Monthly Archives: March 2013

Weekly Poly Round-Up

I have a new piece up over at Role/Reboot, challenging how same-sex marriage advocates respond to the “slippery slope” argument by throwing us poly folks under the bus:

Before simply responding in a reactionary way to conservatives’ “slippery slope” arguments, I’d like it if same-sex marriage advocates could really stop and think about whether they can make a strong ethical argument against the future possibility of multi-partner marriage. Unlike bestiality or pedophilia, polyamory—like same-sex marriage—is about relationships between consenting adults. Like gay and lesbian couples, our relationships are not merely a sexual practice; we form families, share our homes and lives with one another, and raise children. Yes, marriage is traditionally between two people. But it’s also traditionally between a man and a woman, and the majority of us have already realized how restrictive and unjust that tradition is. 

I’m extremely appreciative to the folks at Role/Reboot for being willing to publish this piece, particularly at this particular moment in history. Go read the whole piece, and share widely if you’re so inclined.

Over at The American Spectator, we’re the subject of satire. Irony strikes again, as I found much of it to sound quite reasonable.

The legal polygamy question is discussed on NPR.

And finally, the reality show Wife Swap featured a poly family. Drama ensued, conservatives behaved badly. Over at Poly in the Media, Alan watched it so we don’t have to.

However few and far between our positive media exposure might be, these past weeks and months have left me with the sense that there’s been a serious gain in the visibility of poly folks recently. It’s upward and onward from here.

Hell Freezes Over: Rush Limbaugh Briefly Makes Sense

Earlier today, Rush Limbaugh had a call from someone who wanted to debate same-sex marriage with him. And Limbaugh challenged the caller by asking what would then be wrong with allowing three people to marry. Of course, Limbaugh was trying to catch the caller in a slippery slope argument designed to make same-sex marriage look bad, but the content of what he actually said was really quite reasonable. And the pro-same-sex-marriage caller, frustratingly enough, responded by insisting that marriage could only be between two people:

RUSH:  Why?  If you love one, you can love two. What if all three people love each other and they want the benefits and all that, who among us should deny those three people their love?

CALLER:  I think they can be loved, I just don’t think you need to give it a legal status because —

RUSH:  Why not?

CALLER:  Because two people would make a family, they could raise kids, adopt kids, do whatever they want, I don’t think —

RUSH:  Wait a minute.  But why can’t three people do that?  In fact, if you have two of the same sex and one of the opposite sex, you’ve handled the adoption issue. You don’t need to adopt. You can have one woman and two guys in a marriage, and the woman could be impregnated by the two, and, voila, you got a family.

CALLER:  I don’t see that.

RUSH:  You got a lot of love and what could possibly be wrong with that?

CALLER:  I think society’s determined that two spouses, two people —

There is something deeply wrong with the way the majority of folks are handling this “slippery slope” when, for even a brief moment, I find Rush Limbaugh to sound more logical than a same-sex marriage advocate.

I’m vehemently supportive of same-sex couples’ right to marry, and excited that DOMA appears to be on the way out. I just wish supporters of same-sex marriage would actually think critically about this “slippery slope” business instead of just responding defensively and throwing poly folks under the bus. If you don’t think my relationship is as valid as yours, then we have different notions of what “equality” means.

Thoughts on Showtime’s Polyamory: Married and Dating

Recently, I finally got around to watching all 7 episodes of season 1 of Polyamory: Married and Dating, Showtime’s polyamory reality show. Given that this show is (potentially) pretty huge with regard to public perception and awareness of poly relationships, I think it’s worth a blog post. But just as a head’s up, I’m condensing my thoughts on all 7 episodes into one post here, and I’m not going to spend my time doing a recap on every episode, so bear with me if it’s a little jumbled. I do recommend checking out the show for yourself if you haven’t already, both because it is worth watching and because it will probably make my rambling here seem a lot more coherent.

To offer a bit of a summary before I move on to some of the finer points, though, overall I have to say this show is a good thing. I don’t know what the ratings were like, but I can only imagine that at least a reasonable number of people now know that polyamorous relationships exist thanks to the show. And unless it portrayed poly folks in a simply awful light, I think that any amount of increased awareness is a meaningful thing.

Of course, there’s always a disparity between what’s accurate and what makes for good TV. No one in the entire series played Dominion or Settlers of Catan even once, so I can’t say it’s a completely accurate portrayal of the life of the typical poly family. But all joking (mostly) aside, I present a list of my likes and dislikes about the show, in no particular order.

Things I didn’t like:

There’s a lack of diversity. And I mean an absolute lack. I know that poly communities do struggle with this in reality, but the lack of people of color is not nearly as absolute in real life poly world as it is on the show. The entire cast is white, able-bodied, cisgendered, thin and conventionally attractive. There are bi women (which is hot, right?) but no lesbians or gay/bi men, and everyone adheres pretty closely to gender norms as far as their appearances are concerned. It’s not exactly shocking that the show would be cast this way, especially with regard to the attractiveness of the participants. But I still reserve the right to complain about it. Even the poly potluck on the show included pretty much only gorgeous people as far as I could tell; I wonder if there were more normal looking humans present who just didn’t get camera time, or if there’s just some superspecies of genetically superior polyfolk in California.

Some of the rules present bothered me, in both situations. That’s more personal preference than a real criticism of what the folks on the show are or aren’t doing, but it wasn’t entirely relatable for me. And I do have a big criticism of one cast member accusing his wife of not being poly for not wanting to share her girlfriend with him. Poly doesn’t mean anyone is entitled to sex with anyone, not even partners’ partners. If people have an agreement that includes that entitlement, cool. Discuss that. But your personal, specific agreement doesn’t make something a necessary ingredient of poly. Polyamory = “many loves,” not “many loves who necessarily must be permitted to hook up with each other.” Enact whatever rules work for your family, but don’t play the “my way of doing poly is the best” game.

There’s a lot of group sex. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the fact that the sex in the show is almost exclusively threesomes and foursomes and moresomes–and those who are seen having one-on-one sex are cast members who also frequently are shown participating in group sex–seems to fuel the misconception that this is what all poly folks are doing. Plenty do have group sex, for sure. But I would say that it’s equally common, if not more common, to be in relationships of the V (or N or W or some kind of zig-zagging line) variety, in which people have multiple partners but the sex still happens only between two individuals at a time. I know Showtime is trying to sensationalize the group sex here, but it would have been nice for the sake of balance if the show had included a poly relationship that didn’t include threesomes or foursomes, since that’s the reality for a lot of us. And speaking of sex…

There’s a lot of attention given to sex in general. Which is cool; sex is a fantastic and normal part of our lives and relationships. But I feel like if the amount of time we see people naked in bed on the show compared to the amount of time we see them doing other things was actually a representative ratio, these people would win awards for most sex ever and they definitely wouldn’t have time for things like jobs or hobbies (maybe that’s why they never play Dominion). I don’t mean to be sex-negative here, and I actually think most of the sex scenes were quite tastefully filmed and edited. And of course I’m not at all surprised that Showtime would want a lot of fun sexy naked time on the show. I just know that people in general tend to hyper-focus on the sex lives of poly people rather than considering our relationships, and the show didn’t do much to discourage that kind of thinking.

Things I liked:

The relationships were all serious, long term, and committed between more than two partners. When I heard the subtitle “Married and Dating,” I had the awful vision of a show that focused only on married couples who were still subscribing to a fairly mono-normative central partnership paradigm and seeking only casual relationships outside of their marriages. That’s a fine arrangement for the people who want it, but it would hardly seem like an accurate view of polyamory. The two groups on the show, however, are a triad and a quad, both groups living and planning futures together. Members of both families had lovers outside of their live-in partners, but the focus was definitely more on the dynamics of the partners living together under the same roof.

It was nice to see some obviously leftist poly folks in the cast, as I feel like a lot of the poly people who appear in the media aren’t really engaging with radical politics. The triad on the show had Occupy posters all over their house, and on several occasions spoke of their lifestyle as revolutionary and compared it to other social movements. They certainly saw their own commitment ceremony as a revolutionary act, beyond simply one of personal significance.

Rather than only focusing on the drama within the relationships (of which there admittedly was plenty), the show also tackled obstacles that are facing poly people living in a monogamous world. The topic of coming out was dealt with somewhat extensively, and a lot of the on-camera interview time with various cast members focused on advocating for the acceptance of poly relationships. I really appreciated–and was surprised–that the show actually placed polyamory in a social context, rather than sticking strictly to interpersonal dynamics and dramas. I will say that the coming out scenes felt a little unrealistically smooth to me, though; I was applauding all the warm fuzzy parental approval while at the same time thinking that even my super awesome and accepting and open-minded parents would probably be a bit hesitant if I told them I was actually going to marry my other partner.

Bisexuality in poly is directly addressed when one member of the triad says that as a bisexual woman, monogamy would inherently close off part of her sexuality. I think a lot of folks are reluctant to talk this way about bisexuality and poly so as not to give the (false) impression that it’s impossible for bi men or women to choose monogamy. But while plenty of bi folks do happily settle down with one partner, many others do feel that it’s more authentic to have the freedom to maintain relationships with both men and women. And that should be embraced as a healthy, positive motivation for desiring a polyamorous relationship.

The triad on the show formed organically. There’s sort of an in-joke in poly circles about “the unicorn” or “the hot bi babe,” because so many couples initially enter into poly saying “we want a girlfriend, we’re looking for a sexy woman who wants to date both of us.” Of course, this works out on occasion, but generally it’s difficult enough to date individually, let alone as a couple who wants that same spark to exist for both of them. Most successful triads I’ve heard about developed in a more fluid way than this, and the triad on the show is no exception; their third member was a long time friend, maid of honor in their wedding, and became the wife’s lover before becoming physically intimate with the husband.

There were a lot of happy, positive moments. While of course any reality show is going to be edited with a bias toward showcasing the tense, dramatic moments, there were also ample opportunities to observe happy and harmonious moments within both poly families. That’s something most people have seldom–if ever–been exposed to.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some things in both categories here, but I’ll say again that my bottom line opinion is that the show is a good thing for us. Any mass media portrayal of a misunderstood and underrepresented group is likely to be problematic in some ways, especially when the media in question is the hyper dramatic reality show. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this portrayal of poly folks could be a whole lot worse, and is a lot better than being invisible. If I’m not mistaken, there’s going to be a second season; I’ll admit I’m a little bit excited to see what’s next.

Polyamory and Feminism

Because I want to be perfectly clear here, I think it’s worth noting before I even delve into this topic that I am not in any way claiming polyamory is inherently feminist. We live in a patriarchal society, and I don’t believe any form of heterosexual relationships is completely free from the influence of that society. Poly relationships are absolutely capable of replicating traditional, sexist models of intimacy. I do believe, however, that there are some feminist possibilities within polyamorous relationships. And it’s those possibilities I’d like to discuss. Ultimately, it’s worth keeping in mind that these are all ways that polyamory feels feminist for me, while being aware that no experience is universal. I’d hate to imply that there’s never any sexism or misogyny among folks who identify as polyamorous, and I’d also hate to imply that there are no wonderfully egalitarian heterosexual monogamous relationships.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I present a brief list of some of the feminist potentials I see within poly relationships.

Polyamory disrupts traditional gender roles. Much of what we know as traditional gender roles are predicated on a heteronormative man/woman gender dichotomy in our intimate relationships. Whether we’re considering interpersonal dynamics or the way household labor is divided, it can be all too easy to simply fall into socially prescribed patterns for behavior based on what’s supposedly “appropriate” for one’s gender. In much the same way that queer relationships have the ability to subvert rigid gender roles, relationships that include more than one partner inherently exist outside of the traditional one man/one woman binary relationship. Breaking away from that model doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is stepping outside of their prescribed gender roles, but it does open up some interesting potential.

Polyamory allows for women’s sexual autonomy. Throughout much of history, the institution of “monogamy” has really carried an implicit understanding that men are frequently engaging in infidelity while women are expected to be absolutely faithful. Apart from being an obvious double standard, this one-sided expectation exemplifies a multitude of oppressive gender stereotypes: that female sexuality serves only to satisfy men, that women do not have sexual desires of their own, that men are sexually insatiable but women are practically asexual. When men transgress boundaries of monogamous commitment, there’s frequently a “boys will be boys” connotation to the way we discuss their infidelity. When women transgress those same boundaries, however, they are seen as deviating from their very nature and are labeled as sluts and whores. At best, we expect men to struggle with monogamy, while for women we expect monogamy to feel like the most natural state imaginable.

Sexist double-standards certainly exist in some polyamorous relationships, as well, but there is at least a strong potential for the equal validation of male and female sexual desire, autonomy, and agency. Though many folks unfamiliar with polyamory still associate the concept of multiple partners exclusively with forms of patriarchal, religious polygamy, the norm by far within polyamorous communities seems to be that women and men are equally free to pursue multiple relationships, and it appears that a relationship structure like my own–one woman committed to two men–is one of the most common poly configurations. Certainly, plenty of heterosexual monogamous couples have relationships in which the sexual agency of both partners is respected as equal; non-monogamy is hardly a requirement for such a relationship. But polyamory is at least one possible path to greater sexual autonomy for women.

Polyamory reduces the potential for possessiveness, control, and jealousy. Jealousy in romantic relationships goes both ways, and deserves at least one entire blog post of its own. But smothering, possessive, controlling behavior is more frequently exhibited by men than women in heterosexual relationships, and is frequently a precursor to physical abuse. Obviously, there’s more to blame than just monogamy for the fact that so many men think they have a right to own and control the women in their lives. And there are definitely plenty of monogamous relationships that do not include this kind of possessiveness. But the ideology behind monogamy does lend itself to the notion that we have a kind of ownership over romantic partners, and especially that men have a kind of ownership over women’s bodies. Most early marital law, after all, was akin to property law, with women as the property. Polyamory liberates both men and women from this possessive notion of romantic love, but that liberation strikes me as even more meaningful for women, who are so often policed and scrutinized far more closely than their male counterparts.

Polyamory teaches everyone involved to communicate their needs and desires. Ideally, everyone in all relationships should be engaging in open and honest communication, asserting their individual needs and desires. But society often discourages women from doing so. Women are afraid of appearing too needy, too demanding, or–if the desires in question are sexual–too slutty. But because polyamory has no simple scripts to follow, it forces everyone involved to communicate clearly about what they want and need from individual partners. Again, this kind of communication is certainly a feature of many monogamous relationships as well, and should be an ingredient in all of them. But even many women with respectful, feminist partners have a difficult time asserting themselves after being taught by society to repress their desires. Polyamory forces the issue of open communication, and can help women feel entitled to articulate the specifics of their wants and needs.

On “Having Your Cake and Eating it Too”

As someone who happens to be the “hinge of the V” in my relationships–I’m in two relationships and my partners are only in a relationship with me–one of the judgments I encounter a lot from others is this notion that I’m “having my cake and eating it too,” that our relationships are somehow unfair because I have two partners and they each only have me. I’m not exactly sure what people envision, perhaps that I just lounge around in bed all day while men lavish me with attention and feed me chocolates. But regardless, I’d like to take a minute to dissect this particular complaint about relationships like mine.

First and foremost, I think a lot of people take the notion of “balance” in relationships far too literally when considering poly relationships. “Fair” does not mean that everyone does exactly the same things, and that because I have two partners, the only way for our relationships to be fair is if they each have another partner as well. To me, “fair” means that everyone involved has the equal right to do whatever makes them happy. My partners are both free to have other relationships if they want, and, at least for now, that’s not what they want. I, clearly, do want to be in two relationships. So everyone is doing this the way they want, and everyone is happy and fulfilled. The same goes for what’s “fair and balanced” within poly relationships. One of my partners hates sleeping with someone else in the bed, and the other is quite fond of snuggling at night (as am I). So what’s “fair” is that the people who like to sleep in the same bed get to sleep together, and the other gets his bed all to himself. It wouldn’t make anyone happy or comfortable if we felt the need to impose some “perfect balance” in which I alternated who I slept with every other night. That kind of “balance” would mean rationalizing our relationships to an extent that totally denies the reality of our individual wants and needs.

Second, I really don’t understand this attempt to place human relationships into some kind of mathematical equation. The way people seem to view it, I get 100% from both of my partners, while they each only get 50% from me. But I just don’t believe human relationships are quantitative like that, for one thing. And if we are going to try to use numbers here, no one gets 100% from anyone. We all have other important things in our lives: work, school, family, friendship, hobbies, activism, creative pursuits, any number of things that matter to us. Why do people see it as though my husband has to “share” me with my boyfriend, but I don’t have to “share” him with the time he spends playing guitar or riding his bicycle? We’re all juggling multiple interests and multiple relationships (even if they’re not romantic); this is healthy and normal. No one in their right mind would pity one of my partners because I sometimes spend time alone writing, so why should they be objects of pity if I sometimes leave them alone to spend time with another person? And while we’re at it, I find it a pretty flawed assumption that either of my partners want 100% of my time and attention. Personally, I think 100% of anyone’s time and attention would be a pretty overwhelming thing.

The last thing I find perplexing about this way of thinking is the implication that I just get all of the “perks” in this situation. As anyone who’s ever been in a committed, long-term relationship can tell you, such relationships take time, energy, and effort. My husband jokes all the time that there’s no way on Earth he’d ever want to deal with two of those at the same time. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but he’s still got a point. I don’t mean to make it sound like my relationships are just work, because that’s not true at all; they’re both completely fulfilling and joyful and fun. But it would be a lie to say that there’s no investment of time and energy involved. I don’t just passively receive love and attention from both of my partners, I give those things, too. And I don’t think my relationships would be so great if I gave only half of what they each give me. It’s interesting that when we look at, say, a mother with three kids, we don’t say: oh, she gets all the love and adoration of three children, but they each only get a third of her love and attention. No, we generally praise the mother for being able to love and nurture three kids. Or, when we see someone with a large circle of friends, we don’t say: oh, she’s so spoiled, having that many people who care about her. On the contrary, we probably assume she must be a good, caring friend to be able to maintain all of those relationships. Why, then, is the person with multiple romantic relationships thought to be “spoiled,” “having their cake and eating it too”?

It would be ideal, really, if people would look at my relationships–and all poly relationships–without the basic assumption that someone must be benefitting and someone else must be suffering. There are all kinds of configurations of relationships, and I find the reasonable thing is to assume–unless given actual reason to believe otherwise–that all the people involved in any particular configuration are there because it works for them, because it’s a happy and fulfilling situation for all involved. What could be more fair than that?

Critics on All Sides…

I haven’t had a chance yet to see the polyamory episode of Lisa Ling’s Our America (which aired last night), but I’ve heard from several poly folks who were quite pleased with it. Check out Alan’s post over at Poly in the Media for a lot of clips and some comments on the episode.

But while we’re on that subject, I read a brief (poly-friendly) article on Gawker earlier about the episode, and was not entirely shocked to find comments from posters who were appalled by any comparison between poly rights and LGBTQ rights, a phenomenon I mentioned in a post recently. Reading internet comments is perhaps never good for one’s sanity, but I do have to point out one particular comment because it highlights this divisive gay vs. poly stance so perfectly; the commenter actually stated that the article’s author isn’t “very good at being gay” if he “can’t see the difference between rights for gay people (people who have a fundamental identity they are born with, have nothing wrong with them, are oppressed by society, and can engage in healthy relationships) and activism on behalf of every banal sexual practice out there, especially people who are bullshit machines (do five seconds of prodding on how well these “polyamorous relationships” actually work out).” Given how frequently queer folks once had this exact same line used against them (for example: you can’t compare race and being gay, your race is something you’re born with, being gay is just a deviant “lifestyle choice”), it’s painfully ironic to see any pro-gay-rights folks using sort of “one identity is legitimate, the other is not” reasoning to put down others.

And speaking of that slippery slope, I also stumbled across a post earlier on anti-gay-marriage blog Mercator Net which warns against the coming poly revolution in Australia, or something like that. The posts author, Michael Cook, says that:

“Australian activists for same-sex marriage have always insisted, that it will not lead to polygamy or polyamory. Never, ever, ever. Gay marriage is just like traditional marriage, except for the sex of the spouse…

This is a crucial point for supporters. If they were to concede that same-sex marriage would ultimately lead to polygamy and more imaginative forms of marriage, they would prove that there is a slippery slope. So they are forced into vehement denials.

How odd, then, that a Polyamory Action Lobby (PAL) has been founded in Australia ‘to combat the image of poly people as relationship bogeymen.'”

Most of Cook’s post actually sounds just fine and dandy to me, but I suppose you have to know your audience, and he’s clearly speaking to people who will be horrified at the very thought of polyamory being legitimized. Aside from one line where he asks “Are these activists serious? Is this an elaborate hoax?” one could almost imagine the exact same post being written on a pro-poly site. “Admittedly polyamory seems radical,” Cook says, “but at every stage of the sexual revolution, the next step has seemed impossibly bold.” Sounds like a promising statement to me!

In some ways, I think an increase in conservative attention being focused on us might just be a positive thing; if homophobic douchebags are opposed to us, I think that makes us look pretty good in the eyes of most reasonable people. My only hope is that it doesn’t fuel even more backlash from people in favor of LGBTQ-rights, like the comments mentioned above.

Orientation or “Lifestyle Choice”?

Among polyamorous folks, there is no real consensus as to whether being polyamorous is a choice or not. Some feel like they chose it, while others feel that it was something undeniable within themselves. I’m not big on talking about what’s “natural” and what isn’t, even when it comes to the so-called “nature” of particular individuals, in large part because I think it’s nearly impossible to separate any kind of “natural” self from the social context we live in. Personally, I do feel like being polyamorous is an undeniable part of who I am, but I have little interest in the origins. I’m not terribly fond of essentialist notions of sexual orientation generally; I don’t believe that “I was born this way, I can’t help it” can or should be the only defense for people with non-normative sexual identities. I don’t wish to minimize or deny the fact that certainly many people do experience these desires as an innate feature of who they are; as I said, that’s how polyamory feels to me. But it shouldn’t matter whether something is “in-born” or not when it comes to arguing for equal rights. I don’t like defending rights only on the ground that people are not “to blame” for their sexual orientations, as if queerness is something to apologize for. I’m as concerned with defending the right of people to love (and have sex with) whoever they desire (so long, of course, as the feeling is mutual!), regardless of whether that desire is born of “nature,” free choice, or some hazy combination of the two. So when it comes to polyamory, the point, to me, is that whether it was a choice or not, here we are. Someone might choose to argue with me about whether or not I as an individual can claim being polyamorous as “an identity,” but they cannot deny the existence of my family. And when I consider the kind of recognition and validation I’d like us to have, I don’t see why those things are at all dependent on the question of whether we chose this life or not.

Back in 2010, Ann Tweedy wrote an excellent paper on polyamory as sexual orientation with regard to discrimination law; it’s a lengthy academic piece, but I highly recommend reading it in its entirety if legal scholarship on poly is of any interest to you. To summarize, though, Tweedy aims to sidestep the essentialist vs. choice debate, and instead puts forth an argument that polyamory should be considered a part of sexual orientation because of the degree to which it is embedded in one’s sense of self. This method of defining what qualifies as a central part of identity makes all the sense in the world to me; even if polyamory is a choice, it’s far from a casual decision like what to eat for breakfast this morning. It forms a core part of our lives, like the choice of whether or not to have children, to give just one example of something else which is at once a “choice” and yet also respected as a very essential part of our lives. Even aside from my whole-hearted agreement with Tweedy’s reasons for leaving aside the choice-or-not debate, though, I think she’s really on to something here; striving for a more expansive definition of “sexual orientation” is probably a much quicker route to recognition than attempting to gain widespread recognition and protections for polyamorous relationships as a separate category, and under the criteria she sets forth, I certainly think poly relationships qualify.

Personally, when I try to resolve the question of whether our relationships are a choice or not, what it comes down to for me is a matter of consent. It might seem strange to think of consent in that way, but I like to compare it to the idea of active, enthusiastic consent of the “yes means yes” variety advocated by sex-positive feminism. We should be actively consenting not just to specific encounters with specific individuals, but to the way our sexualities are constructed in a broader sense. Even if traits like sexual orientation are somehow inherent, there is still the question of whether we actually live authentically, or whether coercive social forces prevent us from doing so. Viewed from that angle, “choice” and “orientation” are not in any way mutually exclusive categories. Certainly, countless people have suppressed same-sex desires throughout history out of extreme social pressures to do so. Regardless of whether our desires are “choice” or not, we still must “choose”–we must enthusiastically, actively consent–to live authentically to those desires. Regardless of whether I could choose to be in love with more than one person simultaneously, I had to choose to live this way. And as human beings who (hopefully) value autonomy and free will, why should admitting the role of choice in our intimate relationships be viewed as such a bad thing?

When people were fighting to abolish prohibitions of interracial marriage, the argument was never made that certain people were innately “oriented” toward members of another race, only that individuals should be free to be with whoever they happened to fall in love–and choose to spend their lives–with. Love and any accompanying long term commitment seem to me to always be some murky combination of choice and something else inexplicable. Falling in love is more than just finding compatibility in a strictly logical sense; I imagine very few people would say they simply made a rational choice about who to become smitten with. And yet we still must make an active choice about who (if anyone) to form commitments and share our lives with. In other words, though the idea of flippant choice has long been tossed around as an insult on the right, isn’t the reality that we all must make choices about our relationships? Long-term commitments, marriages–these things don’t just happen to people because of forces completely outside of their control, but the fact that they are actively chosen is taken completely for granted when they happen in a “normal,” socially acceptable context. It’s not until someone loves or desires someone of the same gender, or more than one person at a time–or anyone else outside the bounds of social normativity–and chooses to be true to those desires that “choice” suddenly becomes a dirty word. Rather than responding to opponents by denying that we make active choices, I think freedom of choice is exactly the thing we should all be fighting for.


Some Thoughts on “Primary” and “Secondary” Labels

For those unfamiliar with the terms, “primary” and “secondary” are labels sometimes used by poly folks to identify the nature of various relationships. “Primary” relationships are typically marital or marital-type, cohabitational relationships, whereas “secondary” relationships would generally be more casual in nature. Personally, I’m not a big proponent of such labeling, and the following is a list of the ways I find “primary” and “secondary” designations to be problematic.

1. They imply a hierarchy of relationships.

I think we can all recognize that we have different relationships that have varying degrees of importance in our lives. My relationships with–and responsibilities to–my daughter and my partners are central to my life, and I can acknowledge that in a sense they are of “primary” importance to me. But I would never look at my friendships or my relationships with my extended family and label them as “secondary” relationships. They are simply each unique relationships that are valued as individual connections with individual humans, and I don’t view them in a hierarchical sense in relation to one another. Even among friendships, like most people I have some that are incredibly central to my life and others that involve more occasional contact; many of those relationships have organically shifted to various places on that spectrum over time. But I would see no need to “classify” them in a way that implies a hierarchical order of significance. If it doesn’t feel natural to “rank” our platonic friendships in this way, I wonder why it should be any different with relationships of a romantic nature. Certainly, there are some people who are seeking relationships of a specific variety, with lower expectations of things like time, availability, and commitment. But I believe there are ways to openly and honestly communicate these particular desires without treating relationships as something hierarchical.

2. “Primary” and “secondary” seem to contain an assumption that relationships will be at odds with one another.

Many times, when I hear people describe their reasoning for using these labels, they seem to be thinking ahead to potential conflict, as if being in two or more relationships means constantly having to choose between meeting the needs of two or more people. Designating someone as a “primary,” then, becomes a way of saying “when forced to choose, I will choose you.” But I think, first of all, it’s a rather pessimistic view of relationships to assume that there will constantly be this problem of butting heads. To me, it makes a lot more sense to strive for relationships that co-exist harmoniously, instead of assuming that poly relating means constantly choosing between two conflicting sets of needs and desires. And second, even in situations where there legitimately is a conflict of needs or desires between two relationships, I believe in a much more situational, contextual way of determining which choice to make, rather than a blanket “person A has priority” kind of policy. Again, while I can acknowledge that my daughter and my partners “come first” in a broad sense, there might be times when a friend is in crisis and needs me badly at that time; in that situation, I would prioritize the needs of my friend. Or, there might be times when two different partners want two different things, but one of them is behaving unreasonably or irrationally. Again, I would weigh out the context of the particular situation, rather than giving one person an infinite trump card based on their designated “role.” But again, I find that in situations where everyone involved is committing to harmoniously co-existing, these kinds of “choose between person A and person B” situations are really a rare occurrence, though people seem to imagine that such conflict management must be a constant struggle in poly relationships.

3. These labels imply static, fixed relationship roles.

While I recognize that this isn’t the case for everyone, I personally don’t feel comfortable circumscribing any relationship I enter into by saying that it can only contain such and such degree of commitment/seriousness/time spent together/etc. When my boyfriend and I first started dating, my husband and I had been together for well over a decade and were living together along with our daughter; it would have been easy to view those relationships in a “primary”/”secondary” way. But I was very clear from the start that I had no preconceived notions on the limitations of this new relationship, and I wanted the possibilities to be as open as they would be in a “typical” context. Two years later, those relationships don’t in any way resemble a “primary”/”secondary” division, and they were free to evolve that way at their own natural pace. I realize not everyone is open to the possibility of two or more relationships having equal levels of commitment, but for those of us who are, it seems inauthentic to pigeonhole relationships into pre-defined roles.

4. Such labeling seems to indicate that one partner has authority over relationships with the other(s).

This might not always be the case with folks who use “primary” and “secondary” designations, but at least to me, they seem to often be hierarchical not just in terms of a hierarchy of value/time/commitment, but in terms of an actual hierarchy between partners. I’ve written previously about my feelings about rules in poly relationships, so I’ll avoid going on about them in depth here. But to summarize, I’m not personally in favor of arrangements where one partner is given the ability to dictate the minute details of relationships with others. Oftentimes a “primary partner” label carries with it things like “veto power” (the right to “veto” a partner’s choice of significant other) or the right to micromanage a partner’s other relationships. For me, being polyamorous is about respecting one another’s autonomy, and also loving and respecting one another enough to treat one another with fairness and to recognize and validate each individuals needs without being forced to do so by a set of rules and regulations.

5. These labels reinforce monogamy-centered views that polyamory is all about one central  “couple,” with other relationships on the side.

Many people try to project a rather mono-normative set of expectations onto poly relationships, by assuming that there is always one traditionally committed pair at the center, and all other relationships are inherently more casual “fun on the side.” This phenomenon reminds me of the heteronormative tendency to look at same-sex relationships and assume that one person is more like the “man” and the other the “woman,” rather than recognizing that relationships exist outside of that binary. The reality is that a large number of polyamorous relationships do not fit that model; many include three or more people sharing homes, raising children, and existing as a unified family that cannot be reduced to a central “couple.” Non-poly people seem to often find it easier to relate to polyamorous relationships when they see something there that resembles a more “traditional” pairing. But that view is often far from accurate.

Now, I want to be clear that I do realize not everyone who uses the labels “primary” and “secondary” to describe their relationships is actually behaving in what I would consider to be problematic ways; I understand that sometimes those labels simply seem to make sense for the shape that certain relationships happen to take. But I also believe language has power, and it does make a difference how we choose to describe things to the world; the list above are all factors that, if nothing else, I think folks should take into consideration when deciding what terms they’re comfortable using to identify the people they love.