Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On Polyamory

For better or for worse, "polyamory" has become entwined in the Modern Pagan movement. For those of you not in the know, polyamory means "many loves." Those who practice the lifestyle often simplify it by stating "I'm poly." I have difficulties defining polyamory, probably because the word love throws me off. Many who are poly probably think of the lifestyle in clinical terms. For them, it's defined as ethical or responsible non-monogamy. Ethical because there's no secret girlfriend in the corner, and responsible because safe sex techniques are practiced.

To me, polyamory has to be about more than just safe and truthful sex. It has to be about "loves." Being "in love" is not something that happens easily for me. In the last fifteen years I've been in love twice, and in each of those cases it took months, sometimes years, to "fall in love." Loving and being "in love" are two different animals. Love is something we feel when we care for someone, being "in love" means that your life now suddenly revolves another individual, that their well being is more important than your own. I love a lot of people, but I'm only in love with Ari, she's everything. This is where polyamory and I hit a brick wall.

The concept of responsible non-monogomy is very appealing, and reflects the reality in which we live. Over 50% of married individuals have sex outside of marriage. Having sex outside of marriage doesn't mean that you don't love your spouse, it means you give into biological urges, or perhaps there is some need not being met in your current marriage. While sex outside of marriage is still rather taboo in our society, it's also really common, and our programed over reaction to it is rather laughable.

I don't have a problem with sex outside of marriage or relationship, as long as that sex outside of a coupling is an agreed upon aspect of the marriage or relationship. What I don't like is calling an "open relationship" polyamory. If polyamory truly means "many loves" than being in a polyamorous relationship should mean that you truly love the people are you with, and not just love for twenty minutes, but a very deep personal connection.

I went to a polyamory workshop at the Starwood Festival a few years ago and was rather shocked at how those in attendance seemed to define polyamory. I felt like I was at a swingers convention (not there's anything wrong with that), not at a class about fostering deep loving relationships. There was a statement from one girl there that stood out to me. She was talking about how she had decided to take a second (or third or fourth, I have no idea) lover and that they were now in a polyamorous relationship. They had been out two or three times, and now they were "polyamorous" together. I don't know about you, but love takes longer to take root in my heart than that. If she had simply talked about dating the guy, or her obvious attraction to him, I wouldn't have batted an eye, but by using the term polyamorous she implied being in love, and I just didn't buy it. Why was he a poly relationship and not just a "boyfriend?"

I'd probably define myself as polyamorous, but a non-practitioner. I truly believe that you can be in love with more than one person at a time, and that it's possible to make such situations work. The thought that I might be "poly" first occurred to me several years ago when I realized that I was probably in love with my best friend. At the time I was in love with Ari, but this guy (yeah a guy), and I were pretty close, and I felt like I could tell him anything, and I was probably "giddy" half the time when we were hanging out. Now our relationship wasn't sexual in anyway (other than holding hands once in the Castro down in San Francisco), but I felt like I'd take a bullet for him, and that his happiness was just as important, if not more so, than my own. To me, that's what polyamory should be about.

A few years later I fell in love with a girl while being in love with Ari. That period is probably my most "polyamorous" especially because said girl and I used each other for emotional support. That's the real test in some ways, how much of your emotional well beings are tied together? When it's a certain percentage that's a real, loving relationship, not a hook up or just a girlfriend. I found the situation untenable, as did both women involved. There were more tears than moments of joy, and the "second girl" was the one who truly broke everything off. It was impossible to be a solid source of emotional support for two people, and the two women involved didn't have their own relationship, perhaps if they had been friends before me, it might have been different, but I digress.

My dip into the pool of polyamory was probably not typical. I know many polyamorous couples or groups where everyone is truly known to each other. Two guys in a polyamorous relationship with the same girl might watch football together or something. That's really possible, and over the years I've seen several people navigate the chopping seas of polyamory with some success, but I've probably seen more failure than triumph.

For those of you outside of Paganism this post has probably make you uncomfortable, or maybe you are a bit shocked, but Pagan sexuality is generally not conventional. The majority of Pagans I know in relationships are monogamous, but instead of being a very large majority, they are more a plurality. Pagans just have a very open view of sex. It's not a sin, it's not a cosmic litmus test, it's also not something 100% associated with "love." I worship Pan, he's a randy fellow, and in his world sex and love don't collide at all. "Panic sexuality" is about lust and animal attraction, it's about giving into baser instincts and celebrating the impulses that make us human. I fully feel as if those impulses are there because we are meant to act on them, and in some ways that's true.

According to biologists our DNA is not made for monogamy. We have a natural impulse to seek out other partners. In this, we are a lot like most other animals on this planet, who aren't monogamous either. It's better for the gene pool if we spread our DNA around, which is why "panic sexuality" is so hard to control and why monogamy is so hard to be successful at. That's why I'm in favor of "open relationships" and "polyamory." It's not so much a fight against nature that way, and by being open and honest, a relationship is not pissed away because of a bad decision in Vegas.

I also worship Aphrodite, who does equate love with sex. Sex with someone you love is a different experience entirely, and some of my most transcendent moments have come when Ari and I have had our clothes off. It wasn't the growling snarling sex I've had in moments of panic sexuality, it was something all together different, Modern Pagans are often capable of separating the two.

That doesn't mean we all engage in orgies or have key parties, it generally means we are just better when it comes to talking about it. I think there's a perception that polyamory or even an open relationship is about strictly having as much sex with as many different people as possible. I don't think that's the case. Those types of relationships are more about managing emotions and urges, so that relationships can grow and prosper.

On paper polyamory sounds like a winner, but in practice I think it probably fails more often than it succeeds. I think it fails more often than not because of jealousy, and a lack of balance in relationships. I've seen too many people, both male and female, engage in polyamory where one half a couple has several outside partners, while the other partner isn't allowed any. The problem of course isn't in the sex, it's that one person balancing the emotional needs of three other people is going to drop the ball now and again. Someone is going to get lost in the equation, and in those moments the jealousy issues creep in. Polyamory would probably work better if everyone who engaged in it had the same amount of boyfriends and girlfriends, just to keep the distribution of the emotional luggage a bit more even.

Polyamory probably works better when the concepts of "primary" and "secondary" partners is introduced. Instead of trying to pretend that everything is even, the categorization of a relationship as "secondary" removes a lot of the expectations. I love you, but I have a husband and kid, so we can have a thing, but it will not be my priority. That's a lot more honest than having five girlfriends and telling all of them that they will get an equal amount of attention. There just aren't that many hours in a day.

Despite how this post sounds at points, I'm generally in favor of polyamory. The idea that we can't love more than one person is ridiculous, and the idea that we all should live in a monogamous state is one I disagree with. That being said, I think polyamory needs to be more about emotions than about sex. This is where I disagree with so many people who practice it today. One of the creators of the word*, Morning Glory Zell defined polyamory this way:

The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.

For me, polyamory is more about "having more than one loving emotional relationship at the same time." To me love is about more than sex, it's about emotional connections, not what my penis rubs up against. If I'm truly going to be polyamorous, and have many loves, it's the connection where someone's life becomes more important than my own that will define the experience. Ari having sex with someone else would not make me jealous, her no longer confiding in me would. I think my wife is gorgeous, but the primary connection in our relationship has to be emotional. A love is often someone I can have sex with, but it also needs to be someone into Led Zeppelin, superhero movies, and being OK with wearing a Steeler shirt on sundays. Those things are hard to come by.

In practical terms I don't think I'm in a place to practice polyamory currently. Perhaps a girlfriend on the side would work, but to be "in love" with that person? Ari is just the center of my world a little bit too much, and to throw the term polyamory into things would be extremely dishonest. I believe in many loves, but right now, I only have one.

*Morning Glory helped popularize the idea of polyamory in her essay "A Bouquet of Lovers," published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1990. The term was first used a year later in a usenet group created by Jennifer Wesp. The linked to version of "Bouquet" has had the word polyamory inserted into it, but was absent in its original form. The term "poly-amorous" was used by Zell, but I'm guessing Wesp came up with polyamory, a direct result of Zell's article.


  1. Interesting, I pretty much agree with everything you said. Polyamory is a tricky beast, and love is a hard thing to control and categorize. I seem to be unable to stay away from it though. As crazy as it makes me sometimes, I continue to be "poly".

    Was this post prompted by the Wild Hunt's recent post?

  2. I was just thinking about this the other day, I was watching that Sister Wives show on TLC. Which, I must say, is not that great of a show.

    I agree with you though, I think that polyamory needs to be more about having multiple loves, not just multiple sexual partners. From my experience open relationships do not work at all, it just ends in jealousy and hurt feelings on all ends of the situation.

  3. DL-I've been working on this post for quite a while, but finally got around to putting it up. When I moved out here and updated my witchvox profile I began to think a lot about polyamory. On witchvox you can be single, married, or polyamorous, but you can't list open relationship. I chose poly because it's what the cool kids do, but it made me think about some things.

    LW-I like open relationships. I can have a festival girlfriend or something and there are no strings attached, everyone is on the same page and I don't come home with baggage. I can see why that wouldn't work for some people, but it works in my relationship.

  4. I really, really like this essay. A LOT.

    1. I second that. I feel like I'm pretty much on the same page.

  5. Then pass it on SK. :) A facebook link is always appreciated.

  6. I can see how open relationships work if the right sort of people are involved. It works even better if both partners have the choice to have an open relationship. The no strings attached idea seems to be best for these, but a lot of people have issues with that idea.

    On the other hand though, I do have some friends that are poly and their relationships are great. So I think it really depends on the people involved and how open they are with their feelings.

  7. I agree with a lot of it. I think there are different interpretations of what "polyamorous" means because there are as many definitions of the word "love" as there are people. Being in love means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There's also the possibility that somebody's never really been in love, but insist that they have. That's what makes it so tricky.

    But there is a right way and a wrong way (and I will be the judge of right and wrong, dammit /sarcasm) to go about it.