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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] Queer Revolutionary romance: A primer for polyamory

Revolutionary romance: A primer for polyamory

RomanceFINALWe live in a culture that is fanatically invested in monogamy, and does just about everything it can to discourage and punish polyamory. It teaches every one of us from birth that non-monogamy is one of the most horrible things a person can do. For Sadie Ryanne polyamory comes down to the idea that one person can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to provide for all of our (emotional and sexual) needs. It is also a political identity marking her opposition to compulsory monogamy.

11 June 2011

I’ve been thinking about love, and relationships, and what these things mean to me. (This is probably because I’ve become smitten — twitterpated, even! — with a few new people lately, and I’m a bit preoccupied…)

I guess because I’ve been talking a lot about new dates (*cough* like a giddy teenage queen *cough*) and my upcoming wedding, I’ve been having to answer lots of questions about polyamory. Monogamous people just seem to be utterly fascinated (or horrified) by it, and they want to talk to me about it all the time.

One friend recently called me “the most amorous-seeking person” they’ve ever met. I’m a flirty gal, it’s true… But when asked how many relationships I’m in (which happens often), I honestly don’t know how to answer. Three? Five? A dozen?

According to dominant monogamous narratives, “a relationship” is a special kind of dynamic that is easily distinguishable (because it is the only dynamic that is supposed to involve both romance and sex), and it needs to be fiercely defined and defended.

Strict monogamous expectations leave no room for flexibility or fluidity: You are always supposed to be either “not in a relationship” (and thus sexually available) or “in a relationship” (and therefore sexually exclusive).

I find that when most monogamous people try to understand polyamory, they still generalize this basic idea. They understand that I’m not sexually or romantically exclusive, but they still assume that I have multiple “relationships” the way they understand what a relationship is. Thus, when monogamous people ask me “how many relationships are you in?” they expect the answer to be easy.

Well, that just doesn’t apply to my life.

There are people with whom I have extremely deep, loving bonds (even explicit lifetime commitments) that don’t involve sex. On the other end, I might have sex with people for money and not care about them at all.

In the middle, there are people I regularly have sex with and really, deeply enjoy the presence of. I consider them intimate friends, and care about them a lot, but we have very little contact or commitment outside of sex.

And of course, it’s all very flexible: Someone who begins as a sexual partner often ends up as a platonic best friend.

So, how many relationships am I in? Do I count the person who knows me better than almost anyone and who I talk to all the time, whom I used to fuck but don’t anymore? Or what about the lover I fuck but only speak to once a month? Do I count both, or just one — and if just one, which?

Don’t get me wrong… I still spend a lot of time thinking about how to define my relationships. My partners and I spend a lot of energy discussing how to refer to each other, what we want out of our relationship, and so on.

I still get joyously anxious about new crushes when I’m not sure where they will go, I still squeal when someone asks me to be their girlfriend, and I still cry when one of my partners decides that we shouldn’t call each other lovers anymore. It’s not that the labels have no meaning for me.

But instead of assuming that there is only one, monolithic way to define a relationship, I see it much differently: There are just many different dynamics between two or more people (I’m in at least one triad, by the way), and many different words that they might use to describe their relationship to one another.

What poly actually looks like (for me)

Top three questions I receive from monogamous people about polyamory:

  • Q: Isn’t that cheating?
  • A: No. Mutually consenting to date or have sex with other people bears no resemblance to lying or breaking promises.
  • Q: Is that like polygamy?
  • A: No. Polygamy (meaning “many wives”) is a sexist, patriarchal religious institution in which one man has authority over multiple women. This is nothing at all like polyamory, which is a system in which people of all genders freely negotiate the terms of their relationships with multiple romantic and/or sexual partners.
  • Q: Don’t you get jealous?
  • A: No. (Read on if you’re curious…)

The other most common misconception about polyamory is that it just means “having multiple sexual partners.” Close… but, wrong!

I know plenty of folks who are in one committed relationship who also sleep around for fun with lots of other people on the side, with the mutual consent of all involved. I think of this as responsible non-monogamy. And I think polyamory is one form of responsible non-monogamy.

But, for me, being polyamorous is something more specific. The focus is also on the “amory” part — I have multiple loves, not just multiple sex partners.

Some monogamous people try to make sense of my situation as an “open relationship.” But I don’t think that really captures it. Yes, my marriage is open; but it’s different. I’m also in love with multiple people.

Then, a lot of people go, “Oh, okay. So your wife is like your primary partner, and the other people are just for fun.” Getting warmer … but still wrong.

Although I understand the appeal and I respect why a lot of poly people use them, I’ve never liked the terms “primary / secondary / tertiary partner.” I don’t like to set up a hierarchy that way. (I know a lot of poly people who do want that hierarchy, and that’s legit. But right now at least, I don’t.)

My fiancee is the person I want to spend almost every day with for the rest of my life, the person who supports me the closest and is like my other half, and with whom I will someday have a house and children. So we use the term “wife” to describe each other, because that is the closest cultural reference point to help index how we feel about each other.

But that’s just one way to form a relationship. She’s not the only one who has supported me, and she’s not the only person who cares about me. And just because she’s my wife doesn’t mean that those other relationships are one bit less important to me. My partners each give me something special and unique to that relationship dynamic, whether it’s spectacular sex or a unique perspective on mental health issues.

My fiancee and I have a lot in common. We can talk for days about obscure hardcore bands, and I will listen to her talk about baseball stats for hours. But we don’t share everything in common. (She hates giving back rubs, and I reeeeeeally like backrubs.) It’s nice to have other lovers and best friends who can talk about other things that she doesn’t like, or who share past experiences in common with me that she doesn’t have.

While I love ranting about rock ‘n roll history with her and getting support for dealing with my madness from her, it’s also nice to have people who can swoon with me over obscure leftist revolutionary tracts from the last century or other people who also  live with panic and anxiety, for example.

And just because she and I have one kind of relationship doesn’t make my other relationships any less valid. (And I’m not even strictly opposed to having multiple people fill that role — that is, multiple wives. I have no idea what the future holds.)

The types of bonds I have are as diverse as the types of sex I have. One partner and I have weekly phone dates, because they live so, so far away. We barely ever get to spend time together in person. Another hates the phone, but we write each other long, passionate letters every few days. Another hates staying in touch altogether, but when we visit, we immediately talk as openly and deeply as though we had never been apart.

This is why monogamy (the idea that sex should only occur within the context of committed relationships, and that this should be exclusively with one person, and they should also be the only person with whom you share a deep emotional bond) does not appeal to me at all. Why would I want to limit myself to one kind of intimate, personal, emotional, bond — let alone one sexual partner? And why would I expect those all to come from the same person?

For me, polyamory comes down to the idea that one person can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to provide for all of our (emotional and sexual) needs. Some people find pleasure from a variety of styles of communication, support, commitment and sex. Sure, we could deny parts of desires and limit ourselves to one person — but why?

I need the vanilla as much as the kinky! I find happiness from both my partners who need me to hold them through their crises and the partners who just want to stay up all night and party. They’re all valid, just different ways to share our lives with the people around us, and I wouldn’t want me or my partners to lose the opportunity to pursue new kinds of relationships.

Someone recently exclaimed, upon finding out that I’m poly, “So what, one person doesn’t satisfy you?” Although she sounded accusatory, well, yes… that does just about sum it up.

I don’t have a set, finite amount of love. My feelings for one person don’t diminish the importance or intensity of my feelings for someone else. Just as a mother can love each of her children without having to prioritize only one of them, that’s kind of how I feel about my partners. This is a central tenant of my polyamory: Each relationship is separate and doesn’t take away from the realness or intensity of the other(s).

I can still be heartbroken by the breakup of one relationship while being ecstatically in love with another and brimming with excitement about the possibility of another new one starting.

The radical politics of blooming flowers

But there’s also more to my poly identity than that. Polyamory is more than a descriptive term for a certain type of relationship structure. It is also, at least for me, a political identity marking my opposition to compulsory monogamy.

(Which, by the way, is not the same as saying I’m opposed to monogamy itself — I just think it should be one option among many. I trust people to know what’s best for themselves. I’ve been intentionally monogamous at points in my life for many, totally valid, reasons. My fiancee and I started off monogamous because, at the time, we weren’t feeling totally secure in our relationship. But as our mutual trust grew, we eventually decided we didn’t need to be monogamous anymore. I just want that option to be there for everyone.

Monogamy is fine and helpful sometimes, but I loathe the cultural standard that says everyone must be that way, and that non-monogamous people must be punished for our nonconformity.)

Capitalism teaches us to think of everything in terms of austerity, property and competition. Thus, the capitalist/patriarchal narrative of love is something like this: We each have a tiny amount of love, we must compete for the “scarce” love of another person, the best person for us (our “one true love”) will win the competition for our hearts, and then we must establish ownership over each other and defend our property from others.

Well, in the infamous words of my childhood hero, Princess Jasmine: I am not a prize to be won. (Yeah, I know, Disney’s Aladdin was a terribly fucking racist movie, but what little girl wouldn’t want to fall in love with petty thieves and have a giant tiger for a pet?) While I certainly think that competition has its place in human experience (I love sports, after all), I don’t think economic necessities or love should be subject to it.

Polyamory has the potential to challenge many of the entrenched sexist and trans/homophobic social structures — notably, the nuclear family. Rather than an unquestioned division of labor along binary, heterosexual gender roles (man as breadwinner with a career, woman as dependent unpaid caregiver), polyamory opens the door to a variety of messy, self-determined, tangled networks as alternatives for creating families, providing for mutual support, raising children and so on.

Not to mention, the more we pursue pleasure and love for ourselves and the people around us, the more we eschew the neoliberal imperative to be productive (where productivity is narrowly defined within a capitalist framework).

The Puritan work ethic demands that we deny ourselves pleasure and focus on productivity — sex, likewise, should only be about producing children, and all other sex is an abomination. Polyamory, at least when practiced intentionally, sows the possibility to imagine other possible ways to conceive of sex, pleasure, and productivity.

Contrary to a scarce resource that I should only give to one person, if anything, I have A LOT of love to share. I find so much joy in life from being in love. Why only do it once?

I spent a long time wishing people would show me love and finding out that they never would, and a lot of time having people telling me that I’m ugly and weird and undesirable.

My therapist says I’m like a flower that has been trampled by years of abuse and violence, and am now sharing my formerly-neglected beauty with as many people as I can. I think he’s on to something.

“Sounds nice, but how does it work?”

This is one question I get asked all the freakin’ time by monogamous people. They like the idea of having multiple loves, and they dig the politics. But they get caught up in the practical stuff: “Where do you sleep?” “Doesn’t someone get jealous?” Or, my least favorite: “Isn’t possessiveness just part of human nature?”

(The first two are at least legitimate problems that I can have conversations about. The last one is just empirically false.)

Being poly is a lot of work. Saying otherwise would be a huge lie. So I get why some people, even those committed to the ideals of non-possessiveness, prefer to be monogamous. I’ve been there, too.

Although my love is infinite, the one thing that is finite? My time and energy. This is my major barrier. I just don’t have enough time to invest in seriously dedicated relationships with more than a few people. One isn’t enough, but five is probably too many.

Even at the number of deeply invested relationships I’m at (three-ish), I sometimes feel stretched thin, overwhelmed, and over-stimulated. While making sure that all of my partners feel like I’m giving them sufficient attention, I also have to make sure I get “me” time to chill out and be alone. It can be a lot to balance.

But the bottom line: It’s worth it to me. I never planned to date this many people at the same time. I actually had issued a (half-joking) moratorium on new dates at one point! But when I meet really awesome people, I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to be happy. It took awhile to figure out how to manage my time (and finances — several of my partners live out of town, so travel is an expense), but we get it done.

Sure, sometimes it’s confusing to figure out who is sleeping where, especially because I live with my fiancee. But as long as everyone involved wants to make it work (and we all legitimately do), it isn’t dramatic. It just means we have to, you know, talk to each other about stuff.

As for jealousy… Honestly, I really don’t get jealous. At least not about sex. There is really only one time I get jealous: If I want to do something with one partner, and they aren’t doing it with me, but are instead doing it with someone else.

Like, if I want to play a hockey video game with my girlfriend, but we never play video games together, and then she makes a date to play hockey video games with someone else… I might get jealous. But if that’s the case, I just say “Hey, what’s up? I wanted to do that with you.” And usually my girlfriend will be like, “Oh, bummer, I didn’t realize that. Sorry, how about we play hockey video games next Tuesday?” Problem solved.

It really is that simple.

Her playing hockey games with other people doesn’t mean she can’t also do it with me sometimes, and it doesn’t make our gaming sessions any less fun. (Yes, this is absolutely a thinly-veiled metaphor. *Ahem*)

I’ve been a jealous person in the past. In fact, for most of my dating life (I started dating at 13, and have only been cumulatively single for maybe a year or two since then), I was fiercely monogamous and possessive. Jealously was something that had to be unlearned, gradually.

And that wasn’t easy, either. It took time, and lots and lots of communication. Whenever I feel jealous, I just talk to my partner(s) about it. Usually, there are other issues at play. Like, if I get jealous that my girlfriend is hanging out with someone besides me, the problem probably isn’t that she’s having fun with another person — it’s probably that I’m feeling neglected or annoyed and it gets expressed through jealousy.

Whenever I admit to feeling any jealousy, some monogamous people act like, “Ha! See! Told ya, people really are programmed to be possessive!”

But that’s absurd. Jealousy is just one emotion. Love makes me feel many things. Instead of just pretending that I never get jealous (like a lot of monogamous people do), I actually acknowledge it and try to work through it.

For sure, jealousy exists and it can be dilemma — but no more than any of the other dozens of issues that a relationship involves. Monogamous relationships take a lot of effort to sustain and keep healthy, too.

And, like all of the rest of the work it takes to date, managing jealousy when it occurs is well worth the effort. (And, I’ve found, gets progressively easier and less necessary over time. Once I got used to it, I started to feel jealous less and less often.)

Another question I get all the damn time is, “Aren’t you afraid that your partner will leave you for one of her other partners?” (I hate this question.)

Simple answer: No. I feel extremely confident and secure in all of my relationships. Otherwise, I wouldn’t date them.

I know that I provide my partners something unique that they don’t get from other people. I can be in love with multiple people, but that doesn’t mean that they are interchangeable. When I really crave one partner’s presence, no one else will do.

Heartbreak is a possibility for anyone, poly or monogamous. It’s a risk of dating and falling in love. If one of my partners falls out of love with me or just doesn’t want or need to be around me, our being poly or monogamous doesn’t change that.

Plenty of monogamous people end up falling in love with people besides their partner — and when they do, it usually leads to cheating, lies, guilt, and other nasty things. So, in fact, I’m less worried that my partners will leave me because we are poly. If they fall in love with someone else, well then, awesome! Now they love two people. If we were monogamous, they’d have to chose only one, and it might not be me. But since, being poly, they don’t have to chose, there’s no worry.

By the way, yes, poly people can cheat. Most poly relationships involve clearly articulated rules and pre-determined boundaries. One common and understandable rule many people have is, “don’t bring home another partner without advanced notice.” Other poly folks might not care at all, and some might negotiate how much time is “sufficient notice” differently than others.

But anytime a poly person doesn’t respect the agreements they’ve made with a partner, it’s still just as hurtful as when monogamous people cheat on one another. For example, some poly folks want to know if their partner starts sleeping with other people. If they started having sex with someone else, but didn’t tell their partner… it’s still cheating.

But, on the whole, I find that poly relationships are usually much stronger because we do openly talk about things like jealousy. I’ve found that many monogamous people (at least the vanilla ones) have no idea how to negotiate things like safer sex, boundaries, desires, and so on. Hell, most monogamous people don’t even know how to talk about sex or romance at all without getting super uncomfortable!

If I need some space from my fiancee or just want to stay in for the weekend, I might ask her, “Hey, I was really hoping to sleep in my own bed this weekend. Do you think you can either not hang out with your other partner, or maybe spend the night at her house so I can have the house to myself?” A lot of monogamous people I know are terrified to ask for space like that, and obsessively worry that they’re going to hurt their partner’s feelings or something. In my case, my lovers just try to accommodate my needs and everyone ends up better off for it.

Poly people basically have to talk about this stuff. With my poly partners, it’s totally considered normal to have regular check-ins about our boundaries to see how they’ve changed and how we’re feeling. Acknowledging things like jealousy and talking about what we’re okay with and what we’d rather not hear about and so on means that we have better communication skills, and thus are healthier partners.

And there’s another emotion that needs to be acknowledged. Jealousy exists, but so does compersion. This is a word that poly people invented to describe the feeling of happiness, satisfaction or fulfillment that is derived from knowing that your partner is happy, satisfied and fulfilled.

It’s real! Whenever one of my partners starts seeing someone new, I get excited and giddy with them. And when they get back from a fun date, I love to hear about it because knowing they had a good time cheers me up, too. So anytime I start to feel jealous, I just counter it with compersion.

I can always tell when a monogamous person is asking me lots of questions about how polyamory works, it’s usually because they want to be poly but are afraid of it. They listen intently to me and then say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I wish I could do that, but I’m just monogamous by nature.”

Bullshit. No one is monogamous or polyamorous by nature. They’re just choices we make, and they’re both valid choices. But if you want to make polyamory work, you absolutely can.

Honestly, the biggest barrier to making polyamory work is not jealousy. It’s compulsory monogamy.

Like queer and trans relationships in most places, poly relationships are not legally recognized and face a whole host of political and social barriers. We live in a culture that is fanatically invested in monogamy, and does just about everything it can to discourage and punish polyamory. It teaches every one of us from birth that non-monogamy is one of the most horrible things a person can do.

While we have examples of monogamy in every fairy tale and Hollywood movie, barely anyone openly discusses polyamory. There are few, if any, well-known role models for poly folks. We even have to invent our own terms, because the language to describe our relationships doesn’t exist yet in our culture.

Poly people face bigtory and discrimination all over the place. I’ve had people who totally accepted my being trans and my queer lovers, but who balked at my being poly. Relatives who accept my gay marriage start to question how “serious” my fiancee and I are only when they discover that we’re poly.

Having multiple loves isn’t inherently revolutionary. But in a world that tries to erase our loves and control how we define our relationships, it takes courage to defy the moralistic directives of the dominant social patterns.

As a radical poly feminist, I’m invested in destroying the culture of monogamy and building a world where we can love whomever we want, as many people as we want, for however long we want. Who’s with me?

Sadie Ryanne dreams of a world where police, bosses, teachers, pimps, doctors, social workers, immigration agents and schoolyard bullies don’t have the power to keep us from being the strong and beautiful people we know we are, and she believes it takes our collective strength and action to move toward that world. She is a member of the DC Trans Coalition, a volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to fighting for human rights, dignity, and liberation for all trans people in the District.

Sadie has also worked with HIPS, a peer support agency for sex workers, the National Center for Transgender Equality and is a founding Steering Committee member of the Trans Advocacy Network. While not pestering the government or giving workshops, she can be found talking to herself and her cats.

She maintains a personal blog at The Distant Panic, where this article first appeared.

 

Comments   

0 #14 George 2013-07-31 11:36
Thank you for putting this into writing so eloquently. It's how I want to do things, too.

Btw, you mean "tenet" where you wrote "tenant" ;-)
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0 #13 just google it 2012-05-30 00:18
What chickpea said is correct. EXCEPT -gamous means "marriage" not spouses.
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0 #12 Dot 2012-05-26 06:35
Some people are naturally mono, others poly, others somewhere in the middle. This is a bit "tabloid science", but the studies conducted are fascinating, so far with a 100% correlation between having a vassopressin receptor mutation near the oxytocin receptor site, and non monogamy. Some people have it, others don't!

I think people should be able to have the relationship dynamic they want to, mono, poly or otherwise, and not be forced into a pigeon hole. We are more complex than that.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14641-monogamy-gene-found-in-people.html
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0 #11 Forth 2011-07-31 06:38
Damn it, I was trying to deal with the idea that I'm trans and queer and now I read this and find myself thinking "Oh. There's yet *another* reason my relationships in the past have felt weird." You've just given me a huge gob of stuff to think about. Mind you, as the 40 year old pre-op tranny I'm wondering if I'll even find *one* person who's attracted to me, but we'll see.

Fantastic article.
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0 #10 Etular 2011-07-12 07:41
Great article! As said, Polygamy means "many spouses" - and, in all honesty, I don't think that concept is an inherently bad one if it works out as it is defined (after all, it is basically synonymous with "group marriage", which is synonymous as simply being Polyamory with legal ties, thus, being legally recognised). Ofcourse, the article could be completely right and I could just be completely wrong. :D I support the concept of polyamory fully, and can't help but wonder why it isn't legally recognised already (albeit, being gay and, thus, have attractions for the same gender - in which polyamory is [in my eyes] potentially more flexible in that circumstance - I might be a tad biased ;-) ).
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0 #9 Lila 2011-06-16 09:55
What chickpea said is correct.
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0 #8 Dorothy Predny 2011-06-13 11:34
I Love this Sadie,,, I was an amazing article! I often feel alone in trying to explain how I feel and show others in their expanding knowledge of poly after meeting me. Only until recently have I found information, support, knowledge, and a name for what I have felt for so long. There is no growth in a language that is never spoken....The comfort and strength that has come in knowledge has helped me explaining who exactly I am to my children, my parents, and because I am an extremely social person, everyone I meet! I have been able defend myself against the threats and promises on me spending an eternity in hell. I have grown so that I am not just tearing down this social construction a pebble at a time, but am now moving bricks! In numbers we find strength (one day I hope we will move mountains together). :D
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0 #7 Chickpea 2011-06-12 09:39
Quote:
A: No. Polygamy (meaning “many wives”) is a sexist, patriarchal religious institution in which one man has authority over multiple women. This is nothing at all like polyamory, which is a system in which people of all genders freely negotiate the terms of their relationships with multiple romantic and/or sexual partners.
Close, but no cigar. "Polygamy" means "many spouses". Of course, many wives is the way it often turns out, but not always. One of the Tibetan ladies married to two or more men (and often brothers) is polygamous.
To be precise: Polygamy - many spouses.
Polygyny - Many wives/women.
Polyandry - Many husbands/men.
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0 #6 Tired of talking 2011-06-12 00:30
I think everyone needs to stop writing essays about this sort of thing and spend more time loving one person or several people. I've been in all sorts of relationships and its really relative on the person, thats that. So move on with the theory and just let live. It's boring by now surely, fighting against people we don't understand or care to understand? If you are content, you don't fight.
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0 #5 Keith For Full Marriage Equality 2011-06-11 12:21
I'm with you: http://marriage-equality.blogspot.com
An adult should be able to pursue love, sex, and marriage (or not) with ANY consenting adults. And nobody should be bullied, arrested, or fired because of this.
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