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!