Those of you who blink may have missed the theatrical release of PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN, a film billed as the first truly polyamory-friendly movie. It shows the triad composed of William Moulton Marston, creator of the fictional character Wonder Woman, and the two women who inspired that character: his wife Elizabeth, and their partner Olive Byrne.
Local polyamorous groups were given free passes and the praise was glowing. Finally, many said, a movie about a family that at least looks like ours. Review after review emphasized how tastefully the triad was presented. This is not the kind of movie that I would pay thirty bucks to see in a theatre (I tend to favour grand sweeping epics for that kind of money)...but I was very much looking forward to seeing it at home, en famille, as it were.
Until Franklin Veaux weighed in. Now I'm not so sure I want to see this movie at all.
Franklin Veaux is the co-author of More Than Two, widely billed as "the poly bible". (There's a link to morethantwo.com in my sidebar, and it's the first place I send anyone who is interested in polyamory.)
I don't revere the man. There isn't a man alive I revere. But I have a deep respect for him. His hard-earned lessons on what works and what doesn't in polyamorous relationships jibe with my lived experience, and his two overarching rules for successful polyamory -- "the person in the relationship is more importan than the relationship" and "don't treat people like things" -- resonate strongly with me.
Veaux wrote a SCATHING review of this movie, basically saying it's an exercise in gaslighting and sexual grooming. It got me thinking. How can the same movie be almost universally praised by poly advocates for "getting it right", while one of the most influential of those advocates so strongly insists that it's wrong, wrong, and wrong again?
You'd think I'd have to see the movie to answer that. I don't, as it happens. Because I have spent enough time in the polyamorous community, and participating in their never-ending debates, to recognize what's going on here.
One of the things you are guaranteed to hear starting out is that "there's no right way to be poly". You hear this because there seem to be as many different polyamorous arrangements as there are polyamorous people. The live-in triad is just as poly as the woman living alone, but with three partners who know about and accept each other, and that woman is just as poly as the blended two-couple family with six kids living in the old farmhouse. Polyamory is, quite simply, the practice or ability to practice multiple simultaneous loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. That definition casts a wide, wide net.
To be sure, there are things that aren't poly. Quoting from the FAQ mentioned above:
If you are married, and you have a girlfriend that your wife doesn’t know about, or that your wife suspects but isn’t sure about, or that your wife knows about but isn’t happy with, you’re not poly, you’re cheating. Similarly, if you’re banging the milkman while your husband is out of town, you’re not poly, you’re cheating. Polyamory is defined by informed consent of all the participants. Without it, it ain’t poly. If you can’t invite your lover over to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of your family because you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing, it probably ain’t poly.
The number of cheaters who seize on polyamory as a "get-out-of-jail-free" card is truly disheartening. The number of people who would rather cheat on a partner than be honest...also disheartening.
Then there are things that are technically poly, but which rub me vigorously the wrong way. Chief among those is the "one penis policy", or OPP. This is an arrangement in which a straight man gives his bisexual female partner permission to date other women, but not other men, because he feels threatened. There is so much wrong with this it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, it's sexist as hell: who says relationships between women can't be threatening? For another, the double standard disgusts me. The man gets all the women he can bed; the woman has to be satisfied with just the one man. The typical male in such a relationship will react harshly to "his" woman falling for another man. Within monogamy, this makes perfect sense; in polyamory, not so much.
I was on the verge of a relationship early on that was vetoed by a man practicing OPP. Had I followed Veaux's advice and communicated properly with that man ahead of time, I could have saved myself a year's worth of heartbreak. I know another couple that are explicitly looking for their unicorn. I haven't asked too closely, but this seems to suit the woman in the relationship. The cynic in me insists on adding: for now.
(I talked to the man in this arrangement a couple of years back--he didn't see the problem with his restrictions. "Both of us get all the pussy we could ever want!" he said, and isn't THAT attractive. I tried explaining to him that the "pussy" he craved was actually -- like holy shit! -- a fully fledged WOMAN with thoughts and desires of her own, and it was like we were speaking two different languages. I came away from that conversation needing a shower.)
Veaux says that unicorn hunting is the chief problem in PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN, and that makes me cringe. There is nothing I dislike more than seeing people treated like things: taken for granted, belittled, minimized, their feelings ignored. Time and time again I've had to restrain myself from speaking up on behalf of the
I find it interesting that polyamory in the media almost always seems to involve one man with multiple women. In real life, there are at least as many women with multiple partners, probably more. But again, men are threatened by other men. I must have been born polyamorous, because I've never understood that. None of it. Cold biological imperatives suggest I'm supposed to be propagating my own genes at the expense of any other man's; the human penis is even designed to displace other men's semen in favour of our own. I, meanwhile, believe "my" child to be the one I help raise, the one I get to watch grow and become. It is not only unnecessary, but undesirable, that said child be "gifted" with my fucked up eyes and an increased possibility of cancer of the large toenail.
I don't feel sexual jealousy because (intensely personal bit here) I am acutely aware of my limitations in bed. Those things people do to spice up their bedrooms...role playing, BDSM, dominance...I'm utterly incapable of ANY of that. It's not me. If you have a hankering for that kind of thing, go find someone to indulge in it with you. I won't mind. I see it as a win-win-win situation, actually. You get the thing I can't give you; he gets you at your most creative and inventive...and not only do I not have to try to be fake, I also know that you are choosing to be with me despite the attractions of others.
Think about that for a moment. In any monogamous marriage, she could be choosing to be with you for any number of very unromantic reasons. "For the sake of the children" is a common one. Inertia is another. The stigma of divorce is a third. In polyamory, if someone chooses to be with you, in a veritable ocean of other compelling choices, it's probably because he's happy to be with you.
There are many aspects of the polyamory I practice that are too personal to detail. I am (surprise, surprise) the "out" one in our polycule--the others are truthful if confronted but otherwise taciturn, as is their right. It's also one's ironclad right to hide polyamory from one's family and friends if safety is in doubt (though if you're hiding polyamory from other partners, it ain't poly, it's cheating).
My polyamory as it stands now: I live in an MFM vee, which means Eva is the "hinge" partner, sharing Mark and I. It's unusual, but not unheard of, for MFM vees to live together. It works well for us...better, in truth, than I thought it would. There are several women I love, one of whom I consider to be a partner, and another way in which my poly is somewhat unusual is that I try to be as egalitarian as humanly possible. There are untold numbers of polyamorous people who practice hierarchy, valuing one relationship over another. That's not me. All my relationships are equally important to me, and everyone involved knows it.
Hierarchy bothers me, too, in case you're wondering. When married people decide to open their relationships, a common security valve is to insist on a rule that says "our relationship takes primacy over all others". Nice thought, but "the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship". Rules like this also deprive your new partner(s) of autonomy; they're forced to accept their "lesser" status, irrespective of any feelings or events which may develop.
Yes, polyamory is risky. Partners can and do displace other partners (note: I said DISplace, not REplace.) I know a couple of quads who have rearranged themselves: AB and CD evolve into AD and BC tolerably often. Which doesn't mean that AB and CD no longer love each other.
So. MFM, cohabiting, non-hierarchical vee. Another descriptor of my polyamory that doesn't match those of many others: I practice "kitchen table" poly, not "parallel" poly. Kitchen table polyamory is just what it sounds like: my entire polycule has sat down to a meal a few times, and since I live with my metamour, the three of us have shared meals quite often. Parallel poly is "I know you have other partners and I'm okay with that, but we don't interact". I'd rather not get involved in that kind of polyamory, myself--the potential to unwitting step over someone's undisclosed boundary is just too high.
The level of commitment I have to my relationships is a tad daunting for some, I think. I don't place any obligation on you beyond acting ethically, but I do share one thing with the most staunch monogamist: if I commit to you, I take that commitment seriously. There's a song from Evita that comes to mind here:
I'm not talking of a hurried night
A frantic tumble, then a shy goodbye
Creeping home before it gets too light
That's not the reason that I caught your eye
Which has to imply
I'd be good for you
I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You...
I'm not in the habit of abandoning friends, let alone loves. If it happens, it's because you've clearly shown me our relationship no longer serves your higher purposes. That won't stop me from loving you, incidentally.
It's hard enough for people to grok sharing each other. Doing it with an absolute minimum of rules (really, we only have one: the rings stay on)--that really confounds people. Without rules, how do you know your relationship will survive? To which I would reply:
Honest answer: I don't...and neither do you. All the rules in the world won't prevent your partner from straying if he wants to. In fact, rules might encourage it, if they're too stifling. Rules go where trust should be.
Polyamory as I practice it has no place on television or the movies. There's no drama in it. Very little conflict, and what conflict exists is talked out and solved before it can fester. Who wants to watch that? They'd be bored to tears. Happy lives are no fun for voyeurs.