Polyamory has a certain credibility these days. Media outlets interview poly people and actually present with a positive spin. Talk show audiences are incredibly hostile to poly guests, but the talk show hosts are usually on our side.
The idea of polyamory seems to be hitting a cultural tipping point, where people are expected to know the word and the ideas behind it, with zero explanation. There is a certain legitimacy there, the legitimacy of being recognized by the culture at large.
[This essay, by Peppermint, is reprinted with permission of the author from Freaksexual. I couldn't resist the title, and found it gave me a lot of food for thought... I'll weigh in on the comments, below. More of Peppermint's essays on poly and bisexual questions can be found at Pepperminty.]
The current credibility of polyamory is odd. We live in a culture that is still puritanical, where mere positive mention of masturbation is enough to have you removed from the Surgeon General's office, where infidelity is grounds for impeachment, where polygamy is mentioned in the same breath asbestiality, where virginity is prized ahead of sexuality, and same-gender sexuality is still unrecognized.
The poly movement is a straight-out refutation of monogamy. Polyamory upends notions of what a proper relationship should be, obviating the need for the large and growing adultery-advice industry, reforming jealousy from a green-eyed monster into a tame housepet. It jettisons possessiveness and its attendant insecurity, and redefines words like fidelity, commitment, and marriage.
If you listen to the radical conservatives, sexual monogamy is the bedrock of our culture, right up there with the sanctity of (heterosexual) marriage. While I disagree with their conclusions, they're correct that monogamy is central to the current structure of relationships.
Since polyamory is a basic rethinking of some primary structures in relationships and culture, you wouldn't think it'd be so readily accepted. We should be be getting more flak, more backlash, more hostility, more attempts to make us invisible. The fairly rapid spread of polyamorous ideology, and the relatively positive media and cultural responses to polyamory, are surprising to me.
To make the strange credibility of polyamory more clear, I wish to compare it to two similar movements, namely the swinger and BDSM movements.
Both are good candidates for comparison: both movements are mixed-gender and aren't located primarily, or exclusively, in the queer world. Both have achieved a measure of mainstream recognition. All three movements share enough common goals that they can form political alliance. However, polyamory somehow seems to be ahead in terms of credibility, despite probably being smaller in terms of numbers.
Polyamory fares better in the media. A quick scan down the Polyamory in the Media blog shows that most feature articles on polyamory give it a positive slant. The last negative article capitalized on a murder stemming from jealousy in a three-person arrangement.
Amazingly, the story did not seem to travel outside of poly channels, despite its tabloid appeal and the fact that it is the second death of a poly person in the media in as many years.
More typical are website or magazine articles that focus on subjects as diverse as poly parenting, a queer poly triad, Southern Baptist polyamorists, and a poly network in Florida. All of these articles are positive.
Even ABC News has run a poly-positive story.When articles do have a partially negative slant— like this one— they do it by quoting therapists or other self-proclaimed "experts" that polyamory cannot work, right next to happy tales of polyamory working, delivered by perky nonmonogamists. We come out pretty well in such comparisons.
Sometimes an article will sensationalize polyamory, but doing so only makes us seem sexier and more hip than we actually are. In short, despite the occasional talk-show hatchet job or similar setback, polyamory is doing well in the media.
BDSM and swinging are not doing so well. They're most often addressed in a legal or authoritarian framework, in articles dealing with busts, zoning, and court cases. For example, we see BDSM included in articles on subjects like an art gallery forced to close, strip club licensing woes, dominatrices in court, a leather festival angering members of a community, and Catholics attacking the Folsum St. Fair.
There is the occasional human-interest story, but it's swamped by the negative publicity. The law-and-order focus of BDSM and swinger coverage is sending a not-so-subtle message that the only acceptable response to such practices is authoritarian and repressive, or alternatively, that kink and swinging always end badly.
In contrast, polyamory seems to show up as friendly human-interest stories. Even when it is linked to murder, the story does not have tabloid appeal and is quickly dropped. Polyamory is treated in the media as something that the readers might be interested in doing, unlike BDSM and swinging. Polyamory seems to have a certain cachet on the political left as well.
Polyamory is mentioned positively on well-known feminist blogs, and is generally met with curiosity and tolerance on these blogs, even when the writers do not practice it themselves. Swinging is rarely mentioned on these same blogs, perhaps because it is seen as largely neutral to the question of gendered power, or perhaps because it flies under the radar.
BDSM faces real obstacles to acceptance in feminist circles. This positive attitude seems to be replicated in most left-wing discussions of polyamory, for example among Unitarians, in Pagan circles, and in queer communities (though BDSM is also generally accepted in the LGBT world, presumably due to its descent from the queer leather movement).
Why is polyamory doing as well as it is? Can we expect this trend to continue? What political strategies should we follow to keep this winning streak going?
This is true both of the word itself, which focuses on the love ("amory"), and in the community, where the focus tends to be on relationship conceptualizations instead of sexual freedom. In the mainstream, there is a heavily trafficked sex/love dichotomy. However, this duality is on the face of it problematic: sex and love are supposed to be different, but at the same time love is always supposed to include sex.
Phrases like "making love" do little to clarify this, referring simultaneously to the sexual act and the act of love. What is really happening here is that we tend to use this sex/love duality to separate out sexual relating into two separate categories, one which is loving and valued, and one which is somehow carnal and unworthy, exemplified in the phrase "just sex".
But of course, there is no easy way to distinguish between the two, allowing the culture to judge sexual relationships positively or negatively in a fairly arbitrary manner. A variety of expressions of sexuality are cast as false, transient, dirty, deviant, or sinful, while a narrow set of expressions are reserved as being somehow above reproach or examination (those that get to be "loving").
For example, queer relationships have for the last century had trouble being recognized as "loving" instead of some sort of deviant sexual expression. The polyamory community has apparently managed to use this sex/love dichotomy to our advantage. Poly people tend to distinguish between sex and love, and point out that polyamory is specifically the pursuit of multiple love relationships, not "just" multiple sex relationships.
Most polyamory books (The Ethical Slut being the counterexample) steer away from the sexual realities of polyamory and instead focus on relationship dynamics. We work hard against the tendency of the media to sexualize anything we say by fielding representatives who carefully steer the conversation back to love.
In public, we downplay the racier aspects of polyamory, like our heavy overlap with the tantra and BDSM communities, or the fact that many poly folks regularly attend play parties, or that possible access to sexual threesomes is a nice side effect of living polyamorously. This "it's all about the love" strategy works to some extent.
Downplaying the sex in our love lives removes its taint and disassociates us from the mainstream stereotype of out-of-control hedonism (which is presumably what you get as soon as people depart from a straight monogamous lifestyle). This puts us on footing where we can be taken seriously by the mainstream media, and more generally by people with mainstream attitudes.
The focus on love in polyamory is an end run around the culture's censure of deviant sexualities. There is some legitimacy to downplaying our sexuality. Polyamory is about much more than just sexual nonmonogamy, and so resisting the mainstream tendency to focus on our sexuality ("does everyone sleep in the same bed?") is important.
Also, multiple relationship dynamics are central to polyamory, and so a focus on relationships is entirely appropriate. Playing mainstream sex-negativity games makes it more likely that one is taken seriously when discussing polyamory. At the same time, we need to be aware that sex-negativity is a poison pill, one that may cost us more than it buys us.
For example, sex-negativity tends to alienate queer folks, and so could harm our standing in queer circles. If we remember that bisexuals make up a very large chunk of polyamory, then a sex-negative approach is potentially divisive. However, the primary problem with sex-negativity is that it strikes at the very core of what it means to be polyamorous. This becomes clear if we examine the relationship of sex to monogamy.
Monogamy, at its core, is about sexual fidelity, or rather, sexual fidelity is the one thing you need to be monogamous.Everything else is optional, like marriage, or living together, or not living with other people, or who you share secrets with, and so on. We can also see this in the contrapositive: having more than one sexual partner is by definition nonmonogamous.
In other words, monogamy is actually "all about the sex," or rather who you have sex with is monogamy's first and most crucial requirement. This means that polyamory's most crucial departure from monogamy is in the area of sexual fidelity. While polyamory is about many other things as well (multiple romantic attachments, economies of abundance, triad or group dynamics, rethinking the role of relationships in structuring our lives), polyamory's primary point of resistance to power is in its refusal to adhere to the cultural rules of sexual fidelity.
Bearing this in mind, the danger of sex-negativity becomes clear. The purpose of sex-negativity is basically less "dirty" sex, and the culture defines any sort of nonmonogamous sex as "dirty". So cultural sex-negativity is directly in opposition to the practice of polyamory, and we self-limit our movement (and our poly practice) to the extent that we adhere to sex-negative codes.I know this seems very vague, so let us look at the solid example of less-involved (aka "secondary") relationships.
Less-involved relationships are crucial to polyamory, both on their own and as starting points for more-involved relationships that are simultaneous with one or more established relationships. However, admitting a sex-negative attitude can make it difficult to hold down these relationships, since they are easily dismissed as transient, as one person using another, as slutting around, as "just sex", and so on. This is not to say that we should all go have orgies on television tomorrow.
What I am saying is that we should promote a balanced approach, one where we mix a sex-positive message with our poly-positive message. There is a place for downplaying sex (in particular, talk shows, which are purposefully created to be sexual spectacles) in our presentation.But it should be balanced with sex-positivity in other forums. The sex we have is not a liability; it is one of our primary strengths. Our primary successes will be those where we strike a balance, being pro-sex (and therefore sexy) while still including all the other powerful aspects of polyamory.
My model for this is Cunning Minx of PolyWeekly who weekly reminds listeners that "it's not all about the sex," while incorporating erotic material alongside narratives on the tribulations of polyamory. It is this sort of honest all-angles view that best promotes polyamory. Mistress Matisse is another good example of this.
While there are certainly people and social scenes within polyamory that are sexist and/or homophobic, in general polyamory is friendly to women and LGBT folks. We can see this in the various queer authors of polyamory books, which include numerous bi women, some lesbians, and a trans man.
This authorship has to date largely prevented the usual drift of mixed-gender nonmonogamous scenes towards rituals geared to the needs of straight men. We can see these rituals in other nonmonogamous movements: most (but not all) swinger scenes prohibit sex between men, the free love movement preached a doctrine of women's sexual availability, and some kinky scenes here in San Francisco (namely the Power Exchange and the Exotic Erotic Ball) seem to be more geared to the needs of men oblivious to personal space than the comfort of women.
While polyamory does have some similar problems— like too much focus on the elusive "Hot Bi Babe—" in general, poly communities do a good job of staying friendly to women and queer people. Poly relationship possibilities are often described as "any genders in any combination", and even straight poly people seem to take pride in the ability of poly structures to violate heterosexual and gender norms.
Online poly forums sometimes end up with a heady mix of sexualities and genders, with a lot of BDSM practitioners in each group. There seems to be a base level of comfort, even when the group is mostly straight. One effect of the queer- and women-friendliness of polyamory is that polyamory has stayed flexible in terms of relationship structure.
For example, full triads (everyone involved with everyone else) can generally only exist if they contain at least one queer member. Also, poly people tend to stay away from the possessiveness and power imbalances that are standard in heteronormative relationships. A further effect is that polyamory has kept its shiny radical glow.
It is hard for a sexuality/relationship movement to appear revolutionary these days if it reproduces regressive sexist and homophobic attitudes. (Though notably this apparently does not apply to racism, and poly communities are not necessarily friendly to people of color).
The relatively progressive ideology of polyamory has endeared it to left-wing folks, making polyamory a largely unproblematic choice in these circles. Also, this progressive aspect has helped define polyamory as distinct from more conservative nonmonogamous movements (most notably traditional polygamy), making it hard for our right-wing critics to conflate the two.
Nonmonogamy is anything that is not monogamy, but polyamory seems to have taken up residence at the other end of the spectrum. Polyamory forms a kind of conceptual bookend, the farthest you can get when traveling away from monogamy. We see this in the usage of the word polyamory as a catch-all phrase for nonmonogamy or a general analogy.
This ideological opposition to monogamy has produced an actual opposition to monogamy in polyamorous practice. Any particular monogamous constraint, rule, or power dynamic is potentially overcome by at least some polyamorous people. Sexual monogamy is of course first among these, but the social practice of monogamy also becomes optional in polyamory: poly people come out and they insist on fully integrating multiple lovers into their social (friends, family, work) lives.
Ownership, possessiveness, and jealousy in relationships become liabilities and are jettisoned or managed, or are transferred to BDSM practice. People raise children with more than two parents, or with one live-in parent combined with the support of a network of lovers. Hierarchy among relationships is sometimes disavowed. Of course, monogamy is embedded in the culture, and the actual work of divesting monogamy tends to be done in small chunks.
While polyamorous ideals sit at one of the spectrum, poly practice often includes monogamous elements, such as closeting, jealousy, strong hierarchy among one's relationships, assumptions about living arrangements, and so on. Each decade the nonmonogamous movements break through a new set of barriers. In the last couple rounds, we have added open networks and incorporated sex radical play parties and some amount of BDSM nonmonogamy (including D/S nonmonogamy).
At the same time, very few triads and quads manage to stay stable, and we seem unable to get away from primary/secondary hierarchy and coupled living arrangements. Similarly, we are generally unable to maintain large but workable communal living situations, a dream that has existed since the sexual revolution but has only been practiced in fits and starts.
Perhaps the next round (not necessarily the next generation, since older generations will be involved) will bring solutions to these problems. Or perhaps nonmonogamy will veer off in some new direction, like loose-knit tribes. Presumably it will surprise us.
Will the next round still be called polyamory, and will it retain the built poly community? Hard to say. We think of polyamory as the anti-monogamy, but that is a bit of a conceit, given the limitations we are still working with. The next round may retain the polyamory label, or it may need to jettison polyamorous ideology in favor of something new.
2005 San Francisco GayDay parade, Basetree
Caketopper from Salon's story on Polyamory
Ladybugs from MicroEcos
The notorious triad from Cabaret
Candy Hearts from American Sexuality magazine
Peppermint in the flesh!