically actual teaching on sexual subjects is rare in the mainstream. While there are ways for monogamous people to learn about sex through a variety of partners, the tendency towards sexual variety built into polyamory means that there tend to be opportunities to learn sex.
People seem to consider sexual experimentation to be frivolous and unnecessary, perhaps something you do in college before growing up. However, many people need to find avenues of experimentation to be happy. For example, in the BDSM community, we have a big problem where people realize they are kinky ten years into a marriage to a very non-kinky spouse. In the past these people have either cheated or rolled their own nonmonogamous arrangements, but increasingly they are turning to polyamory as a way to meet their desires without losing a valuable relationship. Similarly, many bisexual people only admit their bisexuality after being in a monogamous relationship for a number of years, and polyamory can help them experiment with their sexuality in the context of an ongoing relationship. The polyamorous flexibility to experiment is incredibly important to personal growth and should not be underestimated.
In addition to all of the above, poly people seem to inventing a new kind of group sex. There has been plenty of group sex in plenty of contexts, but it is rare for someone to have simultaneous sex with multiple people that they love or are in relationship with. This is specific to polyamory, and has its own set of challenges, but has not been discussed much in poly forums or poly books, which is an unfortunate oversight. Even when poly people are not in a triad group sex situation, being poly tends to open up possibilities for group sex, which is another big sexual advantage. While some people are not into it, group sex is crucial to others – a couple months ago a woman told me that her sexual orientation is “group”.
These days our culture seems to oddly value dating and starting relationships over actually being in relationships. Weddings seem more important than the subsequent marriage, romance movies are all about meeting someone, and being single (and available) is becoming a desired lifestyle choice. For some people, polyamory has the advantage that they can be in a serious relationship (or relationships) and still be available for dating or flirting. People can combine the best parts of being involved with being single. This is just a really nice feeling, one of my favorite parts of polyamory, and something that keeps me from feeling trapped or stifled in relationships.
One of the polyamorous surrealities that hits me over the head on occasion is the fact that I am living the stereotypical straight guy’s perfect life. I have a serious live-in relationship that is deep and loving alongside two other relationships that involve less time but are still wonderful dating relationships. (And it should be noted, these dating relationships do not necessarily have to go anywhere.) In addition, I go to sex parties, I am available for random hookups, and I have a couple play buddies that I see on occasion. As if that were not enough, the sex I have is very pervy and typically extremely hot. Not only am I having my cake and eating it too, but I am having and eating two or three other cakes as well.
My life partner is similarly living a woman’s fantasy relationship life. She is seriously involved with two men right now and has had the occasional threesome with two bi men in the past. Again, she is getting up some hot and pervy acts. If we take the popularity of the Anita Blake books as due to a significant straight women’s fantasy, then she is doing very well for herself.
Now not all poly people are like us, but the fact that polyamory allows us to do these things is fairly incredible. The urge to hide these aspects of polyamory is counterproductive to our movement: in particular, it makes for crappy advertising. I do not think that it is an accident that one of the most-downloaded episodes of Polyamory Weekly is the one where the host spends a weekend in bed with two of her sweeties. Similarly, Mistress Matisse successfully mixes up relationship talk with sex and BDSM talk. In addition, there are poly/kinky sex and relationship blogs out there too numerous to count, so clearly talking about polyamory from a sexual perspective is working for some people.
In discourse with the outer world, we are doing ourselves a disservice by downplaying the sexual motivations for what we do. Indeed, our outreach efforts can tend towards an overly dour tone where we very carefully lay out all the ways that polyamory can go wrong, but fail to educate people on the really fun parts of polyamory, the reasons we are all here. Certainly some of these fun parts are unrelated to sexuality (say, holding hands with two sweeties at the movies) but some of the fun parts are definitely sexual. Those of us who have been successful at polyamory are living our dreams, and we need to share those dreams with the world, including the sexy bits.
We are definitely more open around talking sex within the community, but even so we sometimes gloss over our sexual motivations. For example, we tend to talk around the urge for sexual variety even though it is a real motivating factor for some poly people. Indeed, if someone has the urge for a new sexual partner every once in a while (in addition to their urge to have multiple partners), how does that affect their poly practice? Are there community-recognized ways to do this? How do people negotiate an option to attend sex parties with their lover(s)? Why is there no discussion of that class of poly people who get good at starting spontaneous sex parties whenever they gather in groups? There is an unrecognized skill set there, one which I think many of us would like to learn.
3) Polyamory brings sex into public spaces. This is not to say that we are all having orgies in public, much as that sounds delicious. Rather, polyamory can bring sex and sexuality into public discourse in much the same way that queer sexuality does. Because we are doing something that is sexually non-normative, our sex and sexuality become visible specifically because they do not match cultural assumptions. Often this is used against us, such as when the mainstream tries to sexualize us as deviants. However, we can use this to our benefit, both to improve mainstream culture and to improve our own situation.
Specifically, the mainstream fails to discuss the relationship between sex and monogamy, as I have pointed out above. While this is beneficial to the power structures of compulsory monogamy, it is not all that beneficial to monogamous people. However, polyamory by its very existence tends to make monogamous practice visible, which leads to various benefits. Let’s look at some examples.
Monogamy is rarely explicitly negotiated at the beginning of the relationship. Which is to say, even when both people are fully intent on being monogamous, there is no discussion on what exactly that means and where the boundaries are. Does that mean no watching porn alone? How about chaste kisses with friends? Traveling with friends? Some people seem to think that monogamy means hand jobs are okay (usually they figure this out right before they are about to get one) while others seem to think monogamy means no serious outside friendships. There is a whole range of restrictions that may or may not qualify as monogamy, and very little talk about which may apply in a given relationship. Successful monogamous couples tend to suss these out through trial and error over time.
However, one interesting thing that has been happening is that some monogamous people are availing themselves of poly communication and relationship negotiation techniques. This is still in its infancy, but we can expect that poly people can potentially teach the mainstream a thing or two about explicitly negotiating sexual boundaries in relationships. Indeed, most of my tips for practical nonmonogamy apply equally well to monogamous relationships.
The potential for exporting poly wisdom around sexuality to the mainstream does not stop at boundary negotiation, however. Poly people have great things to say around jealousy, STD prevention, getting over sexual guilt or slut shame, and so on. Certainly many of these are non-sexual in nature, like learning how to be friends with the ex of a lover. But plenty of these are sexual in nature, and hiding them does a disservice to both polyamory and the mainstream.
In particular, polyamory exposes unrealistic expectations about desire and sexuality that tend to be based in monogamous conformity. The monogamous ideal is sexual attraction to only one person in your lifetime, and that is an unrealistic ideal for the vast majority of people. The mere existence of polyamory as a recognized category makes it clear that exceptions to this are possible, which in turn shines a light on the actual lives of monogamous people.
For example, poly people have been challenging the idea that sexual monogamy is the order of the natural world. The Myth Of Monogamy is a book that basically proves that monogamy does not exist in the natural world. It was not written by poly people, but has been heavily popularized in poly channels. (Indeed, check out the section on similar books on the Amazon page.) Laying the naturalness of monogamy to rest is beneficial to both monogamous and nonmonogamous people, because it promotes a more realistic view of sexual attraction.
On a side note, the reactions to the data within The Myth of Monogamy show the deep cynicism of arguments for compulsory monogamy. First, we (or at least the women among us) were supposed to be monogamous because it was natural. Then, someone showed that monogamy does not exist in the natural kingdom. Now, we are supposed to be monogamous because we need to rise above our baser natures. It seems that no matter what behavior is “natural”, monogamy is the only appropriate choice. As it turns out this is dictated by cultural conformity, not by nature.
The poly view on sexual attraction is strongly pragmatic: people are going to be attracted to a (possibly large) number of other people over the course of their lifetime, and it is just a matter of how you deal with it. While this view is at odds with the culture’s romantic ideals, monogamous people who take this view have an easier time handling jealousy, are more realistic about STD prevention, are more likely to handle the possibility of infidelity in a realistic way, are less likely to feel guilty about having had a large number of lovers, and so on. And they are more likely to accept polyamory as a valid choice.
Covering up the sexual aspects of polyamory does not help this view gain traction. Indeed, the power of the polyamorous community is that we have so many levels and sorts of sexual attraction among our members: asexual people alongside sex party aficionados, alongside people who need to date for a couple months before getting sexual, alongside people who need four sex partners to feel sexually satisfied. Even better, we handle this diversity well, to the point where these people can actually get involved with each other. We are pretty good at exposing the relationship diversity of poly people, but we need to connect it to diversity of sexual attraction and sexual needs, in order to help the mainstream towards a more realistic view of sexual desire.
4) Polyamory overlaps with sexualized subcultures or identities. These include bisexuals, BDSM, sex workers, swingers and other sex partygoers, tantra community, and sacred sexuality. A lack of sex talk around polyamory also tends to erase these people and sub-communities within polyamory. This is not on purpose, but rather because we inadvertently replicate the mainstream habit of erasing sexualized subcultures. Let us look at some of these groups.
It happened again recently: I walked into a new poly discussion group and five of the thirteen people present were bisexual. This is typical, and bisexual percentages in poly forums tend to run between twenty and sixty percent, depending on the particular context. This is a huge over-representation of bisexuals, who clocked in at around two percent of the population in a 2002 CDC survey. (Note that this large representation does not mean that bisexuals are inherently nonmonogamous – see my paper on the subject for more details.) Basically, bisexuals are all over polyamory, to an extent that is not replicated in any other non-queer affinity group.
Despite this abundance of bisexuals in polyamory, there seems to be very little education on bisexuality within the poly community. For example, people sometimes do not know that there are different kinds of bisexuality. Some bisexuals lean straight or gay. Others oscillate back and forth, switching which way they lean over a matter of years, months, or weeks depending on the person. Still other bi people are more sexually attracted to one gender but have better romantic relationships with a different gender. There is a general air of acceptance around bisexuality in poly circles, so this education does happen, but it could be more explicit and comprehensive. I met a man a couple years back who was stunned when I told him that lots of bisexuals preferred monogamy. We should recognize the bi/poly overlap and address it. There is one place this is already happening, due to the friction that tends to spring up between bisexual women and M/F couples looking for a Hot Bi Babe.
There is a similar overlap between polyamory and the BDSM community, to the point that a number of prime poly spokespeople are also into BDSM. However, this has not translated into a solid understanding or acceptance of BDSM within poly circles. A couple years back I saw a poly email list implode after one member went on a rant about how only dogs should be wearing collars. This lack of acceptance seems to be correcting as BDSM people join the poly community in large numbers and make our presence felt. However, the poly community is still short on basic BDSM education. Many poly people would not know the basics of kinky practice, whether we are talking scening, D/S relationships, collars, or the varieties of kinky play that are out there.
While the crossover with sex workers is not as obvious, it deserves a special mention here because of the heavy silence and stigma around sex work. I suspect that polyamory is useful for integrating sex work with one’s relationship life, because I know a couple of people who are doing this. However, I do not know if this is a widespread practice, and there is almost no conversation on the polyamory/sex work crossover population within the poly community. The exception would be a handful of visible pro dommes.
We can go through this same discussion around poly people who are into tantric practice, or sacred sexuality, or swinging, or other sex party communities. In each case, there is a fairly surprising lack of understanding within the larger poly community. For example, despite the seemingly endless poly discussion about swinging, there seems to be a stunning lack of details on the actual mechanics of swinging. Indeed, most of my knowledge of swinging has come from independent reading, not through poly channels, forums, or resources. For each of these sub-communities, there are details that are important to their nonmonogamous practice, that the larger community often does not know. While there have been attempts (for example, The Ethical Slut has a chapter on sex parties), we need to keep this stuff present and available. Perhaps there should be a “things you should know about other poly people” guide out there.
Doing so is not just helpful to people who are in the particular community overlap, but also strengthens the poly community as a whole. Each one of these crossover populations spins their own variations on polyamory, and each group is investigating stuff that is useful beyond that particular subculture. For example, bisexuals can tell us things about gender and sexuality: how different genders have sex, how attraction to different genders works, the fuzziness of sexuality boundaries, and so on. BDSM folks can describe power in relationships and alternative erotic practices. Tantra practitioners have things to say about sex skills, and often about spirituality. Indeed, the most useful poly support group I have been to was run by people who came from the tantra and new age communities. Swingers can tell us all about group sex and they have their own interesting version of eroticized compersion, where watching your partner have sex with someone else makes you hot. Sex workers have all kinds of wisdom to impart about sex skills and and the sex/commerce crossover.
In other words, we are missing out big time when we do not pull this sort of information into polyamorous forums and resources. And we have largely been failing on this front, I suspect due to the negative sexual stain that attaches to each of these communities. In other words, we are replicating the mainstream tendency to divide along lines of supposedly deviant sexuality.
And indeed, failing to integrate these ideas into polyamorous ideology tends to balkanize the community. Last year I was surprised to discover that there exists a large poly tantra community in San Francisco that parallels the “mainstream poly” community. I ended up at a party where everyone was polyamorous and I knew none of them. I should not have been surprised, because there is a similar effect in the BDSM community. Most of the kinky poly people I know do not go to non-kinky poly events, usually because they do not want to have to educate others on their sexuality or face anti-BDSM sentiment. So instead they set up parallel poly events in BDSM contexts, which are sometimes more successful than the original model. Indeed, the only polyamory discussion group currently in San Francisco proper is a BDSM-oriented one. San Francisco may be ahead of the rest of the world because we have a lot of poly people here, but in that case we should serve as a warning: it is crucial to maintain a positive and informed attitude towards sexualized subcultures. To do otherwise is to lose their very valuable input and to risk them walking away and taking a chunk of your poly community with them.
Going All the Way
The phrase “going all the way” nicely sums up the connection between sex and power in our culture. It sets up a sex act as the final goal, usually heterosexual intercourse. Our culture sees sex (especially a particular kind of sex) as a certain kind of endpoint, the final arbiter of a number of interpersonal power interactions. To really be in love, you need to go all the way or at least be headed there. To have an affair, you need to go all the way with someone else. To be in a real relationship, you must have gone all the way.
All sorts of life conditions depend on “going all the way”: who you live with, who you can count on, whether you wear a ring on a particular finger, whether you should raise children or run for public office. All these things can be taken away if you lose your way. Going all the way in the wrong way gets you called a slut or a queer. Legislators attempt to ban abortion and scuttle sex education to ensure that going all the way has negative consequences. The idea of “going all the way” is used to exert cultural power in myriad ways.
If we are going to fight this sort of genitally-attached power, we need to go all the way. Which is not to say that we need to stage a revolution based in oppressive sexual assumptions, but rather that we need to recognize and resist the power that is channeled through the sex act. To do this, we as a movement need to create and support forms of resistance that contain and value a sexual element. This does not mean we should all be having more sex, but rather that we should build power around the sex we are having.
Going all the way means we need to face sexual power with sexual response. It means we need to be upfront about the various ways we are sexually deviating from the mainstream norm, instead of hiding behind ideas of love or monogamy. It means that we need to value our sexualized crossover communities and learn from them, instead of parroting mainstream prejudices. It is tempting to think that we can compromise with the mainstream, that we can use mainstream language and mainstream conceptual tricks to gain acceptance, but these will inevitably backfire on us, because the primary thing the mainstream wants from us is sexual monogamy.
Going all the way means that we need to keep up the conceptual work on all fronts: rethinking sexual codes, restructuring relationships, rebuilding social interactions. Not all of us need to do all these things, but we need a community which can support someone doing any or all of these.
In the final call, going all the way means actually being the opposite of monogamy in terms of power, not just talking as if we are. Polyamory has been doing a great job of this, adapting to a variety of nonmonogamous forms which then challenge compulsory monogamy in a number of different ways. We need to keep this up if we want polyamory to be a long-lasting and meaningful movement. Compromising with the mainstream or self-censoring will only scuttle us, setting back nonmonogamy as a whole or setting us up for censure.