10 January, 2016

Polyamory: New things to say, new ways to see

Just in the eighteen months I've been 'out' and surveying the media coverage of polyamory, there has been a marked mellowing, a decided difference in tone in much of it. Even as recently as a year ago, articles on polyamory were routinely referring to it as "ethical cheating" and focussing rather intently on who was putting what genitals where. This would lead to some positively toxic comment sections as people reacted harshly to what they perceived was an attack on monogamy. We polyfolk were branded irresponsible, narcissistic and commitment-phobic, to use three of the milder terms. Kind of funny when your responsibility and commitment as a polyamorous person involves more people and you're considerably less concerned with yourself when you're emotionally invested in more than one other.

Not so much anymore. This is happening in lockstep with an increase in awareness. There's a show called "Love, Sex and Neighbors" coming to NBC for 2016-2017, in which a straight-laced Midwestern couple moves to Orange County, California and discovers that the parents at their kids' school are experimenting with poly. The fastest-selling video game in history, Fallout 4 (three quarters of a billion dollars in its first 24 hours of release!) incorporates polyamory in a no-muss, no-drama fashion.
A sure sign that we're at least approaching the mainstream: Conservatives are getting scared of us. (I love this article, which dates back to before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. It invokes a slippery slope: if gay marriage, then why not polyamory, why not incest, why not bestiality? Fundamental misunderstanding of 'consent', there. And yet it does highlight one thing I've remarked upon myself: many people are more comfortable with unethical rather than ethical non-monogamy:

...a girl he met invited him to fly to her home to have sex with her, with her husband’s consent. What’s interesting about this is how the man’s conscience kept trying to stop him. For example: 
 “Is your husband really ok with this?” 
 “Do you want to ask him?” she asked. 
 “No!” I quickly exclaimed.

Both of us have run into this repeatedly. Most people who are actually polyamorous would generally consider it imperative to clarify ahead of time a new partner's relationship status. Some will take a prospective partner's word that their other partners are aware and consenting; others, like me, would prefer to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak, the better to understand rules, boundaries, and guidelines, which are different for each set of people.



The distinction between the three is important, and it's why communication is such a vital part of successful polyamory. A "rule" is something, usually but not always made by two people without anyone else's input, that can't be broken without severe penalty and certainly can't be negotiated away. The most common in poly has to do with safer sex, but some people have reams of rules that serve to protect the "primary" relationship and elevate it over all others. I have found the more rules you have in play, the more drama there is and--paradoxically--the less likely you'll be successful at polyamory.
Another very common rule is veto. I feel threatened by Billy-Bob: you must therefore cut all ties with him, or else. This, needless to say, is a real dick move to pull on someone and runs completely counter to what polyamory is supposed to be about, but some people really do like to cloak their monogamy in poly trappings.

Billy-Bob may be a real asshole, and I may be very uncomfortable with you dating him, but that's grounds for a "what the fuck do you see in that guy?" talk and not an outright veto. If the reason I'm uncomfortable with Billy-Bob is my own insecurity--maybe he's stacked, or rich, or stacked and rich--well, that's my problem. If I sincerely think Billy-Bob is going to hurt you, that's not your problem, it's our problem.

I've been vetoed. Once. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life--it almost turned me away from polyamory entirely--and it will not happen again if I can help it, even if it means I never have concurrent relationships. I will never inflict that kind of pain on Eva or anyone else. EVER.

Eva and I have one rule: the rings stay on, no matter what. We have this rule because people who take their rings off are usually (not always, but usually) cheaters. Keeping the rings on shows both us and everyone else that we are committed to each other.

That's our one rule. Everything else is a boundary.

Boundaries are different from rules in that they can be negotiated and changed as conditions warrant. Perhaps you've grown close enough with someone to "fluid-bond" with them: the boundary on "safer sex" has moved for that relationship. Perhaps you have grown emotionally in one relationship and it moves the boundaries for all the others. Perhaps it's a specific act that becomes acceptable as insecurities wane. There are all sorts of possibilities. Note that you can have very strong preferences with respect to your boundaries: the key is to recognize that those preferences are not set in stone. It takes a certain security to set boundaries instead of rules, or at the very least a willingness to overcome your insecurities.

Boundaries also, by necessity, are negotiated by all parties in the wider relationship: not necessarily all together--it can get awkward--but the lines of communication have to remain open all around. This dramatically lessens the tension, especially for newer partners, who need to feel validated. It's not exactly fair for a couple to put rules on 'secondary' relationships without input from the people those rules will affect.

Guidelines are even more vague (but still important). I have one simple one: DON'T BE A DICK. Would a dick do this? Yes? Then I'd better not. If I feel like doing it anyway, I need to talk to somebody or somebodies about why.

 I'd much rather be friends, or at least on good terms, with any prospective metamour right out front. That way, I'm hopefully not viewed as a threat (because I'm not: I'm, just another sensible person who loves the same woman he does. "Do you love my wife?" "Of course I do, anybody with any sense would!")


Polyamory is primed for a cultural explosion, and as such, it's nice to see people who mostly understand it out in the vanguard of public perception. Here's an article from the gay magazine The Advocate, for instance.

Now this one really gladdens my heart. Because contrary to popular straight opinion, gay people can be some of the most socially conservative folk around.

The article itself does contain a couple of nits I'd like to pick. One is the term "active bisexual", which is a real head-shaker in a gay publication until you remember that gays and bisexuals don't really coexist very well. At least to me, the term "active" bisexual heavily implies you're only a real bisexual if you're currently dating a man AND a woman, the same way I'm supposedly only really polyamorous if I'm maintaining two or more committed loving relationships. Nuts to that: I've been poly and in less than one relationship. If I were bisexual, my relationship status likewise wouldn't signify.

A much more glaring issue I have--and I'm trying to come to terms with the fact it's my issue--is the blurring of lines:

Also known as “consensual non-monogamy,” polyamory comes in a number of flavors, including swinging, polyfidelity, open relationships, and relationship anarchy.


Once more, with feeling:

  • "Consensual non-monogamy" is an umbrella term that includes poly, everything else listed here, and more: kink and BDSM-based play, for instance.
  • Polyamory is multiple, committed, loving relationships (type of love deliberately unspecified) with the knowledge and consent of all involved. That's the -amory part of the word, and I wish people would quit sidestepping it: it makes others think I'm out for a quick shag and nothing else.
  • "Swinging" is an almost exclusively heterosexual couple-centered sexual activity. In swinging, it's generally okay to feel fondness for your partners, but anything beyond that is DANGER DANGER DANGER. (Here's a primer from a swinger's point of view on the differences between swinging and poly. I can state with some certainty that most swingers would react with horror to the notion that their lifestyle is a 'flavour' of polyamory.
  • "Polyfidelity" IS a flavour of polyamory: it's a closed group. It's exactly like monogamy except there are three or more people. Those three or more people are not allowed to date/love/have sex outside the group. Fairly common; often includes a man and two bisexual women. Or two straight couples.
  • "Open relationships" is another umbrella term, it too is generally couple-centric, in the sense that the couple is the primary relationship and other relationships are secondary, or in many cases tertiary. To me, at least, there is a seriousness of purpose to polyamory that is lacking in open relationships (not that I'm suggesting seriousness of purpose is necessary in all relationships). 
  • Relationship anarchy (RA) IS a flavour of polyamory, a rather radical one, which erases all distinction between relationships and starts from a blank slate. No relationship is valued more or less than any other, and especially not on the basis of whether or not it includes sex.


I should state for the record that I am exploring RA. It's probably the closest thing I've yet found to describe how my poly works...but I still have some really big issues with it.

This is the original manifesto for RA, dating to 2006. A lot of it makes perfect sense to me. This in particular:

Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything — it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings.

I read that as "sex is not automatically linked to love". Sex is linked to love for me in that I can't do loveless sex--but at the same time, there are people whom I love very much that I've barely hugged and never so much as kissed. Would I like to hug, kiss, cuddle, and have sex with them? In some cases DEAR GOD YES; in others, not at all. The "not at all" people: I still love them just as deeply.

Poly people in my experience can be just as sex-supremacist as monogamous people, sometimes even more so, and it drives me crazy. RA offers a nice cosy escape hatch from all that.

I hate that word 'anarchy'. It's synonymous with 'chaos' rather than 'freedom' in my personal mental framework.  I'm absolutely dead set against the complete negation of rank in relationships: I have seventeen years invested in one of them and I'm not going to put it on the same level as a brand new one. "Let each relationship find its own level", of course. Negate my marriage? Never.

And my biggest issue with RA is that it seems to morph very easily into a narcissistic, "what satisfies me must always be right" kind of shitshow that I have no least desire to emulate.  For those reasons I don't think I'll be calling myself a relationship anarchist any time soon. It's hard enough to explain polyamory to people!


The Advocate's piece goes on to state that polyamory is viewed as more morally acceptable than swinging or open relationships"...which, if true, really makes me feel good. Not that I particularly care about somebody else's moral vision...it's just that I suspect the commitment in a poly relationship is beginning to be grasped and recognized for what it is.

One more blog entry I'd like to link.


This encapsulates so beautifully what it really means, to me, to be polyamorous.
It's about authenticity. It's about letting each relationship blossom to whatever level feels comfortable for everyone involved, and not putting limits on relationships just because other relationships exist.

I carry this label of “polyamorous” as a badge, as something integral to who I am as a person — and it is, in the sense that it is inextricable from me. But the focus is all wrong. It’s not about romance. It’s not about physicality. It’s not, in the end, about polyamory at all. It’s about human connection in whatever shape it may take.

Amen, amen, and amen again.

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