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,, 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, 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

Creating safe space in our research, at conferences and online

Sylvia Frain & Massi Urbano


As two Ph.D. students in the post-fieldwork and “what am I trying to say?!” writing stage, we have been grappling with concepts of colonial oppression, capitalist censorship and patriarchal exclusion both theoretically and methodologically as well as addressing the continuation of these lived experiences into the digital realm in online platforms. The creation of safe space takes numerous forms, each contextualized by those using it for collaboration in the field, within institutions, at conferences or online in collective and individual spaces.

Threats to these safe spaces can take the form of conservative editors, sexist Department Heads, conference bullies, online trolls and ________ (you fill in the blank). Regardless, this is a shared experience, varying in degree, issues and perspective among women and queer researchers worldwide.

What does it mean to create safe space to collaborate in our research, at conferences and online?

Using emancipatory theories and Participatory Action Research (PAR), our research aims to resist imbalances within academia and support social movements working to create new systems of interaction and information. We work collaboratively with women and men involved in indigenous decolonisation and demilitarisation activism in Oceania, and anti-capitalists social movements in Italy, and use our research as resistance. We are challenging the colonial and patriarchal structure of most academic institutions and traditional approaches to research and productions of knowledge. Our intersectional research itself acknowledges and resists the hyper-masculine, late capitalist and racist system we currently live in, and our research works to deconstruct destructive policies and structures while supporting the social movements despite and in spite of this perpetual violence.

Decolonise and Feminise Research

While we cannot control all of our spaces, we believe it is our responsibility as privileged researchers to continue to decolonise and feminise research as a process and as a product. We also have the duty to decolonise our imagination and challenge the logic of competitiveness that lies within the academic institutions that wants us to work against each other rather than in collaboration with each other.

Publications, meetings and online exchanges between academics and activists must be chances to experiment what it means to be finally able to act as if those differences that are created by the dominant system and traverse our everyday lives – such as gender, race, and class – did not exist. Neoliberal practices of everyday surveillance limit not only our everyday lives by controlling physical and online spaces, but most of all they (try to) colonise our minds. We are becoming accustomed to thinking that alternative ways of being in society are impossible because every effort to do so is systematically boycotted, denied, and repressed. This is why when we have the opportunity we must act as if those differences that the system has created to divide us and that we have so much internalised, do not exist. We must seize any opportunity to experiment how it would be to act as if we were already free, as if our gender, race of class belonging did not matter.

Creating Safe Spaces at Conferences

A recent cutting edge feminist conference: Trans/forming Feminisms: Media, Technology and Identity organized collectively at the University of Otago by the Media, Film and Communication and Sociology, Gender & Social Work Departments in collaboration with Dunedin Free University, Fresh and Fruity Gallery Collective, Blue Oyster Art Project Space, and The Tertiary Education Union (Otago branch), provided a suitable chance to reflect about the need to create safe spaces to ensure the production of new ideas.


The Trans/forming Feminisms conference collective dedicated much effort to ensure an atmosphere of collaboration and circulation of ideas, not just to enhance our academic CV but also to foster genuinely a more active exchange between academics, activists and community. In this sense, it becomes crucial in such a kind of context not to “dwell on the things that did not work in the past” and not to engage in unproductive debates or narcissistic monologues that do not embody the spirit of safe spaces.

Most of the attendees were activists-academics, each passionate and dedicated to a wide range of activism from queer and trans activists fighting for the abolition of prisons in Aotearoa, to efforts to having more women elected into local government. Publications ranged from Aotearoa’s first women created and published anthology of comics to a keynote presentation on the American and Australian-centric, The Feminist Porn Book. In addition to the scholarly presentations from seasoned academics and undergrads, the program provided for several skill shares and practical workshops.

A closing hui (discussion) invited delegates to share their thoughts, reflections, highlight what worked and examine how to improve this type of dynamic and unique conference. Emphasis was put on post-conference continuation: how do we keep the momentum going? Much enthusiasm was expressed around the possibility of forming an online network to continue the exchange of ideas and to organise future events. It was agreed that we need to support each other in continuing to decolonise, de-capitalise and demilitarise our research areas, conference venues and online spaces.

DIY Feminist Cybersecurity

Ensuring online safe spaces are just as important (as mentioned in the ‘About’ section of this blog). As we research (mostly women-created content) the profound vulgar and violence created by (mostly male) trolls is astounding. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its Gender Council launched a campaign in solidarity with the UN Campaign to Eliminate Violence Against Women to Stop Bullying Online #IFJVAW and highlighted this treatment of women content creators, including journalists, bloggers, and academics online.

So what can busy scholars do? In addition to signing online petitions, sharing hashtags and raising these issues at academic institutions (what policies does your institution have in place in relation to cyberbullying?) you can always begin with yourself and your online presence.


The DIY Guide for Feminist Cybersecurity, created by The Safe Hub collective and applicable in small parts, includes a Cheat Sheet to get you started. While online trolls are one threat to your online (feminist) security, government surveillance squads, corporation marketing teams and malicious hackers (or even ex-partners) are also threats to our safe spaces.

As early activist-academics, we are grateful to the women and men who came before us to venture into challenging research areas, confronted traditional academic settings and use online digital platforms for theoretical exploration. We encourage all researchers, feminist and beyond, to continue to work to create safe spaces that are culturally sensitive and contextually relevant to those resisting and challenging patriarchal-capitalists structures.

In peace & solidarity,

Sylvia & Massi



All images used with permission:
trans/forming feminisms collective twitter account:
Safe Hub Collective: https: //