polyamory is not an umbrella

Recently I joined the Poly Researchers’ list, a yahoogroup based in the US that brings together academics of various stripes who are interested in studying a range of non-monogamous practices. Such brain food they provide… yummy.

At the same time, every once in a while I come across some weird statements that leave me scratching my head. I find myself responding to them, and in the recent past there have been a couple of those responses I felt might be worth sharing (and expanding upon a bit).

From a post not too long ago:

“Every instance of polygamy is also an instance of polyamory, but not every instance of polyamory is also an instance of polygamy.”

In fact not every instance of polygamy is also an instance of polyamory. Polyamory = many loves; polygamy = many marriage partners. There is no guarantee of love in polygamy at all. In fact given the kinds of scandals we’ve been seeing in the news lately about polygamous religious sects, I would argue that it’s very dangerous to equate polygamy wholesale with loving relationships. This is as much a fallacy as the idea that sex in marriage is always desired and consensual; that marriage equals love equals desire equals consent. Clearly this is not the case (marital rape, anyone?). Marriage is simply a social and (sometimes) legal institution, and someone’s participation in it says nothing about the quality of love in their relationship.

I could add a bunch of statements about how the purpose of marriage itself has shifted drastically over the past four or five generations, from being a largely social and economic concept to being a romantic one; E.J. Graff wrote a fantastic book entitled What Is Marriage For? that really breaks down the history of marriage into its component parts, and does so in an accessible and engaging fashion. The work is polemical in that its aim is to convince the straight world that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but you can just as easily ignore the last five sentences of each chapter and simply drink in the info. It makes for a great read.

And this one:

“Polyamory includes a large number of subsets – among these are polyfidelity, polyandry, polygyny, etc.”

I don’t think it makes sense to use “polyamory” as an umbrella term in this manner. Polygyny is exactly the situation we see in those religious sects, and they’re in no way a subset of polyamory. Properly speaking, polyandry (many husbands) and polygyny (many wives) are theoretical subsets of the concept of polygamy (many marriage partners), though even that might be a bit of a stretch – it works linguistically, but culturally, I don’t think the two gendered dynamics are in any way offshoots of a larger theory of multiple marriage. In fact I think they pop up quite specifically in given cultures and are gendered in specific ways because of mechanisms within those cultures. I’m no anthropologist, but I’m betting that most of the time polygamy shows up, it’s heavily skewed toward either polygyny or polyandry, with the vast majority of examples predictably falling into polygyny. Rarely have I seen them both pop up at once in the same culture, and that to me speaks of a widespread specifically gendered approach to the question of who’s allowed to (or encouraged to) have multiple spouses.

You might argue that polyfidelity is a subset of polyamory, culturally speaking; from what I understand, polyfidelity tends to be practiced by fairly Western, hippie / Tantra / etc. -type folks in the first place, with fairly strong cultural connections to the ideas that also support polyamory in a more fluid sense. I can’t back this up with any research though, just putting it out there as a potentially more likely cultural derivation process.

All of this to say that I think it’s important to understand polyamory as a specific cultural movement that happens to embrace multiple forms of ethical, consensual and loving non-monogamy, but not as an umbrella idea that includes all forms of non-monogamy.

To that, I would add that we already have a term that embraces all forms of non-monogamy – and that term is, well, non-monogamy. A friend of mine recently pointed out that when talking about her poly (etc.) life choices, she prefers the longer term “ethical non-monogamy” for accuracy’s sake, and as an accuracy whore I must agree with her; cheating is definitely non-monogamous, and also definitely not the kind of thing I feel should be included under the broad spectrum of above-board non-monogamous relationships.

I think many people (myself included) use the term “poly” in casual conversation to indicate a wide range of ethical non-monogamous relationship styles, many of which are not polyamory, properly speaking. I mean, tons of polyamorous folks enjoy casual hookups, lightweight romantic relationships, long-distance lovers and so forth – and not every one of those relationships will include True Love. So if we stick with the technical definition of polyamory, as in many loves, then a lot of what poly-identified folks do is not strictly polyamorous at all. Or perhaps, rather than being polyamorous in all instances, those individuals may be polyamorous in some situations and polysexual in others. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hey-ho, polysexual, here we go.


As a quick aside from the terminology discussion, I thought I’d post a link here to my first-ever cover story. I’m featured this week on the cover of Ottawa’s queer newspaper, the Capital Xtra!, in an article that talks about my approach to teaching about non-monogamy and general sexuality stuff. It’s a fun read, and the photo is a cool one – it was quite a last-minute rush to recruit all the owners of the hands that appear in it, but we all had tons of fun contorting ourselves in my living room to show the hands without the people. Good times! I’ll be giving two workshops in Ottawa next week at Venus Envy, one on non-monogamy and one on fisting; check my Workshops tab for more details if you’re interested, and do pass the word!

8 thoughts on “polyamory is not an umbrella

  1. Why, thanks, Alan! You’ve certainly sent a whole whackload of hits my way, much appreciated! Great site, by the way.

  2. *Sigh* Why aren’t you still in Montreal!!!???!!!??
    I am so craving the company of some smart & in-tune women. Just my luck- I learn of you & then you move. Oh well. I tried getting a hold of UAOTN, as you suggested, but their website seems horribly out of date, and I never got a response from whomever is webmaitresse.
    I very much enjoy your columns, and I continually enjoy the fact that you are an “accuracy whore”, as am I (or is it “literalism whore”?), because it means you’ve really thought it all out, mulled it over, taken the time to consider and reflect. I read a number of feminist blogs on a regular basis, and I love seeing how all the facets of feminist views & sexuality all fit in to the mosaic, regardless of polarity. One of the most frustrating and didactic, (sex-neutral/anti-porn, pink ribbon opposing double mastectomy recipient newly moralistically vegetarian/vegan but horse-owning, for example) though hilarious and possessing of exemplary grammar and usage, is “I Blame The Patriarchy”. I think you’d get a kick out of it. Great analysis, great humor, some challenging things to think about.
    Anyway, I was wondering if you are in any way considering academia. Your research & analysis is great. Not that academia is any panacea, but maybe a credential would help elevate your ability to make a living doing what you do. I’m just sort of randomly positing that, because I think your work is really great & I know all too well the life of the freelancer.

  3. Kudos on the article, Andrea, and on the excellent analysis here. As it happens, just now the Loving More Board of Directors is attempting to get a correction made to this statement made in the opening paragraph of a press release promoting Swingfest in July in Florida.

    “Open marriages, couples dating, polyamory, recreational sex; it has many names, but it is most widely known as Swinging… ”


    Not bashing swinging here, just saying that swinging is not an umbrella term that also encompasses polyamory. What liberties these folks are taking with terminology!

    Further on the terminology point, poly activist Ken Haslam uses the term “responsible multi-partnering” as an adjunct to the term “polyamory”, which has the advantage of not using a negative, i.e. “non-monogamy.” It also makes it clear that polyamory is about partnerships and not only sex.

  4. This entry made my anthropologist hart sing. I think you are quite right to emphasize the marriage aspect of the terms polygamy, polygyny and polyandry. Especially since marriage, from an anthropologically perspective has a lot more to do with societal recognition of parents and transmission of property then sex and love, although sex is a part of it, and love can be.

    Some fun anthro facts you might enjoy:

    • 80% of societies hold polygyny as the preferred form of marriage, although on 20-45% of men in these societies have two or more wives
    • Polygyny is most common in horticultural societies where women are valued for their labor
    • Polyandry is found is less then one percent of societies.
    • The most common form is fraternal polyandry, practiced in Nepal, Tibet and India, where all the brothers in one family marry one wife, thus preventing the splitting of the land they farm.

  5. lagolamour – Ummm, sorry? 🙂 Drop me a line at veryqueer3 at yahoo dot ca and I’ll send your info on to the UAOTN. I’m giving a workshop for them in Montreal next weekend, you should come! Anyway, I have read “I Blame the Patriarchy,” and while I agree with you on the good writing front, I found the overwhelmingly second-wave viewpoint to be a bit too much for me. She doesn’t say much I haven’t already heard and figured out I disagreed with a decade ago in my Feminist Thought I and II classes. (Gawd, that makes me feel old.)

    To answer your question, yes, I am rather seriously considering academia, though it seems like as soon as I start talking to anyone about grad school they get really interested in helping me strategize about how to maximize my career potential, when in fact I’m much more interested in maximizing my intellectual stimulation. I like freelancing, I’m doing better with it all the time, and I feel no urge to chain myself to a job with an institution anytime soon. But I crave the framework of academic pursuits and so that will happen soon, if I have things my way.

    Anita – Thanks for the kind words! And speaking of words, yeah wow, that’s quite the misuse of “polyamory”… who knew we were a subset of swinging? I’m glad someone told me, I never woulda guessed! 😉 Especially given the long-standing tensions between the “all about sex” swing community and the “not about sex” poly community (neither of which stances I agree with, but they sure are out there), that anyone would make that conflation is more than a little surprising. Anyway, thank you for the new term “responsible multi-partnering.” I like it. Accuracy whore, whee!

    Helen – Thank you. Quite so. Clearly you know more about this than I do, but I am pleased to see that my suspicions were valid. Any chance you could tell me where you got your anthro facts? Those numbers are fascinating!

  6. Oh good you asked for sources! I was considering embedding citations, but thought that might be too geeky.

    The percentages are from Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, published in 1967. It is a bit dated, but if you consider the way globalization has reduced the diversity between cultures I think it’s highly relevant to look at a snap shot from that time period.

    The rest is info that was floating around in my brain, and quickly verified in my old into anth text (Cultural Anthropology, Marvin Harris, Orna Johnson, 2000). If you want more on kinship and social organization, I could give you a heap of interesting stuff.

  7. VQ and Helen;

    Good thing I read Helen’s comment before I commented because, of course, I was going to add my anthropological 2 cents : ) To add to what Helen said, polygamy in any form does not necessarily entail any kind of love, at least not love in the Western sense. In most societies where polygamy is an idealised form of marriage, marriages are also arranged either by the families of the spouses or an older wife. In these cases, marriage is essentially an economic and political union between families or lineages rather than a romantic union as Westerners tend to see it. This does not mean that love is absent. Rather, many people see love as something that happens between spouses over time, based on the cooperation needed to survive off the land.

    As for the info being dated, Helen is probably right on that one. Members of many cultures in which polygamy in some form used to be idealised have converted to Christianity.

    One other important thing to keep in mind about polygamy is that, even in societies where it was or is considered to be the ideal form of marriage, most individuals actually wound/wind up in monogamous arrangements because of the economic basis needed for polygamous arrangements.

    And yes, it’s rare that a society will recognise *both* polygyny and polyandry, although it’s not completely impossible. Some of the Tibetan communities that Helen mentioned are one example, although the preference is for polyandry. Since the woman is seen as “tent mistress”, they say that having more than one could be disastrous and the power struggle between the two would just lead to fission. I can dig up the source . . . forgot the title of the book that came from.

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