The Strange Credibility of Polyamory

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. While coming out as polyamorous can still lose you friends, often people turn out to be surprising supportive, respecting your choices without getting insecure about their own situation. Moreover, the idea of polyamory seems to be hitting a cultural tipping point, where people are simply 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.

I want to point out that current credibility of polyamory is in fact odd. Let us not forget that 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 typically mentioned in the same breath as bestiality, where virginity is prized ahead of sexuality, and where same-gender sexuality is still unrecognized. In short, we live in a heavily sex-negative culture.

Also, let us not forget what polyamory is. 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, jettisoning possessiveness and its attendant insecurity, and redefining 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. And while I vehemently disagree with their conclusions, they are correct that monogamy is central to the current structure of relationships. So much is built around monogamy: concepts of relationship security, possessiveness, marriage, social assumptions, and so on. As long-term poly practitioners can tell you, we are heavily indoctrinated with monogamous thinking, and the process of deprogramming takes a while and requires the review of some fairly base assumptions.

Since polyamory is a basic rethinking of some primary structures in relationships and culture, you would think it would not 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 all a bit surprising to me.

The positive shine to polyamory does not seem to apply to other mixed-gender nonmonogamy movements, like communal marriage, swinging, open relationships, or BDSM-based nonmonogamy. The wide media exposure of polyamory does not seem to make sense, given that the actual numbers of practicing poly people are likely somewhat less than these other movements, and polyamory is not nearly as well-entrenched in the culture. I do not want to imply here that these other nonmonogamous movements are doing poorly: they actually all seem to be healthy and growing. But, they lack the widespread cultural acceptance and attention that seems to be focusing on polyamory.

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 not located primarily or exclusively in the queer world, both have acheived a measure of mainstream recognition, and all three movements share enough common goals that they can form political alliance in groups such as NCSF. However, polyamory somehow seems to be ahead in terms of credibility, despite probably being smaller in terms of numbers.

First off, 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 very well in the media.

BDSM and swinging are not doing so well. In particular, a look at the NCSF media updates shows that BDSM and swinging are 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 conservative members of the community, and Catholics attacking the Folsom St. Fair, and radical right scare stories. And of course the media jumps at any story that brings together kink and death, in articles such as these. Most of the positive articles come from within the community itself, or from queer press, like this one. We do see the occasional human interest story, especially around leather festivals. Also, we do really well in college student publications. But overall, when it comes to BDSM reporting, it is almost entirely law-and-order stuff.

Media coverage of swinging is no better. Swinging is compared to stripping, is heartily denied, is zoned out of existence, triggers violence, or is fodder for blackmail schemes. There is the occasional human-interest story, but it is 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 ends badly. In contrast, polyamory seems to show up as friendly human-interest stories, and 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, whereas swinging and BDSM are treated as titillating scandals the reader might like to hear about, so long as there is sufficient conflict and drama. There is a subject/object trick happening here: it is assumed that the reader might want to be polyamorous (though they are not currently) and it is also generally assumed that the reader would not want to be a swinger or kinkster, specifically that they would only want to read about what is being done to stop swinging or BDSM, or the supposed problems with these movements.

In a similar vein, swinger and BDSM events seem to become targets for community outrage. Religious radicals have made a practice of attempting to halt BDSM conferences by targeting the hotels they are held in. Similarly, it is common for communities or city councils to attempt to zone swinger events out of existence or otherwise shut them down, as the media coverage illustrates. To my knowledge (which admittedly is limited, not being a conference organizer) polyamory conferences have never faced similar censure, even though they typically incorporate elements similar to BDSM conferences: play parties, workshops that touch on sexuality, and people running around mostly unclothed.

Polyamory seems to have a certain cachet on the political left as well. Polyamory is mentioned positively on well-known feminist blogs, for example here, here, here, and here. Polyamory is generally met with curiosity and tolerance on these blogs, even when the writers do not practice it themselves, for example here. 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: for an ongoing and detailed discussion of these, check out the SM-Feminist blog. Of the three, polyamory is clearly ahead.

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).

This leads us to the central questions of this essay. First, why is polyamory doing as well as it is? Second, can we expect this trend to continue? Third, what political strategies should we follow to keep this winning streak going?

In putting together the following list, I have mostly focused on aspects of polyamory that distinguish it from other movements. There are numerous other ways in which polyamory gains credit, for example the steady release of poly how-to manuals, the poly propensity to come out and form community, and so on. However, these things do not explain the strange credibility of polyamory in comparison to other movements.

1) Polyamory is new(ish). While the word polyamory has been around for 18 years now, that is relatively young in terms of mixed-gender nonmonogamy movements: swinging is around 50 years old, open relationships are about 35 years old, and communal marriage has been popping up occasionally for over a century.

When people dismiss swinging or open relationships, they often bring in an association with the 60’s and 70’s. Swingers are stereotyped as creepy guys with mustaches and bright clothing. Open relationships are associated with free love and supposedly unattainable hippie ideals. These arguments are not actually arguments in the logical debate sense, but rather free-association style dismissiveness. The goal is to refute these forms of nonmonogamy without actually having to think about them or make a coherent argument. But it works none the less. Dismissing swinging and open relationships in this way is really making a historical argument: the idea is that in the 80’s we got rid of all that free love junk, and so advocating it is hopelessly anachronistic. This argument is also flawed, though it works: many of the advances of that era exist to this day, though we take them for granted. These include a basic level of sexual freedom, women working alongside men, access to birth control, and anti-discrimination laws.

Since polyamory did not exist during that era, it is hard to dismiss it in the same way, though that does not stop people from trying. (For example, in one of his well-known anti-poly screeds, Stanley Kurtz states “Polyamorists trace their descent from the anti-monogamy movements of the sixties and seventies–everything from hippie communes, to the support groups that grew up around Robert Rimmer’s 1966 novel “The Harrad Experiment,” to the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.”) But poly people do not resemble free lovers in many ways. The focus is not as much on sex, there is a certain seriousness attached to polyamory, some of us wear business suits, we can field respectable families for the media, and bright colors and bell-bottoms seem to be kept to a relative minimum. In other words, polyamory tends to present as the modern pragmatic grown-up version of free love, and I think that gets us some mileage in these arguments.

Also, the newness and relatively small size of polyamory means that we may still be flying under the radar to some extent. While the right wing is clearly aware of us, we are not yet a target. There have been right-wing attacks leveled at polyamory, most notably by Stanley Kurtz (as above, and also here and here), but those have really only been pulling in polyamory as an argument against same-sex marriage, not as a target in its own right.

All this does raise a troubling possibility. We seem to currently be in a new sexual revolution, where Susie Bright and Mistress Matisse exist right alongside Miss Manners, who it should be noted is also fielding questions on polyamory. What happens when and if this current springtime of sexual openness ends? And it may very well end, perhaps not with an epidemic like HIV, but more likely due to one of the looming catastrophes we seem to be eager to produce: another depression, climate change, an oil crisis, or (as Bush would have it) World War III, fought over that very same oil.

What will happen to polyamory in such an era? Will it be dropped, as we focus on other priorities? Will it become a convenient scapegoat and go underground, much like queerness in the 40’s and 50’s? Or lose membership heavily, like nonmonogamy in the 80’s? We should plan ahead for such times: as queer activists know, conservative eras can be horrendous or straight-up deadly, and can destroy a movement. We need to be prepared for scapegoating efforts, heavy backlash, and hostile legislation. Currently we are too small and unknown to be a good target, but we may well see such tactics as polyamory grows, even in the absence of world crises.

2) Polyamory is theoretically disconnected from sex. 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. This is the virgin/whore power structure projected onto relationships, and indeed women are often judged depending on whether their sexual relationships get to qualify as love.

Of course, this mainstream mechanism is heavily sex-negative. Its purpose is to be able to cast a variety expressions of sexuality as false, transient, dirty, deviant, or sinful, while simultaneously reserving a narrow set of expressions as somehow above reproach or examination (those that get to be “loving”). Notably, queer relationships have for the last century had trouble being recognized as “loving” instead of some sort of deviant sexual expression.

I do not mean to say that sex and love are somehow synonymous: the fact that they are different concepts is quite useful. What I am saying is that attempts to draw a strong line between sex and love are destined to fail, and moreover that such attempts are usually undertaken in pursuit of political goals.

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. It buys us respectability. In other words, the focus on love in polyamory is an end run around the culture’s censure of deviant sexualities. If polyamory is about love and multiple relationships and not about sex, then we can break with monogamy while still retaining a measure of social authority.

I suspect that downplaying sex buys us a certain amount of respectability even in feminist circles, where sexual hedonism tends to be read as “sexual freedom the way men want it” and therefore anti-feminist. To be fair, there is a long history of sexism in sexual freedom movements, as I have discussed previously, so a certain guardedness is appropriate, but it can easily slip into mimicking mainstream sex-negativity.

Notably, both swinging and BDSM are strongly associated with deviant erotics in the mainstream imagination: group sex and sex parties in the case of swinging, and S/M and roleplaying in the case of BDSM. This effectively means that they are not proper subjects of conversation, and bringing them up de-authorizes the speaker.

We can see this by revisiting media coverage, where swinging and BDSM tend to be dealt with primarily in terms of authority and the law, and polyamory stories are human-interest. Polyamory is operating on a whole different level of authority than swinging or BDSM, one where poly people are legitimate subjects, and polyamorous lives are newsworthy. I suspect that much of this is due to common view that swinging and BDSM are primarily sexual practices. In other words, as soon as a practice or community is sexualized, it ceases to be a legitimate subject of interest and loses the authority to describe itself. If we take media as an accurate reflection of the manner in which the mainstream treats polyamory, then it becomes clear that the desexualization of polyamory is a primary advantage when compared with the treatment of swinging and BDSM.

The approach of downplaying poly sexuality is legitimate. 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 very important. Also, multiple relationship dynamics are central to polyamory, and so a focus on relationships is entirely appropriate. And as I have stated, 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. Also, allying with sex-negative traditional polygamists would harm our standing among feminists, as I have stated previously.

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 sex, and poly people who have less sex have trouble practicing polyamory. Poly people having trouble means less poly people, which means less of a movement. 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. Overall my sense is that poly people have more trouble with these less-involved relationships than with more-involved (aka “primary”) relationships, and one reason for this is the culture’s sex-negativity.

What I am getting at here is that sex-negativity is not a neutral phenomenon. Sex-negativity tends to not address sex that is non-deviant, heterosexual, and monogamous. Instead, the sex that people are negative about tends to be that which is deviant, queer, and/or nonmonogamous. Sex-negativity is a political project, one that attempts to push people into sexual conformity. As such, it is directly opposed 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.

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.

In the past polyamory has relied almost entirely on a self-help approach to media, producing prolific reams of “how to” and “what to watch out for” material. While this is important and not going away (the most-viewed article on this blog is the how-to piece), we need a second track. How-to approaches tend to effectively ignore the fun and good things that come with polyamory, which is appropriate to their mission, but does not make for good media. The second track could be personal narratives or something similar, anything that simultaneously tells the good and bad of polyamory while not erasing sex.

3) Polyamory is generally queer- and women-friendly. 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. In other words, the ideology of polyamory has been laid down by women and queers.

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. The LiveJournal polyamory community is one example of this: not only do a good number of the posts include queer content, but the strong presence of women on the forum means that sexism does not go unaddressed.

One effect of the queer- and women-friendliness of polyamory is that polyamory has stayed very 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. The rituals I have described that buttress the position of straight men tend to lay down rules about who may sleep with whom, or they can bring in strong power dynamics supported by a heterosexist culture. Avoiding these rituals tends to keep things more open and flexible. For example, the emphasis in poly circles around getting over possessiveness seems to fall more heavily on men, who would otherwise be entitled to possessive feelings by sexism in the larger culture. Nonmonogamous movements that permit strong levels of possessiveness tend to be hampered by them, for the simple reason that possessiveness prevents other sexual or romantic connections from happening.

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. More on this in a future post.) 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. The relationship structure flexibility of polyamory has also helped the movement adapt to changing nonmonogamous priorities, keeping it on the front lines.

4) Polyamory is the opposite of monogamy. Which is to say, polyamory has managed to establish itself in opposition to monogamy. We see this in the usage of the word polyamory as a catch-all phrase for nonmonogamy or as a general analogy. 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.

This may be due to the ideological work that poly publications have done, deconstructing monogamy as part of the project of producing polyamory. In other words, polyamory has become the opposite of monogamy because we keep thinking about it that way, and we keep thinking about it that way because it was created specifically to be oppositional to monogamy, a full alternative to monogamous living. The Ethical Slut is a prime example of this: the practice of the authors (“ethical sluthood”) is set in explicit opposition to monogamy itself. Notably, The Ethical Slut and Wendy-O Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships are not explicitly about polyamory: the former was reclaiming sluthood and the latter attempted to create a certain sort of politically radical relationship consciousness. But both books were claimed by the budding polyamory movement. More on this below.

This ideological opposition to monogamy has produced an actual opposition to monogamy in polyamorous practice. In other words, any particular monogamous constraint, rule, or power dynamic is potentially overcome by some or all polyamorous people. While any given poly person likely retains some monogamous thinking or patterns of behavior, each piece of monogamy itself is upended by at least some poly people. Sexual monogamy is of course first among these, but the social practice of monogamy also becomes optional in polyamory: poly people come out, they insist on fully integrating multiple lovers into their social (friends, family, work) lives, they rearrange their social worlds along assumptions of availability or abundance, and so on. The meaning of coupledom and marriage are also up for grabs: couples become transient (since who is in the couple may change on the next date) or expand into triads, vees, and quads, or just change meaning altogether. Wedding rings cease to be mechanisms of ownership and revert to tokens of commitment. Ownership, possessiveness, and jealousy in relationships become liabilities and are jettisoned or managed, or are transferred to BDSM practice. Monogamous assumptions around living arrangements disintegrate and are rebuilt, in some cases leading to cohousing or other communal arrangements, in other cases creating the option for a person to permanently live with no lovers. 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. Long-distance arrangements have regained a certain measure of respect.

Every structuring element, power dynamic, or assumption that goes into monogamy is potentially on the chopping block in polyamorous practice. In other words, polyamory is in practice the opposite of monogamy, not just ideologically. Due to its formulation, polyamory potentially includes any piece of resistance to monogamy, even ones that we cannot imagine yet, much like the relatively stable network arrangements of today would have been largely unimaginable a decade ago.

This ability to include opposite-to-monogamy practices creates a certain elasticity in polyamory, which means it tends to absorb other projects. This can be taken to ridiculous extremes, like when poly people claim that swinging is a kind of polyamory. While I am all for including any swingers who want to call themselves polyamorous, somehow I think most swingers do not, and at best estimate there are a lot more of them than us. (Oddly but unsurprisingly, these attempts at swinger inclusion happen right alongside furious attempts to distance polyamory and swinging, which I have discussed in another essay).

In any case, polyamory tends to absorb nonmonogamy movements, much like it absorbed The Ethical Slut and Redefining Our Relationships. Polyamory also can produce new relationship forms in its own communities, in response to changing needs. We have already seen one major shift: polyamory grew out of polyfidelity or group marriage, initially focusing on triads, quads, and closed systems. While all these relationship forms have been retained, these days the primary focus seems to be on primary/secondary-style arrangements in networks or that are otherwise open, including what would have been called “open relationships” two decades ago. In other words, while the idea of open relationships still has a certain mindshare, polyamory seems to have eaten the open relationship movement.

This sort of flexibility bodes well for polyamory as a movement. As social and economic conditions change, new types of nonmonogamy will arise, and polyamory may well incorporate them, so long as they are sufficiently oppositional to monogamy.

Of course, monogamy is deeply 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, actual 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 seem to 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 to be 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 poly ideology in favor of something new.

72 Responses to “The Strange Credibility of Polyamory”

  1. Chris Says:

    You say: “Monogamy, at its core, is about sexual fidelity, or rather, sexual fidelity is the one thing you need to be monogamous. … 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.”

    I’ve run across many swingers who consider themselves “monogamous” because they have sworn off outside relationships (just not the sex), and I certainly know a lot of poly folks who identify as poly even if they are only sexually involved with one other person (or even not involved with anyone at all).

    I don’t think taking a “its not about sex” stance when discussing poly is at all sex-negative, either. I think it is very helpful and overall sex-positive to find ways to discuss the sexual and relationship entanglements completely separately.

    I think this focus on separating out the sex is a big part of why polyamory has gotten so much mainstream positive spin. This does play into societies overall sex-negative bias, but I don’t think that there is any reason to try and push poly=sex in response when really (for a lot of people) they are completely independent axis.

    – chris

  2. Steph Says:

    Rather than “it’s not about the sex”, I would tend to say that it’s only about the sex as much as monogamy or any romantic relationship is.

  3. Cherie Says:

    Promoting a sex-positive view has not been a primary goal of the polyamory ‘movement’, although it certainly does have the potential to have that side effect – just as promoting polyamory has not been a primary goal of the sex-positive movement, but it certainly has the potential to have that side effect.

    Promoting a society and legal system that does not destroy or diminish intentionally created families simply because there are more than 2 adults in a loving relationship (which, yes.. probably does include at least some sexual element), I feel, is far more the goal of the ‘movement’. At least, the movement that I’ve been part of.

    As you do outline, the word polyamory is becoming to mean anything that is consensually not sexually exclusive – and this is presenting friction amongst those with active voices for polyamory. There are those of us that are still holding on to the previous ideals of polyamory being more about the relationships, love and intentional family – than about the sex. And yes, there are many of us that still practice it in that way. And it seems there’s a newer influx of folks coming in from the more ‘ethical sluthood’ realm of the world embracing the term polyamory (perhaps because is sounds classier than other alternative words?) to make it their own ideal. And yes, there are many who are practicing that way as well. And many who practice a hybrid cross-over, perhaps even with other cross overs, such as BDSM, tantra, swinging, etc.

    The day when sexually exclusive monogamous couples can feel comfortable openly talking about the hot sex they had last night in public without it having negative ramifications.. is the day when polyamorists have more flexibility to talk openly about their sexual pursuits in the media without it having potential for serious repercussions for those living polyamorously. There are far too many families risking loosing custody of their children for simply being polyamorous. We don’t live in a sex-positive world, and trying to make changing those attitudes a primary goal of the polyamory movement – I think – has more potential for harm than good in the more immediate future.

    The fight for a sex-positive society, and the fight for more tolerance for alternative family structures are two different battles that I view as being part of the same war. Right now, I feel there should be awareness that the other battles are going on so that we can incorporate that into our strategies.. but also awareness that trying to fight the two battles simultaneously under the same banner is too premature right now.

    Oh, and as a side note.. look up the definition of monogamy in a dictionary sometime. Very few official definitions include sexual exclusivity (or the sexual arrangements at all). It’s more about having one spousal level partnership (ie. in poly terms.. one primary partner) at a time. And long term tradition speaking, monogamy has usually included some allowance of outside sexual partners – just not more than one ‘life partner’. I think your definition of monogamy is a bit myopic , only focusing on the standards that a good number of people in our current day American culture try to hold it up to (and often fail at). Heck, even Dear Abby is now advocating sex outside of monogamous marriage.

  4. Alan Says:

    Thanks for this important and thought-provoking essay.

    As the guy running the Polyamory in the News site, I want to present two more reasons why poly is getting surprisingly good press.

    1) “All the world loves a lover” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Romantic love does bring out warm feelings in onlookers (including journalists), and we spend a lot of time talking about love with earnestness and idealism.

    2) “Character is everything” (Andrew Carnegie and others). The poly movement and its spokespeople put great emphasis on honesty, responsible behavior, high ethical standards, self-improvement through hard relationship work, self-discipline in hard situations, owning your own shit, and the need to “Choose the difficult right over the easy wrong” (US Marine Corps).

    This creates, or self-selects, a movement of high-quality people. Those who violate these standards hear about it from the community (brutally so when the discussion is online!); they find themselves left out of things as soon as their reputation gets around; and in any case they tend to fail at polyamory and therefore disappear on their own.

    The straight world notices these signs of high character in our movement and spokespeople and tends to be at least grudgingly impressed.

  5. pepomint Says:

    Chris and Cherie:

    First off, thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    When I equate monogamy with sexual fidelity, I am not talking about the way monogamy is discusses in any nonmonogamous setting, such as swinging. Monogamy tends to be subtly redefined in such settings away from the mainstream usage, leading to phrases like “emotional monogamy” or swingers who consider themselves monogamous. I support these redefinition projects, but our involvement in them should not blind us to the mainstream obsession with sexual fidelity. If you asked someone mainstream and monogamous if a swinger without side relationships was monogamous, the answer would be no.

    Indeed, let’s do a quick thought experiment: what is the most glaring and archetypical violation of monogamy, as the mainstream sees it? It is finding your partner in bed with someone else, or even better catching them in the act. Sex with the wrong person is the penultimate violation of monogamy.

    All else is a bit more vague, and can perhaps be forgiven. Kissing someone else? Wrong and bad, but not as bad as sex. Giving flowers, traveling, going to dinner with someone else? Doable. Having romantic feelings for someone else? Very bad, but forgivable so long as those feelings stay chaste and are duly confessed and so on. Notably, the threat from said romantic feelings is that they would turn sexual. Sex is the tipping point.

    I’m not saying this is healthy – it’s not. In a better world, there would be more focus on the relationship and less on who is having sex with whom how and where. (Which, notably, would probably mean much less sexual fidelity.) But it is a current mainstream reality – the primary indicator of monogamy in the mainstream imagination is sexual fidelity. Everything else (emotional monogamy, social monogamy, etc) is based on the assumption that the linchpin of sexual fidelity is in place.

    One of the nice things about polyamory is that it helps us get away from this particular sex-negative obsession of the mainstream, but we should not forget that it exists.

    Cherie: I know the dictionary definition of monogamy, almost by heart. As the above illustrates, in this case the dictionary definition does not reflect the actual usage of the idea of monogamy within the culture. In fact, we can view this as another example of sex/love dichotomization: monogamous relationships are “good”, therefore loving, therefore sex is left out of the definition of monogamy.

    I don’t think taking a “its not about sex” stance when discussing poly is at all sex-negative, either. I think it is very helpful and overall sex-positive to find ways to discuss the sexual and relationship entanglements completely separately.

    I agree with your first statement, but not your second. While there are definitely venues where talking about sex is guaranteed to go wrong (say, talk shows), attempting to entirely blank out our sexual lives in public discussion is not exactly affirming, and I think hurts our media approach.

    There is a line to walk here, one where we do not devolve into the mainstream’s obsession with sexualizing us, while still expressing our sexual selves. Currently we can do the former but not the latter. Some of this might be finding new media venues (so far, podcasting and alternative papers).

    Also, in the community I see people who are taking our squeaky-clean media approach to heart and falling into sex-negativity, which I think hurts them and the community. We should not believe our own media evasions, and should attempt to maintain a certain level of sexual openness within the community(ies).

    We don’t live in a sex-positive world, and trying to make changing those attitudes a primary goal of the polyamory movement – I think – has more potential for harm than good in the more immediate future.

    I am not saying that the poly community should take on the full task of changing culture to be more sex-positive: that’s huge and takes more people than we have. That said, I don’t think that we should leave sex-positivity out of our message. We are not including it to help the larger culture, but rather to help ourselves. Sex-positivity and polyamory are not as separable as some of us would like to think, so cutting sexuality entirely out of our message cuts into the message itself.

    I guess there’s a basic truth that I probably should have stuck in the essay: for many (though not all) poly people, sexuality is an important part of what we do. For myself, sexual freedom is one of my primary motivations for being poly. The other one is romantic freedom, but I’m not sure which one is more important. As a poly person, I have more erotic freedom than your average swinger, than open relationship practitioners, than most kinksters, and so on. This is an important part of why I do polyamory.

    Most poly people are not like me, but I think most poly people at least want the sexual freedom to have sex in multiple relationships. For many, there are other important bonuses: sexual variety, comfortable group sex, the ability to experiment with different kinks or learn from different people, and/or freedom to have surprise hookups. But we seem to ignore these motivations, even within poly communities, and certainly when discussing outside the community. I’m still waiting for a “how to deal with poly group sex dynamics” chapter in one of our books.

  6. pepomint Says:

    I’m still waiting for a “how to deal with poly group sex dynamics” chapter in one of our books.

    I’m going to self-quote because this is a great example.

    Group sex dynamics are very important to some triads and quads, specifically those who are looking for all-in-one-bed sexuality. Mastering this dynamic can bring all three or four people together, forming a sexual connection between all members at once. Failing to master this dynamic can weaken the relationship, if this was a goal or need. Most of us do not have much practice in this sort of thing, and it is quite different than dyad sex.

    And yet, there is no discussion of this sort of thing in poly forums or books, to my knowledge. Also, plenty of people come to the poly community looking for group sexual dynamics, and we fail to tell them even the basics, like “it’s harder than you think”, “it’s a separate and independent dynamic from the component dyad sexual connections”, and “mastering it is really rewarding”. Admitting to the public that some poly people do this would strengthen our community, though again context is important and we should not be talking the specifics of group sex on CNN.

    So here’s an example of a sexual subject that is largely ignored, but which if not ignored could be very beneficial to the community. This is just one example, but there are plenty more: we need space to express our sexual selves within poly contexts.

  7. pepomint Says:

    Steph:

    Rather than “it’s not about the sex”, I would tend to say that it’s only about the sex as much as monogamy or any romantic relationship is.

    I agree – it’s not like poly people somehow are more sexual than monogamous folks.

    That said, I think there’s plenty of room for sex-positive improvement in the lives of monogamous people: actual talk about actual sex practices is not on the table in most situations. Similarly, poly people could benefit from more sex-positivity.

  8. pepomint Says:

    Alan:

    I agree with both your points.

    Also, nothing I say above should be taken to disparage the incredible and tireless efforts of our media folks. We have a much better PR machine than a number of much larger movements, like the bisexual and BDSM movements. Much of this is due to the fact that poly people seem to recognize their potential for political change and go for it. And like you’ve said, quality people tend to self-select into it.

    That said, we’re still doing better than we should be. Swingers are much larger than us, and have all kinds of self-generated press (I’m currently reading The Lifestyle, which is pure propaganda) but somehow that doesn’t translate into media acceptance.

    Also, our media disasters are somehow averted. That murder-suicide the Loving More folks were worried about? Just one article. The murder case in Europe? The press actually respected the opinions of the surviving couple, and printed what they had to say with no sensationalization, which totally shocked me. In addition, articles with a potential for a sleazy delivery tend to be respectful, like one on the queer triad that came out recently.

  9. Cherie Says:

    Thanks for your reply, Pepomint.

    I don’t know if it’s the message you’re intending to send, or if I’m reading my own bias into it (or a combination thereof).. but I think there’s some overlap of sex-positivity and polyamory that may be skipped over here.

    A sex-positive attitude is not necessarily present in a polyamorous person. No more so than one could say that someone who is polyamorous is kinky, a nudist, tantric, etc. Yes.. you are more apt to find more poly folks who are a path to sex-positivity than are not – but I have certainly run into my fair share of polyamorous folks who have a more sex-negative attitude.

    Also, being sexually fidelious in a pair bonding (to avoid using the monogamy word that we seem to disagree on) is not necessarily being sex negative. In other words, one does not have to embrace multiple sexual partners to be sex positive. I’ve certainly known many many folks who prefer sexual exclusivity who have a very sex positive attitude in their lives.

    And of course, a more sex-positive attitude is something all can benefit from.

    And in my own personal experience, I have not found polyamory to give me more sexual freedom than when I was more on the swinger/kinkster end of the scale. My particular practice of polyamory has actually brought more structure, less spontaneity and more restrictions to my sexual expression and has more aligned sex to being part of a loving romantic relationship, not a separate entity as it was before I embraced polyamory. For me, polyamory is clearly valuing the romantic freedom over the sexual freedom. Heck, a new sexual partner is a very very rare addition in my life, and something that is carefully negotiated with all involved (as opposed to my swinging days.. we just went with the flow and enjoyed the unexpected hook up.)

    I don’t think that the sex part should be left completely out of the media representation, or that tools within the poly community should avoid discussions about the sexual aspects (I believe the PMM forums have a specific category just for these discussions). But we do need to be careful to not let it be the focus in the mainstream media.. as because we do live in a sex-negative society, the paragraph about sex will be amplified out of proportion for us. Just as websites like WebMD.com have well fleshed out sections about sexual health.. sexuality is just one element of overall healthiness and relationships.

  10. Buehler Institute Blog » Blog Archive » What Is Polyamory and Why Should You Care? Says:

    [...] who belongs to a listserve I’m on gave a link to an interesting article about polyamory posted today on the web. Polyamory is the practice of having more than one partner [...]

  11. marcg Says:

    I’m delighted to hear that poly is receiving newfound and unexpected levels of credibility and degrees of acceptance in various places. Not to be a buzzkill, but my part of the world, Atlanta, is not one of these places. There are poly people and arrangements here, of course, but when coming out, one can expect quite the reaction from even self-styled progressive people. As of yet, I have not discovered significant or at all surprising levels of acceptance within the dominant monogamous culture. As it stands, polyamory is almost completely synonymous with promiscuity. Given the southern US, being black and male, gives most the green light to take that initial definition of promiscuity to untold extremes of prejudice that I rarely see reflected in the experiences of my other poly associates. The intersection of polyamory with societal notions of race in the south continue to be a formidable opponent to open-mindedness.

  12. Barry Says:

    First – very interesting essay. Much to think about.

    You said in a comment reply

    Also, in the community I see people who are taking our squeaky-clean media approach to heart and falling into sex-negativity, which I think hurts them and the community. We should not believe our own media evasions, and should attempt to maintain a certain level of sexual openness within the community(ies).

    Indeed so. It struck me that there is precedent for poly’s over-reaction in the naturist movement, where “nudist camps” felt they had to bend over backwards to present as even more nonsexual than the culture in order to survive and succeed. It might be interesting to compare their history and outcome to (y)our “squeaky-clean media approach.”

  13. Chris Says:

    Pepomint says: All else is a bit more vague, and can perhaps be forgiven. Kissing someone else? Wrong and bad, but not as bad as sex. Giving flowers, traveling, going to dinner with someone else? Doable. Having romantic feelings for someone else? Very bad, but forgivable so long as those feelings stay chaste and are duly confessed and so on. Notably, the threat from said romantic feelings is that they would turn sexual. Sex is the tipping point.

    This actually strongly disagrees with my experiences with monogamous relationships – both first hand and third hand…

    My partner in a long-term monogamous relationship actually expressed that she would have potentially been able to deal with me wanting other sexual partners, or even having cheated. But it was the desire for outside relationships that was the tipping point, not the sex. Many monogamous marriages survive cheating, few survive a transition to multiple relationships and poly. The sex is not the tipping point, clearly.

    I know many monogamous folks who would rather know that their partner had been with a prostitute than find out that their partner had gotten roses for a coworker on Valentine’s Day. It isn’t about the sex – the sex isn’t even particularly threatening to many people, relative to the fear of emotional abandonment or betrayal.

    If you look at our societies general begrudging acceptance of cheating and affairs being commonplace – you’ll see that sex is NOT the issue… The issue is giving that outside relationship status and public acknowledgement. Heck – for certain classes of the wealthy and/or the French, having an outside mistress and/or affairs along with your monogamous relationship is actually expected. But acknowledging that outside relationship in public is the gravest of sins.

    I think there are two axis at work here – one involving multiple relationships, and another involving multiple sex partners. Though in practice they often overlap – I think that it muddies the issues to lump it all together. I think a big part of polyamorys success with the media has been intentionally focusing on the relationship axis – and I think this is a good thing.

    Should there be great resources out there instructing people on how to have great group sex dynamics? Sure – and those resources are certainly lacking. But I would not post those resources under a “Resources for Polys” banner any more so than I would put a chapter on “Gardening Tips” in a book about Disney World.

    Not all poly-identified people are interested in group sex, and making the sexual and titillating aspects of some polyamorous relationships the focus (even if a secondary focus) of the media message only encourages the mainstream to to think that poly is just about the sex, and to as a result be more dismissive and negative.

    And focusing on the sex actually turns off folks who are being drawn to poly for other reasons.

    – Chris

  14. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    Reading what you’ve written, I think you and I mostly agree. Certainly I had no problems with anything in your last comment.

    The somewhat murky definitions of “sex-positive” and “sex-negative” are muddying the waters, I think. The definition I’ve been using for sex-positive not only includes a) thinking sex is good, but also b) seeing discussion of sexuality as important and c) seeing sexual motivations as legitimate. Conversely, I’ve been using “sex-negative” to mean any of a) thinking sex is bad, dirty, or sinful, b) silencing discussion of sexuality, or c) seeing sexual motivations as illegitimate.

    One’s personal poly arrangement is largely irrelevant to whether a person is sex-positive or -negative. It is attitudes that matter. I’m not trying to say that less sexually open types are sex-negative. I’ve seen sex-negative attitudes from poly people all up and down the open/closed spectrum.

    The reason I used the poly group sex example is that it is pretty key for some poly people who are not in open relationships and who do not get around as much as folks like me. My point being that a person’s particular poly inclination doesn’t change the fact that talking sex in a poly context can be useful. It’s good to hear that PMM has a forum for this sort of thing – I’ll check it out.

  15. pepomint Says:

    marcg:

    In this essay I have focused on positive media around polyamory. This is not necessarily the same as generally positive attitudes around polyamory in the culture: I think that overall, mainstream attitudes towards polyamory are still very bad. Which is why it is odd that we are getting good press.

    Given the southern US, being black and male, gives most the green light to take that initial definition of promiscuity to untold extremes of prejudice that I rarely see reflected in the experiences of my other poly associates.

    Thank you for bringing up this issue. I’ve been trying to think about the intersection of race and nonmonogamy, and I’ve largely been failing, since I don’t have the relevant experience of being on the receiving end of racism. But I can see how coming out as polyamorous would kick the mainstream’s usual hypersexualization/exotification crap into high gear.

    I’m planning on posting here on some stuff I can address pretty well: whiteness and privilege in poly communities, and bad white reactions to discussions of racism. I’d love to see more stuff out there on racism within poly communities, and also on the intersection of racism and mainstream enforcement of monogamy.

  16. pepomint Says:

    Barry:

    It might be interesting to compare their [nudists'] history and outcome to (y)our “squeaky-clean media approach.”

    My initial suspicion is that it never bought them too much, though I really don’t know the history. Getting together to be naked in nature (or hell, anywhere) brands one as a deviant even when it is dressed up as a wholesome back-to-nature movement.

    Also, the nudist movement has been in decline, from what I hear, though that’s all anecdotal. I wonder if the no-sex rule has contributed to that. Taking a “we’re just like everyone else but naked” attitude doesn’t exactly lend one to further challenging social norms. Certainly when I see younger folks thinking about expressing themselves these days, it is more likely to be at a sex party or a camp for pagans or BDSM types. But I’m definitely self-selecting.

    One of my criticisms of the BDSM, swinger, and nudist movements has been an unwillingness in these movements to view themselves as revolutionary and take on political battles from that perspective. Somehow polyamory got a good dose of activist spirit, which is probably contributing to our current run of media success.

  17. pepomint Says:

    Chris:

    This actually strongly disagrees with my experiences with monogamous relationships

    While I agree that well-adjusted monogamous people tend to privilege relationships over sex (and there are probably plenty of these folks), the message in the larger culture is that monogamous violations are a matter of sex. Here’s some examples:

    1) Legal definitions of adultery, while rare, center on sex. For example, in the early 20th century it was legal for a man in Texas to shoot his wife’s lover – but only if he caught them in the act. Here’s a link that explains the modern situation with adultery law. There is no law that I know of that deals with loving the wrong person. “Alienation of affection” comes close, but requires a sexual component.

    2) Language supports this. Note that we don’t have a nonsexual word for loving the wrong person. “Cheating”, “affair”, and “adultery” all include sex but possibly not love. There’s no equivalent love-but-not-sex monogamy violation word. To describe this, we have to make up terms like “emotional affair”. Now, apparently there is a need to describe these, but not nearly at the same level as our need to describe sexual infidelity.

    3) Media depictions of cheating or infidelity always focus on the sex. I just saw one of these in Buffy.

    Now, this is changing, as the culture becomes more sexually open and focuses more on the importance of relationships. That’s why we can talk about “emotional monogamy” and “managed monogamy” (both of which are sexually nonmonogamous) and have it make sense. But again language betrays our priorities: we never use the term “sexual monogamy” or anything like it. Why? Because it would be redundant. Monogamy is still a sexual state first and foremost, once you get out of my and your social circles.

    And focusing on the sex actually turns off folks who are being drawn to poly for other reasons.

    See, I would describe these people as “sex-negative”. I’ve got no problem with people who are not interested in engaging with sexual topics, but when they start asking other people in the community to disengage with sexuality for their own comfort, that’s a problem. This is the part of sex-negativity that is dangerous to polyamory, and this is one thing we should not be importing from the mainstream.

  18. Cherie Says:

    Somehow polyamory got a good dose of activist spirit, which is probably contributing to our current run of media success.

    I would definitely agree with this statement and would upgrade the word ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’, and think it’s worth being a point of its own in your list. Organizations like Loving More, the NCSF, ITCR, WPA, etc. have all pro-actively sought out media opportunities to get the word polyamory out in the mainstream. Additionally, some of these organizations maintain media contact lists of people willing to be featured and they offer resources on how to deal with the media. Poly not only has many activists, we’ve been working for years to become organized to handle the media. And it’s paying off.

    In addition to these organizations being pro-active with the media, the individuals who have been willing to put their lives on very public display have contributed largely to the response as well. By and large, the current slew of poly media cast are otherwise ‘normal’ appearing folks – people raising kids, pursuing careers/education, etc.. This helps the media, and their viewers, better able to identify with the information being presented. Polyamory isn’t something only ‘freaks’ and ‘hippies’ do – it’s something people from all walks of life are exploring, which is a key ingredient to getting the message through outside of the Bay Area. With individuals responding to media requests having well thought through responses to the typical questions asked (ie. ‘what about jealousy?’ ‘what about STDs?’ ‘what about the kids’, etc. – heck, many of us have our answers scripted out by now), we’re able to give the media material to construct the positive story we want.. and leave little room for the common concerns to be left wide open to be shot down.

    This has definitely been contributive to polyamory’s recent primarily positive portrayal in the media, as well as the other elements you mention which have created a more receptive environment.

    The GLBT movement has had remarkable success with having a well organized and pro-active media approach. Other alternative ‘movements’ would do well to organize in similar ways if they want a similar response to the media. By and large, most journalists don’t have time to seek out the story for themselves.. but if you have the resources ready to go when they call, I’ve personally found you have a LOT of control over what gets printed.

  19. Cherie Says:

    And focusing on the sex actually turns off folks who are being drawn to poly for other reasons.

    See, I would describe these people as “sex-negative”.

    Then I suppose you can label me as sex-negative.

    Although, I’m not asking that sex not be focused on for *MY* comfort.. but rather because polyamory, in my 15 year exploration of it, has never been driven by sex. And most poly people I’ve interacted with in that time frame are also not exploring polyamory for the sexual variety. It’s a benefit sometimes, yes.. but not a purpose. It’s been focused on, and driven by, emotional relationships. And yes, by the way, some of those relationships do include a sexual component.

    I don’t appreciate that the social definition of polyamory is being defined as a sexual style. It makes it more difficult to function in our sex-negative culture – it makes it difficult to be ‘out’ to families, at the work place and to keep custody of our children when going through divorces. Sure, maybe those things are the ‘comforts’ you’re referring to.. but to me, being able sit down to dinner with my family and not have them be ashamed to talk about my other partners to their friends is a huge part of my quotient for happiness. And if polyamory is defined culturally as being a sexual style, I can no longer use the term to describe my relationship style.

    I know for you, and many in your circles, this is different. Polyamory has been a vehicle of sexual exploration for you, and a purpose for continuing it. And I’m totally cool with that, and that perspective being presented as one of the many reasons people choose polyamory. But placing the judgment that polyamorous people who don’t want the definition and discourse on polyamory to be focused on sex as being ‘sex-negative’, I think, is over reaching.

    It’s just simply different than your approach.

  20. contentious.com - links for 2007-11-28 Says:

    [...] The Strange Credibility of Polyamory « freaksexual Excellent bit of media analysis: “Compare coverage of polyamory to that of 2 similar movements: swingers and BDSM. Polyamory somehow seems to be ahead in terms of credibility, despite probably being smaller in terms of numbers.” (tags: analysis community mainstream+media journalism society polyamory diversity trends) [...]

  21. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    First off, let me say that I do really appreciate the work that the various poly media activists have done. And that includes you – that article in Florida was awesome.

    By and large, the current slew of poly media cast are otherwise ‘normal’ appearing folks – people raising kids, pursuing careers/education, etc.. This helps the media, and their viewers, better able to identify with the information being presented. Polyamory isn’t something only ‘freaks’ and ‘hippies’ do – it’s something people from all walks of life are exploring, which is a key ingredient to getting the message through outside of the Bay Area.

    I need to disagree here. I think we can present a media image that is positive while still showing the less-normative members of our community. For example, one of the positive articles I mentioned above was an interview of an all-women triad, one of whom was trans. It had the serious potential for a negative take, and was even printed in a tabloid, but came out very well. We can and should attempt to represent a good cross-section of the community.

    To do otherwise is to confine ourselves to a particular demographic: perhaps solely white people, or non-BDSM folks, or what have you. This is one of the ways swinging has been self-limiting as a movement: by presenting as only containing a conservative middle-class element (a false presentation for many swingers) the movement has been confined to that demographic.

    Also, as I’ve pointed out above in two different examples, self-censoring, while sometimes appropriate, often carries a cost to the community because it prevents us from operating effectively.

    I think our underlying disagreement here is an assimilationist argument. Assimilationism is the general theory that a minority movement needs to present as normatively as possible, and be as normative as possible, in order to be accepted into the mainstream. Anti-assimilationists argue that no level of normative behavior will succeed in buying acceptance, and instead the goal should be to change mainstream values in such a way that the minority is accepted, or at least maintain the community’s values in the face of mainstream disapproval. Assimilationist arguments are common in any liberation movement. Here’s a good article on assimilationism and its critics in the queer movement.

    Although, I’m not asking that sex not be focused on for *MY* comfort.. but rather because polyamory, in my 15 year exploration of it, has never been driven by sex.

    Both you and Chris have used the word “focus” now, and I think you are reading something that I am not trying to say.

    I am not trying to say that polyamory should become a sexual movement. Nor that sexuality should be a primary focus. Rather, I am trying to make space for folks who want to be open about their sexuality alongside other poly people who may not want to. It’s crucial for us, and crucial to the movement as a whole.

    And if polyamory is defined culturally as being a sexual style, I can no longer use the term to describe my relationship style.

    I think there’s something you are worried about here that is not as much of a danger as you think. Nobody is trying to define polyamory as a particular type of sexuality, as far as I know.

    Also, while the mainstream media does tend to sexualize us as a negative tactic, we’ve already gotten good at being very clear on what polyamory means, and the importance of relationships. Mistresse Matisse is a good example of this: she mixes polyamory and sexual subjects in her column, but at the same time nobody reads her column and thinks “wow, polyamory is nothing but a series of tawdry orgies”. And, there’s been no coverage of her stuff that has that take.

    Mainstream society is not shy about discussing the sexual aspects of their lives. Hell, there are online advice columns on buttsex and fisting that are hugely popular, and some papers in various cities carry them. Magazines have “the 10 best ways to give him an awesome blowjob” on the cover, and they are stocked in the checkout line.

    Similarly, poly people who are so inclined should feel free to discuss their sex lives. We should not have to self-censor in a way that the mainstream does not – to do so is not really liberation. Needing to do so means that one is not really accepted. I think we can put the pagans, the tantra types, the BDSM folks, and so on in the spotlight on occasion and we will only be stronger for it. Attempting to silence these “freaks” (your word) only divides the community. Polyamory got to where it is largely by moving through subcultures, and trying to sweep those same subcultures under the rug is not a growth strategy.

    Getting the world to understand polyamory is part of what we need to do, but the other thing we need to do is get the world to understand that poly people are different from each other, often radically so. Getting a diverse vision out there is crucial to this.

    I do want to see the business-suited, normal types representing poly in the media. I want the world to see them and understand them. But I also want the occasional sex radical, kinkster, or pagan profiled as well, to make it clear that we are not monolithic. And, I want us to do everything we can to make sure the media doesn’t decide only one subgroup can represent polyamory, whether that is the business suit types or the sex radicals or anyone else.

    And really, my wants are not driving the game here. Poly people of various sorts are getting it together and getting into the media, even when they aren’t experienced like yourself. This is not something to be afraid of – it really will help us move forward.

  22. pennyroyale Says:

    if polyamory is defined culturally as being a sexual style, I can no longer use the term to describe my relationship style.

    I think this is a false dichotomy. We are separated from mainstream monogamy, and from other forms of nonmonogamy, by both our sexual and emotional relationship structures. It may be amusing for social theory geeks to argue about which is overall the most important distinction, but it kinda reminds me of trying to determine whether sexism or racism is a bigger problem – the only correct answer is “intersectionality, asshole” (plus or minus some swearing).

    ’m not asking that sex not be focused on for *MY* comfort.. but rather because polyamory, in my 15 year exploration of it, has never been driven by sex.

    What I hear from you here is a request that the *community* stay away from a focus on sex, in order to match *your* personal experience/the experience of your particular corner of polyland. I very much admire your activist work, Cherie, and I am glad that you are so good at getting your personal experience and perspectives into the media – I think you’re right that the PR is easier to handle with your approach. But your experience is not universal, and does not deserve to be the only one reflected in the media.

    I don’t think it’s ever okay to ask others to hide what they consider to be important aspects of themselves. This has been an ongoing problem with the gay rights movement as well – and I say “gay rights” rather than “GLBT” because bisexuals and especially trans people have been consistently marginalized by organizations like HRC in favor of nice wholesome straight-acting monogamous gays and lesbians.

  23. Penny Royale Says:

    your experience… does not deserve to be the only one reflected in the media.

    Er, I think I put this too strongly – s/only/dominant.

  24. Dw3t-Hthr Says:

    I have been called “sex-negative” for saying that my polyamory is not motivated by sex. It makes me really wary of the sort of social censorship that comes about when people start politicising, thinking of polyamory as a ‘movement’ — because then people start dragging in whether or not one is conforming adequately to the PR engine or being defiant of the specified conventions.

    I’ve done a fair amount of talking to media types over the past decade or so about polyamory. (And, y’know, I’m a pagan BDSMer and it didn’t keep me from getting on MTV.) I’m just not interested in a “movement” or in hooking up with any of these organisations that fancy they’re competent to speak for me. I don’t speak for anyone other than myself and, to the extent that they have granted me permission to do so, my family.

    And I don’t have a problem with people doing Top Ten Group Sex Techniques or whatever, but I’m pretty much as uninterested in them as I am in the checkout counter rags with their blowjob news and who’s banging Brad Pitt gossip.

  25. Cherie Says:

    I am not trying to say that polyamory should become a sexual movement. Nor that sexuality should be a primary focus. Rather, I am trying to make space for folks who want to be open about their sexuality alongside other poly people who may not want to. It’s crucial for us, and crucial to the movement as a whole.

    Perhaps I have read more into your original essay than you intended with phrases like ‘very core of what it means to be polyamorous.’ and ‘The sex we have is not a liability; it is one of our primary strengths.’, etc.

    For me.. sex in polyamory is neither a liability nor a primary strength.. it just simply ‘is’ a healthy part of relationships. For you, it may very well be a core piece of polyamory.. for you. It’s when statements are made that try to lump a value onto an entire community that I become agitated about it.

    Sex-positivity and polyamory are two separate value systems, that yes – do have quite a bit of overlap. A lot of poly folks I know put environmental awareness as a core life value for them. But that doesn’t mean that all poly people strive to reduce their carbon emissions or want to form ecological communes off the grid with other poly folk.

    And that’s not to say that the views should not be represented.. I believe they should, and they are. I believe there should be fair representation of all points of view – I think we agree on that point.

    As you well point out, people from differing points of view ARE making strides in getting their voices heard, through mediums like Poly Weekly, poly articles profiling trans folks and other examples you’ve given. Polyamory shows up in BDSM books, and BDSM shows up in Poly books and websites and media references. (Franklin’s site at xeromag.com is another excellent example to add to the list of resources.) There are resources for talking about the sexual aspects, and they are being talked about. And as sex-negativity in general is combated in society, I suspect it will in polyamory too and it’s portrayal.

    What’ I’m hearing is that you are not satisfied with the overall balance of sex-positivity in the general media – and that the folks stepping up to be in the media are over sanitizing it. I don’t believe it is being over-sanitized.. it’s simply being presented the way those who tell their story live their lives (in some articles I’ve been in, which I believe is 3 or 4 now, the sexual aspects of my arrangements are discussed.) But at the same time, you are stating that we should not be focusing on the sexual aspects in some mediums because it can be dangerous, and that these points of view are making it in the media.

    What I’m confused about is exactly what you’re asking for as far as this ‘balance’. It’s seeming pretty well balanced from my perspective when addressing the overall aspects of polyamory.. where is it lacking?

    Where is the space not made? Most media requests get distributed all over, and anyone reading it has equal access to step up and tell their story. No one is preventing or holding back the sex-positive message from getting into the media – and as you point out, some are stepping up. I feel as if you’re criticizing those of us who have told our stories for not including your point of view too with ours. It’s not my point of view, and I have no right or obligation to tell it. I can only tell my story, and you’re welcome to include yours too.

    No one is asking anyone to hide aspects of themselves, certainly not me. That you are polyamorous AND exploring a very sex-positive and kinky life is part of your personal story.

    your experience… does not deserve to be the only one reflected in the media.

    I have never said that my experience is the only one that should be reflected. That would be a terrible thing, and one of the reasons I have stepped back from many media opportunities so as not to overpopulate my personal story (well, that.. and it’s draining.). My pursuit of polyamory is but representative of a small fraction of those exploring polyamory .. for instance, I can’t represent poly parenting issues any more than I can being boobiesexual. Both I feel are differing and important viewpoints.

    And I have never said that those who have differing experiences and viewpoints should not be telling their stories. I encourage them to step up and be heard.

    What I hear from you here is a request that the *community* stay away from a focus on sex

    No, what I’m asking is that individuals stay away from defining an entire community as focused on sex.

    Which is what I’m hearing in some of pepomint’s language – that sex is a core value of polyamory, etc. Just as I’m careful to not present all polyamorists as being straight, white, life-by-design proponents, childfree by choice, activists, keen on keeping exes as friends, techonomads or transhumanists.. I encourage similar consideration to those wanting to present sex to be a core value of polyamory. (Just insert a ‘to me’ at the end of the sentence, and I’m happy.)

    I think there’s something you are worried about here that is not as much of a danger as you think.

    The danger is already here. People are fighting to keep their children because a spouse pulls up information that polyamory is a deviant sexual practice. Someone in the Florida poly community had to testify at her daughter’s and granddaughter’s custody hearing. Her daughter *lost* custody of her child because her *grandmother* had two boyfriends, and thus it was an unfit environment for a child to be exposed to.

    There are other examples that we’ve all heard about in the media, and others that I’m privy to that I can’t discuss.

    And as a personal side note.. I’ve spent the last month visiting with what are essentially my new in-laws.. who refuse to acknowledge the committment Chris and I have to each other to other family members.. because in their mind, despite what we say – polyamory is synonymous with ‘free love hippie orgies’ (direct quote). And they don’t want to deal with the shame of explaining to their brothers and sisters that their son and his ‘special friend’ are out screwing people right and left (which is so far from the truth, it ain’t even funny).

    The association of polyamory and sex is already right out there.. and yes, often in a sex negative way. And in a sex negative culture, the stigma of the sexual aspects around polyamory will not be removed any sooner than society in general gets a grip on sexuality.

    And Chris and I have fairly progressive parents.. I can’t even imagine the challenges that others go through to be out.

  26. Dermorgen Says:

    As a long term “poly” I do my best to never take a stance in these types of discussions.

    However, this is the first time a column has “outed” me. Apparently my lack of sexual activity means that I’m not poly at all. I have been converted to “not-poly” (whatever THAT would be) against my personal inclination.

    I can’t wait to tell my three husbands and wife.

  27. Penny Royale Says:

    Cherie, I am very unclear about what you mean when you say you are “asking that sex not be focused on”.

    If you mean, no one should say that sex is an important/driving part of polyamory for each and every polyamorist, then I… well, I don’t entirely agree with you, as I think it’s useful to draw subcultural boundaries around sex for basically similar sorts of reasons as Pepper has been outlining. But I think you have a legitimate and interesting argument, one which doesn’t deny or marginalize my experience.

    In other forums, however, you have called for shows like Polyamory Weekly to reduce their sexual content, because they are public representatives of polyamory. Chris said that articles on group sex dynamics shouldn’t live in the “poly resources” section. These types of claims seem to me to be stronger than a call for people to avoid representing their experiences as 100% universal.

    I don’t hear either of you as asking me not to talk about my experience and perspective, but I do hear you asking me to file important parts of it under “Polyamory: Special Interest” rather than “Polyamory: General”. That’s a form of hiding – and if all the important parts of your polyamory get to be called “General Interest”, yes, it is privileging your perspective. Just as not all polyamorists are interested in sex, I am not interested in separating the sexual and emotional components of my relationship structure. For me, they need to be discussed as a unified whole.

    I guess what I’m really saying is that things like “it’s not about the sex” and “sex-positivity and polyamory are two separate value systems” need to have a “for me” tacked on the end, too – always. Or at least, just as often as “sex is a core part of polyamory”. Otherwise, we’re just arguing about who gets to erase whose experience in which contexts.

  28. pepomint Says:

    Dw3t-Hthr:

    First off, welcome to the blog! Good to see you here.

    I have been called “sex-negative” for saying that my polyamory is not motivated by sex.

    Yes, this is a real problem. I have probably chosen terms poorly for this essay – someone advised me offline that the way “sex-negative” and “sex-positive” are thrown around is often problematic, as in “you’re not sexual enough” for “sex-negative” and “stop criticizing me (even if I deserve it)” for “sex-positive”. In the future, I think I’m going to switch to a discussion of sexual openness.

    It makes me really wary of the sort of social censorship that comes about when people start politicising, thinking of polyamory as a ‘movement’

    Right, there’s a danger here. Though this danger is already a reality in the way that people come down on poly people who want to talk sex, either internally or externally. I’m trying to put the brakes on the habit of poly people to shoot down sexuality conversations, which I’ve seen in various forums and in our media approach. See my (soon to be posted) response to Cherie below.

    I’ve done a fair amount of talking to media types over the past decade or so about polyamory. (And, y’know, I’m a pagan BDSMer and it didn’t keep me from getting on MTV.) I’m just not interested in a “movement” or in hooking up with any of these organisations that fancy they’re competent to speak for me.

    One of the nice things about poly media coverage is the focus on human-interest stories allows this to happen. In other movements, everything ends up channeled through a handful of media organizations. The difference with polyamory is not that those organizations don’t exist, but rather our strange credibility with the media.

    I’ve heard your “please don’t try to represent me” stance from a number of other poly people. I’m not trying to say here that everything poly should be funneled through the 10 Legit Talking Points, but at the same time I think we should educate those poly people who are looking for talking-to-the-media advice about the usual pitfalls (I just forwarded someone the NCSF “how to talk to the media page” yesterday), and we should consider overall media strategy. Not in a “you should do it this way” style but in a “hey, how does this end up working” style. Certainly, when we mess up with the media it’s pretty obvious and the media-talking types in the community take note. So there’s a certain de facto trial-and-error strategic understanding that’s developed, and we can talk about, even though our relationship with the media is nicely anarchistic and should remain that way.

    Part of my point with this essay is that you should be able to discuss your BDSM along with polyamory in media contexts. While BDSM may in fact be entirely nonsexual for you (or not, I don’t know), any mention of it in the mainstream is typically read as flaunting your sexuality, and many poly people will read it similarly. I’ve heard criticisms of mixing BDSM with poly coverage from poly folks, and I think there’s a certain undercurrent against it, which I view as problematic.

  29. pepomint Says:

    Dermorgen:

    From your comment, I’m assuming that you are practicing a platonic style of polyamory.

    Please do not read things into my writing that have not been said. In the essay, I discuss how sex-negativity harms polyamory as a movement. This does not mean that it harms you specifically, or you need to have more sex, or anything like that.

    I fully support platonic-style polyamory and I am glad that polyamory opens up space for this sort of movement (sub-movement?). I see it as a really exciting innovation. I suspect that everyone else in this discussion agrees. I am not attacking your or saying you are not poly.

    In the future, please do not take any discussion of sexuality in poly contexts as a personal affront. It may not be important to you, but it is important to others in the community, who are typically bringing it up as mechanism of self-improvement. Objecting to such conversations is not helpful.

  30. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    Perhaps I have read more into your original essay than you intended with phrases like ‘very core of what it means to be polyamorous.’ and ‘The sex we have is not a liability; it is one of our primary strengths.’, etc.

    I (perhaps unfortunately) tend to write in power-analysis-speak, which is likely causing confusion here. When I say “the sex we have is one of our primary strengths”, I mean that the aggregate sex that polyamorous people as a whole are having is very important in our collective resistance to monogamous power structures. I do not mean that any particular poly person needs to see sex as a core strength.

    Also, when I say that sex-negativity strikes at the core of polyamory, I’m again talking in the political aggregate: while being sex-negative does not necessarily prevent a particular person from being poly, general sex-negativity in the larger culture and within the polyamory movement makes polyamory (practice and movement) more difficult. Apologies for the lack of clarity.

    The danger is already here. People are fighting to keep their children because a spouse pulls up information that polyamory is a deviant sexual practice.

    The anti-assimilationist argument is that this danger exists whatever we try to do with our image, because it depends on mainstream understanding of our lives. The mainstream does not need more than “sex with more than one person” to condemn us, just like they don’t need more than “acts of same-gender sex or same-gender attraction” to condemn LBG folks. No amount of wearing business suits or downplaying the sexual aspect of our lives will change their condemnation. Some judge is going to decide that we’re perverts anyways, and someone is going to lose custody because of that judge’s prejudice. Hell, well-dressed desexualized deviants are probably seen as more threatening than ones you can clearly identify or pigeonhole.

    And the prejudice we’re dealing with does not arise out of sheer ignorance or for historical reasons. It is maintained because monogamous people are heavily invested in monogamy as the only option, and so they exert prejudice due to this insecurity. (I should really put together and post that deconstruction of monogamy piece I’ve been kicking around.) The only solution is to change the larger culture so that a lack of alternatives is not crucial to monogamous security, and that takes time and requires that we provide visible alternatives. This process is already happening on the fringes of poly community, where you see people practicing a certain sort of “conscious monogamy”, which they see as a choice rather than a requirement. We’ve seen this in LGBT political advancement: most queer gains have happened as heterosexual folks got more secure in their own sexuality, which happened as queers became more visible and well-defined in the popular imagination.

    Right now, our media image is actually really good, as I’ve pointed out. And yet, many poly people still end up in bad court situations, or have trouble coming out, or what have you. The danger we face is not due to poor PR, but rather is a currently inescapable outcome of monogamous power structures. Media image management is helpful, but downplaying our radical aspects just plays into monogamous insecurity. Exposing our diversity and our humanity (which includes our various approaches to sexuality) is key in the long-term struggle of subtly rearranging monogamous power.

    What I’m confused about is exactly what you’re asking for as far as this ‘balance’.

    This is confusing because it’s subtle. I mostly like what we’re doing, which is again surprisingly representative. Here’s what I would like to see:

    1) I would like to see us figure out how to include the occasional discussion of sexuality in our media image. Currently, NCSF’s media guide just states “don’t talk about sex”, and I think that reflects the common wisdom. The question is, how can those of us who want to talk sexuality in the media do it in a positive way? And how can we acknowledge that as part of the overall strategy, and one that helps the overall movement? If we can get some ideas and experience on this, we can give people better advice than “just don’t do it”, and incorporate that into media guides. Currently this conversation is not happening.

    Admittedly, doing this is tricky. Just providing the media with fodder for labeling us as pervs is not expressing sexuality in a positive way. There’s probably some argument that we should start within the community and alternative venues, see what works, and then export those strategies to the mainstream. We seem to already be in the internal experimentation phase, through blogs, podcasts, alternative papers, and so on. We should look at what is working and consider wider distribution possibilities, while still incorporating the valuable media lessons we’ve learned, like how to identify friendly reporters.

    2) I want to see more internal discussion of polyamory and sexuality. Poly-style group sex and the slut-shaming issues with secondary relationships are the two examples I’ve brought up. Our literature is currently weak on these points, and forum discussion is rare. Recognizing these discussions as valuable overall (though often not valuable to specific people – for example, group sex does very little for me) is an important part of getting this going.

    3) The other important part is that we need to stop the cross-fire when sexuality comes up. Discussions of sexuality are ritually shot down with comments like “Why is this posted here? How is this about polyamory?” or “I think you’re talking about swinging here” or “polyamory is not about sex, it’s about relationships”. Or, people who are not interested in that particular subject quickly take offense and see themselves as being somehow threatened, like Dermorgen above in this thread. Or they take offense because they’re worried that open discussion of sexuality will somehow turn into polyamory an orgiastic free-for-all or attract the wrong kind of people.

    When I say there needs to be space for these discussions, I mean we need to be able to have these discussions without getting flak from other poly people for doing so. This means that people have to be able to back off a bit and say “this doesn’t interest me at all and perhaps even makes me a little squeamish, but I see how it is valuable to other poly people and that’s good enough for inclusion in poly discussions”.

  31. dzNuts Says:

    It seems that this discussion has hit upon some inherent challenges of representing a confluence of personal choices as a singular movement.

    I am very new to poly politics but I can draw from my experience as a racial minority who have dealt with similar concerns regarding our media strategy. Everyone on this board is basically saying the same thing. You do not want your particular stream (viewpoint) to be ignored or marginalized within the very community that is suppose to have your back.

    I am going to suggest something a little off the cuff.

    What would happen if a community of interest were to amicably agree to wage a two-front war? One front a movement and the other a (r)evolution. By nature, revolutions are subversive acts that cannot wait for permission from external agents (The revolution will not be televised). On the other hand movements require a certain amount of political expediency.

    In the black community our inability to reconcile these two aspects of championing our cause has cost us a great deal, with both movement and revolution suffering.

    It would be a real tragedy for such an important revolution/movement as polyamory to suffer the consequent slow decline into irrelevance.

  32. Dw3t-Hthr Says:

    Personally, I’d like to see nobody ever talk about what polyamory ‘is about’ again. Talking about what “polyamory is about” is a statement about motivations, and trying to make statements of universal motivation is *guaranteed* to piss someone off. Similarly any discussion of what it all *means*, or stuff like ‘the sex we have’ (which is, as phrased, extremely likely to be taken as speaking for everyone in the group, as Dermorgan’s comment so handily illustrates).

    The major reason I do the “don’t you dare speak for me” thing is that I have never seen a group that doesn’t actively misrepresent me, my family, and what I do. For a couple of years a while back, my primary activism for polyamory was cleaning up after activists who presented some vision of What It Was All About — when people decided I was approachable and knew I was poly, I would start getting the questions. “Do I really have to be involved with her husband? I’m a lesbian!” “Do you really think there’s something wrong with monogamy?” “So he said nobody can be enough for anyone else, so he needed to get his needs met. Is that really what you mean?” It burned me out.

    The question is, how can those of us who want to talk sexuality in the media do it in a positive way?

    I would suggest simply *talking sexuality in the media*. Talk about personal stuff, talk about political issues, talk about the relevance of various things, and bring up being poly as it happens to be relevant to that thing.

    Doing both at once will look muddled. At this particular moment, is one talking sexuality, is one talking polyamory, is one talking about kink, is one talking whatever — yes, these are not unrelated topics, but focusing on one of them at a time will make it far clearer. Back to standard news-chatter things — stick to the topic, be clear about what one’s talking about, don’t try to bring up too many different points at once.

    I mean, I imagine the dynamics of group sex, to pick the example that’s kicking around here, may well vary depending on the circumstances. A casual hookup may well have different issues and protocols than the long-term dynamics of a closed triad and the things they need to deal with. So there’s dynamics of group sex in general, the specific issues of freewheeling stuff, the specific issues of poly groups, BDSM scenes involving heirarchy chains, or co-topping, or someone topping two bottoms, the spectrum encompassing all of these, all of which can be brought up as relevant without making them essential. “Here’s an example of something that some people need to take into account, and ways of resolving it.”

    One of the useful things about doing that from a poly-activist point of view is that it treats being polyamorous as a perfectly ordinary variation of human behaviour, one of many reasons that someone might be interested in information on group sex, rather than equating the two rhetorically. People who are interested in group sex from different standpoints are exposed to the concept in a completely nonthreatening way, if they weren’t already aware of it, and the keeping things in context keeps the mention of being poly from taking on the ‘this is so utterly different from anything you’re familiar with’ tones that are, from what I’ve seen, unfortunately common.

    Poly-style group sex and the slut-shaming issues with secondary relationships are the two examples I’ve brought up.

    Unfortunately, slut-shaming is something that seems pretty popular all around. I’m not sure how fixable that’s going to be in poly circles when it’s constantly reinforced by surrounding culture. Which is a point of needing sex-positive activism focused on that particular subject, not poly-specific activism, as far as I can tell.

  33. pepomint Says:

    dzNuts: Hello, and welcome!

    What would happen if a community of interest were to amicably agree to wage a two-front war? One front a movement and the other a (r)evolution.

    I like the way you put this, and I’m all for it. This has been very successful in the queer movement, where we at one point had the Lesbian Avengers handing out balloons at schools while staid lobbyists were trying to influence Congress. The two sides work well together: radical queers push the envelope and develop new understanding around liberation, while the movement folks work towards things like getting people in office and passing laws.

    But here’s the issue. I would never describe this relationship as amicable. It’s always been rocky at best, all the way from the local activist groups up to the national ones. And marked by the occasional betrayal on the movement side – which happened again recently, as trans people were removed from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act they are trying to pass. This has resulted in distrust on the radical side, which means that radical types are less inclined to get involved in movement strategies like same-sex marriage or the recent attempt at a march on Washington because they fear, perhaps rightly, that movement goals are preempting their concerns. In fact, much of the radical work ends up aimed at the other more mainstream parts of the community.

    So while I would love to have the amicable relationship you describe, it’s difficult and requires effort from everyone involved. The movement needs to see the revolutionary types as necessary and helpful, and needs to not attack them or ditch their concerns at the first opportunity. The radicals need to trust the movement, work with it, throw in with movement concerns, and accept that a certain realpolitik is necessary when making advances.

    You’ve got me thinking about setting up parallel forums and similar, however. To some extent this has already happened: here in San Francisco with have a BDSM/Polyamory group because the BDSM folks discovered they were unable to hold a workable conversation in a general group. Maybe there should be some attempts to extend this sort of thing online as well.

  34. pepomint Says:

    Dw3t-Hthr:

    For a couple of years a while back, my primary activism for polyamory was cleaning up after activists who presented some vision of What It Was All About

    I’ve experienced quite a bit of the sort of thing you describe here. The most recent is that people seem to think you need to be some sort of evolved relationship master to do polyamory. I had a woman come up to me after the last nonmonogamy workshop who said she was absolutely stunned by how we showed that you could be real, have faults, and still manage this stuff.

    Here’s the thing though – I don’t think she got her “evolved poly” notions from poly people. She doesn’t do poly workshops, read poly stuff, or think of herself as nonmonogamous, so I don’t know where she would pick it up. I think it’s a natural conclusion that monogamous folks jump to once they meet a couple of us, and we seem to handle our shit with grace (which is usually an illusion). Or perhaps it’s that they imagine you must be crazy evolved to be over jealousy.

    There’s a fallacy here, that monogamous people’s misconceptions of polyamory are necessarily coming from poly people. Sure, some of them are, and the “evolved poly” mistake is one that is definitely transmitted from poly folks to monogamous people. But, monogamous folks have their own misconceptions around nonmonogamy that arise from their understanding of monogamy itself, and we will inevitably face those.

    You listed two of those in your examples. Monogamous people will tend to think we hate monogamy, because if we didn’t hate it, why aren’t we doing it? Similarly, they’ll think that any lesbian getting with a woman needs to sleep with her husband as well, because that’s a culture-wide imperative imposed by straight men’s fantasies. I want to throw another one on the pile: the single most common question in poly 101 settings is jealousy, and monogamous people tend to believe this “jealousy will always conquer your ass” myth. That’s not coming from poly people. Monogamous people need to feel that way, because they depend on jealousy to structure their lives, and without it things fall apart.

    There’s no “right” presentation of polyamory that will avoid these issues, or that will somehow magically erase misrepresentation. I’m all for disclaimers, only representing yourself in media, and so on, but it only goes so far. Even if a person (say, in a triad) carefully qualifies everything they say, someone reading about them in an article will proceed to only remember the triad aspect and a while later will say “isn’t polyamory only threesomes?” in a poly 101 setting.

    Doing poly 101 is always difficult because of this. I’ve burned out on it once, and I’m back in, and I’ll probably burn out on it again.

    This is why I’m not fond of the “don’t represent me” take on things. We need to be able to think about this stuff en masse and strategize even when presenting polyamory in a way that relies on people representing themselves. I feel like “don’t represent me” is often used as a cover for “I don’t like the way you presented yourself or your poly practice” or even “we should just stop being in the media at all”, neither of which is particularly friendly to those folks trying to do media stuff.

    I would suggest simply *talking sexuality in the media*. Talk about personal stuff, talk about political issues, talk about the relevance of various things, and bring up being poly as it happens to be relevant to that thing.

    This sounds like one good strategy. I’m open to ideas on how we should address the poly/sexuality overlap, along with poly/BDSM, poly/queer, and other poly/whatever stuff. There’s lots of ways to get at this stuff, and lots of open questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers. I just want the conversation to be happening.

    I like your group sex strategy. Bringing it up as part of a “hey, this is an unexpected issue people in triads run into” is reasonable and doesn’t tend to titillation. There’s probably a number of similar strategies.

    Let’s take poly/BDSM for a minute. I know that if I were to hop into the media storm (which I’ve been considering), I would not be willing to leave out mention of my bisexuality and BDSM in any particular interview. Depending on the context, it might only be a mention, but it needs to happen, or I have failed to self-represent. This might mean staying away from venues where such a mention is guaranteed to go bad, which is fine.

    This is my personal take, but this brings up a whole lot of wide-ranging strategy questions. Are we better off presenting poly in BDSM-centered pieces, or BDSM in poly-centered pieces? Certainly the former is easier, but the latter may be more likely of getting a positive reception, if we look at the media tendencies. Who’s our target audience? Are we hoping that isolated kinksters read this and consider that poly or open nonmonogamy may be the solution for a vanilla-spouse syndrome they are caught up in, or at least is preferable to cheating? Are we hoping that poly-curious people read it, and come into the poly community without the nasty kinkphobia I keep seeing in new folks?

    I agree with you that in most given pieces, there should at least be a focus on one aspect: sexuality, polyamory, BDSM, what have you. Mentioning the others is good, but as you say, muddying things unnecessarily is not good. That said, I think there is space for combined approaches, when appropriate. Like, I could see doing a poly/BDSM or poly/bi combo presentation in queer press. If we find things that work in alternative circles, we could adapt them to mainstream venues.

    So yeah, lots more questions than answers. Overall I want to get away from the “sex(uality) is just not an acceptable topic for media” attitude I’ve seen and start exploring ways that we can pull in some (for those who are so inclined), while still appearing as human in the press.

  35. Dermorgen Says:

    “From your comment, I’m assuming that you are practicing a platonic style of polyamory.

    Please do not read things into my writing that have not been said. In the essay, I discuss how sex-negativity harms polyamory as a movement. This does not mean that it harms you specifically, or you need to have more sex, or anything like that.

    I fully support platonic-style polyamory and I am glad that polyamory opens up space for this sort of movement (sub-movement?). I see it as a really exciting innovation. I suspect that everyone else in this discussion agrees. I am not attacking your or saying you are not poly.

    In the future, please do not take any discussion of sexuality in poly contexts as a personal affront. It may not be important to you, but it is important to others in the community, who are typically bringing it up as mechanism of self-improvement. Objecting to such conversations is not helpful.

    Okay… I’ll start with an apology.

    I can’t imagine where you got the impression that I was objecting to this conversation or others like it. If any others percieved what I wrote as an objection to the conversation as well then I do apologize.

    I didn’t take it personally at all and franky don’t understand the negative response to my post. I’m not sure what you believed I was claiming you said or why you felt I believed I was being attacked.

    You seem to have read my message in a light which is was simply not meant. I was simply pointing out in my ironic way that this concept …

    “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.”

    Simply does not apply to some of us. In fact, several “pollys” I know are sexually monogamous, celibate or simply uninterested. I wanted to mention on our behalfs that this is simply not the bottom line for some of us… our sexuality plays out in some fairly “mainstream america” ways.

    I suppose there is a good reason I stay out of these conversations, eh?

  36. Cherie Says:

    I mean we need to be able to have these discussions without getting flak from other poly people for doing so.

    Please excuse me while I giggle. :)

    If that’s your goal, I think you’ll be waiting a long time to see that day. And it’s not because of the topic, but rather that polys, particularly online, can be quite opinionated and vocale about them. You do realize that this challenge is not specific to the particular topic of discussing sexuality as it relates to poly?

    I’ve seen various forums within the poly community regularly give flak for bringing up a variety of topics. Bring up discussions about STDs and safer sex too much, and you get flak for killing the buzz. Talk about poly parenting too much in a general forum, and you get flack for focusing too much on handling breast feeding rotations. Bring up activism issues in a general forum, and you get flack for not keeping it social and making it too political. Share a new recipe for 7-layer-vegan bean dip that you made to satisfy the diversity of dietary needs in your quad on a poly forum, and you get flak for not keeping it focused on poly. Bring up the couple looking for the hot bi babe, and the poor couple gets blasted for making poly seem like it’s all about filling some fantasy for a live in nanny and house keeper. Etc.

    As has been pointed out, and rightfully so.. we polys are a diverse group of individuals. And those active in poly community and forums have a tendency to voice their opinions to whoever will listen. Especially online.

    In my opinion.. get out there, get your message out there in ways that don’t generalize the entire community, and be prepared for the flak you *WILL* get… no matter your angle. Heck, I got flack for talking about meeting Chris on a Prius chat forum (it was a message board, actually) – because some were afraid of polys being represented as dorks with no life who spend their lives online cruising for chicks in chat rooms. You have to learn to laugh it off, and appreciate the diversity of the poly community and grow a thick skin. Listen to the concerns yes.. but you decide if you should adjust or not.

    Go in knowing that you will never be able to present in the media in a way that everyone you’re trying to represent will agree with. That’s why we need lots of us out there speaking our story and giving a diverse set of viewpoints.

  37. Chris Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Dw3t: Doing both at once will look muddled. At this particular moment, is one talking sexuality, is one talking polyamory, is one talking about kink, is one talking whatever — yes, these are not unrelated topics, but focusing on one of them at a time will make it far clearer.

    Exactly.

    I’d love for society and the media to be able to have healthy and positive conversations about sex. But we need to resist trying to force sex into tangentially related areas and conversations to do so. Sex should be able to stand on its own as a worthy topic of discourse.

    Pepper says: Discussions of sexuality are ritually shot down with comments like “Why is this posted here? How is this about polyamory?”

    Because poly is NOT about the sex. The topics are often very separable – and constantly trying to merge them only reinforces to the incorrect societal impression that it is “all about the sex”…

    Consider this thought experiment… For many of the poly folk I know, conscious living and eco-friendliness are important aspects of their lives. I certainly know more poly folks who would consider this personally important than who consider group sexuality an at all significant part of who they are.

    Despite this large overlap between polyamory and broader conscious living, an outcry would be very warranted if anyone started to hijack poly forums to discuss green living. An occasional post or comment to forums (and in the media) about the issues that arise from the overlap of being green and poly is worthwhile – it shows diversity and should be welcomed.

    But imagine if every day there were posts focused more on the green living than on the poly living. Even if there is plenty of overlap, of course you’d hear “Why is this posted here? How is this about polyamory?”…

    And if you weren’t particularly interested in eco-friendly issues, how would you feel if that was the first thing the media and anyone you were out to cared to comment on?

    This is why you see a backlash in poly forums – and I think you are mistaking it for sex negativity when often it is not.

    Imagine replacing the typical conversations and questions about sex with: “Oh – you’re poly?!? Does that mean you drive a hybrid car? Do you make your own biodiesel? Do you compost your crap or flush it down?”

    Sex is tangential to poly. Conscious living is tangential to poly. BDSM is tangential to poly. And so on…

    There is no need to lump them all together – particularly with the media. And if you do feel a need to lump them together – make that merging very very clear.

    Does that mean you or anyone else should hide your sexuality? Not at all… But I do think that everyone should endeavor to keep the issues as clearly seperated as possible when discussing them – to avoid poly=sex from become further blurred.

    The mainstream has an immediate response of poly=sex, and I think most of our success with the media has come from a focus on dissecting and separating the issues and getting the media to understand that the sex is only a part (and for many a small part) of what it means to be poly.

    As you noted – poly has done a good job with the media, and with building up a (relatively) positive mainstream image. Based on our success, I’d like to see more of the same.

    Let me finish with this: I would like to see us figure out how to include the occasional discussion of sexuality in our media image.

    Agreed. And I think we are already there. Certainly the amount of sex coverage in poly articles in the media is much more than “occasional”.

    – Chris

  38. Cherie Says:

    To Penny…

    In other forums, however, you have called for shows like Polyamory Weekly to reduce their sexual content,

    Actually, no.. this was not what I called for. I asked the same thing of them that I’m asking here. I did however in that forum present my personal preference of there being too much sexual content.. which was entirely different from my request of them to be more aware of how they are involved with defining polyamory in a social context.

    Chris said that articles on group sex dynamics shouldn’t live in the “poly resources” section… That’s a form of hiding – and if all the important parts of your polyamory get to be called “General Interest”, yes, it is privileging your perspective.

    First of all.. Chris is not me, and I am not Chris. We do not speak for each other. While he and I have similar points of view here, they are not necessarily 100% in alignment.. and this is one such case.

    I do support (and encourage) sexuality resources being part of polyamory resources. Just as I encourage discussions on poly parenting, safer sex, intentional community, activism, etc. being resources. I think it’s up to the individual moderators of the forums in question to decide how and if things get categorized, and what is permissible.

    And I have NEVER said anything that all of the things important to me should be categorized as ‘general’ and everything else as ‘special interest’. I’m unsure where you picked that up from. A good portion of my particular interests in polyamory are just as easily classified as special interests on many forums – such as my activism, intentional family building, childfree by choice, life-by-design living, etc.

    I guess what I’m really saying is that things like “it’s not about the sex” and “sex-positivity and polyamory are two separate value systems” need to have a “for me” tacked on the end, too – always.

    I totally agree, and I have consistently presented these as my personal approach.. and when doing interviews with the media I am very clear that these are my personal view points, and not representative of a community. I regularly refer journalist to other resources and individuals with vastly different experiences than my own. And that’s all I’m asking here of those wanting to present other viewpoints – make it clear they are your own, and not that of a community. There is no designated spokesperson or mission statement for polyamory, and nor should there be. In my opinion.

  39. Chris Says:

    One more comment:

    Pepper says: “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.”

    Wow – I couldn’t disagree more. I’d argue that polyamory’s break with sexual fidelity is the LEAST crucial departure from the traditional monogamy formulas. All of the rest that you mention (“multiple romantic attachments, economies of abundance, triad or group dynamics, rethinking the role of relationships in structuring our lives”) are much more revolutionary breaks from the mold.

    As Dermorgen points out: “In fact, several “pollys” I know are sexually monogamous, celibate or simply uninterested. I wanted to mention on our behalfs that this is simply not the bottom line for some of us… “

    Indeed.

    In my experience, most of the poly-identified people I have encountered (particularly outside the SF Bay Area) have relatively mundane sex lives, and many resent the assumptions that society makes around poly being equivalent to being promiscuous, kinky, or bi being thrust upon them.

    The most typical poly “style” I have encountered is committed couples who are theoretically open to more – though they may not be currently involved with anyone else, or even actively looking. I even know of poly couples who have ground rules that keep sex with a new partner off the table until the new relationship has lasted years (yes, years!).

    The second most common poly style I’ve run across are V’s – more often than not where there is no practice of or interest in bridging the V in any fashion other than platonically.

    For all these configurations – the sexual aspects are really not particularly unusual, significant, or interesting. So why should sex even need to be a part of the conversation?

    Certainly there are many people for who sexuality is a major part of who they are, and they should not hide that when they are being out in the world or in the media. But I do think it is good form to keep the conversations as clear and distinct as possible. The listener / reader should be left thinking “this kinky and bi person is also poly” and not “poly people are kinky and bi”….

    – Chris

  40. Cherie Says:

    the sexual aspects are really not particularly unusual, significant, or interesting.

    This is an excellent point that I’ve neglected to bring up yet. I think one reason that we’re not getting as much sexual focus in the media – even though it’s an obvious target that is easy to access – is that, at least the journalists I’ve worked with, once they get into understanding polyamory more – the sex parts become the more uninteresting parts of the equation.

    There are so many other relationship styles – open relationships, open marriage, sluthood, swingers, players, dating, various flavors of kink, etc. that get a sex focus. From my perspective, it’s that polyamory has a possible avenue to open and honest loving multiple relationships that makes it the distinctive departure from other approaches to multiple sex partners. Talking about multi adult households, raising kids with 3 parents, openly dating multiple people, coming out to family, arranging family vacations, etc. become the things that set poly apart and become the interesting fodder for some journalists.

    When the Florida Poly Retreat was approached by Salon.com to have a reporter attend and write on polyamory based on her experience there.. we decided to invite her to attend as any other attendee would. We invited her to attend all our workshops (which ranged from tantra workshops, BDSM, poly parenting, jealousy, etc.) AND I organized a media roundtable for her. The reporter not only self-selected to attend the more ‘practical’ workshops than the sexual.. but at the roundtable (attended and actively participated in by a very wide variety of over 25 poly folks – including several pagan, BDSM, trans, bi and generally kinky folks), the conversations the reporter asked the most follow-up questions on was the practical stuff. And while the sexual aspects where brought up.. she kept getting intrigued by the other aspects. She even commented at the end that she was expecting there to not be much else beneath the sex to report on. Sure, there was some sexual content in the article, but the article by and large covered many other aspects.

    Now of course, that’s only one experience, one journalist and one newsource. So not exactly a representative sample. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that the sex content is there and presented to reporters.. and it’s not always the stuff that they pick up on as the interesting aspects.

    (And I realize that by stating this, I may seem to apparently negate my concerns of the message of ‘poly is all about the sex’ getting out there.)

  41. Dw3t-Hthr Says:

    quoting pepomint through these bits:
    Similarly, they’ll think that any lesbian getting with a woman needs to sleep with her husband as well, because that’s a culture-wide imperative imposed by straight men’s fantasies.

    The one who specifically talked to me about it was trying to make sense of an actual experience she’d had with a bisexual woman she had been considering getting involved with, who creeped her out by the constant urging to involve her husband.

    I don’t know as specifically about the other examples, but that one is damn-well-for-certain some poly person who couldn’t communicate.

    I feel like “don’t represent me” is often used as a cover for “I don’t like the way you presented yourself or your poly practice” or even “we should just stop being in the media at all”, neither of which is particularly friendly to those folks trying to do media stuff.

    My “don’t represent me” stance was rather thoroughly hardened by an encounter with some guy who was absolutely convinced that the only reason anyone would be poly was to implement a particular leftist-anarchist political vision and wanted to go forth and Speak For The Community about all this essential political action. Because he couldn’t imagine someone might be poly without wanting to Subvert The Dominant Paradigm tee-em, without it being an integral part of that specific agenda.

    It was a mindbogglingly frustrating experience.

    This is my personal take, but this brings up a whole lot of wide-ranging strategy questions. Are we better off presenting poly in BDSM-centered pieces, or BDSM in poly-centered pieces?

    I don’t think there is a “we” here. Too much depends in what the purpose of the discussion is, the context, the focus of the situation.

    If I’m doing poly-101 discussions with someone, I’m not likely to mention that I’m in a 24/7 d/s relationship with one of my primary partners, because it’s not relevant to the whole poly-101 sort of situation. I am guaranteed to be explicit about the fact that I have two primary-type relationships, however, both because to do otherwise would be to misrepresent myself and my family and because I have found that most people presume that only one primary relationship is possible or permissible.

    On the flip side, I’ve been known to mention that while my husband is a dom by preference, he’s not my dom, when discussing power relationships.

    If I were talking about my personal sexuality, it would touch on things like the importance of a good balance in kink (as I’ve determined I can’t have a happy sexual relationship with a really vehemently vanilla person, more’s the pity), dealing with issues of differential sex drives (I have medical issues that have been known to affect my libido strongly), and some things about balancing time and interactions with multiple partners. It would also cover some unrelated-to-subcultural stuff like my preference for penetrative sex and my lack of responsiveness to sex toys.

    Context is a big deal.

    That said, I think there is space for combined approaches, when appropriate. Like, I could see doing a poly/BDSM or poly/bi combo presentation in queer press.

    Sure. I know a variety of explicitly crossover approaches to these things from observing people I know. On the other hand, I know more people for whom these things are orthogonal, some of whom take flak for not relating them.

    I have a friend who had people respond to them with ‘Oh, you have two partners, but you’re bi, so that’s okay … wait, what do you mean your partners are both of the same sex? How dare you?’ Because being a one-of-each bisexual was a legitimate reason to be poly, but being poly and bi and not linking them was unacceptable. That sort of thing makes my head hurt…

    (I haven’t gotten, “Oh, you have a d/s relationship in addition to your marriage, your spouse must be vanilla –wait, WHAT?”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I got much the same outrage directed at me someday, on the same principle.)

    And now a quick response to Chris:
    Despite this large overlap between polyamory and broader conscious living, an outcry would be very warranted if anyone started to hijack poly forums to discuss green living. An occasional post or comment to forums (and in the media) about the issues that arise from the overlap of being green and poly is worthwhile – it shows diversity and should be welcomed.

    Hah. I laugh because differing standards of green-living-eco-foo is currently the big issue in my family dynamics …

  42. pepomint Says:

    Dermorgen:

    Simply does not apply to some of us. In fact, several “pollys” I know are sexually monogamous, celibate or simply uninterested. I wanted to mention on our behalfs that this is simply not the bottom line for some of us… our sexuality plays out in some fairly “mainstream america” ways.

    I understand that for some poly people, advancing sexual politics is in no way a priority. And in fact, some poly folks are not having multiple sexual relationships, and are not interested in doing so, and are therefore not challenging sexual fidelity. There’s a whole fascinating conversation here on where that puts these folks in relation to monogamy: they are not really monogamous, but they are not following the standard cultural understanding of nonmonogamy either. They are still challenging monogamous conformity, but they are challenging a different part of monogamy than the sexual fidelity part.

    And while I’ve stated that sexual fidelity is the primary aspect of monogamy, it is by no means the only one, and there’s plenty else to challenge: romantic fidelity, assumptions about interdependence and living situations, parenting, and so on.

    That said, I think I can still make the assertion that polyamory (as a movement) is most challenging to monogamy on the sexual fidelity front, despite these particular counterexamples. Note that this assertion is mostly about monogamy, and is somewhat independent of what poly people actually do. The monogamous world is obsessed with sexual fidelity, and so any movement that tinkers with sexual fidelity is going to have that as its primary challenge to monogamy, whatever else might be going on and whatever the actual priorities of the movement are. And in fact, even platonic poly types are generally read (incorrectly) by the mainstream as sexual deviants, simply because they imagine sexual nonmonogamy in alternative relationships even when there is none.

  43. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    If that’s your goal, I think you’ll be waiting a long time to see that day. And it’s not because of the topic, but rather that polys, particularly online, can be quite opinionated and vocale about them.

    Most of what you say here boils down to “get a thicker skin”. I have a very thick skin already. That’s not the issue here. The issue is one of community inclusion, and openness around sexuality.

    The inclusion issue is pretty obvious if we start talking about the poly/BDSM overlap folks. Here in San Francisco, we had an issue where the BDSM folks would go to general polyamory discussion forums, but would basically be unable to discuss any aspect of BDSM in relation to polyamory because the non-BDSM folks would get grossed out, and basically shut down the conversation through various tactics. So, the BDSM/poly folks started their own discussion group in an SF dungeon.

    Here’s the kicker: that group is doing really well. And in fact, currently there is no non-BDSM discussion group in SF proper (there are others in the area), and it seems like we can’t start one. Why? Well, because without the BDSM folks, there’s not enough people who show. And at this point, the kinksters have little interest in opening up their group given the way it was started.

    In fact, I’ve recently started up a poly social group in SF, and it’s doing really well. Why? Because all the kinksters and the vanilla folks are showing. The kinksters are showing because BDSM folks (Jen and I) are the organizers, and the vanilla folks are showing because they have little problem mixing with kinksters, once they get over some initial trepidation. I’m looking to start up a second night. This leads me to the conclusion that there’s a certain argument for poly/BDSM and other overlap people being the organizers of events, to draw in a larger crowd.

    It’s not just the poly/BDSM overlap. A while back I went to a party and discovered that there is a parallel and very large poly/tantra community in SF. They have almost no connection with the “standard” poly community, probably due to some combination of being labeled as “hippie freaks” and the inability to discuss tantra, sacred sexuality, and similar topics that are important to them.

    So basically, there’s community division happening here. And this is not particularly problematic for the BDSM and tantra folks, as they’ve got their own thriving subcultures. The upshot is actually that the mainstream poly types get shafted, because they can’t create poly events in SF, because they can’t get the membership, because they piss off too much of the poly community by not being open enough about sexuality. Now, I understand that SF is unusual, but this is a lesson that is applicable elsewhere. Would it be worth doing a little education (really, it doesn’t take much) in one’s local polyamory group if it meant that you could double its size?

    And here’s a third group that is isolated by the lack of open sex talk. A bunch of the tantra types are doing erotic massage for a living – they’re sex workers. I see polyamory being useful to them because poly techniques are useful for overcoming some of the usual monogamy/sex work issues, like the jealousy that one’s partner might feel over one’s sex work. While I don’t know all that much about sex work, I suspect this is something that could be useful to other sorts of sex workers, potentially even monogamous ones. But there’s no discussion of sex work and polyamory out there, because … wait for it … “polyamory is not about the sex”.

    Am I making my point here? Sexual openness may not be important to your particular polyamorous practice, but failing to handle these sorts of subjects ends up dividing the community. And while you may not have a problem with that, there’s a lot of risks there. Sometimes it means isolating a less-mainstream part of the community, like the erotic massage folks. Sometimes it means that the more-mainstream folks get cut out of the equation, because the less-mainstream folks decide that they need to get their needs met, and effectively replace or outdo the more-mainstream groups. This is why the only regular poly column in a paper and the only regular poly podcast are both BDSM-oriented. I’ve seen this sort of thing scuttle face-to-face groups and discussion lists, and it’s prevented the formation of a national polyamory advocacy group. It’s not good for anyone, and eventually we’ll have to get past it if we actually want to deal with our political or prejudice problems, like the coming out issues or custody issues you describe. Otherwise we’re just an bunch of quarreling isolated groups, not a political force.

    I’ve stayed away from media here, since we’ve discussed it to death, and this stuff is more clear from an organizing perspective, but many of the same lessons apply, just with the added caveat that it all has to happen in the context of a sex-negative mainstream media.

  44. Chris Says:

    Pepomint writes: “And while I’ve stated that sexual fidelity is the primary aspect of monogamy…”

    You seem really hung up on this – but do you have any data to back this up?

    This is what I have found: Recent studies reveal that 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002 – Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy)

    A little googling reveals lots of confirming data that shows that it is very likely that over 50% (the majority!!) of people in monogamous relationships will have extramarital sex over the course of their relationship.

    The reason there are so many words for breaking sexual fidelity is not that it is particularly shocking, but because it is so common.

    What is uncommon and truly radical and new is not the sex, but the focus with polyamory on having multiple relationships openly and honestly. That is what is the “most challenging” to the monogamous paradigm and culture as a whole.

    “The monogamous world is obsessed with sexual fidelity…”

    It actually is starting to seem that you are the one who is obsessed, despite the evidence and examples to the contrary…

    Now don’t get me wrong – the world needs sex radicals and revolutionaries. But I think making everything (in this case polyamory) be “about the sex” actually hurts your cause.

    – Chris

  45. Cherie Says:

    The issue is one of community inclusion, and openness around sexuality.

    Actually, you’ve pretty much missed my point entirely. It’s an issue of community inclusion, period. No matter the topic.

    I’ve seen the same reactions to sex talk as I have to environmental talk, as an example. The issues you see around the sex subject just really aren’t all that unique.

    The rest of your reply is getting into an entirely different discussion around local community building. It’s a topic I’m very open to talking about and sharing ideas on – as I was actively involved in organizing the central Florida poly community for 7 years. However, I think it’s a topic diverging too far from your original subject (a great resource is the Poly Moderators group on Yahoo, if you’ve not already joined that for discussing these topics with other community organizers). But I will say, that getting community momentum is it’s own balancing act between style (support, social, dicussion) and diversity of participant interests and organizer energy.

  46. tom paine Says:

    A very sensible discussion of the matter. Worth discussing in its own post for me.

  47. pepomint Says:

    Dw3t-Hthr:

    I have a friend who had people respond to them with ‘Oh, you have two partners, but you’re bi, so that’s okay … wait, what do you mean your partners are both of the same sex? How dare you?’

    See, this is one of the things that I think should be on the table in poly forums. The poly gatherings I go to range from 30% to 60% bisexual, and yet there’s no explicit debunking of the usual bisexual myths that we get from the mainstream, like the “one of each” myth you bring up. In other words, while your friend’s bisexuality is orthogonal to polyamory in one way (in that they are not dating multiple genders), these two things are related in another way, in that we should expect better understanding of bisexuals in a polyamory context, and that requires some education on what bisexuals actually do, and the various things that bisexuality can mean, in terms of both sex and relationships.

  48. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    I want to comment on the story you gave about the reporter:

    Now of course, that’s only one experience, one journalist and one newsource. So not exactly a representative sample. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that the sex content is there and presented to reporters.. and it’s not always the stuff that they pick up on as the interesting aspects.

    You may have hit on one of the keys to our current presentation and success in the media.

    One of the most impressive things we can do as poly people is to sit down in front of someone and be functionally poly. This has come out in poly 101 stuff, where people come up to me afterwards and it’s clear they didn’t pay much attention to the content, but were stunned by the fact that my sweetie and I were openly talking about this stuff, and it seems to work for us.

    So, let’s say that a functional triad (or V) sits down in front of a reporter. The reporter might initially be looking for salacious sexual content, but when they see three people hugging, being openly and clearly together, and being happy with it, the reporter is stunned and changes course.

    Why? Because we’re doing something in front of them that they’ve never seen before – being well-adjusted, friendly, and entirely open about our nonmonogamy. Open to the point of talking to reporters. Monogamy teaches the reporter that to be nonmonogamous, you must hide it (cheating, closeted swingers) or pay for it (sex work) or surround it with rules (swinger parties, “managed monogamy”), and certainly everyone involved is not going to be close friends/lovers and nice to each other. So you can just hear the monogamous assumptions cracking inside our hypothetical reporter’s head.

    So certainly, the aspect of polyamory that is most visibly surprising to our reporter is the relating that is happening among the triad, and the things they have built around their sexual/romantic interactions. And in fact, the reporter may well go on to write an article that only barely mentions sex. So one could conclude that nonmonogamous sex is not a particularly important contribution of polyamory.

    But, sex is not absent from our scenario. Indeed, the fact that three people are having sex in some combination is a crucial element here: if the three people were not having sex, or only two of them were, our reporter would likely not consider it a story. (This is a major hurdle to visibility for the platonic poly types, a problem I think they’ll have for quite some time.) So, while sex may only be barely mentioned in the resulting article, it will always be mentioned or at least implied, because without it the monogamous culture reads these three as slightly odd friends, which is not interesting on the same level as three slightly odd lovers.

    Sex may not have a high wordcount, but it is a necessary undercurrent to the story: we could read our hypothetical story as basically saying “look what interesting things these people have built around their nonmonogamous sex lives”. If we take this a step further, we can look at the dearth of platonic-poly-style exposure in the media, compared to the wealth of non-relationship nonmonogamy exposure, and come to the conclusion that nonmonogamous sex is the most crucial element that makes these stories news.

  49. pepomint Says:

    Cherie:

    Oops, forgot the final thing I was going to say.

    There does seem to be a common propensity for reporters to steer away from the prurient details of polyamory towards a relationship focus, though there is the occasional sexually sensationalized story. If this is a common theme as you mention, then that gives us a certain space to bring up sexual(ized) content on our own terms, which is great. We can get away from the “don’t you just feel dirty and slutty” and “what do the three of you do in bed together” and talk about our actual concerns that touch on sexuality. We’ve already been doing this to some extent: poly articles often have some kind of safe sex spiel, which is great.

  50. pepomint Says:

    Chris:

    A little googling reveals lots of confirming data that shows that it is very likely that over 50% (the majority!!) of people in monogamous relationships will have extramarital sex over the course of their relationship.

    I actually tend to think those statistics are overblown. Peggy Vaughan and similar “adultery crisis” experts have this tendency to put surveys up on their sites, and get a predictably skewed result, and somehow that later gets reported as fact. I trust the mass surveys more. The Sex in America survey (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, and Kolata) reported top infidelity rates of 20% for women and 35% for men, and that’s fairly typical. Mind, there may be a difference because these surveys were asking about the person’s last marriage, not their entire lifetime.

    However, numbers are actually largely immaterial to what we are discussing here, which is the conceptual focus of monogamy on sexual fidelity. These same people who cheat feel guilty, get divorced because of it, read books on how awful it is, and so on. They know they’ve violated monogamy, even if the monogamy-violaters are actually a majority.

    The basic conceptual rule of monogamy in our culture is sexual fidelity, and the fact that many or even most monogamous people are breaking that rule doesn’t change the rule itself – it just shows that the culture is hypocritical. We can see this in other subjects. Almost all men and most women masturbate, but you’ll never see a government report on the prevalence of masturbation, or its possible health, naturalness, or benefits. That’s because the culture is still carrying the “masturbation is dirty and unhealthy” meme from a century ago, despite the fact that the people in the culture generally ignore that advice.

  51. pepomint Says:

    tom paine: Glad you liked it! I look forward to anything you have to write regarding this, and also to your ongoing discussions of your particular nonmonogamous situation.

  52. tellmewhatanotheris Says:

    Wow. Great reading folks. Glad I happenstanced upon.

  53. Cascade Says:

    Great article and great discussions!

    An historical note. Pepper, you state that “Polyamory grew out of polyfidelity or group marriage, initially focusing on triads, quads, and closed systems.” Certainly that was not true of the origin of the term, as it was used in “A Bouquet of Lovers” by Morning Glory Zell (I don’t know how Jennifer Wesp used it). I do know that many of us who had been practicing “responsible nonmonogamy” or “open relationships” latched onto the term as soon as we heard it. So from my perspective, I wouldn’t say that polyamory has “eaten the open relationship movement”, I would say it’s the same movement with a new name, undergoing an evolution which has been greatly facilitated by the internet.

    Whichever term is used, we can’t know what any individual means or how sie organizes hir relationships without further inquiry.

  54. pepomint Says:

    Cascade:

    Unless I’ve got my history wrong, Morning Glory was actually in a group marriage when she wrote A Bouquet Of Lovers. Also, I’ve heard claims that the term “polyfidelity” was in use previous to polyamory, and that Kerista was a fairly direct precursor. And I’ve met various group-marriage-oriented types at poly events who claim that polyamory was originally theirs and get kind of pissy about all the open arrangements currently happening.

    That said, everyone wants to claim responsibility after the fact, so I’m not entirely sure how the evolution happened. Poly ideology does seem a bit more distinct from open relationship ideology than group marriage ideology, which argues for a group marriage source, but that’s pretty fuzzy.

    Whatever the history, the main point stands. Various other movements (group/communal marriage, open relationships, ethical sluthood, radical relationships) have combined into our current polyamory mishmash. Some were there at formation and others were absorbed as polyamory grew and people switched to the new terminology.

    Whichever term is used, we can’t know what any individual means or how sie organizes hir relationships without further inquiry.

    I understand that usage of these terms is very individual, but at the same time we can track the movement of various sorts of ideologies on a mass scale, and the changes they go through.

  55. Victor Says:

    Pepomint,
    There’s something that is confusing me here. You seem to have a very specific definition of Poly, since you set it up as not the same as other non-monogamist movements (although possibly swallowing them).

    Maybe you have it elsewhere on the blog, what is your definition of poly? I think I am missing something here,

  56. pepomint Says:

    Victor:

    When I refer to polyamory here, I am typically referring to the polyamory movement. Which is to say, the polyamorous ideology that appeared around 1989 and the various communities that have used that ideology or variants on it, and the people in those communities who have called themselves polyamorous.

    I am not using some sort of behavioral definition, like “open responsible nonmonogamy”, since I regard these definitions to be inaccurate at best, as they tend to include people who do not consider themselves polyamorous, like swingers and traditional poygamists. There really are conceptual and practical differences between these various movements, but trying to draw behavioral lines to divide them is never fruitful. It makes more sense to rely on what people call themselves.

  57. The Weakest Link « Bitchy Jones’s Diary Says:

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  58. stargazer Says:

    I’ve stumbled across your article as an outsider on a sort of random walk and am somewhat surprised by the title. The -strange- credibility of polyamory? When the alternative is monogamy?

    Have you looked at reality lately? More than 50% of marriages get divorced, quite a few people are in their third or fourth marriage, and that doesn’t count all the relationships that didn’t get that far. I’ve been with my one partner for all my adult life, and I may meet the societal ideal but what I’m not, with that, is -normal-. People may not want to openly admit it much, but for the majority monogamy is just plain not working. And that constant breaking up so you can be with your new interest is pretty cruel on all involved (even bystanders). An alternative to that relationship circus is certainly not a bad idea. Just saying.

  59. pepomint Says:

    stargazer: You are correct that the modern conception of monogamy has a lot of problems, though I do want to add that it does work for some people and we should respect that.

    I think you are right that some of the credibility of polyamory these days is due to the failure of monogamy to make people happy. In fact, nonmonogamy in general is doing pretty well, whether we are talking polyamory, swinging, open relationships, or other forms.

    However, polyamory is doing *better* than these other forms, at least in terms of media treatment, and that difference is what I wrote this essay on. Polyamory is doing surprisingly well in the court of public opinion, considering it is something that most mainstream people consider it unworkable, sinful, or at least something they would never want to do.

  60. Fountain Pens and Handmade Paper » Blog Archive » links for 2008-02-24 Says:

    [...] The Strange Credibility of Polyamory (tags: polyamory relationships sexuality mlf) [...]

  61. Jenny Block Says:

    Hi,

    Thank you so much for this piece. I really enjoyed reading it. And I too look forward to seeing what the future holds. For now though, I am delighted that poly in the media is being handled more positively than ever. And, hopefully, that is what we will continue to see more and more of.

    Regards,
    Jenny Block
    Author of “Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage”

    http://www.jennyonthepage.com

  62. pepomint Says:

    Jenny: Welcome, and glad you enjoyed the piece.

    I am looking forward to your book release! I’ll be sure to give it a read.

  63. hakashamut Says:

    Wow – this blog is really intense. I just stopped in to share my own personal challenge with poly. I am sex-positive, I teach my children that touching themselves is dreamy and that sex is BLISS! Sex hasn’t always been so misused as it is here in Western culture. I believe that my struggle with poly is primarily due to one too many episodes of the Cosby Show. (yes, I am African American) I want to give up the brainwashing and embrace my husband’s desire to explore concepts like compersion. But my old, raggedy mind creaks along at a snail’s pace. Here is the real deal http://jujumama.wordpress.com

  64. Age and Polyamory Organizing « freaksexual Says:

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  65. darkdaughta Says:

    this article and the ensuing exchange in the comments section is extremely valuable to me. I don’t believe in mastery of any relationship issue per se but I do believe that it is possible to bring reactions, issues, uncomfortable feelings, core issues out into the light within the context and safety of our relationships in ways that allow us to appropriately jettison or at least openly and safely deal with barriers to increased intimacy. sigh…it would be so lovely to have more of these conversations end up being part of dialogues between poly people when we meet. This feels so healthy and unafraid. Beautiful.

  66. Kathleen Says:

    Wow, what an intriguing article and excellent comments too.

    Stumbled across your blog today via a friend; really impressed and glad to be here.

    Thank you,
    K


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