Polyamory in America has recently been gaining increasing media attention. It is often portrayed as an alternative to monogamy−as the assumption of monogamy is default−sometimes framed as enlightened, other times as promiscuous and challenging. Consequently, this sparks much debate and discussion over what actually constitutes polyamory, who practices it and why. Here, I would like emphasize the fact that polyamory in an American context pertains to multiple romantic relationships grounded in transparency. It is not necessarily polygamist nor strictly related to sex. Within the scope of this discussion, polyamory aligns with feminism in its ultimate desire and ability to challenge and reevaluate assumed paradigms of society and sociality. Here, polyamory supports some feminist aims in its ability and attempt to detach dependency from one romantic relationship. Furthermore, it allows people the ability to dictate relationships on their own terms and further extends experiences of relatedness to a more nuanced and complex personal approach. In order to discuss these issues I have included many quotes and references to interviews I conducted with polyamorists regarding their personal experiences with polyamory.
Historically, polyamory in America is typically noted as having origins in the Free Love movement of the 1960s and 70s, although some of the people I interviewed on the topic disagree with this saying it dates back to pre-agricultural societies. Nevertheless, as contemporarily understood it is primarily associated with a ‘sexual liberation’ both in practice and in politics. It is often associated with feminist movements aimed at undermining patriarchal society and moving towards, “further understandings of gender, sexuality, race…”. Presently, as the strong political bent of the 60s and 70s has been largely removed, it is of interest to assess and address the motivating factors that urge people to practice polyamory now. Here, I want highlight more than just the practices of polyamory, but also the perspective and philosophy supporting polyamory as a concept.
Some feminist writers, like Kimberly Kreutzer argue that polyamory is a direct, systematic oppressor of women as it inherently allows men to treat women as objects that can be collected in mass and disposed of whenever interest is lost. As such, men own multiple women and manipulate them into their own oppression through their acceptance of polyamory. Unfortunately, these arguments fail to acknowledge and appreciate ‘female’ agency and, therefore, only perpetuate the hegemonic social institutions they seek to disempower. More explicitly, some women actively chose polyamory as they feel it is the most rewarding model to embark upon. Here, woman control and participate in their relationships as much as any man. On the other hand, polyamory without agency must be considered. In stating that women are ‘coerced’ into polyamory denies these women without agency their own experiences and may further diminish them. Finally, arguments such as Kreutzer’s work under the assumption that polyamory is only oppressive to women. In doing so, they deny oppression of other genders, more personal and nuanced expressions of masculinity and femininity, and any/all gender identities that do not fall under a heteronormative gender dichotomy. While I do not mean to argue that polyamory is or is not inherently oppressive, it is paramount to account for these subjectivities in any discussion of intimacy and gendered experience.
Moving on from these namely ‘feminist’ critiques, the definition of polyamory is defined differently by almost everyone whom I have spoken with. All of these people actively identify as polyamorous and practice polyamory in personal forms. That said, in our discussions everyone defined polyamory around notions of openness and liberation. One female who identifies as poly said, “poly means I don’t feel trapped… Polyamory is an ideal of being completely free with my body and emotions.” Here she participates in any relationship ‘model’ that she wishes. The emphasis rests upon the fact that she is open to others and new experiences, regardless of what form they may come in. As the realities of this idyllic freedom materialize in reality, it becomes clear that polyamory is not limited to the existence of plural relationships.
To expand upon this, Katherine Frank and John DeLamater (2010) assert the concept of a ‘new monogamy’. Here, practices that may be perceived as promiscuous are included under the bracket of monogamy, e.g., ‘friends with benefits’. As such, people redraw concepts of intimacy and relatedness towards personal understandings of exclusivity. At the same time, the shared values of monogamy and polyamory are highlighted. To unpack this, it is useful to look at the relationship of another of woman I spoke with, Stella, and her boyfriend Jacob. Stella labels their relationship as monogamous due to their love and commitment to each other, yet both Stella and Jacob are intimately involved with other people. Here it becomes clear that monogamy and polyamory are not entirely exclusive. Monogamy can be the technical state of the relationship, while still adopting polyamory’s stance of openness. While I believe this challenges many conceptions of monogamy that define it as limited to a couple, this highlights the ways in which perceptions and practices of polyamory may overlap with those of monogamy.
Jesse, another polyamorist, expressed similar sentiment saying, “polyamory is really the removal or absence of limits; it’s about honoring commitments and respect and honesty; not limiting yourself to one person.” Here, Jesse draws on language associated with monogamy. When asked how he defines faithfulness Jesse responded, “honoring your commitments to each other.” In saying this, Jesse takes language associated with monogamy and redefines it to his own standards. Thus, he remolds and blurs boundaries between polyamory and monogamy. Consequently, as poly exhibits a move towards freedom, this is not simply a discussion of ‘free’ relationships, but calls for a liberation of the ways in which society thinks about relationships. Polyamory is thus asserting that emphasis should be placed upon the ways in which people choose to relate to one another.
I want to end by addressing the limits of this analysis, and by doing so, highlight meaningful ways in which discussions of polyamory should, I believe, be approached and continued. It is paramount to remember that experiences of intimacy are deeply embedded in all social experience, such as gender, race and class. My analysis is very limited to the specific demographic of the people whom I interviewed; that of a predominantly white, middle class living in, or native to, New England. Here, a feminist approach to polyamory (and monogamy for that matter) must be understood in terms and appreciation of its social nuances. Thus, understandings of polyamory must be made through real life experiences. This is where I believe the importance of polyamory lies: in its ability to embrace and involve a complexity of human emotions and experience. Polyamory, as such, is not simply about sex, love and plurality, but rather, it seeks a freedom of relatedness. Ways of relating that, while recognizing labels are sometimes beneficial, do not necessarily seek to pigeonhole relationships into neat, labeled boxes of ‘what is’. In the words of Jacob,
“emotionally loving many people seems natural. Socially needing many people in life seems natural. Socially constructed boundaries seem unnatural, and personal boundaries seem highly fluid based on any number of factors… And for me, poly is about self determination, where preexisting rules don’t exist, and a huge set of personal choices do. If that makes sense…”
Image Courtesy of Tumblr
Noël, M. 2006. Progressive Polyamory: Considering Issues of Diversity. In Sexualities 9(5): 602-620. [online] Available at:< HYPERLINK “http://sexualities.sagepub.com/content/9/5/602.full.pdf+html” http://sexualities.sagepub.com/content/9/5/602.full.pdf+html>. [Accessed November 13, 2013].
Kreutzer, K. 2004. Polyamory on the Left: Liberation or Predatory?. In Off Our Backs 34 (5/6): 40-41. [online] Available at:< HYPERLINK “http://www.jstor.org/stable/20838081” http://www.jstor.org/stable/20838081>. [Accessed September 30, 2013].
DeLamater, J. Frank, K. and 2010. Deconstructing Monogamy: Boundaries, Identities and Fluidities Across Relationships. In Understanding Non-Monogamies. New York: Routledge. Pp 9-20. [online]