Welcome Readers of The Truth!

Author Neil Strauss has recently released a book, The Truth, describing his personal journeys experimenting with non-monogamy.  Neil’s previous book was The Game, a look at the highly questionable and sexist world of pickup artists.  I am in The Truth, handing out polyamorous advice in that way I do – you can read the excerpt here.

If you are visiting from that link or because you found me after reading the book, welcome to the blog!

I have been attempting non-monogamy my entire dating life, but the first twelve years were a complete disaster.  Thankfully, the following years were much better.  And so now I hold workshops on how to do it better than I did.  I am currently well-ensconced in the San Francisco Bay Area with a live-in partner and four girlfriends, all of whom have other partners.  We are really doing polyamory – it is really a thing, and it can really be everything that folks dream of.

If you want my quick-and-dirty rundown of how to actually be non-monogamous, check out this guide.  If you are a man interested in non-monogamy take a look at this writing.  Check out the left sidebar for my various other writings, which cover a range of topics but are uniformly long and sometimes dense.  For more quick hits about non-monogamy and activism, see my twitter.  If you want to talk or are looking for non-monogamy advice, ping me on twitter or just email me directly.  If you are from the San Francisco area and looking for community, definitely get in touch – I know where all the good parties are.

Doing Polyamory Outreach

The following is a handout for a polyamory outreach workshop I did at PolyCamp Northwest in 2013.  It was meant to be printed, and is a bit bare-bones as a result, but it still gets the idea across.

The primary message I want to convey about doing outreach for polyamory (or for that matter, any other sexual minority) is that doing so is really really important. The polyamory movement has gained a lot of mindshare and acceptance fairly quickly, and that has happened largely because of good personal outreach and media exposure.

So You Want to Help the World Accept Polyamory?

The primary roadblock to the acceptance of polyamory (or any non-monogamy) is mainstream misconceptions about us. One of the most important things you can do is simply talk to people about your life.   Doing outreach feels incredibly rewarding – every time you walk out of a room having done some education, you have helped people.

Coming Out and Talking to Friends

Coming out has been the prime mover of mainstream acceptance of queer people. Coming out humanizes a sexual minority and is the best way to dispel the host of bad mainstream stereotypes. Coming out and talking to friends makes your non-monogamous practice real and positive in a way that nothing else can.

At the same time, only come out if you will not be materially damaged in some way by doing so, and if it has not yet become exhausting. Financial fears are why most poly people are still not out to their coworkers. Many people lose the support of their relatives, their jobs, or their housing situation after coming out, or are punished in divorce or custody court. There is no shame in keeping yourself safe.

When talking to people, stay cool! They will pick up on your emotions – if you are scared and freaked out, they will become scared and freaked out too. The best vibe you can give off is a calm “poly is this somewhat alternative thing I do which has brought me happiness”. Some people favor bringing up things naturally as they come up in conversation in order to help this nonchalant approach.

Be prepared for defensiveness. Most people have never really thought about their monogamy critically, and the possibility that there are other options will be instantly threatening to them. So when they immediately warn you off their spouse, or shut down, or say something vicious, let it go. And of course, do not play on these insecurities by bashing monogamy. Monogamy might be terrible for you, but it is probably a good practice for them.

Overall, give these discussions some time. Informative or coming out talks seem to go best when there are plenty of breaks so people can assimilate the new information, breaks that can stretch out to months. Be patient – often people will react badly at first and will have come around by the next time you talk to them.

Keep your boundaries! You do not need to discuss your bedroom habits or STD status with your friends, family, or co-workers. Figure out your topic limits in advance and stick to them during discussions. Also, do not tolerate hatred or abusive language.

Indeed, most people close to you will not want to hear details of any sort immediately. You may be eager to talk about everything, but hold off on even the mildly advanced poly stuff (like lingo) until they have established a base comfort level. Keep it as simple as possible at first.

Students, Classes, and Workshops

College students are a great population to talk to about non-monogamy, either during a class or at a special workshop sponsored by a sexuality center or similar at the university. Students are generally curious, respectful, and eager to learn, though at the same time they are often befuddled by polyamory. Not only is every student you talk to going to carry that knowledge through the rest of their lives, it is also possible to change a college’s overall attitude towards polyamory by talking for just one class per term.

At the same time, it can be very difficult to find receptive venues at colleges. Often sexuality or counseling classes are interested in having sexual minority speakers. Offering to do a class for free helps. While it is probably possible to cold-email professors and get lucky occasionally, your best bet is to get in contact with professors via personal contacts or students in their classes. If you have any teaching or presenting credentials or experience, do not be shy about saying so. Sexuality, gender, and counseling on-campus centers are also a great way to get started – often they are delighted to have presenters on non-monogamy.

Colleges are not the only place to teach classes, of course. Local sex-positive sex toy stores, LGBT centers, BDSM venues, and the like are often eager to have presenters speak on non-monogamy skills. These are generally beginner workshops, and the attendees are usually entirely new to non-monogamy. They are looking for skills and a general validation that what they want is possible. Speaking at these venues is a great way to help out new folks, and eventually makes a small amount of money.

If the audience is in a class, they are probably completely cold to the concept of non-monogamy. Keep it simple and focus on giving out basic definitions and debunking myths. There is no need to hide the issues attendant in non-monogamy (such as jealousy or scheduling), and they should be mentioned. At the same time, students who are feeling defensive will focus on the negative, so difficulties should probably take up less than half the presentation time. It is not a good idea to blatantly recruit or try to teach poly skills to a captive class audience.

If you are teaching a workshop where people do not have any motivation to come to it other than interest, then that is a different matter. Whether at a college or when doing a non-monogamy skills workshop at a local center, the people walking in the door will already have an investment in non-monogamy, and it makes sense to take an advocate role when speaking to them.   You will be there to both share your skills and provide them with working examples of non-monogamy in action – you!

When doing any class, it is important to remember that the people in the audience will certainly have much less experience than you. While it is important to cultivate good presenting skills, at the same time you should remember that anything you say will probably be news to them. Living non-monogamously we learn a lot of stuff that we then take for granted – try to reset your perspective to that of the monogamous world and verbalize things that are second nature to you.

As living examples in all these cases, it is important to think about diversity when presenting in order to accurately represent non-monogamous communities. Try to avoid putting only one man with multiple women on stage – people will then assume your polyamory is pretty much traditional polygamy (really polygyny, one husband with multiple wives). If possible, showcase queer folks or a woman with multiple male partners. If you can, present people of color or people with disabilities. It is of course best to be from one of these groups, but if you are from a majority group try to bring in people who are different from you. Try to represent more than one type of non-monogamy. This can all be difficult as the base strategy is usually to present with one’s partners, but if you add another non-monogamous grouping to your presenter group, that gives you a lot of flexibility.

Blogging, Podcasting, and Other Internet Publishing

If you want to reach a large number of people while still retaining control over your own voice, internet publishing of various forms is the way to go. Blogging, podcasting, video blogging, and the like can be very time-consuming but it is generally worth it due to their wide reach. It is common for even medium-level blogs to get hundreds of hits per day, and an established podcast will see individual episodes downloaded a number of times in the tens of thousands.

That said it is important to come up with a compelling vision before you even get started. Some internet mediums have very little non-monogamous content, such as podcasting – you can count the number of polyamory-focused podcasts on one hand. But in other forms of internet media with a lower entrance cost you will see a lot of competition, for example blogging or Tumblr. Think about what might differentiate content you produce. What are you especially good at? What interesting situations or information do you have experience in? Also, if you do not have a lot of writing or speaking experience there is no shame in lessons, though the nice thing about internet work is that you can just start and learn as you go.

Similarly, think about audience. Who are you reaching? Monogamous folks, polyamorous people, swingers, all of the above? Decide on who you want to talk to and do not be shy about narrowing it down – often niche publishing venues get a bigger and more active audience than generic ones. Think about how you are going to tailor your content to the people you want to reach.

Many forms of internet publishing require some kind of technical know-how. If you are using one of these, do not re-invent the wheel. Instead, see if you can research what others do or even drop a line to some of your favorite sex-positive internet content producers to ask them what they do – you may find that they are surprisingly responsive and helpful. When setting up, be ready for surprise success. For example, if you think you may someday want to post ads it may make sense to spend the time upfront to set up your own hosted system rather than using free hosting like that found on WordPress or Tumblr, as they do not allow ads.

Consider what level of interactivity you want, and how much time you may spend dealing with any interaction channels. With good content it is possible to have an entirely interaction-free publishing channel and still have plenty of viewers or readers. Still, some level of interaction helps your audience feel connected and involved, and gives them an obvious way to give you feedback. At the very least it is important to have an email address posted that people may contact you at. Full-on forums or a lively comment section can be incredibly rewarding for you and useful to your audience but at the same time moderating them can easily turn into a part-time job. Do not be shy about moderating the space to fit your desires – unmoderated spaces on the net generally turn into poisonous troll pits fairly quickly.

Do not forget to advertise! Simply posting your podcast or starting your YouTube channel is generally not enough to get people to start noticing it. While it can be smart to pay for advertising in very targeted venues, generally you can acquire an initial audience by using various internet channels. Tweet your content, post it to Facebook groups, and so on. If you can, try to advertise in the media you are using. So if you are starting a podcast, talk about it on other podcasts. Do not get discouraged early on when things do not seem to be picking up – it often takes time. On the other hand, if what you are doing does not seem to be working after a while, do not hesitate to change tactics, radically if necessary.

Engaging With the Media

Being interviewed by the media (mainstream or independent) is the easiest way to reach a large number of people with a low time commitment, but at the same time you lose some amount of control over the content that is produced. On the other hand, every time a show or article about polyamory or some other sort of non-monogamy hits the media, people who have literally never heard of what we do suddenly get a glimpse into our lives. Positive media has a huge impact on public perception and the polyamory movement in particular has done very well in presenting itself in the media, fueling an ongoing explosion in new community members.

You should either be interviewed anonymously or you need to be all the way out of the closet to do this, even for independent media. That edgy independent queer magazine is secretly read by some of your coworkers. The day you decide to be in the local paper will be the day that your metamour’s grandfather decides to actually buy the paper. With the level of exposure you may receive (depending on the media venue), you may be stopped on the street or recognized by people a couple years down the road. It is often surprising the connections that are made once one has been featured in media. Be prepared for this.

Also, be prepared for the possibility that it will not go well. No matter what the venue and how positive they seem, sometimes they will turn around and do a hatchet job on you and your chosen non-monogamy. This may have effects not just on the kind of visibility you want to produce but also on your social connections, family, and so on. Be ready for this, but at the same time remember that the vast majority of all media on polyamory (specifically) turns out positive, so you are taking a good risk.

Along those lines, do not start with national television or something similarly challenging. First, get your feet wet with a local paper, an online media venue, a local television station, or the like. Some media is pretty much guaranteed to be negative – poly activists regularly get requests from places like the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Dr. Phil Show. Chances are these venues are just trying to use you to prove a point that you will not like. Avoid them unless you have a whole lot of experience under your belt and are down for a challenge. You may think you can convince Dr. Phil with your winning charm and radical honesty approach, but you are almost certainly wrong.

Both papers and video media have a tendency to selectively quote to fit whatever message the journalist wants to convey. For this reason, keep what you say positive and (if you can) learn to speak in bite-sized chunks that will sound good on their own. Do not bash monogamy – it almost certainly will be quoted out of context. Check out online resources around dealing with the media as a sexual minority, and try to get media training from folks who have some experience. If a question is offensive or is digging for dirt, simply do not answer it or change the subject. This is not a time to give the full and complete positive and negative view of non-monogamy – only the negative will end up printing or showing. The only exception to this is if you are absolutely convinced that the journalists (and their editors!) are on your side.

Be aware that most forms of media, even independent media, make an effort to present “palatable” people to their audiences, which is to say white, thin, straight, conservative-appearing, and so on. This has real effects: if your poly pod is interviewed and it consists of one white person and two people of color, chances are the white person will get most of the airtime or quotes. This does not lead to a positive or accurate portrayal of our communities. Try to work against these tendencies by gaming them – in this case by having the white person much more quiet and withdrawn than usual, or perhaps not even present. The same thing goes for getting visibility for larger people, disabled people, queer people, and so on. Diverse exposure is crucial if we want to convince media audiences that we are something more than a southern California cult filled with bronzed people with perfect hair.

For all the reasons above, and also because of the fear of the level of exposure it brings, people are often loathe to talk to the media, and the media has a very bad reputation at least in polyamory circles. However, the positives have so far generally outweighed the negatives so far, and polyamory in particular has surprisingly positive media coverage. We do much better than swingers, BDSM folks, bisexuals, and polygamists, all of whom are regularly trashed or misrepresented. Due to a complex set of reasons, the media actually treats us with kid gloves overall. There is a steady stream of very positive coverage, and only the occasional negative bombshell, which is usually quickly forgotten. If you want to get involved in media outreach for polyamory, do not hesitate because of the negative issues described here – you will almost certainly have a series of good experiences and reach a large number of people in a positive manner.

Dialogue on Power and Ethics: the Polyamory and Queer Movements

The following dialogue is conversation between Daniel Cardoso and myself, which took place over six months (on Fetlife of all places). Daniel is a Portuguese polyamory activist and an assistant professor at Universidade Lusófona in Lisbon. He is doing his PhD in Communication Sciences along with a Masters’ thesis on polyamory. As you probably know, I am a San Francisco polyamory event organizer and amateur social theorist.

I ask for your patience while reading this piece. It was not written with the public in mind, so we cover a lot of theoretical ground quickly at points and we were not particularly careful about softening or qualifying our descriptions of people or movements. Also, we have barely edited it for readability. If any part is confusing or bothers you, please bring it up in comments.


A big thank you for your reflections on polyamory and your Foucauldian perspective on sex, which were very useful when writing my thesis on polyamory.


I am very glad that my writing was useful to you! Was there some essay in particular that was helpful?

Your thesis probably has not been translated into English, but if it has I would be very interested in reading it.


Yes, the most central essay was “polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is”, as it helped me to present polyamory’s relation with monogamy, and with the sex/gender system and the whole field of sexuality.

Unfortunately you are correct, my thesis is probably bound to remain in Portuguese (although it will get published in book format, so maybe there’s a chance there? who knows…), but please see the English abstract below.

Loving Many – Individualization, Networks, Ethics and Polyamory
Daniel dos Santos Cardoso

This Thesis aims to determine if the users of the alt.polyamory mailing list, by telling their personal experiences in writing, are actually performing in a queer way, questioning mono-normativity and a heterocentric view on society, by being self-reflexive and caring for their self (gnothi seauton) through writing (as ethopoiesis) and reading of the self, instead of being driven by the technology of confession. This should allow us to determine, by analogy, if polyamory is a queer identity. Given that polyamory is an iteration of Giddens’ pure relationship, the challenges and contradictions it poses present specific problems to the subjects, and those need to be interpreted in the light of the interactions between the alliance and sexuality devices, as Foucault describes them. The meaning and nature of virtual communities was also a focal point of reflection, in order to contextualize data retrieval. To obtain answers to these problems, the email exchanges initiated by newcomers to the alt.polyamory list in 2009 were analyzed: statistically, by performing content and by discourse analysis. The results point to a differentiation between the core group of the newsgroup and the newcomers, where only the first ones do actually maintain practices that can potentially be identified as non-hegemonic in how they produce subjectivity. Polyamory is thusly identified as being, more than a sexual or emotional practice, a moral positioning that deeply imbibes the subject in his production of himself, and where parrhēsia (frankness) is the main element that allows a polyamorous person’s actions to be morally judged. This parrhēsia is a sine qua non condition to maintaining the Self’s autonomy, and so it is given but also demanded of the Other; equity in alterity is fundamental to the subject who, without the Other, cannot be constituted as such. And if all of the above enables the subject to question the possibility horizon of the elements that constitute him as a subject, it also opens the door to a possible hegemony of this moral standard to all intimate relationships.

KEYWORDS: polyamory, alt.polyamory, care of the self, writing of the self, parrhēsia, queer, intimacy, pure relationship, sexuality, individualization, virtual community


That does sound like an fascinating thesis, and I am glad it is being published in book form.

If you ever want to discuss any of the above concepts at length (polyamory as queer, pure relationships, the poly ethic of frankness, etc) drop me a line.


Currently, what interests me the most (and since you offered your brains for the picking, so to say ;) ) is the importance of parrhēsia (frankness) in performing polyamory, how parrhēsia is in the core of polyamory (the poly “mantra” is all about parrhēsia), and how, more than anything else, polyamory produces a certain kind of moral (not so much sexual, or even sentimental) subject, through means reminiscent of the ancient Greek practices of the care of the self. It strikes me as deeply interesting how something that is usually seen as a relationship-centered affair (polyamory) is actually something very individual in nature (care of the self), albeit in a good way, and where the Other is never denied its rightful place.

So, indeed, “polyamory isn’t about the sex, except when it is”, but sex is then utilized as a medium to reach a different morality, and it’s interesting to see that several authors, like Gayle Rubin, have specifically said that someday a new moral/ethical posture will arise to deal with contemporary and post-modern sexual and emotional practices. Could poly be an extreme/refined/fringe example of such a new moral positioning?

Does any of this make sense to you?


I am reading “parrhēsia” as “honesty, disclosure, and communication”. I agree that parrhēsia is central to polyamorous ideology and practice, emphasized almost to a fault.

I think it is important to consider the source of this focus on parrhēsia, however. I don’t think it necessarily comes from a desire to have better relationships, except perhaps tangentially. Rather, I think it is a direct response to mono-normativity’s insistence that nonmonogamy must be deceitful, just cheating in another form.

Classic monogamy itself encourages deceit: most people must at least pretend not to be attracted to people other than their partner. Within monogamy, most attempts at having multiple partners tend to involve deceit, namely cheating (because otherwise you get dumped).

But at the same time, mono-normativity sets up cheaters as the Other, creating a false duality of monogamy versus cheating. This tends to give any kind of nonmonogamy an air of deceit, even when it is entirely honest and upfront.

The project of polyamory is to create a third path, something that is not monogamy but also is not cheating. Distinguishing ourselves from monogamy is easy – having multiple partners does that. However, distinguishing ourselves from cheating is extremely difficult due to the mono-normative culture’s insistence that anything other than monogamy must be deceitful.

This not only plays out in ideology but also in practice. Because deceit is worked into our monogamous training, and associated with nonmonogamy, we end up with a lot of cultural encouragement to deceive in nonmonogamous relationship situations, which tends to be fatal to the relationship due to the lack of cultural support.

So I think we create a strong ethic of parrhēsia to counter both the ideological and pragmatic associations of nonmonogamy with deceit. Not only do our honesty tactics aid us in creating relationships that are strong enough to actually be nonmonogamous, but they serve as a bulwark against stigma and the encroachment of monogamous power dynamics.

In my region when monogamous people are told of a poly situation, the first thing they ask is usually “does your partner know?”, with the implication that the partner does not know or at least is not okay with it. If one can respond with “yes they do, and they are totally fine with it”, it performs an end run around one of the more common mono-normative attacks on nonmonogamy.

This extends to what you say about poly people self-constituting as moral subjects. I think this is a necessary response, given that mainstream culture constitutes any kind of nonmonogamy as inevitably immoral.

However just because these steps are a response to mono-normativity does not prevent them from also being moves towards Giddens’ and Rubin’s idealized relationships. I think relationship mores are definitely in flux, and forays into nonmonogamy may be a part of that process of refinement. I am not sure if there is an endpoint as envisioned by Giddens and Rubin, or if this is an ongoing process of change.

On the other hand, we may see a situation where the necessity to respond to mono-normativity with elevated moral practices actually decreases over time, as polyamory gains more acceptance in the mainstream. If polyamory were already fully accepted, I’m not sure people would adopt the ethic of parrhēsia because it would not be a mandatory step in becoming nonmonogamous.


I do agree generally with what you say, of course, although there are a few points I would like to make. I think you’re spot-on when you say that the centrality of parrhēsia isn’t about having better relationships. But I think that the questioning of mono-normative culture is also a by-product of why parrhēsia is actually important, in my point of view.

Ulrich Beck says that the contemporary subject is under an obligation to be free, to invent itself, to be original, different, individuated (not to be confused with individualism as the idea that we are fundamentally alone and isolated in our own autonomy). That is the normative and contemporary way of producing western, Caucasian and middle class subjects (pardon the sweeping statement). Now, Giddens talks about the intrinsic contradictions of the pure relationship, and Beck also says that this individuated subject, as s/he claims to be more her/himself, adds another layer of difficulty to establishing intimate interpersonal relationships (relationships are more of a meeting of two or more individuated subjects, rather than the monogamous fusing together of two half-persons, as is the case of codependent love).

So here we have the need or will we often feel of having intimate relationships as part of living a good life, and the problem that that will creates when attempted through a fully normative relationship. So the subject, in order to be a better subject, has to come up with a different way to make relationships.

Hence, I see polyamory as a sub-set of responses to that need we feel, societally determined, for us to ‘be ourselves’, be ‘true to ourselves’. And a new (as in ‘really old, but meanwhile totally forgotten’) way to do that, is to be frank – to use parrhēsia. That frankness is not something we do for the Other, but for ourselves – parrhēsia isn’t just ‘frankness’ or honesty by itself. Parrhēsia is a reflexive way of communicating. And the parrhēsiastes (the person who uses parrhēsia) does it because parrhēsia is a way s/he has of constructing her/himself, of becoming a moral person. To do that, s/he needs to communicate himself frankly, so that the Other can then communicate back with her/his view and reflection of what was originally communicated. Parrhēsia is a technique for the care of the self, and so the self’s main concern is the self itself.

I know it doesn’t sound good, but I don’t think polyamory institutes honest communication for the sake of ‘the Other person’, but for the sake of oneself. The catch-22 is that the Self needs the Other to reflect upon her/his life and the Other can’t do that unless that life is communicated in the fashion of parrhēsia. Also, the inverse is also true, as the Other is too a Self that needs everyone else, and so on… So even if polyamory were to be more accepted and practiced, parrhēsia in the context of polyamory is actually a sub-set of something larger, and would probably still be used as it serves a much bigger point than just managing relationships.

As for Giddens’ and Beck’s position, I don’t read them as an end-point, but more like a land-mark along a voyage (to nowhere, admittedly). Moral technologies and paradigms will always change to adapt the circumstances, but I think that in a few decades, the new normative posture will be quite closer to nowadays’ polyamory than nowadays’ straight monogamy. Not that poly will be mainstream, but I think that relationship structures will become somewhat more fluid. So, yes, I do agree with you about it all being an ongoing process of change.

PS – On the meaning of parrhēsia: here and here.


I agree on the current society’s drive towards individuation, and the conflict that that causes with actually having long-term relationships.

I also think that polyamory (and perhaps other forms of modern nonmonogamy to a lesser extent) are part of that trend of adapting relationships to individuation. As you say, polyamory combines an individual perspective with a group dynamic. I was at a play party Saturday where this was very clear: my entire poly network was present, and people were operating mainly on individual urges, but at the same time were embedded in a complex web of relations and their corresponding responsibilities.

If we look at the reasons people get into poly, it tends to be a combination of individuation and a certain frankness (which might be what you are getting at with parrhēsia). Which is to say, having individual desires to have sex or relationships with multiple people, and then acknowledging those desires aloud to their partner. Which is to say, individuation I think is involved at the root of the urge to be polyamorous.

However, you lose me a bit when talking about the reflexivity of parrhēsia. I think there is a certain reflexivity in the poly communication dynamic, but I am not so sure that it is the urge to be heard and have one’s speech reflected necessarily. Rather, it takes a roundabout route through power. Let me explain.

I generally see polyamory as a truce of sorts, a deal where both (or all) partners in a relationship agree to drop their culture-given right to demand monogamy in return for something else, usually the right to be nonmonogamous themselves.

So there is reflection, but it is in the power dynamic itself. The frankness of polyamory I think is an aspect of maintaining this truce. When stumbling against all the little roadblocks that monogamous culture puts in our way, keeping a live discourse is typically necessary in order to move the monogamous power dynamics from the implicit into the realm of discourse, and in doing so disarm them. One must be able to see that one’s partners agree to this truce, but that does not necessarily mean that they are reflecting oneself outside of the domain of the truce – indeed, poly people often date monogamous people.

So it is still about the care of the self, but in a roundabout way. In order to take care of oneself, one needs nonmonogamy, which requires that one practice that nonmonogamy with others, which demands that one engage in a two-way communication of inner emotional state in order to ward off the traps laid by monogamous power arrangements.

Is this parrhēsia? I’m not sure. It is reflection, and given that discourse and power are all mixed up (per Foucault), perhaps it qualifies. Certainly this is an example of Foucault’s urge towards confession, described as part of the advancement of sexual power techniques.

There is an additional urge towards reflexivity that I think is closer to what you describe. Poly people often want to be around others like them, and date others like them. It is possible to relax much more when one is surrounded by other poly people. This is not strictly a necessity like the dynamic I describe above, however it is a commonly desired luxury. Perhaps this is what you are describing? It is this urge that creates poly community but at the same time limits it – once people get comfortable in their nonmonogamous practice they often do not feel the need to see themselves in others, find poly technique instruction, and so on. Is this latter dynamic what you are describing by parrhēsia?


To answer your thoughts, I think that the reflexivity of parrhēsia has to do with how and why we like to talk so much, in polyamory. The reflexivity I was talking about is the subject itself. Meaning that there is that roundabout way to address power and the status quo of monogamy, but as we talk and discuss and negotiate frankly, we do so not to be simply heard (as you quite accurately pointed out) but more so to be commented upon. We converse, we say what we think, but then we sort of “demand” a reply. Were it a soliloquy, and it wouldn’t be polyamory.

And the reason for that is that the challenge we take upon ‘against’ polyamory, and the way we choose to change ourselves, is very dependent upon that reply, upon the effect of what the Other says has upon us, and vice-versa of course. So we see ourselves reflected about and upon the discourse that the Other has about our own discourse, even though (or especially so) if and when the Other replies from her/his own point of view, about her/himself. We ourselves use that discourse of the Other to reflect upon us and our relation to monogamy, polyamory, etc – in the end, a way of constructing ourselves. This happens both in that social situation where polys meet each other and seek each other to talk, and in private and intimate discussions inside poly families/constellations. We see a lot of that in several social networking sites.

Although, just to wrap it up, I’d like to point out one other thing. Unlike what you say, my thesis was built as an attempt to prove that actually the ‘poly mantra’ is fundamentally different from Foucault’s confession technology. Parrhēsia is presented by Foucault as a technique of the self, like confession, but he places it in a different light, as something totally different. Different because the way the subject relates to power and, more fundamentally, to truth is fundamentally different.

Let me elaborate.

When I started studying polyamory from a Foucauldian point of view, I had this ‘gut feeling’ that there had to be something different and non-normative about polyamory (besides the very obvious ‘it’s not monogamy’ aspect, that is). And there was the fist stumbling block for me: it seemed to be the confessional situation all over again, a pressure into rendering to speech everything and then some more. But still I felt something was different – it was about emotions, it wasn’t about having a punishment or diagnostic dictated, etc. And so parrhēsia came along.

In the confessional technology, you are pressed into talking about everything, so that the Other can then interpret you, read you, sort of unravel you and tell you who you really really really are, and then on how you must behave (be it religiously or clinically). So, the confessional subject goes into the confession to gain access to a finished interpretation of who s/he actually and ontologically is.

Parrhēsia works differently. The parrhēsiastes doesn’t want or need for the Other to tell her/him who s/he is. The parrhēsiastes wants to hear what the Other has to say about the Self, and about the Other’s self, and utilize that to change, shape and reflect upon her/his own self. While the confessional subject is null and recipient/dependent on the Other’s interpretation that delivers the Self to the Self, and has the full and uncontested power of interpretation, in the usage of parrhēsia, Self and Other are inter-related and at the same time, independent from each other, ontologically at the same level, in a more horizontal flow of power (versus the confessional power, which is wholly vertical, top-down). The Other has a fundamental role in this, in parrhēsia, but it is not the role of the truth-speaker, which is the role of the priest/psychologist in a confessional setting.

And in this rests the non-normativity of polyamory as a sub-section of a technological apparatus of construing subjects – or so my thesis goes – the queerness of polyamory, or part of it.


Thank you for adding all that. I agree fully, and now I see a lot more of what you are trying to say about the discourse that poly people tend to engage in.

You are correct that the discourse in polyamory is different and sets it apart. This is pretty easy to see if I compare poly to other recent forms of nonmonogamy in the U.S., such as swinging, open relationships in the 70’s and 80’s, gay men’s nonmonogamy in the 70’s, and so on. These other types of nonmonogamy did not involve nearly so much introspective discourse.

An exception might be free love in the 60’s and 70’s, which definitely started from an ideological position. But even then, I think the conversation was not deep in the same way. It was more an exercise in establishing a new cultural alternative than an exercise in self-analysis. When I read documents from that era, they seem oddly shallow, like people were throwing a lot of words and emotions around but not doing what I see as the real work.

This all begs the question: why now? What is the motivation of poly people that leads them into these very complex and nuanced dialogues? Why do we have incredibly active online forums and a whole host of books written? I am not sure as to the answer to this question, but I’ll take some guesses.

I’ve given one answer above, which is that we have pragmatic cause to do so: our practice of parrhēsia is an effective pragmatic deconstruction of the cultural apparatus of monogamy, giving people tools to practice nonmonogamy in whatever form. I’m not sure why earlier movements did not happen upon this technique – perhaps the overall culture was not ready for it, or perhaps the goals of these movements (i.e. recreational sex as opposed to multiple relationships) did not demand an extensive deconstruction.

There are other possibilities. Polyamory books are definitely located in the self-help genre, so it may be that the overall culture’s emphasis on self-improvement birthed the sort of moral subject you are describing, and polyamory is that subject operating in nonmonogamy. Similarly, much of early polyamory was located in the neo-pagan movement, with its emphasis on life improvement via individual spirituality.

I’m curious: where would you locate the source of this difference? In the mainstream culture’s slow move towards production of the subject via dialogue?

Also, I should not have use Foucault’s confessional dynamic as shorthand, sorry. I wasn’t talking about what he described (the confessional and the clinic) – as you say, those are examples of confession as a technique of unequal power.

Rather, something has happened to confession since then. It detached from specific power relationships and became a personal tool for (as you say) the production of the self. We see confession everywhere, from talk shows to blogs to coming out. People confess not just to be heard, but also to publicly establish the truth of themselves, which is a very powerful political technique. We can see this in the advance of queer rights over the last four decades, which was largely achieved via coming out. I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know in this paragraph, but I wanted to lay out my thinking.

Polyamory definitely shares this technique of power – it speaks loudly and from the self whereas previous nonmonogamy movements had been fairly closeted. That may be our difference right there: polyamory happened well into the coming out phase of queer rights, and so is following its model. It seems to be working, as polyamory is gaining mindshare fast, taking it from monogamy and other forms of nonmonogamy.

I don’t think these techniques of speaking are only useful at the macro political level, but that’s an easy place to see them in action. As you say, we seem to also be getting a lot of utility out of them in interpersonal interactions and the restructuring of the self.

All of the above (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) establishes polyamory as similar to queer movements, like you say. I think there’s a tricky political dance there, since polyamory in an individual instance isn’t necessarily queer at all, but I definitely see a lot of correspondence in queer and poly practices. This may explain the overlap: the attraction of poly to certain queer groups, the poly-positive queer movement and queer-positive poly movement, and so on.


I too think, as you do, that the free love thing is altogether different, as are several other forms of organized non-monogamy, and that it’s a risk just placing them as being chronologically related in a sort of cause-and-effect context.

I think the point you make about poly books being a lot about self-help is rather relevant. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Nikolas Rose, but he has a book called “Inventing Our Selves”, where he debates the role of what he calls the “psy sciences” (psychology, psychiatry, and so forth) in our understanding of ourselves. The rise of those psy sciences is directly liked with the rise of individuality and subjectivity as a central value in our society. We understand ourselves psychologically, and so turn to self-help books and the like to remake ourselves, shape us into what we can and want to be. Now parrhēsia can be thought of as a way to do the same, although as we’ve seen, it’s somewhat different in that psychology takes a defined subject for granted, one that can be objectified, whereas the act of parrhēsia does no such thing. Obviously we don’t do parrhēsia the way the Greeks did it; Foucault himself insisted that there is no turning back in time and pretending the interleaving 2000 years didn’t happen. Instead, we do a sort of a hybrid, where we indeed fall prey to the demands of society that we “be ourselves”, that we “be free”, that we “be unique”, but use that very same demand to, as you put it, engage in identity politics. And in those identity politics, at least some of us aren’t interested in defining poly as the One True Truth, or the polyamorous subject as morally superior, but as an ever-changing movement, although the danger of normativity is still present in polyamory (as is in any identity) – and it’s a fear that I feel looming closer as polyamory gains mindshare, but I’d like your input about this, since things here in Portugal are pathetically microscopic compared to the USA.

But here’s the funny thing – if one reads Giddens, Beck, Rose, they all say one and the same thing: they put the question you put (‘why is this happening?’) and then go on to say that it is an “answer to systemic contradictions” or other such term. [Note= «this», meaning the changes in individuality, subjectivity, intimate relationships, Giddens’ pure relationship, and so on.] When I noticed that, I got the feeling that it needed further explaining. After all, from where does that systemic contradiction come from? What is in contradiction here? And where did I went to seek the answer? Well, Foucault, obviously.

There is, in Sexuality 1, a tiny passage where he says something like this: the sexuality device placed itself under the alliance device, thus supporting the alliance device and masquerading itself as the alliance device, but acting like itself nonetheless. So bear with me: visualize a web (of power) that is the alliance device, and that starts getting worn and weak. Now visualize another web growing under it, through it, inside it, supporting it for some time longer, but at the same time, being of a different nature, and thusly supporting-but-rupturing that pre-existing web. What is the end result? A systemic contradiction. Subjects who ‘see’ alliance (monogamy) but then are influenced and experience something altogether different (the sexuality device, id est, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, GLBT culture, queer movements, …). This, in my opinion, is the crux of the question, when it comes to changes in how we ‘do’ intimacy. We’re trying to reconcile ourselves with the functioning of the sexuality device, now that the mask of the alliance device is wearing too think, nearly going invisible, and we can no longer be fooled or fool ourselves (well, clearly the bible-thumpers can and do, but you get my point).

Also, it’s interesting to see that at last someone other than me shares my point on poly and queer, namely that poly-as-identity is in itself queer (as it queers the institution of mono-normativity) but poly-as-practice or polys-as-people aren’t inherently or necessarily queer. Usually that debate slides into the all-or-nothing model.

There is a lot of correspondence and more: statistics that I’ve seen point out that GLBT were spear-heading the pre-movement of consensual non-monogamy in a fashion much more like poly of nowadays.

Indeed this relation of the subject with truth in polyamory and other identitary movements is, I think, fundamental. It is only in asserting our own transience that we get to adapt and overcome (constantly, endlessly) the dangers of stagnation, of moral solidification. Interesting how having “solid morals” is seen as a good thing, when actually our ethical responses need to change and adapt to the circumstances, and so something too solid is inherently something incapable of dealing with change.


The free love movement was definitely distinct from the polyamory movement in the US, though some of the roots of polyamory can be found in free love ideology. Current polyamory is also significantly distinct from the various intervening systems that came after free love: open relationships, swinging, and group marriage/polyfidelity in the 80’s.

I agree with you that there’s a contradiction between the sexuality device and alliance device, though I think there may be some other things going on as well, which I will describe below. I read “alliance device” as economically-oriented marriage primarily, which was predominant in the Victorian era moving to the pre-war 1900’s. I read “sexuality device” as referring to romantic/sexual relationships, which have been gaining ground steadily against alliance marriage for some time now. (Stephanie Coontz does a good description of this advance in her history of marriage.) This was one of the things that came to a head in the 60’s and 70’s in the US, resulting in an ideological revolution in how people considered sexuality and relationships. So yes, this advance of sexuality and relationship concerns ahead of economic pairings is definitely leading us directly to a more individually-oriented concept of the self, along with relationship forms adapted to that self. It may simply be that the advance has hit a point where, as you say, old structures crumble. Certainly traditional monogamy qualifies for this, as it was originally produced to control the sexuality (and procreation) of women, and it depended upon highly unequal power arrangements to maintain.

I think there are other things going on here as well though. The rise of a strong middle class during the last century produced a situation where our web of social dependencies could be hidden, creating a strong sense of individuality. Similarly, the capitalism of the last forty years has tightened, killing the single-breadwinner family (still in its infancy) and creating a certain equality as companies end discrimination in order to compete better. The upshot is that relationships and marriages are rapidly losing their economic incentive, and so pleasures of various forms (love, sexuality, companionship, etc) are becoming more primary in relationship structures.

Also, I think the speaking-from-the-self individuation that we are describing (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) is perhaps a response to a certain form of power, namely the power of external authorities over the truth of one’s self. The confession gave priests and psychotherapists the ability to control people, but to do that it had to create this idea of inner truth (i.e. “be true to yourself” etc). But of course there was a certain rebellion after a time, or perhaps a commodification of the power of truth-telling, and so people wrested control of this mechanism away from authorities, and started telling truth all over the place, both diagnosing others and telling the truth of themselves.

In other words, we might be seeing a historically specific power response here, one which arose in response to a specific move by authorities and may recede once this technique of power is played out or deconstructed. I’m not entirely sure that we will be seeing forward progress on this moral subjectivity of the self.

This gets at my main point: systems of conceptual power always contain systemic contradictions, because they rely on ideological lattices (webs, as you describe them) of meaning. There are always points of weakness in those webs, which might take the form of internal contradictions, contradictions with other evolving power systems, points where power is insufficiently buttressed, and so on. Indeed, polyamorous people make these sorts of attacks on the system of mono-normativity as a matter of habit, engaging in a series of redefinitions, revaluations, and deprogramming techniques.

Is this what Giddens and others are referring to by “systemic contradictions”? I’m not sure. I think it is unfortunate that they have not explained what sort of contradiction they see. The clash between the mechanisms of sexuality and alliance is, as you state, definitely a big issue, which is obviously putting strain on the entire social system. But I think it is probably not the entire story.

Regarding identity politics and the danger of normativity in polyamory, I think that’s a good question. I think there is definitely a danger there. Indeed, I’ve cataloged one version of it (exclusion via definitional fiat) in a post to my blog. I would say that overall I am concerned that a more-mainstream group within polyamory may at some point attempt to take over the movement and start excluding others. Certainly I have seen individual attempts at this, though they have never gotten very far. And if we look at the way US queer movements have been diverted into the same-sex marriage battle recently, this sort of thing is clearly a danger.

But at the same time, that day may be very far off, specifically because of the power arrangements of mono-normativity. Compulsory monogamy has functioned via heavy stigmatization of any sort of nonmonogamy. Which means that having sex with more than one person in any context is considered by most people to be the same as having wild orgies all the time. There is no middle ground in the popular imagination, much as many poly people are trying to create one.

This creates an odd situation where the more normative polyamorous people are treated more or less the same as the less normative ones, which keeps them from having the sort of leverage required to create exclusion. Indeed, being less normative gives one certain advantages because one is not as beholden to mainstream concerns, while still laboring under a similar level of stigma.

I think this is why there is still a very sex-positive feeling within polyamory, for example. This is despite a steady influx of people who carry the strongly sex-negative attitudes of the mainstream. Being sex-positive is personally advantageous in nonmonogamy, and being sex-negative fails to confer advantage because people lose the backing of the culture as soon as they become nonmonogamous. Indeed, compulsory monogamy is arguably one of the prime purposes of mainstream sex-negativity, so there is a certain contradiction in being sex-negative and polyamorous.

We can see this in other areas as well. Poly groups in my area at least is still surprisingly friendly to the less popular queer groups (bi and trans people), along with sex workers. There is a certain white and middle-class hegemony within publicly announced polyamorous groups, but interestingly this seems to be reversing currently along lines of race: people of color are gaining ground.

However, I can definitely see this situation changing as polyamory gains acceptance. We may at some point create a situation where polyamory is acceptable enough that we end up with a class of “good polys”, who then make a bid for mainstream acceptance by enforcing stigma against “bad polys”.

Certainly I see people constantly trying to solidify polyamorous identity around their own personal practices. They are generally ineffective at this, but that may change as numbers get so large that people can segregate into sub-groups based on their practices.

I don’t think the current practice of parrhēsia insulates us from this necessarily. While it does create a certain level of understanding of others, that often does not extend to people from other groups or backgrounds. We can see this in the US queer movement, which is still heavily invested in parrhēsia but at the same time manages to exclude significant groups.

The good news is that I think we have some time before this all happens. If we were to draw a parallel with the queer movement, I would put us in the 70’s, during the period when radicals held sway. Which means that it will probably be around two decades before we see a situation where exclusion becomes common, and that is only if polyamory continues to gain positive mindshare.

As for poly-as-identity being queer, I agree, but that depends on us defining “queer” the way it generally is in academic circles. Outside of academia, “queer” generally translates to LGBT, which makes polyamory identity not queer. But in any case, it is a matter of semantics: polyamory definitely deconstructs mono-normativity in a manner similar to the way queer people end up deconstructing heterosexism.


I think you’re spot-on with your overall analysis of the situation, especially having to do with how we went from a setting based on rules (alliance) to a setting where what is produced is constant change itself, where there is a summons to focus on the body, on pleasure; but where a subject (an interiority) is also created and established.

Also, I agree that power in this situation (well, in all situations, as per Foucault) works not just focusing on what we call authorities, but in a microphysical way. But maybe the idea of wresting control away from those authorities isn’t the best way to address this. Nikolas Rose says that psychology is a very promiscuous discipline, and so our wresting away isn’t as clear-cut as I’d like it to be. This all relates to how Foucault sees power circulate: we can’t run away from power, we can’t just take control of it, we have to work with it, in it. So the claim to be able to speak the truth is still very much imbued of this notion of an interiority, something that is normatively produced still by those institutions.

This is, to relate to what you were saying, a systemic contradiction: the one encountered inside the escape of the normative system’s systemic contradiction. That normative system still acts upon us, and it’s been reproducing even inside our own attempts to find out other ways to subvert and contradict it. The blog post “defining polyamory”, which I’d read for my thesis, is a clear analysis on your part of this happening. All those sorts of definitions are attempts at normativizing something which is not normative from the get-go, and I fear I’ve seen that tendency grow, lately. But let’s not forget that this characteristic isn’t something that was added to polyamory after the fact, it was already there from the get-go (which you probably know better than I do): for instance, Jennifer Wesp’s first posts when she created alt.polyamory (on Usenet) where full of that “let’s not talk about sex, or STD’s, or anything bodily, please” attitude that is still quite common nowadays.

I believe that in Portugal there is some resistance to dissemination of polyamory, and the group has been growing, but slowly. Also, we’re a more conservative and catholic country, and that heavily influences acceptance and visibility; adding to that, we’re about 10 years behind the USA when it comes to awareness of polyamory’s existence. That stagnation may be dangerous, as it may lead to a solidification of specific kinds of polyamorous practices or views, something I try to avoid when giving interviews.

As for queerness: certainly, there is deconstruction, but lest we be careful, that deconstruction leads to yet another construction, and in that sense (which is actually what we’ve been talking about) it totally stops being queer in any sense whatsoever. And this is not a problem exclusive to poly, but to the LGBT movement as a whole – seeking acceptance has already made a lot of people think that trade-offs and selective discrimination are an OK thing to do, as long as it pushes a specific agenda. Case in point is the promiscuity/same-sex marriage debate. At least here in Portugal, the line of reasoning is something to this effect: one of the points that legitimizes same-sex marriage is that LGBT people aren’t necessarily as promiscuous as they’re assumed to be. Instead of deconstructing promiscuity as locus of discrimination, it is used, manipulated and its discriminatory power actually amplified in order to reach a certain goal.


I agree with you that the process of removing conceptual control from authorities (in this case, mental health authorities: therapists and psychologists) is always an incomplete process. Indeed it must be incomplete as you state. People may have started diagnosing each other in imitation of the authorities, but this only works because of the deference granted to those authorities in the first place. The diagnosis of others or oneself only works as long as one carries an internal truth that is diagnosable, and that internal truth is the linchpin of the power of mental health authorities.
This does mean that it is hard to see where this is all going. Will the system of diagnosis, internal knowledge, and speaking one’s truth remain so long as therapists and psychologists hold some power in the culture? Will the overall system be exposed as corrupt once people start rebelling against the diagnoses of their peers, or will that even happen? Will it continue to deepen and strengthen, with ever more complex and yet still diagnosable internal truths? I don’t know the answers here.

I was actually not aware that Wesp started alt.polyamory on a sex-negative note, so thank you for that. (In general I have not investigated the history of alt.polyamory in detail.) However, it does not surprise me in the slightest. As you say, bids for normativity have been present since the beginning of polyamory. People have generally taken the position that they should be able to access the privileges of being normative despite their nonmonogamy. As you say, the tactics of the mainstream are imported into polyamory in order to facilitate this maintenance of privilege. So a person might be engaged in the process of deconstructing monogamy, but at the same time upholding white privilege, sex-negativity, heteronormativity, and so on. This is I think what you mean when you say it is a systemic contradiction. These systems of power intertwine, and so challenging one while trying to uphold others leads to a certain set of conceptual deadlocks. Not that this prevents people from trying, and they are successful to some extent, as they get quite creative in their framing of concepts. But it definitely slows them down in comparison to people who lack or work against forms of privilege. Which again means the radicals hold sway and in some ways come more naturally to polyamory. Again, I think this will only continue so long as polyamory is condemned by the mainstream. Much like being gay or lesbian, there is nothing inherently radical about being polyamorous, and so cultural acceptance will open a space where a person can be openly poly and still maintain normativity on other axes of oppression.

Regarding privilege and group dynamics, heavily under-privileged groups are somewhat marginalized in poly communities: people of color, poor people, and so on. Radical sexual minority groups however have a lot of influence and are fairly central to the communities: queer women, sex workers, BDSM folks, bisexuals, transgender people, and so on.

It may be that the situation in your circles is different. Certainly I have seen poly groups harden around more privileged members, but eventually competing groups show up which do not have this issue. Which is to say, there are probably already people coming to polyamory outside of your group, and they may at some future point challenge it.

I agree with everything you’ve said in regards to issues in the queer movement. I think we can expect to see that in the polyamory movement at some point in the future (probably at least three decades away) once polyamory becomes accepted enough that people can actually succeed at bids for normativity. I would like to try to prevent that future, but I am not sure there is any way to do so.


I do wish that in a way that power of the psy-sciences (and of what is done in their name, or through them nowadays) would be contested, but it seems it’s getting harder to do so. Since to speak psychologically is, like you say, to posit an internal truth, then those who speak psychologically speak truthfully – they speak of a transcendent truth, a truth at the core of existence. Questioning psychological-type speeches is to question the possibility of truth-speaking, which is very threatening. Obviously I don’t have the answer as to what will happen, but it seems doubtful that it will just be matter of exposing the influence of psy-speech; it will probably evolve into something else, since we’re always, as a society, looking for a paradigm from within which to speak truthfully (or, to put it better, to understand what it means to ‘speak truthfully’).

The apt description you make of this our systemic contradiction touches a very sensitive issue for me. Discrimination and normativity are fought in a fragmented and niche-like manner, where each person has their own fighting field and that fighting field is equivalent to one form of discrimination and nothing more. But when we look at the rhetorical construction of discrimination, it’s all the same, everywhere. So in fact, fighting against one discrimination is fighting them all – or should be, from a logical point of view – and yet people pretend like it isn’t, and self-defeat their own arguments by discriminating while asking not to be discriminated, using the same rhetorical devices that they ask others not to use, only because the variables in the rethorical constructs are changed from something that affects them into something that (they feel) doesn’t.

And if indeed people who don’t work against special privileges are slowed down, I think it’s also true that the overall tendency is to favor that slowing down, as it is usually represented as maturity, as a coming-of-age, finding a middle ground, etc.

As for the differences between my experience of poly and yours, maybe it has to do with a matter of scale. Although people from radical sexual minorities are also very important around here, the fact is that it’s still a very white-and-middle-class thing. I do hope that things start to change for the better, but at the same time I need to remind myself of that 10-year delay over the USA. Which is to say, things around here, when it comes to polyamory, are just getting started. References in the media are sparse, and sometimes not quite done right, with a lot of that ancient catholic influence of centuries still peeking through.


Reading your description of the situation in your community, I was very much reminded of the situation in the San Francisco area a decade ago (or perhaps the late 90’s). There was a period after the early conventions and alt.polyamory but before the current (media, online, social group) explosion where people were very inward-focused in the way you describe. There are currently parts of the U.S. that have that dynamic, rural areas where poly has only barely taken root. So I think you are probably pretty accurate with your estimate of where things stand chronologically.

When I started doing organizing in this area eight years ago, there was a fairly settled group of people who had built out a social network together in the late 90’s. Most of them didn’t see much need to take it beyond that. While the email list was public-entry (and still exists today), the primary social venues were small dinners and discussion groups, people had their private social networks, and most folks did not see a reason to come out in public, engage with the media, or specifically create events to welcome new folks.

Within this group there was a certain established conformity, and at various points in the intervening decade when I have challenged this conformity, I have faced resistance, for example when creating a group for younger people or when setting up a poly speed dating event.
But at the same time, things were fomenting outside this group and their email list, and during the last decade I’ve seen a lot of other groups appear and in some cases become established: an explicitly political group, a set of discussion groups based on meetup.com, various social networks with regular parties and other events, a couple different communal living groups, and so on.

I think that you will likely see a similar progression. We can expect that there will be a certain steady flow of new people in your region who will start identifying as poly, and those who do not find your group or are not served by it will eventually start building their own structures.

This all isn’t to say that I don’t see a lot of closeting even today in the U.S. – most poly people here are still closeted at work, for example. But the ratios have shifted, and most people are out to at least some friends and family. Overall there is more of a spirit of openness, and the large public events in my area have been helping this. When people see a lot of people at an event, it tends to shake them out of the idea that they should be comfortable in their small social circle with their twenty poly friends. People realize that they might be trading too many experiences for the feeling of safety. Also, a series of media successes have helped. In general poly people here are starting to understand that there are a large number of people like them, and becoming more open as a result.

As for the situation with the current LGBT quest for normativity, I think you are largely correct. I do want to say that there is certainly a large and ongoing radical section to queer communities here, and these folks continue to be on the forefront of social justice campaigns of various sorts.
But at the same time there are also large numbers of folks who mostly just want to get their marriage rights and then to get on with a fairly standard American-dream lifestyle. Being revolutionary, while fulfilling in many ways, is at best uncomfortable and at worst life-destroying, and so I think some people turn away from it as soon as they can. Certainly, the main thing that gets people to attack normativity is when they themselves are inevitably non-normative, either because society has labeled them as such or because they must live in some non-normative manner in order to be happy. So I think there is a certain regrettable inevitability to this quest for normativity as a social movement actually starts realizing its goals.

The BDSM community out here is significantly less politicized than the queer community, which sounds like your experience there. People mostly want to focus inward, and they get involved in all the minutiae of in-group relating. So BDSM folks that I know will attend workshops, conferences, and social events in large numbers but typically do not see themselves as political and do not try to form a strongly supportive community. The gay leather scene does a much better job of this and there is a stronger community feel.

Overall I would say that the BDSM folks are in certain ways behind the poly folks in terms of social acceptance. I think the lack of political engagement in U.S. BDSM communities is likely because it seems hopeless. I don’t think it is hopeless, and we are getting positive energy from a number of places (most notably college newspapers, but also queer communities) but at the same time I think people are very aware of the stigma attached to their activities. Perhaps they are overly scared of cultural backlash, but it is a real concern in any case.


There’s an odd feeling I get reading your reply. At once, I feel hopeful for the future of the poly movement in Portugal and also it feels like peeking through a window into the future. It’s interesting to see some independent verification of my 10-year-lag theory.

The language barrier is indeed being broken little by little – more and more people are paying attention to the word, and all that’s associated with it, there has been increasing media attention – more people outside the poly group I’m in want to talk about polyamory. But at the same time, there’s a lot of people saying “all in all, it doesn’t differ from open relationships and the notion of polyamory isn’t really needed because people will just sort out their lives and that’s it”.

Of course there can be a double reading to this: on the one hand, the anti-identity and very queer reading that says we shouldn’t conform; on the other hand, and this is the one that’s most likely what they mean, the reading that says, as you’ve pointed out, that this doesn’t need to go out-of-doors, that it’s purely private and doesn’t call for public debate.


Regarding the people you hear saying that polyamory isn’t much different from open relationships, when I have heard that out here it has generally been an excuse to closet or otherwise hide. The two defining features of open relationships (in the U.S.) were that they were mostly a primary relationship with sex on the side, and that they were almost universally closeted, much like swinging. So mostly I read that statement as a defensive maneuver, trying to keep people seeing their activities as entirely private, in the tradition of open relationships.

I think it is important to remember that open relationships and polyamory are very similar in a lot of ways – much of what we are doing has been done before, and we should not erase that history or pretend that the new wave of polyamory is somehow inherently superior to previous waves of nonmonogamy. But at the same time, polyamory does bring some new things to the table – here in the U.S., open relationships rarely involved multiple dating-style relationships (and still don’t when currently practiced, as they are in the gay community here in SF), and it was not until the advent of polyamory that these became relatively widespread.

I also want to say that I appreciate the need for closeting. I think most of the resistance you are facing is because people want to stay closeted. And they have good reasons for doing so – they could easily lose their jobs, be disowned from their families, and lose their friends if they come out publicly. But what I find is that people make up all sorts of arguments to justify closeting rather than talking about the real reasons they are scared. A lot of the above fits this pattern. Which is not to say that people need to uncloset or the group needs to become more open, but rather that a direct conversation about people’s actual fears tends to be more productive in producing a sense of safety than these surrogate conversations. One way to address this to create actual support groups, or to have on-list discussions about the real good and bad things about coming out or staying closeted.

Jealousy, Monogamy, and Power

This essay on jealousy came out of work I did on two preceding papers. It represents my latest thinking on the relationship between jealousy and monogamy, written in a dense academic style. I have also posted a PDF version on my website. This paper has not been published or peer-reviewed, but I am interested in publishing it. If you have connections to a publication that would be appropriate, please email me at pepomint@gmail.com.

What are we to make of jealousy?  It is simultaneously a biological response, an emotion, a social reaction to particular situations, and a general term that can be applied to any sort of covetousness.  Romantic jealousy is often a point of strife in relationships, when one person gets jealous or one person accuses another of jealousy.  And yet, we largely consider jealousy to be an inevitable part of relationships.

Whenever nonmonogamy is addressed in popular culture, romantic jealousy is brought up as an overwhelming obstacle to any sort of successful nonmonogamy.  Sometimes the author states that they themselves could never get past jealousy enough to be nonmonogamous.  Other times, therapists are quoted as saying that nonmonogamy is impossible due to jealousy.  We see quotes like “there is no getting around the ultimate problem of jealousy” (Coren 2005) and similar examples when polyamory is profiled in the media (DeDonato 2008; Jackson 2006; Lewis 2005; Marech 2001).  This immediate conflation of nonmonogamy and jealousy hints at the cultural role jealousy plays in creating monogamous conformity – I will describe this role in detail below.

In contrast, polyamory literature tends to start discussions of jealousy by stating that it is in fact defeatable.  This is done to counter mainstream culture’s sense that jealousy is inevitable in and fatal to nonmonogamous situations (Anapol 1997: 50-51; Benson 2008: 185; Easton and Hardy 1997: 136-137).

When our culture examines jealousy, we tend to fall back on biological imperative.  Research has not been immune to this essentialization (for an overview, see Lucas 2007).  Recent advances in DNA fingerprinting have revealed that sexual monogamy is pretty much nonexistent in the natural kingdom (Barash and Lipton 2001), and jealousy is generally understood in academic circles to be constructed by culture rather than a biological phenomenon (Sharpsteen 1993; Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 66-75).  However, this knowledge has not filtered through the public awareness, and jealousy and monogamy are generally considered to be biological and inevitable, as we see in journalism (e.g. Barash and Barash 2005; Martell 2003; Stephens 2007) and pop psychology (e.g. Barash and Lipton 2001: 30,120; Buss 2000; Espejo 2007: 29; Rodgers 2002: 8,11,123,346). The mainstream often considers jealousy situations to be a problem which should be addressed (as I describe below), but the jealous response itself is rarely questioned.

In our culture we rarely look to a person’s underlying motivations for the source of jealousy, though people seem to understand these causes and will readily admit to deeper social or situational reasons when questioned: "I thought she would leave me for him" "I feel ugly compared to him" "I know he’ll take the first chance he gets if I let him out of my sight" "I’m jealous because of how you acted around her" "You’re just saying that because you’re jealous".  In short, jealousy is a strategy of personal power within relationships, one that is useful and common enough that we are rarely willing to take a cold look at what we are actually using it for.

This essay is devoted to examining these power strategies that surround jealousy. For this analysis, I am relying on a Foucauldian notion of power (Foucault 1978: 92-102).  In other words, I view jealousy as a social mechanism used for relationships among people, a mechanism that allows people to exert power on each other in various ways.  My hope is to establish a framework for understanding the relationship between jealousy, power, and monogamy in romantic relationships.

I will reference various academic works on jealousy throughout this paper, but my primary source for this deconstruction is the shared knowledge of the polyamory community, and my own personal experience in polyamorous relationships, education, and organizing. Social activists are well aware that the people who understand a power dynamic best are those who are in a losing position when it comes to that form of power (for example, Harding 2003: 56-57).  Indeed, polyamorous people are beset by the multitudinous mechanisms that enforce compulsory monogamy in our culture.  And as we shall see, the power relations surrounding jealousy are prime enforcers of monogamy.  Polyamorous people of necessity become experts at negotiating these power dynamics, to the point where some of the claims in this paper may already be obvious to my poly readers.

First, some disclaimers.  I am only discussing the complex of romantic jealousy in this essay, and I am not addressing other forms of jealousy and envy such as sibling jealousy, coworker jealousy, and so on.

I will be addressing the culturally hegemonic system of compulsory monogamy in this piece.  Nothing in this essay should be taken as critical of the practice of monogamy or of people who get jealous: monogamy, especially when practiced in a conscious manner, is a rewarding path for many people.  Also, deconstructing jealousy (a key component of the conceptual apparatus of compulsory monogamy) will inevitably be read as privileging nonmonogamy.  Nonmonogamy is not magically free of interpersonal power, and any particular variety will have its own power mechanisms, which I am not examining here. 

Also, this paper is a critique of mainstream United States culture specifically, which means that its applicability is limited in scope to that mainstream (mostly white, middle-class, male-dominated, etc) culture.  While the power structures described here may apply to some extent to other cultures and U.S. subcultures, some of the conclusions will not hold as the cultural distance increases.

Indeed, people who are heavily invested in nonmonogamy may find themselves disagreeing with many of the statements I make here about the mainstream mechanism of jealousy.  This is unsurprising, as the process of investing in nonmonogamy tends to require that one find ways to disempower the various power mechanisms of jealousy described here, and the resulting reconceptualization is typically incompatible with the mainstream ideology of jealousy.

The Power Mechanisms of Jealousy

Jealousy is one of the few concepts we have that describes a romantic situation among three people, and like most of the others it is a negative description. For romantic jealousy, the parties in question are: the person who is jealous, a romantic partner of that person, and some third party who is viewed by the jealous person as a romantic rival (White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  The jealous person’s fear is typically that the romantic rival will somehow attract the attentions of their partner, either impeding or ending the partner’s relationship with the jealous person.

Jealousy generally has an air of the problematic about it.  The very existence of an episode of jealousy is viewed as a problem, or at least indicative of one (Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 1-3).  If there were no problem, we assume that there would be no jealousy.  Jealousy is a problem for the person feeling jealous, not just because they are upset but also because they are feeling a threat to their relationship.  Jealousy is also a problem for the other partner, in that they are assumed to have done something to cause the jealousy, or at the very least they need to be able to address or assuage it.  Jealousy is a problem for the overall relationship as well, in that jealousy is generally assumed to only appear when there is a threat to the relationship.  It is this problematic cast to jealousy that makes it easy to describe jealousy as an undesirable trait (though still common and inevitable), as described below.

If the existence of jealousy is considered a problem, then it is begging a solution.  The culturally accepted solution to a person’s jealousy is for the other partner to change their behavior or make amends in some way.  Or, sometimes the third party is expected to apologize for or alter their actions. In other words, a non-jealous person is considered responsible for the jealousy itself, both for its creation and for its attenuation. It is possible to make someone jealous, and this making is seen as an inevitable cause/effect relationship – jealousy as a reflex response to a certain sort of situation.  As a culture we conveniently fail to define exactly what sort of situation, which gives us a wide range of possible jealous triggers, as I describe in the next section.

Jealousy occupies a somewhat odd position as a first-class emotion that at the same time places its responsibility on another person. This becomes apparent when we compare jealousy to other negative feelings. On the one side, we have anger, which like jealousy is a strongly felt emotion but which is somewhat less culturally acceptable than jealousy. For example, public displays of anger are looked down upon more than public displays of jealousy. While anger is typically a response to a situation, we do not automatically locate the source of anger externally the way we do for jealousy. If a person is often angry, we send them to anger management classes, but there are no jealousy management classes outside of nonmonogamous communities, because the way to solve jealousy is to alter one’s situation. On the other side, feelings like hurt and betrayal are socially sanctioned because they are defined responsively, but they do not have the force of full-on emotions – a betrayed person may have various emotional responses, including anger and jealousy. Jealousy sits in a charmed space between these two types of feelings, as we grant it the strength and immediacy of an internally felt emotion while still giving it the deference of an emotional response to an external situation.

To recap, we consistently locate both the source of and solution to jealousy in an external party. This externality of jealousy is demanded by the cultural script we have for it, namely: a person takes or allows an action towards a third party, which threatens the relationship and triggers jealousy in the person’s partner.  Jealousy is primarily seen as the legitimate response to a real relationship threat (Stenner and Rogers 1998; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  Indeed, jealousy is understood as part and parcel of the threat itself, nothing more than the emotional flipside of being the aggrieved party.  However, putting the responsibility for an emotion on someone other than the person feeling the emotion necessarily creates multiple power dynamics, and I will describe three of them below. Here I am focusing on power between the jealous person and their partner and leaving aside dynamics between the jealous person and the third party, though there is a parallel and somewhat weaker set of power relations between those parties.

First, jealousy itself demands some sort of response from the other partner, influencing them.  Because the conceptual domain of jealousy is the partner’s interactions with third parties, being jealous produces influence over the partner’s relations with specific third parties or even their social life in general.  If someone gets jealous because their partner flirts, then the implied demand is that their partner stop flirting.  If someone is jealous because their partner is friendly with a particular person, they are effectively demanding that their partner stop being friends with that person.  Further, feeling jealous gives a person a certain degree of social license and emotional cover to take various malicious actions, such as reading their partner’s email or trying to manipulate their partner’s social contacts (White and Mullen: 183-185,223-227).

These direct power mechanisms remain in effect even when jealousy is not contrived or strategic, though it may be either of these.  Because jealousy is a felt emotion, it is difficult to discern any actual causality between the feeling and the power dynamic.  Is a person jealous for the associated power effects, or are they gaining the power effects because they are jealous?  Their actual motivation is not particularly relevant to the power outcomes, which flow from the conceptualization of jealousy itself.

This power mechanism of jealousy is direct, in that it is a largely unavoidable effect of jealousy itself.  Indeed, we can read the influence of jealousy over a partner as the conceptual purpose of jealousy itself.  If jealousy is an emotional response to a relationship threat, then the desired effect of jealousy would in theory be to protect the relationship.  There is of course no guarantee that any particular jealous episode will be protective or destructive towards a relationship, but our cultural logic defines jealousy as an appropriate defensive response.

Because our culture generally recognizes the association of jealousy with control of a partner, there is a secondary power dynamic produced, where a person accuses someone of being jealous for personal gain.  We enable this accusation by categorizing jealousy into reasonable and unreasonable varieties, generally judged by the severity of the jealous person’s actions (Lucas 2007; Stenner and Rogers 1998).  For example, complaining to one’s partner about their behavior might be reasonable, but demanding that they not socialize with coworkers might seem overly controlling.  Of course, we are again conveniently vague about where the line between reasonable and unreasonable jealousy falls, making this a flexible power dynamic.  Depending on the situation and the person making the judgment, acts of jealous violence might be reasonable, or the mere feeling of jealousy itself might be unreasonable (as in the interview by Stenner 1993).  “You’re being too jealous” is therefore the inverse power relation to the direct power effects of jealousy, providing a counterbalancing effect: one person makes demands via jealousy, and their partner resists those by claiming that the jealousy is unreasonable.  While either power dynamic can exist in a particular relationship without the other, this inverse power mechanism is a proper Foucaldian method of resistance to the direct jealousy mechanism described above, as its existence requires recognizing the possibilities of control associated with jealousy (Foucault 1978: 95-96).

This back and forth power struggle means that the act of admitting jealousy is somewhat fraught, opening a person up to accusations of being unreasonably jealous, along with carrying an implicit admission that there may be a real threat to the relationship.  Also, jealousy is generally considered to be a negative trait by counseling professionals (White and Mullen 1989: 173-217).

The upshot of all this is that people are remarkably loathe to admit that they are jealous (White and Mullen 1989: 55), because making that admission sets them at a disadvantage.  Which makes for an odd situation: on the one hand, a person might feel entirely justified in acting on their jealousy, but on the other hand, they typically seek to hide the jealousy itself.  A quick trip to the relationship self-help section of the bookstore confirms this: few of the books present actually approve of or mention jealousy, but quite a number of them license jealous feelings and controlling behavior under the rubric of protecting one’s relationship from cheating or recovering from an affair (e.g. Block and Neumann 2009: 55-75; Copeland and Louis 2000: 363-364; DeLorenzo et al 2009; Neuman 2008: 34-62; Spring 1996: 148-160).  Indeed, it is common polyamorous wisdom that an initial difficult step in dealing with jealousy is getting the jealous person to acknowledge their feelings (e.g. Anapol 1997: 57-58; Easton and Hardy 1997: 138-139).

It is well-understood that power dynamics seek to hide their own operation, because doing so makes them more effective (Foucault 1978: 86).  We can view this tendency to disavow jealousy as another tactic in this vein. Individuals make better use of jealousy by hiding their personal motivations, and this tendency for jealousy to remain a private matter means that knowledge on how to handle jealousy is not distributed through social networks.

The third power dynamic associated with jealousy is purposefully inducing jealousy in one’s partner for some sort of leverage (White 1980).  Whereas the above mechanisms depend on jealousy being the responsibility of the jealous person’s partner, this mechanism depends on the partner’s actions being the source of jealousy.  The desired outcome is the jealous emotion itself, either using its unpleasantness as a motivator or as proof of love.  Alternatively, as suggested by the preceding paragraph, inducing jealousy may produce various advantages by exposing a partner’s jealousy. In short, if jealousy is a response to a relationship threat, this mechanism is manufacturing a relationship threat to prove a point.  The inducement mechanism depends on the ubiquity and inevitability of jealousy itself, as the easiest way to block it would be to simply not get jealous.  This power mechanism is again a form of resistance per Foucault, since its utility is a side effect of one’s partner having access to the direct mechanism.

Certainly, these power mechanisms associated with jealousy are not the only power dynamics within relationships, or even the most powerful ones.  However, the domain of jealous power is interactions with outside parties, which lends it a wide scope.  Also, the mechanisms of jealousy can elastically expand in any particular relationship to the point where jealousy is the defining factor in either intra-relationship or external dynamics.

The Scope of Jealous Power

Let us now take a look at the scope of the direct power mechanism of jealousy, where a jealous person causes their partner to act or not act via expressions of jealousy.

Jealousy is essentialized as biological in popular culture (e.g. Buss 2000), so it is generally unassailable: you can accuse a person of being unreasonably jealous, but it is much more difficult to decry their jealousy as fabricated, strategic, or conditioned, though it may well be any of these.  In other words, a person with a jealous response does not need to justify it, beyond pointing out their partner’s actions that make the jealousy reasonable.  The jealous reaction itself is thought of as inevitable, and indeed people who do not experience jealousy are doubted, or considered to be deficient in some way (Taormino 2008: 155,176).

Even though jealousy is firmly grounded in biology as an emotion, as a culture we are remarkably vague about forms jealousy actually takes.  There are no direct physical symptoms associated with jealousy, in contrast to the red face of anger or the tears of sadness.  “Turning green with jealousy” does not actually describe a solid physical response.  This convenient obscurity means that jealousy can be experienced as a host of emotional responses such as fear, anger, betrayal, sadness, or insecurity, and it may or may not include a variety of physical symptoms (Easton 2010; Sharpsteen 1993; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  This confusion around the jealous experience increases its flexibility as a tool of interpersonal power.  For example, a person could claim to be jealous when they are not, or when they feel threatened, depressed, or even controlling.  Or a person could take actions motivated by jealousy while denying that they are jealous, chalking their behavior up to these other emotions.

We accept a wide range of triggers for jealousy. Jealousy is supposed to be the worst when one’s partner has sex with someone else (unsurprisingly, the very thing that makes a person not monogamous), but it can also be triggered when one’s partner looks at someone else the wrong way, flirts with someone else, spends too much time with someone else, or spends too much time away from the jealous person, among other things.  These infractions are widespread enough and vague enough that they can be basically fabricated in the mind of the beholder, or jealousy can be triggered due to a suspicion instead of a direct action.  In other words, jealousy needs no actual trigger: an imagined one is good enough (Benson 2008: 185; White and Mullen 1989: 187-194).

Similarly, while I have been discussing jealousy as if it only existed in committed romantic relationships, the relationship in question may also be imagined.  People can and do get jealous when they are infatuated, whether or not the object of their affections feels the same way (White and Mullen 1989: 10).

People who are jealous have few limits on their actions. Because we consider jealousy to be a strong emotion, we license all sort of normally antisocial behavior to jealous people. Jealous people can furtively look through their partner’s clothes or email, they can follow their partner, they can make public scenes, they can take reprisals against the third party, they can break up with their partner, and so on  (see also Sharpsteen 1993 for similar reactions).

Even violence, while generally considered unreasonable or unacceptable, is a perfectly understandable course of action when jealous (Sharpsteen 1993).  Researchers are well aware that jealousy is a major factor in domestic violence and homicide (Babcock et al 2004; Barash and Lipton 2001: 55; White and Mullen 1989: 218-222), and it is typically not difficult to find instances of jealous violence in one’s own life or in the media (e.g. within a three-day span: Goodman 2010; Morrison 2010; Sanchez 2010).  While they may be looked down on, jealous violence and other extreme jealous behaviors are conceivable, or “intelligible” in Butler’s framework (Butler 1990).  Because these behaviors are conceptually available, they are licensed to some extent, even though they may be viewed as destructive or irrational.

Notably, jealous violence is overwhelmingly inflicted on the jealous person’s partner, rather than on the rival (White and Mullen 1989: 218-219).  While this may seem initially illogical, it makes sense if we remember that the direct mechanism of jealousy is a tool of power between romantic partners: the escalation of that power to violence therefore also occurs between partners.  In other words, jealous violence is the end resort of a person who is using jealousy’s direct mechanism for control.

Indeed, jealous violence committed against one’s partner or the third party is often excused by the courts and sympathetic juries, either through acquittal or the reduction of murder to manslaughter (White and Mullen, 1989: 231-235). Due to jealousy being viewed as relationship defense, laws have been passed that excuse killing a rival: into the 1970s it was legal in Georgia and Texas for a man to kill his wife’s lover if he could catch them in the act (Miller 2002: 57-60).  While these days the law might take reprisals against someone who commits violence while jealous, no one will be particularly surprised that they did it.

In addition, jealousy is often eroticized.  Sometimes jealousy is seen as direct evidence of a person’s love.  Other times, someone will have sex with a third party specifically to make their partner jealous, fueling the sex with someone else’s potential jealousy.  Jealousy is consensually mined for erotic potential in BDSM play and in cuckolding scenes (White and Mullen 1989: 237-242), and jealousy is used by swingers to tease and arouse their primary partners (McDonald 2010).  Power dynamics that are commonly eroticized are typically those dynamics that shape people’s lives in a culturally ubiquitous manner: violence, gender, race, and so on.  While jealousy is not comparable to these other systems, jealousy’s ready availability for eroticization points to its strength as a hegemonic power dynamic.

To recap, the triggers for jealousy vary widely and can be imagined, the relationship in question can be imagined, the jealous response itself is thought of as biological and inevitable while remaining conveniently vague, and the behavior associated with jealousy ranges from the entirely reasonable all the way up to stalking and homicide.  In other words, jealousy is an extremely elastic power mechanism, available in pretty most relationships and licensing escalating reprisals.  This is not to say that the direct mechanism of jealousy is all-powerful: jealous triggers and actions must fit into the conceptual framework of defending one’s sexual or romantic interest against third parties.  For example, this makes it difficult (though notably, not impossible) to claim jealousy when one’s partner is spending too much time with a person of a gender they are not attracted to.

Note that the inverse mechanism of jealousy is not elastic to this extent. For example, one generally cannot conceive of violence against one’s partner because they got jealous.  Similarly, the inducement mechanism does not license violence: one does not commit violence in order to make one’s partner jealous.  The strongest actions available to either of these resistance forms are effectively either cheating or leaving the relationship.

It should be noted that a desire for power is not the only reason that people get jealous. For many people, jealousy is a conditioned and generally unavoidable response. For example, we see this in nonmonogamous subcultures, where people get jealous even when jealousy is a serious liability to their situation – more on this below.

Jealousy and Gender

While the above mechanisms are available regardless of gender, jealousy is somewhat gendered.  Interestingly, there is a gender reversal between the ideology and practice of jealousy.  Jealousy is generally considered to be an emotion that women are more likely to feel, even though men and women self-report feelings of jealousy at similar levels (Hansen 1985).  At the same time men are much more likely to escalate the direct mechanism of jealousy to controlling behavior or violence.  When feeling jealous, women are more likely to blame themselves and men are more likely to blame others. (Buunk and Dijkstra 2004)

This gender dissonance starts making sense if we remember that hiding or disavowing one’s jealousy actually makes one’s use of jealous power more effective, by blocking the “you’re too jealous” inverse mechanism.  By considering women to be more jealous, which is to say by exposing the jealousy of women, our culture effectively hampers women’s ability to use the direct form of jealous power.

On average, men tend to be the winners in jealous power dynamics and women tend to lose.  As described above, men are seen as less jealous by the culture, but are more likely to blame others when they get jealous, and then escalate that jealousy into influence, control, or violence.  Women are more likely to be discredited as overly jealous, but tend to blame themselves for jealousy and have less ability to escalate jealous feelings into power.

There is an exception: women are somewhat more likely to use the inducement mechanism, where a person specifically encourages jealousy in their partner to gain an advantage (White 1980).  This would seem to contradict the hypothesis that jealousy on average augments the power of men over women, until we recall that the inducement mechanism is a form of resistance to the more powerful direct mechanism of jealousy.  In other words, women make more effective use of jealousy inducement specifically because the men they are with are provided more effective use of jealousy itself.  Women’s higher propensity to engage in a resistance tactic is therefore evidence of this gendered power split, not an argument against it.

Given a long history in U.S. culture of women being restricted by monogamy much more than men, it is no surprise that the power arrangements of jealousy profit men more than women, even though jealous power is generally available across gender.  Men are able to draw upon both this history and current gender inequalities in order to get an upper hand in jealousy dynamics within relationships.

We can expect that other forms of power imbalance within relationships (race, class, cisgender versus transgender, and so on) will also lead to unequal access to jealous power within relationships, though there may not be the same clear markers associating these forms of power with jealousy in the popular imagination, and very little research has been done on these intersections.

Jealousy and Monogamy

Our culture’s vision of monogamy is a competitive one.  Hearts can be taken, lovers can be stolen, and all’s fair in love and war.  There is a certain relationship game here, predicated on assumptions of scarcity and a supposed hierarchy of desirability, where the goal is to pair up with the best person possible before time runs out.  Monogamy is of course the source of this scarcity: once someone is spoken for, they are off the market.  But once in a relationship, a person’s committed monogamy is also seen as the bulwark against the danger that their partner will take off with someone else.

In this competitive vision of monogamy, jealousy is a rational personal strategy: the emotional response to a threat to one’s investment in a scarce commodity.  In many ways, we view jealousy the same as the emotional response to a threat to one’s house or job, only we notably do not have specific words for these other responses. 

This threat-response definition of jealousy shows up in attempts to define jealousy for research purposes (Hansen 1985; White and Mullen 1989: 9-11).  Also, Stenner and Rogers (1998) ran an empirical study of jealousy conceptualization which found that out of ten primary factors, eight were responses to a threat to one’s romantic interest from rivals, including the four most common.

The inducement mechanism of jealousy in particular exposes the centrality of threat to our conception of jealousy.  This power mechanism can actually be read as not involving jealousy at all: one partner purposefully develops a threat to the relationship (say, by expressing attraction to someone else) and the other partner responds by changing their behavior (White 1980).  But because there is a threat in the form of a third party, we describe this as “making the partner jealous”, because jealousy is our understanding of the response to such a threat.

My personal experience in nonmonogamous social circles is also that jealousy is a personal strategy of monogamy.  I have a previously nonmonogamous friend who first felt jealous only after entering a monogamous relationship with a jealous partner.  I have had various partners deploy jealousy as a tactic to shut down my other relationships in order to establish monogamy in their relationship with me.  It is common polyamorous wisdom that we are conditioned to become jealous when faced with a romantic or sexual rival (that is, a threat to monogamy), and this continues even when a nonmonogamous arrangement means that rivals are not a factor (Anapol 1997: 49-51; Easton and Hardy 1997: 133-152; Taormino 2008: 153-156).

Compulsory monogamy’s strategic positioning produces the power mechanisms of jealousy, by conceptualizing jealousy as a strategic response to a threat to one’s monogamous relationship.  In short, jealousy is an effect of monogamy, a personal strategy made profitable both by the micro-level effects of monogamous practice, and by the hegemonic regime of compulsory monogamy.  Jealousy is not separable from monogamy, but rather is created by it.

Dominant cultural discourses would have us believe that biology produces jealousy, and we are monogamous because our natural jealousy forces us into monogamy.  Jealousy is therefore the biological evidence of the naturalness of monogamy.  But as is typical with essentialized power mechanisms, the actual cause and effect goes the other direction: we are jealous because we operate in a system of compulsory monogamy.

However, there is a grain of truth in these discourses: it can be quite difficult to be anything other than monogamous when jealousy is present.  While the power mechanisms of jealousy can be used for various effects, most uses of jealous mechanisms tend to push people towards monogamy, because the prime strategic purpose of jealousy is to shut off one’s partner from possible sex or romance with other people.  In other words, the hegemonic concept of jealousy creates a framework of transgressions and socially sanctioned reprisals in order to produce conformity, and the conformity it produces is specifically monogamy. Even the inverse and inducement mechanisms of jealousy tend to assume that jealousy is always potentially present and generally unavoidable, driving home the idea that monogamy is inevitable.

As with any other conceptual power mechanism, jealousy has to be exercised to remain useful.  Individuals will use jealousy strategically in their particular situations, which tends to reinforce the cultural hegemony of jealousy, which keeps jealousy available for strategic usage.  This sort of micro/macro feedback is typical among cultural power mechanisms: for example, use of sexism for individual gain reproduces the culture-wide system of sexism, which in turn creates a situation where sexism is available to individuals.

By definition, nonmonogamy requires at least three people: one person involved with two other people.  But of course, this is the archetypical situation that is supposed to trigger jealousy, with all its accompanying physical symptoms, strong emotions, potentially vicious reprisals, and cultural support.  Because jealousy is culturally hegemonic and strongly conditioned in us, it is a rare person who can handle this situation without jealousy.  Unless the two people at the ends of our basic nonmonogamous V can somehow quell or manage their jealousy, the V will fall apart and the nonmonogamy will effectively cease, reverting to de facto monogamy.  And indeed, jealousy is cited as the primary difficulty in maintaining polyamorous or swinger relationships (Benson 2008: 185; De Visser and McDonald 2007; Easton and Hardy 1997: 133; Kaldera 2005: 38).

There are some exceptions, where the power mechanisms of jealousy can be used to fuel nonmonogamy.  This can happen when jealousy is re-channeled via eroticization, as noted above, or when jealousy is used to fuel BDSM practice (Bauer 2010).  But these are adaptive subversions of jealousy, and are relatively rare.  In general, nonmonogamous subcultures are forced to deal with jealousy by deploying various personal and conceptual strategies to block or de-fang jealous power – to do otherwise is to revert to monogamy (Easton 2010; Mint 2010).

By implanting jealousy (effective anti-nonmonogamy) into individuals in particular relationships, the culture creates micro-level enforcement of compulsory monogamy, where people in a couple push each other towards monogamy via their jealousy. Indeed, making one’s partner the enforcer of one’s monogamy is perhaps the most effective point of cultural enforcement, better than self-enforcement or enforcement by the social milieu.  Self-enforcement tends to be ineffective because people have a remarkable ability to revise their own conceptual apparatus when faced with a personally restrictive system like compulsory monogamy.  The social milieu can be ineffective because it is too easy to create private arrangements or countercultures that go against the cultural grain.  The lesbian feminist subculture of the 70’s and 80’s is one example of a subculture that tried to promote nonmonogamy as a legitimate option: compulsory monogamy was seen as a tool of the patriarchy, and nonmonogamy was promoted as a way of building connections (Rosa 1994; Stelboum 1999; Vera 1999).

This may all seem quite circular, and indeed it is.  Jealousy is present because it is personally strategic within a culture-wide system of compulsory monogamy.  But at the same time, individual uses of jealousy (backed up by heavy conditioning) create partner-level enforcement of monogamy, which in turn maintains the hegemony of monogamy.

In other words, compulsory monogamy is a system of power that is self-propagating in particular ways, and one of those ways is jealousy.  This sort of self-propagation mechanism is typical for culture-wide systems of conformity (per Foucault 1978: 99-100). According to a strict deconstructionist stance, there can be no current biological source for jealousy or monogamy, so the current source of this monogamy/jealousy complex is in fact its self-propagation, and the original source is the slow historical shift of cultural power mechanisms.


Jealousy is a crucial enforcement and propagation mechanism of modern monogamy, to the point where if jealousy did not exist, we could expect that monogamous people would swiftly invent something very similar.  As mentioned in the introduction, we generally see jealousy posited as the biological cause of monogamy, but in fact the causality is reversed and jealousy is required by monogamy.

In jealousy, we see a particular example of the manner in which socially prescribed power mechanisms maintain themselves via a feedback loop between cultural ideology and personal actions.  The hegemony of monogamy makes jealous power dynamics available for personal use, but at the same time the act of jealousy itself reinforces its prevalence in the culture, and requires a certain level of personal investment which can then translate into public advocacy for jealousy.  We can expect that jealousy is not the only relationship dynamic that propagates monogamy. As I have described previously, the conceptual apparatus of infidelity is another (Mint 2004).

Examining the possibilities for power that surround jealousy also enables us to shed light on its contradictions.  Jealousy can be either advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on the situation.  It is both condoned and derided in the therapist’s office, sometimes depending on the particular forms it takes.  Jealousy is considered natural, ubiquitous, healthy, loving, and erotic, but at the same time people deny and hide their own jealousy.  It is distressingly difficult to pin down exactly where jealousy ends and begins, or to draw lines between good and bad jealousy.  All of these minor paradoxes increase the utility of jealousy as a channel for interpersonal power.

Of course, the same things that make jealousy useful also create a situation where it is dangerous.  Jealousy is elastic in form, tends to hide itself, and is licensed to escalate to abuse, controlling behavior, and violence.  As a result it is a significant factor in the nastier relationship dynamics, including domestic violence and stalking.  In addition, jealousy plays into gendered relationship power dynamics that maintain male dominance in romantic relationships.  The culture generally recognizes this dangerous aspect of jealousy, and perhaps this is the source of our ambivalence towards the emotion.  But again there is paradox, in the largely unbroken wall of acceptance and licensing of jealousy in the media.  Perhaps as a culture we do understand the abusive and violent outcomes of jealousy, but jealousy is just too useful for us to consider the possibility that it might be jettisoned.

The exception of course is nonmonogamous subcultures, where jealousy at the very least must be managed, and is often delegitimized, deconstructed, deprogrammed, or eroticized in order to hamstring the power dynamics packaged with its emotional content.  Negotiated nonmonogamy requires that a certain truce be established, where all sides refrain from engaging in jealous power. We can expect that the ongoing innovations around jealousy in nonmonogamous communities (e.g. Mint 2010) will be exported for their utility back into monogamous relationships, and indeed this is already happening (e.g. May 2010; Nelson 2010).  The counseling and research communities should look to nonmonogamous practitioners for jealousy techniques that can aid both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships.  Perhaps together we can create a more authentic version of monogamy, one which is predicated more on conscious intent and less on interpersonal struggle.


Anapol, Deborah (1997).  Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits. San Rafael, CA: IntiNet Resource Center.

Babcock, Julia;
Costa, Daniela; Green, Charles; and Eckhardt, Christopher (2004).  What situations induce intimate partner violence? A reliability and validity study of the Proximal Antecedents to Violent Episodes (PAVE) scale.  Journal of Family Psychology, vol 18, pp. 433-442.

Barash, David, and Barash, Nanelle (2005, May 31).  Natural selection killed Desdemona.  Los Angeles Times.

Barash, David, and Lipton, Judith (2001).  The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People.  New York: W. H. Freeman.

Bauer, Robin (2010).  Non-monogamy in queer BDSM communities: putting the sex back into alternative relationship practices and discourses.  In M. Barker, D. Langdridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 142-153).  New York: Routledge.

Benson, Peter (2008).  The Polyamory Handbook: A User’s Guide.  Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

Block, Joel and Neumann, Kimberly (2009).  The Real Reasons Men Commit: Why He Will – Or Won’t – Love, Honor, and Marry You.  Avon, MA: Adams Media.

Butler, Judith (1990).  Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York: Routledge.

Buss, David (2000).  The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. London: Bloomsbury.

Buunk, Bram, and Dijkstra, Pieternel (2004).  Men, women, and infidelity: sex differences in extradyadic sex and jealousy.  In J. Duncombe, K. Harrison, G. Allan, D. Marsden (eds) The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Copeland, David, and Louis, Ron (2000).  How to Succeed with Men.  New York: Reward Books.

Coren, Victoria (2005, June 5). Queen of Swaziland? Let me join the queue. The Observer.

DeDonato, Collette (2008, February 3). An open and shut marriage. The New York Times.

DeLorenzo, Anthony; Ricci, Dawn; and Baron, Ken (2009). Warning Signs: How to Know If Your Partner is Cheating – and What to Do About It.  Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.

De Visser, Richard, and McDonald, Dee (2007).  Swings and roundabouts: management of jealousy in heterosexual ‘swinging’ couples.  British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 46, pp. 459-476.

Easton, Dossie, and Hardy, Janet writing as Catherine Liszt (1997).  The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities.  San Francisco: Greenery Press.

Easton, Dossie (2010).  Making friends with jealousy: therapy with polyamorous clients.  In M. Barker, D. Langdridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 207-211). New York: Routledge.

Espejo, Roman (2007).  Frequently Asked Questions About Jealousy.  New York: Rosen Publishing Group.

Foucault, Michel (1978).  The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction.  New York: Random House.

Goodman, David (2010, July 24).  Woman, 23, charged in Facebook-feud fatal crash.  Associated Press.

Hansen, G.L. (1985). Dating jealousy among college students. Sex Roles, vol. 12, pp. 713-721.

Harding, Sandra (ed) (2003).  The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies.  New York: Routledge.

Jackson, Kai (2006, July 20). Eyewitness news investigates: polyamory. WJZ-TV 13 Baltimore.

Kaldera, Raven (2005).  Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts.  Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

Lewis, Jemima (2005, October 4). Growing old can be a joy. The Telegraph.

Lucas, Alysa (2007).  Explicating jealousy: utilizing four theoretical perspectives to provide suggestions for future communication research.  Paper presented at National Communication Association 93rd Annual Convention.

Marech, Rona (2001, February 9).  Multiply Your Love: Polyamorists Swear the More, the Merrier When it Comes to Relationships.  San Francisco Chronicle.

Martell, Rael (2003, August 8).  Jealousy: green-eyed monster or natural emotion?  Financial Times Ltd.

May, Meredith (2010, July 16).  Many gay couples negotiate open relationships.  San Francisco Chronicle

McDonald, Dee (2010).  Swinging: pushing the boundaries of monogamy?  In M. Barker, D. Langdridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 70-81).  New York: Routledge.

Miller, Jeffrey (2002).  Ardor in the Court! Sex and the Law. Toronto: ECW Press. pp. 57-60. Retrieved via Google Book Search.

Mint, Pepper (2004).  The power dynamics of cheating: effects on polyamory and bisexuality.  The Journal of Bisexuality, vol 4, no 3, pp. 55-76.

Mint, Pepper (2010).  The power mechanisms of jealousy.  In M. Barker, D. Langdridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 201-206).  New York: Routledge.

Morrison, Shawna (2010, July 22).  Prosecutor says jealousy played role in Radford homicide.  Roanoke Times

Nelson, Tammy (2010, July).  The new monogamy: how far should we go?  Psychotherapy Networker.

Neuman, M. Gary (2008).  The Truth About Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rodgers, Joann (2002).  Sex: A Natural History.  New York: Times Books.

Rosa, Becky (1994).  Anti-monogamy: a radical challenge to compulsory heterosexuality?  In G. Griffin, M. Hester, S. Rai, S. Roseneil (eds) Stirring It: Challenges for Feminism (pp. 107-120).  London: Taylor and Francis.

Sanchez, Liliana (2010, July 22).  Identifying relationship red flags.  Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Sharpsteen, Don (1993).  Romantic jealousy as an emotion concept: a prototype analysis.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 69-82.

Spring, Janis (1996).  After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful.  New York: HarperCollins.

Stelboum, Judith (1999).  Patriarchal monogamy.  In M. Munson and J. Stelboum (eds) The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-monogamy, and Casual Sex (pp. 39-46). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Stenner, Paul (1993).  Discoursing jealousy.  In E. Burman, and I. Parker (eds) Discourse Analytic Research: Repertoires and Readings of Texts in Action (pp. 94-132). London: Routledge.

Stenner, Paul and Rogers, Rex (1998).  Jealousy as a manifold of divergent understanding: a Q methodological approach.  European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 28, pp. 71-94.

Stephens, Anastasia (2007, December 22).  Go ahead: make my day.  Herald Sun.

Taormino, Tristan (2008).  Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Vera, Anne (1999).  The polyamory quilt: life’s lessons.  In M. Munson and J. Stelboum (eds) The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-monogamy, and Casual Sex (pp. 11-22). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

White, Gregory (1980).  Inducing jealousy: a power perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 222-227.

White, Gregory, and Mullen, Paul (1989). Jealousy: Theory, Research, and Clinical Strategies. New York: The Guilford Press.

Call for Thoughts: Poly People of Color

Update 2

Good news! Two people (Katie, who comments below, and a co-conspirator) are putting together an anthology of writings by “perverts of color”, which includes kinky and poly people. It was this sort of eventual product that I was trying to get at in this post, though I did not do a good job of it. So I am very excited about the upcoming anthology.

You can read about the status of the anthology here.


If it were possible to truly retract a blog post, I would want to do so with this post. But it is not, and I have a moral problem with deleting pithy comments such as those below. I am leaving this post up as a lesson in what not to do, and as a starting point for conversations.

The first rule of this sort of work is to not further the oppression in question. And that’s where I failed in this posting. By centering white people in my language and discussing the polyamory movement in unqualified terms, I made it difficult to have a productive conversation about race, which is what I was looking for. In retrospect, it is not at all surprising that the post resulted in various critical comments but not much in the way of stories.

I encourage readers to read this post in a critical manner, remembering that polyamory communities include people of color, and there are many kinds of poly community out there, some more visible and some less. Please read Katie and Nabil’s comments along with my original post in order to get the full picture.

To their criticisms, let me add that it is perhaps problematic (patronizing? colonizing?) for a white person to ask people of color to put their stories on the line as I have done here. At the very least it is difficult to do elegantly, and my activist urges have outrun my skill level in this case.

With these issues in mind, feel free to comment or continue any of the conversations started below.

I am abandoning the stories project for now. It is clear that I need to think hard about my positioning in racial power dynamics before trying again. If I decide that I am the right person to lead another attempt, the end goal would be to have a kind of mini-reference of the issues and experiences that people of color face around race and polyamory, something that could be referred to during power struggles around race within poly community.

I may still do a somewhat more generic interview project for polyweekly, because I think polyweekly could greatly be improved with more personal voices. If I do, I will be sure to include poly people of color as interviewees and race as a salient feature.

I apologize deeply for this abortive attempt. I do understand that flailing about like this can cause damage, and at the very least is not productive in anti-oppression work. I know I should have devoted a lot more attention and care to this post. I will be sure to do so in the future when dealing with race and racism.

Original Post


Recently at a large poly speed dating event here in San Francisco, I estimated that around 85% of the room was white. This may not seem like a lot to some of my readers, but it looks a lot bigger if we remember that San Francisco itself is only 43% white, and the greater Bay Area is still only about half white. For some reason, or more likely a series of reasons, poly community in the area is either failing to attract or managing to exclude people of color.

This disparity becomes even stronger if we look at the the well-known luminaries of the polyamory movement. I have eleven books about polyamory on my shelf, and all but one were written by white people as far as I know. (And the exception is not a well-known poly book.) And while there definitely are a growing number of poly activists of color, that number was still a handful at the recent summit of poly leaders in Philadelphia.

I have been collecting my thoughts on race and polyamory into a separate post, but as I was writing that essay, I realized that my writing should not be the first or last word on the matter, in this blog or anywhere else. One of the intersectional issues for race and polyamory is the near-complete lack of representation of people of color who are nonmonogamous. So I am trying to do my little part to remedy this visibility problem, both here on the blog and on the polyweekly podcast.

My personal motivation here is related to my polyamory organizing and activism. I put on local polyamory events, and any understanding of racial dynamics around nonmonogamy is immediately useful to me in making these events more inclusive, and for figuring out how to support local poly people of color. I am hoping this call will be a conversation starter around these issues.

The Call

I am looking for stories or thoughts by people of color (including mixed-race people) who identify as polyamorous or nonmonogamous. I am also looking to hear from white people in interracial relationships. I will collect these together and then post them here as a separate blog post.

If you are a nonmonogamous person of color with something to relate, please send me something as short as a paragraph or as long as a couple thousand words. You can do that by posting it as a comment here or by emailing me. I will only perform minor edits for grammar or clarity before reposting. I will not post these thoughts anywhere other than this blog. Also, let me know what level of attribution you want: name? link? bio? anonymous?

I am also looking for interview folks for polyweekly. I am a co-host there, and the show is an easy way to reach a couple thousand people. My current vague plan is to do human-interest style interviews with race as a salient presence. If you are interested in being interviewed, or have some other idea for creating content, email me.

You should write about whatever seems important to you. However, if you are short on ideas, here are some questions that might get things flowing:

  • What do you think of local polyamory community? Are you engaged with it in some way? Do you think that attending events would be a good or bad idea? If you have gone to local poly events, what good or bad experiences did you have?
  • How do race and polyamory intersect for you? Do you find that stigma tends to stack as a poly person of color? Does dealing with racism tend to take priority over figuring out nonmonogamy, or vice versa? Do you find yourself traveling between communities?
  • I have noticed that the poly people of color who attend local poly events in my area are mostly those who are willing to date white folks, which is not too surprising given the white super-majority at these events. For those poly people of color who date white people, do you run into difficulties around race in these relationships? Or trouble finding partners?

I do reserve the right to exclude posts that are egregious in some way: completely incoherent, hate speech against an oppressed group, etc. However, I do not anticipate this being an issue. All other stories will be reposted unless the author specifically requests that they are not.

Comment Policy

Because the purpose of this post is to hear people’s experiences, I will have a comment policy in place. I encourage folks to start discussions based on any posted experiences, but responses that are overly critical or which seek to invalidate people’s experience will be moderated. Please be respectful. Similarly, comments which seek to shut down or derail the conversation will be moderated. If you are curious if this includes your response, check it against these bingo sheets. White commenters, please state your race.

I welcome comments from people of color which are critical of this project. If you see flaws in this, please speak up.

Published: Power Mechanisms of Jealousy

I recently had an essay published in an academic anthology on nonmonogamy, Understanding Non-Monogamies. The piece describes the basic mechanisms of power around jealousy, in a similar manner to my earlier paper on jealousy and control. I also spend some time describing the various strategies that polyamorous people use to defuse jealousy. This is the second time I have been published in an anthology, the first was a treatment of cheating and power focusing on polyamory.

My essay is short, only six pages, due to editorial limits. Those of you who read this blog know that six pages is barely enough space for me to clear my throat, but I did manage to condense a lot of analysis into that space, much of which is new thinking on my part. At some point in the future I will do a rewrite and post a longer version here.

The upside to short articles is that the book manages to cram twenty-six pieces by academics and community thinkers into a three hundred page tome that promises to be the academic anthology on nonmonogamy. It is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone with a scholarly interest in the subject. In addition to a number of works on polyamory, it includes articles on swinging, queer nonmonogamy, nonmonogamy in young women, and so on. The approaches vary from hard science (mostly interview-based sociology) to literature review or theoretical pieces.

I would like to send a big thank you out to my editor, Meg Barker of UK poly psychologist fame, both for including me and then working through revisions.

As Understanding Non-Monogamies is targeted at the textbook market, it is unfortunately expensive, with prices starting at $85. The price may go down in the future, but it will be a while. The cheaper places to buy the book are Amazon and Psychology Press, and the latter has a listing of chapter titles.

Those of you who are interested in this new anthology should also check out an old one, the Sexualities journal special issue on polyamory. At the website, you can either buy the individual articles in electronic format or call SAGE to order a cheaper back print issue.

Update: Bitsy pointed out in comments that libraries are very responsive to requests to purchase a particular book. So, if you are not up for springing for the high cost of this book, consider recommending it to your local library. In particular it would be a great book for inclusion at university libraries, since students frequently try to do papers on nonmonogamy and then end up baffled by the glaring lack of accessible research papers on the subject. (And then they post requests on polyamory forums, which is how I know this.)

Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture

This guide was originally put together as a handout for a class on nonmonogamy aimed at men. Before finishing it, I decided to switch to a “tips” format instead, so I am publishing the portion that was finished, which covers the high-level conceptual stuff but does not get down into specific attitudes or the practical advice. This should be read as an addendum to standard poly 101 information, such as my guide. Also, see the sex parties for men essay.

A while ago I noticed a problem in my polyamorous social circles, namely that some of the guys just are not doing that well, in terms of finding partners, dating, and generally succeeding at nonmonogamy. In particular, the guys who are new to nonmonogamy seem to make a lot of blunders. Sometimes these are spectacular and result in those guys giving up and going back to monogamy, but other times they seem to take the form of a steady failure to date, or a quickly cycling through relationships. Of course, there are plenty of men who take well to nonmonogamy (myself included), espcially those who have been doing it for a long time. That said, longevity is no guarantee of success – some of the frustrated guys at my recent class on this subject had been polyamorous for over a decade but could still not get their groove on. My hope with the discussions below is that they will help other guys hopscotch past a lot of the conceptual traps that hold us back.

This paper is aimed at men who are attracted to women, which covers both straight men and bisexual men’s interactions with women. It is somewhat useful for men who are attracted to men, and for women, though many of the things I say will not apply. In many ways, men’s sexual/romantic interactions with men are very different than what I describe here, and of course the same goes for women’s interactions with women. I am focusing on men’s attitudes towards and involvement with women because that is where I have experience, and where some of the biggest problems reside.

There are a lot of generalizations in here, including lots of “men tend to” and “women tend to” statements. These are necessary in order to sum up the general way things work, but there will of course be particular men, women, or situations that are exceptions to anything I say.

Table of Contents

   The Valley of the Dolls
   Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)
   It’s a Small Scene
   The Gender Split
   Find Your Attraction
   Work on Yourself
   Take Your Time

The Valley of the Dolls

Men have this persistent fantasy that if you just find the right scene, if you poke your head through the right door, you will happen upon rooms full of gorgeous women eager to have sex with you.

We see this in porn all the time. The primary justification for people having sex in porn movies seems to be that they have found themselves in the same room. Or perhaps outdoors in the same location. Their response to this incredible coincidence is: “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” Sometimes they throw in a little bit of justification to spice things up. “Oh hi! You’re the plumber! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi, hubby! You just caught me having sex with the pool boy! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi! I’m interviewing for a job. Wanna fuck?”

This is of course not just confined to video porn. Pick up Letters to Penthouse sometime: it reads just like a porn script. When men write down their fantasies, we often see these themes of sexual abundance and availability.

I call this mythological place full of nubile enthusiastic women the Valley of the Dolls, after Russ Meyer’s sexploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Russ Meyer’s movies generally featured tall women with huge breasts having sex with… everyone. Because these movies were made in the 60’s or 70’s, they ended on a moralistic tone to avoid the wrath of the censors, with the loose women getting married or killed. But their draw was the promise of easy sex with amazonian women.

Back in the era of free love, there may have actually been some Valley of the Dolls situations, though I suspect the rumors are overblown. A number of factors in the 80’s ended this: AIDS, an increase in cultural sexual repression, and women realizing that free love may have been designed more for men than them.

Despite changing times, the Valley of the Dolls is still heavily present in men’s imaginations. There is a guy in the San Francisco scene whom I see every once in a while, who always asks me where he can find the play parties with the “hot young things”. I am always speechless. First, what he is looking for does not exist. Second, why does he think that I am the connection to this mystical event? Third, he will ask me this at parties that are full of very cool sex radical women (and men – he is bisexual) who would probably be willing to do all sorts of nasty with him if he could take the time and get to know them a bit. But he cannot, because he is too busy chasing a dream and cannot see what is right in front of him.

Here is the kicker, guys. The harsh truth. The thing you need to repeat to yourself again and again.

There is no Valley of the Dolls.

There is no party you can walk into where strange women will just throw themselves on you. There is no “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” It is never that straightforward. There is always some effort involved, and usually it takes a lot of effort. Porn is lying to you. So are Letters to Penthouse. You may have heard from some guy about his Valley of the Dolls experience, but there is a good chance he was describing a fantasy to you, not something he actually did. Men produce these fantasies all over the place, and often try to pass them off as real in a grown-up version of locker room boasting.

There is a core piece of the Valley of the Dolls fantasy that is untenable: the idea that some women will make themselves sexually available to men just because they are that sort of woman. “That sort of woman” does not exist. What actually happens is that women have sex with men because they are attracted to those men. (Which should be obvious to us, but many guys seem to forget.) There is some level of negotiation involved, and women have input into that negotiation. The negotiation often takes time and energy, though other times it is quick. At sex or play parties the negotiation may seem fast and painless, but there is actually almost always some leadup, usually either people scoping each other out from across the party or some kind of shared history in the scene.

I think men are obsessed with the Valley of the Dolls for three reasons.

First, the sexual accessibility of women seems to be a central theme: the idea that there are women out there who will sleep with you because you are just in the same room. In our culture which sets up women as the gatekeepers of sexuality, men are trained to be attracted to women just because those women are available for sex. Which is about as low as standards get, and can cause all sorts of problems when men try to figure out which women they are actually attracted to.

Second, the women in these fantasies are never picky about their men. They are happy to have sex with whomever walks through the door. There are no real women like this. Real women have their own sexual agency, and they are looking for men they are attracted to. They are not interested in getting it on with men they are not attracted to, and just like everyone else, they are probably only attracted to a relatively small subset of people. Somehow this little detail gets lost in these fantasies, and it is not hard to see why. The fact that women are actually evaluating men is a major point of insecurity. Men tend to go way out of their way to deny the existence of women’s sexual agency, because if these men can pretend that women are not judging them, it means they do not need to worry about themselves: their attractiveness, their intellect, or whether they are acting like an asshole.

Third, these fantasies evade any sort of responsibility. There is no need to get to know someone first. There is no need to take them out to dinner afterwards. There is no need to use a condom (thus, there are very few condoms in porn) because there are none of the real-world worries about STDs or pregnancy. Sex in the Valley of the Dolls is free and uncomplicated. In fact, it is so uncomplicated that it cannot exist in the real world, where other people are complicated beings with needs and agendas of their own, and where all sorts of meaning attaches to sex.

If we look at the three elements, a pattern emerges. All three motivations boil down to having control of the sexual situation: women who are sexually available to any guy and who do not bring their own motivations into play, set in situations outside the social contract. Control is a staple of sexual fantasies (including many women’s fantasies), but control at this level is antithetical to actual sex with another person. If you have this level of control, what you have on the other end is not a person. In fact, it is usually a book, website, or video. There is nothing wrong with masturbating to control fantasies, but beyond a certain point the fantasy is not going to become reality.

(I can hear the domination/submission types in the audience gnashing their teeth. Even the strictest D/S arrangement involves some level of agency on the part of the submissive, or it is no longer D/S and has wandered into the territory of actual sexual slavery. My point here is that these fantasies tend towards an unrealistic level of control of the sexual situation, even when compared with real-life D/S. In fact, D/S erotica falls prey to the same pattern: as anyone who has done D/S can tell you, the actual negotiation involved is a lot more subtle and complex than what happens in Anne Rice’s Beauty series.)

Unfortunately, most depictions of nonmonogamy in popular culture fit the Valley of the Dolls model. It goes the other way as well: men’s sexual fantasies as played out in porn or erotica seem to require nonmonogamous women (and men). This has always struck me as a bit odd, given that men with these fantasies are usually unwilling to date nonmonogamous women themselves. Perhaps this is because sexually fantastic women like this must be on the wrong side of the madonna/whore split, or perhaps it would be somehow logically inconsistent for a man in these fantasies to be nonmonogamous while the women are monogamous to him.

In any case, the consistent association of nonmonogamy with the Valley of the Dolls has meant real trouble for real-life practicing nonmonogamous people. It means that men in particular enter nonmonogamous scenes with a totally unrealistic set of expectations: they assume that the scene will operate just like those movies and websites they have been looking at.

Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)

The reason that there is always negotiation is that women tend to be on the defensive in sexualized environments – and nonmonogamous scenes or online personals always have a slightly sexual air, whatever the intentions of their organizers or attendees. I think a lot of men have trouble understanding that this defensiveness is for a good reason: women are generally worried about sexual safety. This worry comes from a number of places.

First, our culture tells them to be worried, as part of a general campaign of keeping women’s sexuality under control. Young women are told that they are worth less once they lose their virginity, and that associating with the wrong guys will lead them to ruin. Sex education reinforces this by driving home a message that messing around will get you STDs and/or pregnant, and this message is reinforced by movies and other media. Sometimes this “sex is dangerous” meme gets frankly ridiculous – for example, when a woman has sex in a horror movie, it is almost always a guarantee that she will be die later in that movie. Of course, many women shrug off this sexual fearmongering as they grow up, but typically at least some of the conditioning takes.

Second, women actually do have to fear for their safety where sexuality is a concern. Somewhere around one in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, typically by someone they already know, and in many cases by someone they are on a date with. Women who have not been assaulted often know other women who have been, so it is an immediate concern. Of course, there are no easy ways to tell which guys are the sort that would sexually assault you, so many women find ways to feel out a guy and establish trust before anything sexual happens.

Which directly collides with the third issue, namely that guys are really pushy about getting dates with women and having sex with them. When a woman meets a man for the first time, there is a decent chance that he will hit on her in a clumsy, inappropriate, or pushy manner. If she says no (which she almost always does), he may insult her or try to make her feel guilty. Women deal with this sort of harassment on the street and on the job. So, when a man approaches a woman (in person or online), she starts already in a defensive position, because she has had to deal with so much crap previously. It is important to understand that she has every reason to be defensive.

Women’s defensiveness means that guys have to take special care not to be that pushy guy. Above all, this means a slow ramp-up: not giving her your number immediately, having conversations without coming on to her or flirting too hard, running into someone multiple times, and so on. Many of the issues covered below are a direct result of this bad dynamic between men and women. Of course, there are specialized situations where things move much faster, such as sex parties. But, even in these situations rituals develop that ensure that women feel safe – or they stop showing up.

This need to take things slow means that there is no Valley of the Dolls. Queer men do have some situations that resemble the Valley, most obviously bathhouses, where guys hook up mostly based on physical attraction, and there is little expectation of lead-up or follow-up. There is no heterosexual equivalent to the bathhouse. It might be tempting to get bitter about this situation, but I encourage you to take that energy and instead focus on making the culture sexually safe for women, because that is the only way to change things.

It’s a Small Scene

There are not a lot of openly nonmonogamous people. And when I say “not a lot”, I mean that a tiny tiny proportion of the population does this: somewhere between one in fifty people and one in twenty, depending on how you make the estimate.

To put it differently, it can be really hard to find people who are up for something other than monogamy. This is true even if you just want some people to talk to on the subject who are not horrified by the thought. But it gets much worse when you are looking for people to date or have sex with. There are of course the usual concerns around whether they are attracted to you and you are attracted to them, which already cuts the number of possibilities down to a fraction of the people you meet. If you are looking for people who are not monogamous, that slashes the number of potential partners in your circles by another couple orders of magnitude. If you are looking for a particular type of nonmonogamy (poly, swinging, open, kinky) then the situation is even worse, since you have to find people looking for the same thing.

Monogamous people are generally used to being able to date pretty much anyone who takes their fancy and is available, since most other people are monogamous. So, monogamous people often end up getting involved with co-workers, people they meet at the gym or on the plane, neighbors, and so on. Nonmonogamous people rarely have that luxury, because our neighbor has at best a one in twenty chance of being one of us. Once you pile on all the other things that can narrow the search (like gender, mutual attraction, and situation) then dating random people that you run into becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible.

This can come as quite a shock to someone who is used to dating in a monogamous world. Indeed, many people who decide they want to be nonmonogamous take a long time after that decision to actually end up in a situation where they are involved or having sex with more than one person. I am not talking about two weeks: three months to a year is more common. The delay is due to a learning curve, where the person new to nonmonogamy has to effectively re-learn how to date due to the new situation, and in particular has to learn how to cope with a severely limited dating pool.

To give yourself a sense of what these numbers actually mean, take a minute and remember all the people you have dated or had sex with in your formerly monogamous life (assuming you had such a life). Think about all the effort involved in finding those compatible people. Now, imagine that only one in ten of those people was actually compatible with you, which is what we are dealing with (optimistically) when you take all the monogamous folks out of the picture. How much harder would you have had to search to find those partners? How much more effort would you have had to put in? Are you getting a sense of the scale of the issue?

This is not to say that there are no nonmonogamous people around. In the greater San Francisco region, I would estimate that the number of nonmonogamous people is counted in the tens of thousands. Indeed, there are a number of regular polyamorous gatherings, a similar number of registered (with NASCA) swinger parties, three separate dungeons holding frequent and regular events, and a huge underground of people in open arrangements who are not associated with any particular group or community. But this is an area whose population is counted in the millions. So while there are plenty of nonmonogamous people, we are still rare in relation to the overall population. Picking each other out of the crowd is difficult, and made more difficult by the fact that most nonmonogamous people do not advertise their habits, typically out of fear for their jobs or similar closeting reasons.

The solution to this numbers problem is typically to gather in groups. If we put in the upfront effort to seek out and spend time around other nonmonogamous people, then our chances of finding partners go way up. In fact, one of the primary purposes of nonmonogamous community is finding compatible people. Certainly, nonmonogamous communities serve many other functions: for example the public polyamory community seems to be largely set up to teach people skills and provide support. But at the same time, it is doubtful that these communities would exist without the draw of locating other nonmonogamous folks. There are of course a lot of nonmonogamous people who fly under the radar and do not join any sort of public or official community. But in most cases, these people develop networks of nonmonogamous friends, which serve the dual purpose of providing support and functioning as a dating pool, basically a different sort of community. For example, most of the polyamorous people I know have at least a minimum set of other poly friends. I will use the term “scene” to describe any of these groupings of nonmonogamous folks, whether formal or informal.

However, due to the relatively small number of people engaged in nonmonogamy, there tend to be a limited number of scenes in any particular area, and each scene tends to be rather small. We end up with a number of effects as a result, each one of which I will mention here and then discuss in a section on its own.

First, it can be really hard to break into a scene. Depending on the scene and the region in question, it can be really hard to just find the scene in the first place. On top of this, nonmonogamous communities tend to be fairly insular. This is partly due to closeting concerns and partly to avoid a constant problematic influx of new folks carrying the prejudices and misconceptions of the larger culture. Once in the door, it still takes a while to learn the particular customs and rituals of the scene, and further time to get to know people and settle in.

So, getting into a scene takes time. Scenes reward people who are patient, flexible, and able to handle a couple rounds of rejection. Getting into a scene takes actual effort, and the process tends to weed out those who are not fairly committed to their practice of nonmonogamy.

Some people manage to circumvent this process successfully by using online personals services, and the ability to connect through the internet seems to be fueling the current growth in nonmonogamy. However, the personals require a different sort of commitment, and even on the biggest personals sites the pool of nonmonogamous possibilities is still relatively limited. In a way, we can think of the online personals as a different sort of scene, one with its own set of customs and skills, which in fact can be specific to the particular website in question.

In addition, the small size of the nonmonogamous population means that there is less room for a negative reputation. In the larger monogamous world, men sometimes use the anonymity of crowds as a shield for their own bad behavior, switching from social group to social group to avoid censure. In this way, they continue bad dating practices, both relatively benign bad habits that tend to scuttle men/women interactions, and seriously harmful acts like controlling behavior, stalking, harassment, and rape. If a particular social group wises up, men will just move to a new social group or social venue, which while not painless is quite possible in the monogamous world.

In small nonmonogamous scenes, there is much less room to do this. Word gets around fast, and a person who is known for acting poorly will often find themselves with a stunning lack of dating options. If a person messes up so bad that they have to leave the scene, it is a major setback, because they then have to start over in a new group, meeting and getting comfortable with new people. Worse, scenes often share members. This is especially true in rural areas or small cities, but even in large sex-positive cities there can be a significant overlap across groups. Getting a bad enough reputation in one group may quickly get one locked out from all the groups in the area, making the actual practice of nonmonogamy difficult or impossible short of moving to a new region. Some men try to work around this using the online personals, but even there word gets around because there just are not that many people. That cute swinger you are chatting up may well know people at that swing club where you offended someone last week. In fact, at least the poly and BDSM communities have a informal reference system in place: often before meeting or playing with someone new, a person will actually check up on them by asking around in the community.

So, nonmonogamy goes a lot better with good relationship skills and a commitment to not acting like an asshole towards one’s lovers, even unintentionally. In addition, people make a point of keeping breakups amicable and staying friends with exes, because they want to continue moving in the same small circles with those same exes.

The Gender Split

In addition to dealing with the repercussions of moving in a small scene, nonmonogamous men have to face the fact that there are simply more men interested in any particular nonmonogamous scene than women. In other words, a gender imbalance.

I see this gender imbalance as a cultural artifact. It is not a surprising outcome given that we raise men with the message that they should be studly and having sex with whomever (at least while young) and at the same time women are told to be chaste and only have sex in the context of a monogamous relationship. This double standard exists in the larger culture in order to give men more sexual freedom than women, and it is effective at that (though that is really not a laudable goal). However, it backfires badly for men who are interested in nonmonogamy with women, because it means that the pool of women is always smaller.

Now, the gender imbalance is not ridiculous – there are still plenty of women involved in nonmonogamy. But it is real none the less. For example, a friend of mine surveyed an online poly dating site and discovered that there were about twice as many men on that site as women. I think this two-to-one ratio is pretty typical (though there are no statistics on this), but the actual ratio varies widely from one scene to another. Mixed-gender scenes that are friendlier to women have a ratio that is pretty close to one-to-one, while scenes that are unfriendly to women will have a vanishingly small number of women.

The upshot of this imbalance is that women (who are attracted to men) are in demand, and they know it, and nonmonogamous men know it as well, or end up learning it very quickly once they enter a scene.

As a result, nonmonogamous women are generally unwilling to deal with the usual crap that men put them through out in the mainstream world. In the monogamous world, there is this persistent sense that there are not enough men to go around. I am not sure if there are actually less men, given that statistics often suggest otherwise. But there is a constant media message that women have to hurry up and find a mate now, which at least produces the myth that there are less men. As a result, monogamous women are often willing to look past bad behavior of various sorts in order to stick with a guy they like.

Nonmonogamous women, on the other hand, are generally not so accommodating. This is doubly true for the majority of women in the scene who already have a primary partner and are looking for other partners or casual play buddies. If someone pulls crap on them, they just look elsewhere, and there are plenty of elsewheres to check out. This creates an interesting situation where guys coming into a nonmonogamous scene often try to behave in the way that they are used to acting in the mainstream world, and they hit a brick wall of women who are unwilling to take it, and other men who are supportive of those women. The usual result is the rapid learning of hard lessons, or a quick ejection from the scene.

Swingers in the audience might be objecting at this point – after all, swinger parties generally have slightly more women than men. But this is not due to a lack of interest on the part of men, but rather because single men are generally not allowed at these parties. Similarly, swingers who meet online generally are M/F couples looking for other couples. These practices ensure a gender balance. However, I would argue that the upshot is still that women have a lot more say in how things go than in the monogamous world, because the couple cannot swing if the woman loses interest. Indeed, at many swinger parties is the custom for the women to arrange the hookups.

In addition to changing the balance of power, the gender split means that there is simply more competition from other men. Finding women partners takes more effort and more time than expected, and it is important to consider one’s approach closely, something that is not required in the monogamous world.

However, the good news is that the practice of nonmonogamy itself can even this out a bit. For example, if there are somewhat more men than women at a sex or BDSM party, this may just mean that women get somewhat more play, but men are still doing pretty well. Similarly in the poly world, women might have on average more partners than men, but most men still end up with at least two partners.

I often run into men who have gotten bitter about the gender imbalance, either online or in person. Sometimes they give up on nonmonogamy entirely once they realize that there is a gender imbalance. Other times they continue but tend to complain a lot about it. Other guys still will embark on a crazy quest to find a scene where there are more women than men, basically looking for the Valley of the Dolls. These reactions are all a bad idea. The complaints may be accurate (though usually I find they are overblown) but complaining is never sexy, and guys who get bitter about their dating prospects tend to doom those same prospects through their bitterness.

Sure, the gender balance seems unfair. But if you have a problem with that, I recommend that you go work on fixing our mainstream culture, which tells women of all ages that sleeping around makes them a slut. Until the slut-shaming of women in the larger culture is fixed, we will have this local problem in nonmonogamous scenes. Getting upset or complaining about the effects on nonmonogamous men is frankly kind of petty, given that the larger cultural problem is really detrimental to women as a whole.

Find Your Attraction

Men are told all sorts of things about our sexuality. We are told that we are constantly voracious and ready for sex. We are told that we always say yes to sex with women when it is offered, to the point that men are do not even think of the possibility that they might say no, resulting in a good deal of confusing signals and lackluster sex.

Paradoxically, right alongside being told that we should be willing to have sex with anyone, we are taught to separate women into “hot” and “ugly” categories, with the hot women looking like the models in the magazines at the checkout stand. Of course, those women do not actually look like that: the pictures have been photoshopped to within an inch of total absurdity, and often beyond. In other words, we are taught that what we are really attracted to are very specific bodies, bodies that are so rare that the number of women who have them are a vanishingly small minority. (In fact, we make the standards of women’s beauty pretty much impossible to fulfill, as evidenced by the popular magazines that spend their pages critiquing tiny little things about how movie stars look.)

So we are conditioned via two seemingly contradictory cultural/media myths: one which insists that men must be attracted to all women, and another that men are only attracted to a very particular sort of woman. While these two cultural imperatives seem to be at odds, they are both types of sexism. The first myth is an attempt to justify men’s bad sexual behavior, in particular rape, with a “he couldn’t help himself” defense. In addition, it is insulting to women because it implies they are interchangeable. The second myth creates a standard of beauty that is unachievable for most women, devaluing women’s real bodies and creating a storm of insecurity.

Both myths create problematic behavior in men. In addition to being an excuse for sexual assault or harassment, the first myth leads guys to engage in spamming behavior when looking for women, which I will discuss below. The second myth can cause men to ignore women who do not fit the conventional ideal, and simultaneously give way too much attention to women who come close to the beauty standard (which basically becomes harassment). Respecting women requires getting away from both of these myths.

Both myths have a curious side effect on how men think: they prevent us from figuring out the type of women we are attracted to, because they paint men as being either hot for all women or almost none. Of course, actual men are typically attracted to some subset of women. Sometimes this might be a large subset, like a third of women. Other guys are only attracted to a very small number of women. A particular guy will have a particular things he is attracted to: short women, smart women, women who are cynical, women who like to dance, tough women, and so on. It is these components of desire that determine which women he will find sexy.

If you watch TV or read a popular magazine, it would seem that there is only one type of attractive woman out there: thin, feminine, middle or upper class, and probably white. And in fact, some men end up fully conditioned by media to only be attracted to these women. But most of us do not. Most men end up with a set of actual attractions towards women that simply do not line up with anything you can find in the pages of Cosmo or mainstream porn.

But at the same time, the constant bombardment of particular types of images can have a funny effect on us: sometimes we get convinced that we are attracted to the media standard, even when our attractions lie elsewhere. I have seen a lot of men with this funny kind of doublethink, where they might go on and on about how they like tall women with pornstar bodies, but the actual women they date are consistently short and round. Taken to an extreme, this sort of attraction disconnect can lead to self-hating and abuse of one’s partner: I knew one man who dated a particular type of woman, but then would always tell his current girlfriend that he thought she was ugly. He clearly had a specific set of attractions, but he had been brainwashed into thinking that the women he desired were somehow inferior.

On top of all this, men are constantly told that we are primarily attracted to bodies, to physical aspects of people. We see this assumption everywhere from “sex sells” billboards to swimsuit issues to visual porn. Again this training takes for some men, but it fails for most of us. We are actually attracted to a combination of physical and personality traits, and often personality trumps a person’s physical appearance. But again, we often lose sight of this fact, and are convinced that we are only hot for butts, boobs, hair, or some other combination of body parts. We end up with another desire disconnect, where we think that we are primarily looking for particular bodies, when we are really looking for personality with a side dish of physicality.

The upshot of all this is that most men are not quite sure what we want when it comes to women. We blunder around, often successfully following our gut feelings, but typically not quite sure where those feelings are coming from. Very few men can list off a set of traits that they are looking for in women, and then have that set of criteria accurately predict whether or not they will click well with someone. Often a guy’s friends can better identify his type than he can.

Certainly this describes me, at least up until recently. In retrospect, my high school and college dating career can be described as a series of missed opportunities because I was unaware of who actually turned my crank. I only figured out that I was into BDSM because all three women I was dating at one point were kinky, and that finally caused the kinky clue-by-four to hit me. These days I feel like I am actually getting a solid handle on the factors that make up my attraction to others, and it took almost two decades of dating to get to this point.

I encourage my guy readers to explore your own attraction. If you are the type of guy who has always been willing to get with most anyone (like me), then try to narrow things down and focus on whom you would really prefer. If you ended up very narrowly attracted to conventional bodies, then try to widen your scope and consider how you might find non-conventional women attractive. A good place to start either introspection is your own history: what women really did it for you, either in terms of your relationship or in bed? Were you ever surprised by your own lack of interest once you ended up getting to know a woman, or have you ended up having sex that was not fun for you even though the person you were with was nominally your type? Have you ended up with someone who was not your type, but you were strangely hot for anyways? When we end up in these situations where our own desires surprise us, it is usually a hint that we have one of these desire disconnects: we think we want one thing, when we actually want something else.

While doing this discovery, remember that personality is paramount. What personality traits do you find attractive in women? Shy? Accomplished? Social? Introverted? Feminine? Butch or tomboyish? Considerate? Inconsiderate? Nerdy? Stubborn? Funny? Happy? Vulnerable? Mature? Innocent? Dynamic? Chill? Active? Politically aware? Stubborn? Kinky? Gentle? Rough? Sometimes figuring out what we desire can expose some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. For example, I have met a number of guys who were attracted to clueless women because they are easier to boss around. Do not shy away from these truths if you run across them: the first step to fixing your own behavior is recognizing it. Also, note that you may well be attracted to different traits that are impossible to find in one person, like cutesy and sophisticated. This is good because it means you have a flexible set of desires, and of course if you are not monogamous, then you can potentially find these different traits in different people.

Of course, do not ignore the physical aspects of attraction. But try to remember that there is a lot more to physical attraction than breasts and butt. Maybe you have a thing for a certain sort of hair, or skin tone, or body curve, or hands, or eyes, or facial structure. Sometimes the physical elements we want are not reducible to a body part: maybe you are attracted to someone who is strong or wiry, or who moves with a particular style. Again, you may be attracted to various things that are contradictory. For example, I am attracted to both long and short hair on women, in different ways. It is hard, but try to step away from the conventional standards of beauty. Get a handle on who you are really attracted to, not who you think you should be attracted to.

Learning to recognize your own attraction makes dating and hooking up so much easier. If you are narrowing down, it means that you can stop haphazardly bouncing around and instead focus your energy on meeting the people who really knock your socks off. If you have been stuck on mainstream standards of physical beauty, then realizing what other sorts of women you desire will break you out of the cycle of endlessly chasing a small number of women who may not even do it for you. Either way, self-knowledge gets you a better set of dating options.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with nonmonogamy. The monogamous world tends to curtail the sort of bad behaviors caused by these attraction myths. In the land of monogamy, guys do not hit on every woman who walks by because they assume most women are taken. In nonmonogamous settings, it is quite possible that every woman walking by is theoretically available. Even if they are not actually available, the slut stigma that adheres to nonmonogamous women means that most men will assume they are available. So, men are then encouraged to hit on every woman who walks by. Similarly, the tendency of monogamous types to pair off tends to buffer the mobbing/ignoring that happens due to mainstream beauty standards. When people are playing outside of the couple paradigm, then the tendency of guys to go for conventionally attractive women to the exclusion of others ends up creating very unbalanced and uncomfortable situations.

Nonmonogamous scenes have become sensitive to these behaviors, and tend to resist them. Hitting on every woman at the party will quickly get you labeled as creepy and possibly thrown out. Making a beeline for the most conventionally attractive woman at the party will cause people to think you are shallow (correctly), and will not impress anyone.

The good news is that the nonmonogamous world is also a good place to figure out your attraction. Sometimes monogamous people do not figure out their desires until late in life, or not at all. Because nonmonogamous people have a larger number of partners, we more rapidly learn our own desires. In addition, there is usually a greater ability to experiment. If there is some person whom you are attracted to but is not your usual type, you may well be able to go for it because you are not necessarily looking for that person to be the be-all and end-all of your romantic life.

Work on Yourself

For most men, the idea that they might want to change some things about themselves to become more attractive is somewhere between alien and disturbing. We are simply not taught that we should consider our own attractiveness as a factor, and instead people will just be attracted to us because we are just that cool. This is great for the self-esteem, but creates a huge blind spot for us around the possible reasons that women might be finding us attractive or unattractive.

Of course, women are taught from birth that they have to work to be desirable. Usually this focuses on appearance: how to do their hair, how to put on makeup, how to exercise oneself into the right sort of body, and so on. But personality is also well-known as a factor: how to be charming, how smiling is important, and so on. Women end up thinking a lot about this stuff. This gap between the genders has been slowly closing: men are starting to consider their own attractiveness, in particular queer men. However, there are still lots of men who rarely consider their own desirability, and in fact we tend to actively resist any real discussion of our own attractiveness with knee-jerk negative reactions whenever the subject comes up.

I want to say that I am not talking about one’s approach here. Guys do spend a lot of time working on their approach: the right way to flirt with someone, the right pickup line, and so on. But these same guys do not think much about their overall personality, look, or what have you. Here is the thing: approach does not matter in the slightest if the person is not attracted to you, and women will have likely figured out whether or not they are attracted to you before any approaches happen, yours or theirs. (Or if they have not figured it out, that means you are headed for rejection anyways.) So, how you look, talk, act, and the general overall impression you make are much more important than one-liners or pickup strategies. (And as a bonus, if you are in an attractive mode, women will sometimes come on to you.)

This blind spot around our own desirability can make it difficult for us to effectively find partners, whether we are talking sex, BDSM, or dating. It means that we miss what we might be doing that turns people off, or what we could be doing that turns people on. It means that we can screw up mightily and we blithely blame it on the other person and then do it again two months later. What this means is that a man who spends effort working on himself quickly stands out from the crowd. It is a little sad that it is so easy to do so, but the world’s low standards for men are your opportunity. If you take some time to work on yourself, it will quickly pay off in your social and sexual life. You know how straight women are often attracted to queer guys? This is largely because queer guys are more likely to work on themselves.

Working on yourself does not necessarily mean going to the gym to buff up or slim down. Guys have this strange idea that if they just pump enough iron the women will start flocking to them, which is bullshit. Working out does the trick for some guys just because it makes them feel more attractive and confident, but it is important to remember that being more conventionally attractive does not necessarily make you more attractive to real people living in the real world. Even if we just stick to the physical appearance, there is so much more to work with. Working on yourself might mean dressing up more, or dressing down more. It might mean dressing in a particular style that you like, like goth or grunge or funny tee shirts. Working on yourself might mean learning to love your fuzzy bear side, and finding ways to accentuate that in your appearance. Or it might mean plucking your nose hair. Working on yourself might mean experimenting with hairstyles (shorter? longer? surfer cut? buzz cut?) or it might mean adding or removing facial hair.

I hope I am getting the message across here that there is no one right way to work on yourself. There is no magical formula, like going to the gym and then wearing lots of suits. In fact, nonmonogamous communities tend towards the rebellious and favor unique individuals, so simply looking more conventional is generally the exact wrong way to go, as is trying to fit a cliched stereotype. This is not a makeover. You are not trying to hide who you are, but rather to make your true self visible. Trying to be some ideal caricature of a person will just make you neurotic and not actually make you more attractive. Working on yourself is a process of accentuating the things that are interesting about you.

I can use myself as an example here. I am an effeminate man. I have ignored this facet of myself for most of my life, but a couple years ago I decided to play into it and I started wearing long skirts. The skirts are a better expression of my personality, and while wearing them definitely makes me less of a Real Man(tm), it also gets me noticeably more dates with women.

One way to get a handle one what this might mean is by considering what makes you feel sexy and attractive. Confidence is an important piece of attractiveness, so if your look or personal expression makes you more confident, that is already an improvement. So, start with your own impulses: how would you like to come across differently, either in looks or personality? When have you felt really sexy in a way that did not depend on someone else finding you sexy? Another source is friends. Check around with your friends (of all genders) for recommendations on what little changes you might make, remembering that what works for other guys may not work for you.

Bearing this in mind, let us consider personality for a moment. Personality is more important than looks: you can be the sexiest guy in the world but if you act like an asshole or are stunningly boring your looks will not save you. There are nonmonogamous environments where one’s looks and style are nominally more important than personality, most importantly sex parties and BDSM play parties. In situations where people are mostly looking for hookups, it is sometimes possible to get in and out of a sexy encounter even with a terrible personality match, though such problems will still crop up when flirting and scuttle things. However, if you are looking for a repeat performance with this person (or people), then personality starts to really matter. So, even at play parties, an attractive personality will make a huge difference in how much fun you have.

Think about your own personality. If there are there things about it you like, try accentuating those. If there are things about your personality you do not like, figure out how to change or at least work around them. If you are drawing a blank, then just start paying attention to your social interactions. When do things go well? Poorly? Track how you are feeling when you have a good time socially and/or feel attractive, and how you are feeling when things do not go well. Similarly, keep an eye on when notable things happen. Did everyone at that dinner stop talking to you after that one thing you said? Again, your friends can be useful: ask them to give you their honest opinion on your social habits and personality, both positive and negative aspects (and be emotionally prepared to find out some not-so-flattering things about yourself).

Nervousness is a big problem in social settings, inside or outside of nonmonogamous communities. Remember that in any social situation, how you are feeling will rub off on the people around you. If you are anxious, they will get nervous and twitchy and possibly bail on you, and in any case the socializing will not go well. So, the most important thing is to be relaxed and happy when socializing. I see a lot of guys who seem to be terminally nervous, not just when in a nonmonogamous setting or when dealing with women they are attracted to, but any time they are in a social environment. If this sounds like you, figure out how to relax. Maybe this means going out with friends or maybe you should only socialize in groups smaller than five. Maybe there is some other sort of setting change that will help. Maybe you have been going into social situations with a defeatist attitude, and you just cannot break out of it all night, in which case finding a way to avoid that feeling is paramount. Also, if you find yourself getting tense in any particular situation, consider how you could relax or failing that consider bailing on the situation. I do this: I will often withdraw from parties if I feel myself getting socially anxious, either to a corner or all the way home.

Another big personality issue is being interesting. I do not mean being witty, charming, or debonaire, though those are things to think about. Rather, I am talking about being an interesting person overall. Now, most people are interesting in some way: either they are doing interesting things now or they have some interesting history. The problem is that people usually manage to hide these complex and exciting aspects of themselves. Sometimes this is due to closeting (say, if your interesting pursuits include kinky sexual practices) but mostly this just seems to be a reluctance to lay ourselves on the line and really talk about what we like. And perhaps this is for good reason, as it is true that not everyone will be interested in your rabbit farming hobby or habit of reading esoteric physics manuals. But then, some people will, and even those who are not will start seeing you as a complex being rather than just another face in the crowd.

Again, I can talk about myself here. A number of years ago I got into a sexual and romantic rut after a breakup. I was going to play parties and social events, but the people I ended up playing with were poor matches and nothing seemed to be clicking romantically. So I gave up for a while and started spending my time writing essays like this one instead. Three months later, I was dating three women and discovering my kink. While it may seem odd, my writing was crucial to this in two ways. First, it made me a more interesting person because I was clearly into something that most people do not do, writing non-fiction. Second, it forced me to stop bouncing all over the place and instead just focus on potential dating partners who were especially interesting to me. There is a lesson here: doing something you love is an aphrodisiac. Maybe that is fixing cars, gardening, reading, doing your job really well, or playing video games. Do what you love and then share that love with other people, and some of them will be attracted to you because of it.

If you can integrate what you love with a nonmonogamous community, then you win on all fronts. Here in San Francisco we have polyamorous people who enjoy hiking, so they organize poly hikes. Our local dungeon has a knitting group. Maybe you like swinging and boating, in which case you could attend or hold a small event on the water. Putting your interests in the same place as your nonmonogamous scene means you can do what you love while surrounded by people who are potential dating or play partners, a convenient timesaver for those of us who are too busy.

Through all of this, it is important to remember that people generally have cycles in their sex and relationship lives. Most folks I know go through boom and bust periods. In the bust periods, nothing seems to work and it all feels hopeless. In the boom periods, people get more play than they could possibly handle. We like to blame our bust periods on other people or on the situation but the truth is that we are the common factor. If you are in a rut, spend some time just improving your life in general and also figuring out what exactly is going wrong. Also, just relax and let it take some time. Eventually you will pop out of the down period and then you will have a whole new set of problems, like too many possible dates for a Friday night. Being nonmonogamous is a real boon when a person hits one of these boom cycles where they are just very attractive and in their groove, because we can get involved with more than one person at once, instead of having to pick just one and then have the boom period end without investigating those other opportunities.

Take Your Time

Nonmonogamous men seem to be in a particular hurry, especially those who are new to it. This shows up in a number of different ways: too eager to meet someone in person, preferring to skip past the sex party negotiation and straight to the sex, not willing to invest the time to become part of a nonmonogamous community, and so on.

I think this eagerness is perhaps the Valley of the Dolls myth in operation again. We have been well-trained by porn and other fantasies of sexual accessibility to think that the Valley is just around the next corner. It isn’t, of course. Around the next corner is a complex series of interactions and negotiations with people which, if performed well, will eventually lead to a comfortable and fulfilling sex and/or relationship life. There are of course other things that spur people on, like the kid-in-a-candy store effect of discovering nonmonogamy for the first time when you have been looking for it for a while.

Whatever the reason, I see a lot of guys who are expecting that they will start getting some action very soon. Like, next week soon. This is wildly unrealistic. Some guys do go from zero to sixty, finding dating or sexual partners almost immediately, but they are an exception just due to their particular personality or situation. (Usually this happens because someone was waiting in the wings, and so the work was effectively done before the switch to nonmonogamy.) For most of us, it takes some time.

It is important to approach nonmonogamy much like you would approach dating in the monogamous world. When dating in the mainstream, you expect it to take a while before you find someone with good chemistry. (Or, if you bounce from one relationship directly into the next, people understand that maybe you have a problem and should slow down.) The process of finding the right someone can take months or years, and will involve a lot of false starts.

Romantic dating in the nonmonogamous world is the same, even when you may already have a partner. There is some weird mind flip where people expect that having the one partner on hand should make finding the second or third one easy. But of course, finding that second partner is just as hard as finding that first one was. But somehow people miss this, and I run into a lot of poly guys who are upset because they have been looking for a whole two months (or even two weeks) and nobody has landed in their lap.

Indeed, finding that second person can be harder if you are dating in the smaller pool of nonmonogamy for the first time. It may be a while before you find people that you have chemistry with, and finding them may mean checking out a number of different social scenes before you locate one where you get along well with the people attending. We see this in the polyamory community: there are a lot of small poly social events in my area, each of which has its own personality, and people have to shop around a bit before they find one they are comfortable at.

This seems to be a particular problem for men in couples who have just opened their relationship. Of course, the process of getting to an open relationship situation may have taken years of talking and negotiation, so it is understandable if someone is a little frustrated. (Though it should be said that women rarely exhibit this particular frustration.) But the process of finding people is the same whether or not you have already put a lot of effort into being able to practice nonmonogamy, so this frustration is not useful.

But wait, you say! What about guys who are looking for casual sex or BDSM play? If someone is looking for relatively light-weight sex or play, then it is in theory easier to find people, as they do not have to be date-worthy matches. As it turns out, this theory does not hold up. It is true that one can generally connect with a wider range of people for recreational play, and that the negotiation process for any one encounter is generally shorter. However, there are a lot of other factors that make it difficult to get into nonmonogamous play. If you are looking for a party scene, then finding the right one and getting an invitation can take a while. If you are looking online, then finding an online venue and learning how to work the personals takes a while. Each sex and play scene has its own set of negotiation rituals, and you basically have to learn those rituals before anything happens, which can be a trial and error process. (This is different from dating, where we at least borrow the general framework from monogamous dating.)

On top of all this, having an over-eager (also known as “desperate”) air is a turnoff in its own right, and for good reason. When a woman meets a guy who seems desperate, she will probably assume that he is not going to really try to get to know her, that he has an agenda which will not contain much space for her agenda, and that if things do not go perfectly he will get more frustrated and move on. And she will probably be right. So, being frustrated or in a hurry can be a self-fulfilling prophecy where the desperation itself ensures failure in dating.

So, the lesson of this section is slow down already. Take your time, and measure that time in a scale of months or years. It usually takes someone six months to really get rolling once they decide on nonmonogamy, and it will be a couple years before they are fully settled in. Do not feel like you are immediately entitled to getting some action or having a dating situation work out – you aren’t. Getting there may well require a sustained effort over a long period of time.

In addition to slowing down your expectations, taking it slow applies in a number of other ways.

First, take your time when entering a nonmonogamous scene. Some scenes set up barriers to force this: for example, swinger parties may insist that you attend a clothes-on meet-and-greet before you can go to a sex party, and a dungeon in my area requires that you attend a class on a non-play night before you can become a member. These and other entrance measures are basically in place to keep that drunk guy from blundering in on a Saturday night with a “where’s the hot chicks” attitude.

So, do not be that guy. Recognize that it is going to take some time to integrate into a particular social scene, and until that happens, you will not get dates or play in that scene. You have to be around for a bit, and then you have to meet people, and then the women in the scene need to get comfortable enough with you to date you or play with you. This all takes time – I generally recommend that you attend a particular event three to six times before you start thinking about actually hooking up with people.

Also, try not to get frustrated if things do not work out quickly or if you do not seem to have prospects. If you find yourself at an event where you do not seem to have chemistry with anyone, that is a sign that you should check out other events in your area. But at the same time, consider coming back to this event a couple times. Nonmonogamy events often have a high turnover, and next month some people may show up who are to your liking. Or you may discover over time that the people you did not like at first are more interesting than first impressions would indicate. I often see people bounce through all the events in an area and then give up entirely, without having given any one event enough attention.

If you do the work in one scene and still nothing pans out, then it may be time to think about your flirting behavior or try a new scene.

Second, take it slow with any one woman. Coming on to someone when you first meet them is a guaranteed recipe for failure. She will assume (again, probably correctly) that you do not really know if you are attracted to her, and that you are just hitting on her for relatively shallow physical reasons. Instead, get to know her a bit before any propositions. This might mean running into her a couple times at different iterations of the event, or it may mean having an hour-long animated conversation the first time you meet her. In any case, if you are starting to know her, and she is starting to know you, then both of you can judge the chemistry and decide where to take it from there.

I think guys get worried that they will never see this particular attractive person again if they do not give them their number at this event right now. Indeed, sometimes people disappear never to be seen again. But you will see most of them again, at this event or another event in the (again, small) nonmonogamy scene in your area. And giving someone your number out of the blue is an almost-guarantee of failure, not just in the immediate situation but also in the future. If this woman does throw your number away, then when you two meet again she will remember you as that pushy guy and still have you mentally crossed off the list, even if otherwise she might find you attractive.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers