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.