Imagining polyamory beyond orientation and/or choice.

Bethan Irvine

dance class

Jeremy- I mean, you can’t love two people at once.

Toni – Yes, you can.

Nancy – Of course you can.

Jeremy – No, sure, obviously you can, but you don’t. You work out who you like best and then pretend not to like anyone else.

(Peep Show, E1 S2, 2004)

As one of my favourite peep show moments, this scene in the episode ‘Dance Class’ raisies some important questions about the possibility of loving many. Not only does it encourage us to think about whether loving more than one person is possible, as well as question the concept of love itself. It also raises a question of choice. More specifically, it made me ask is polyamory and non-monogamy a sexual orientation, or is it simply matter of choice?

Polyamory is typically understood as “a relationship orientation that assumes that it is possible [and acceptable] to love many people and to maintain multiple intimate and sexual relationships” (Sexualities, 2003: 126).  As an orientation, polyamory is often understood as a state of being; a fixed and innate aspect of one’s identity. In other words, the desire to be involved in or open to multiple sexual, romantic, and or intimate relationships with others is for some people an inherent way of being. Just as early gay liberation activists have argued, some poly-activists assert that being polyamorous is part of their sexual orientation, it’s something they are born with, something they are not something they do (Avriam and Leachman, 2015).  As Professor Markie Twist explains “consensually non-monogamous clients more often than not tell me this is how they’ve felt their whole life…when they were children, they totally felt that way. It was only when they got older that they were told you’re not allowed to like more than one person at the same time” (McArthur, 2016).

In some way, understanding polyamory as an orientation is useful as it provides a basis from which poly folk can claim the same legal privileges as monogamous folk, such as benefits in insurance, taxation, immigration, and family law (LaViolette, 1997). This argument follows on from those made by gay liberation activists of the 60’s and 70’s who fought for same-sex marriage and, as noted by Avriam and Leachman (2015) have “used legal mobilisation to improve the situation of sexual minorities in a predominantly heterosexual society” (291). Moreover,  just as “same sex marriage and relationship recognition litigation have helped to reconstruct the dominant cultural meanings associated with marriage” (2015: 271), extending the legal privileges of marriage to polyamorous folk also presents the exciting potential of a bigger shift in cultural meanings about love, sex, and human relationships more generally. A shift that demands we challenge the sexist, racist, and classist hierarchies and power relations that inform our ideas of sex, love, and relationships in our everyday lives and interactions with others.

Asking the questions of how polyamorous marriages might work, and whether poly folk should even be fighting for access to dominant institutions at all, are both hugely important, but not my concern here. Instead, I want to consider questions about the ways polyamory is being constructed and produced and start to locate polyamory within a specific set of political and economic contexts. While equality, protection from harm, and increased visibility must remain central to poly-activism, I want to start by questioning the usefulness of understanding polyamory (and any other kinds of sexuality) as a fixed and unchanging sexual orientation. With just a brief examination of online blogs, websites, and articles, it’s not difficult to see how diverse and complex both polyamorous, and monogamous relationships are, and how even the poly/mono divide is itself extremely unclear. While some adopt primary relationships and are open to secondary partners, others may consist of four or more partners that may or may not be practicing poly-fidelity (Munson and Stelboum, 1999: 2). It has also been noted that polyamorous relationships can even include “an intimate network of friends, in which relationships are more fluid and involve several people n different ever-changing relationship structures” (Avriam and Leachman, 2015: 299).

Dissatisfied with framing polyamory as a sexual orientation or a fact of being, I am left with a question of choice. Indeed, there are many poly people who adopt a discourse of choice to construct polyamory as an active and conscious lifestyle choice characterised by equality, autonomy, desire, and trust (Barker, 2005). For some, this choice may be rooted in a political agenda that actively seeks to undermine dominant (monogamous) notions of sexuality and romance that restrict our bodies and desires, and as Engels (1951) has argued, reflect the ownership of goods and people under capitalism. For others, political motives may not be as clear and instead this choice may be seen as nothing more than a personal preference which offers more sexual variety and alternative ways of living that are based on compatibility instead of custom. Although constructing Polyamory in this way seems to illustrate a promisingly empowering way of doing relationships which is characterised by openness, autonomy, honesty, liberation, and the freedom to choose. It also seems important to ask whether such a narrative does much to challenge the underlying systems of power that continue to pervade polyamorous activism and communities in the west (Klesse, 2017).

Not only does approach risk reinforcing and reproducing common-sense understandings of polyamory that dismiss poly’s as being greedy, narcissistic, sexually promiscuous, selfish, confused, in the closet, or just dissatisfied with their failing monogamous relationship (Ritchie, 2010). Framing polyamory as a lifestyle choice offers a problematic individualised narrative that trivialises and depoliticises polyamory by removing it from political spaces and repositioning it within the private lives of individuals. Situated within a discourse of choice, polyamory risks losing its critical and radical edge as ideals of neo-liberal capitalism such as individualism, self-fulfilment, and consumption can be reproduced in new ways. At the same time, constructing polyamory as a lifestyle choice overlooks the ongoing inequalities that continue to inform and shape polyamorous relationships, communities, and activist spaces (Klesse, 2017). Consider for instance, as Klesse (2017) does, the way that concepts of sexual respectability and promiscuity have historically been used to the control and police the bodies of the working class, as well as racialised groups. To this day, such notions remain central reproducing the structural racism upon which oppressive hierarchies have been built and inequalities in wealth have been justified. He notes, “black people (and other racialised groups) and working class people are likely to be exposed to grave stigmatisation if they publicly assume non-monogamous identities. This underscores the constitution of polyamory (and other non-monogamous identities) as sites of privilege” (p.12). In a similar vein, although polyamory and its focus on autonomy and agency may offer women a way of destabilising gendered binaries that construct women as passive and men as active (Robinson, 1997), some women might be put off polyamory for fear of being labelled promiscuous or emotionally unstable.

With this in mind, I return to my initial question; is polyamory a sexual orientation or a matter of personal choice? Concluding it can probably be both. But what seems more important goes beyond a question of what, to questions of why, who, and how. The anti-capitalist discourses of polyamory such as equality, openness, and honesty, as well as its ‘big love’ philosophy in general, I believe, offers a promising and exciting direction for the future of social and political relationships. However, it must remain radical and critical, and research into non-monogamies must prioritise an engagement with ongoing class, gender, and racial divisions within polyamorous communities. We should continue to engage critically with both the essentialist notions of sexuality that offer little space for the growing diversity and variety of relationship structures, while also challenging the discourses of choice that situate polyamory within the individualist ideology of neo-liberal capitalism.  To do this, I argue, requires an understanding of both monogamy and non-monogamy as fluid and continually changing ways of doing love that often collide and co-exist, and which are simultaneously rooted in broader cultural, economic, and political contexts.

Avriam, H & Leachman, G.M. (2015). The Future of Polyamorous Marriage: Lessons from the marriage equality struggle, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 38: 269-336

Barker, M. (2005). This is my partner, and this is my…partner’s partner: constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18: 75-88

Engels, F. (1951). Boureois Marriage, the woman question (New York: International Publishers)

Klesse, C. (2017). Poly Economics – Capitalism, Class, and Polyamory, https://e-space.mmu.ac.uk/607285/2/PolyamoryEconomics21062013final.pdf, accessed online 14.06.2017

LaViolette, N. (1997). The immutable refugees: Sexual orientation in Canada, University of Toronto Faculty of Law Review, 55(1): 1-41.

McArthur, N. (2016). Why people are fighting to get polyamory recognised as a sexual orientation, VICE, published online https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/is-polyamory-a-sexual-orientation, accessed 14.06.2017

Munson, M & Spelboum, J.P. (1999). The lesbian polyamory reader (London: Harrington Park Press)

Peep Show. (2004). Dance Class, Episode 1, Season 2.

Robinson, M. (2013). Polyamory and Monogamy as Strategic Identities, Journal of Bisexuality, 13(1): 21-38

Robinson, V. (1997). My baby just cares for me: Feminism, heterosexuality and non-monogamy. Journal of Gender Studies, 6(2), 143-157

Sexualities (2003). Special Issue on Polyamory – Call for Contributors. Sexualities, 6(1), 126