My Personal Poly Ideology: A Summary

I’ve probably said a lot of these things in the past on this blog at some point, and the topics I haven’t addressed here yet will probably get their own entire post here at some point in the future. But I thought it might be nice to write a fairly concise little post summarizing my general poly ideology—not the daily practicalities of poly relationships, but my core poly beliefs. I get a lot of google hits here from people who seem to be newly exploring polyamory, and sometimes I think it can be useful for folks in that situation to read a brief overview of how others approach poly rather than reading lengthy pieces about each finer point. And additionally, I think it can also be useful for people to understand the perspective this particular blog is coming from. So with that, I’ll offer my own personal “poly in a nutshell,” which I’ll also be adding to an “about” page here on the blog.

 

I believe that polyamory means, by definition, having the ability to romantically love multiple people simultaneously. And by “ability,” I mean not just the personal capacity, but also the freedom. If you’re in a relationship where the agreement is “you can have sex with multiple people, but don’t get emotionally attached,” that’s great if it works for you, but it’s not polyamory. I don’t think being poly means you can’t ever have more casual sex, or that all of your relationships must be of the deep, committed variety, but identifying as polyamorous should signal that you’re at least open to the possibility of maintaining multiple loving relationships.

My more extensive thoughts on defining poly can be found here and here.

I don’t agree with “rules” within relationships. I think sometimes people need to make agreements, but unlike rules, agreements are mutually consensual, not about one person dictating the behavior of others. I believe that being free to love others necessitates personal autonomy, and that becomes impossible if someone else is given the power to micromanage the details of your personal relationships. I believe people are always entitled to have personal boundaries, ie, “I’m not willing to do ______.” But this is not the same as saying “you’re not allowed to ______.” I’m of the opinion that genuine love and respect in relationships make rules unnecessary, and that without genuine love and respect, rules aren’t ultimately going to help you.

More of my thoughts on rules can be found here and here.

Along the same lines as my feelings about rules, I don’t agree with “veto power,” where one partner has the right to “veto” another’s choice of partners. I believe this is both completely unfair and dehumanizing to the third-party in these situations, and is possessive and controlling in a way that runs counter to everything I value about being polyamorous.

I also do not agree with any kind of double-standards within poly relationships, especially the far-too-common gendered double standard wherein a man allows his wife/girlfriend to have female partners but not male partners, while he is permitted to have female partners himself (in poly-jargon, the “one-penis-policy”). Even setting aside the obvious patriarchal connotations of these arrangements, if what we’re talking about when we use the word “polyamory” is actually love, I don’t believe love can be made to answer to such terms. “You can only fall in love with people of my choosing” is not how love actually works. I believe love must be freely and autonomously given—without being subject to the rules, regulations, and permissions of someone else. This is not to say I believe in imposing an artificial “fairness” on the situation; if a woman is only interested in dating other women outside of her relationship with a man, for example, that’s great. Plenty of people in poly relationships have different numbers of partners than one another, or relationships that are at different levels of seriousness and commitment. This is all well and good, as long as each individual is free to relate to others however they choose. Wanting different things is not the same as an externally imposed double-standard; equality simply means that all members of a relationship have the same freedoms.

I am not in favor of using hierarchical terms like “primary” and “secondary” to designate one’s relationships. Again, I don’t believe that any kind of artificial equality should be imposed, and it’s natural and normal for different relationships to take different forms and have different levels of meaning and commitment. But that does not require identifying those relationships in a way that hierarchically ranks them against one another.

More on the use of primary/secondary labels can be found here.

Finally, I believe strongly in viewing polyamory in a broader sociopolitical context. Society’s enforcement of compulsory monogamy is deeply tied up with patriarchy and other systems of oppression, and I think any work we do to increase awareness and acceptance of poly relationships should be done with mindfulness about the intersections between various forms of oppression in our society.

More of my thoughts on poly in a broader context can be found here, here, and here, as well as in a multitude of other pieces on this blog.

It’s important to note that this is all just my personal ideology, and it is often said that there are as many ways to “do” poly as there are poly people. But so often, “how-to” poly advice treats things such as rules, primary/secondary labels, and veto power as though they are absolute givens in polyamorous relationships. If nothing else, I like to offer an alternative point of view, and perhaps some comfort for those who are wondering whether things like rules and veto power in poly relationships are really necessities.

New Column at Modern Poly

If you just can’t get enough Radical Poly, then you’ll be happy to know I’ll be writing a regular column for Modern Poly’s ezine. The column, in a similar vein to this blog, will examine polyamory in a sociopolitical context.

Modern Poly is an excellent site full of great poly info and viewpoints, and I’m glad to have written for them in the past and to be writing for them in the future. Their blog was a bit quiet for a while, but I’m happy to see it back in full force with a June ezine exploring the topic of marriage from a variety of angles. And it’s always appreciated to have other places (aside from my own blog, where I generally let myself say anything I damn well please) where I’m given freedom to express my way-left-of-center point of view.

Go support Modern Poly, read the fine articles, buy some cute poly gear (including some with my Solidarity design!), and if you’re interested, check out the first installment of my column, “An Informed Polyamory Movement,” where I discuss the Voting Rights Act, the Texas filibuster, the roots of all hierarchies, and what the heck all of this has to do with polyamory!

Further Thoughts on DOMA and Polyamory

It's only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

It’s only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

As promised, I’d like to elaborate (ramble) a bit now about my thoughts on poly marriage and DOMA.

I’ve always responded to the slippery-slope argument by asserting that poly marriage is not, in fact, anything to be terrified of. I’ve occasionally seen responses from other poly folks that are more along the lines of “everyone should calm down, we’re not interested in marriage right now, anyway.” That might be true, but it’s not really the line I’m interested in taking when it comes to defending the idea of poly marriage. My point has always been that from an ethical perspective, you can’t defend same-sex marriage and then not extend that thinking to plural marriage as well. As for pedophilia and bestiality, it feels absurd that I should even have to point this out, but it seems pretty simple to draw the line at consenting adult humans being free to marry one another. Children and goats are not capable of meaningful consent. Now, some people argue that adult women in fundamentalist polygamy type situations aren’t really provided with the opportunity to give meaningful consent, either. But unfortunately, the same thing is true for a lot of women in fundamentalist religious monogamous marriages as well, and we don’t use that as a reason to throw marriage out all together. The fact that some plural marriages, like plenty of monogamous marriages, happen in a problematic way is not a moral argument against the entire institution. I don’t believe that poly marriage is right around the corner. But if I’m going to defend the ethical implications of it, I’m going to do so in a way that says “if this happened tomorrow, so what? Have you stopped and thought about whether there’s really anything ethically different about this than about monogamous marriage, gay or straight?”

I think that the repeal of DOMA does pave the way in our general direction at least in the ethical sense. I’m inclined to agree with law professor Mark Goldfeder, quoted in USA Today as saying: “It’s one hundred percent likely that these polygamist cases will come, but they will no longer turn on whether a relationship is immoral. The court will look at whether these relationships cause third party harm.” Of course, my personal dividing line of whether or not something is immoral is really no different than the question of whether it causes third party harm. But that aside, I think Goldfeder makes a good point. I think that when polygamist cases are brought before courts in the future, the DOMA decision will have some impact on the outcome. And unlike Wesley Pruden at the Washington Times, I think that’s a positive thing.

While I am all for boldly asserting the ethical acceptability of poly marriage, though, and also genuinely hopeful that either poly marriage will come to pass or the whole government-marriage business will be disbanded one day, I am not particularly interested in placing marriage at the center of poly activism.

Part of my reluctance to place marriage rights at the forefront is really similar to the critiques of the assimilationist nature of the same-sex marriage movement. While a lot of us poly folks (myself included) do have two or more “marriage-like” relationships, a lot of us don’t. Plenty of poly people choose to share a home with only one–or even zero!–partners. Plenty of us who do have two or more cohabiting, life-committed partners also have other lovers outside of that. Part of the beauty of polyamory is its ability to take many different forms, to be many different things, to reject very narrow preconceived molds of what romantic, intimate relationships should look like. And I’m afraid that if marriage becomes our central focus, we’ll put forth a public image of poly that erases all of that wonderful, liberatory variation.

Another concern I have is about the narrowness of marriage as a focus. I address this at a bit more length in a piece that’s forthcoming soon over at Modern Poly, but to put it briefly, I think that if we really look at what compulsory monogamy is and where it comes from in our society, we can talk about patriarchy. We can talk about capitalism. And I feel like we can say “you know, I really just want to marry two people and live in the suburbs” and leave it at that. Or we can have these conversations about radically challenging the dominant power structures. And I think we can do both of these things at the same time; I’m living with my partners in the suburbs, after all. But I think if we allow marriage to become the entirety of the conversation, we’re really missing out on a much larger and more important opportunity to situate ourselves as part of a broader system of hierarchies and oppressions.

I know that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, we’re going to be called on a lot by people from all over the political spectrum to talk about our own feelings about marriage. It’s potentially a great opportunity. I just hope we can make sure the conversation is a nuanced and inclusive one.

So, What Does This DOMA Repeal Mean For Us?

First of all, I want to say that while repealing DOMA is obviously a huge victory for gay and lesbian folks, there’s a lot more to LGBTQ rights than marriage equality. Queer and trans* folks need equal access to things like housing and employment and healthcare; a staggering number of queer and trans* youth (especially queer and trans* folks of color) are currently homeless. Trans women and gender non-conforming male-bodied people are more likely than any other segment of the LGBTQ population to be victims of violent crime, including murder. Marriage rights matter to a lot of people in a lot of very real ways, but they’re not the only thing that matters, and we need to keep sight of that as we move forward.

That being said, onto a bit of a look at polyamory’s place in all of this!

I’ll have a longer post with more of my own thoughts on the matter coming soon, but right now I just want to offer a few links to some of the conversations that are already happening.

Over at BuzzFeed, an article went up about polygamists celebrating the DOMA ruling. Though polygamy only technically means multiple marriage, we all know that it’s traditionally associated with certain fundamentalist religious practices. As more articles like this appear, it’s going to be important for polyamorists to make our voices heard as well, and to clarify how we differ in practice from one-sided patriarchal polygamy.

Over at Poly In the Media, Alan offered a little round-up of his own, featuring a handful of articles about multi-partner marriage that have cropped up in the past few days.

At Modern Poly, several new articles with a variety of perspectives on the theme of marriage were published in June, just ahead of the court’s ruling.

As I’m in the early stages of planning my own (non-legal) wedding with one of my partners, this is all a very timely discussion for me. The jury is still out among poly activists as to whether marriage rights are really something we consider a pressing issue, though the majority of us seem to feel we’d like to have that right (or to see marriage de-regulated entirely) someday.  But regardless of whether we’re interested in having this conversation right now, it seems that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, this conversation is seeking us out. I’ve definitely seen a spike in my google hits these past two days here on the blog. I only hope that as we do move forward in this discussion of poly marriage rights, we can keep that conversation from becoming the central focus of our movement. If this particular historical moment offers us a unique opportunity to be seen and heard, I think that’s fantastic. I just hope we can bring a balanced agenda to the table, rather than one that’s narrowly focused on marriage rights as our only desire or need.

Some of my own past musings on poly and marriage can be found at Modern Poly, Role/Reboot, and here on this blog by checking out the “marriage” tag. More coming soon!

The Importance of Being Critical

I spend a lot of time writing and talking about polyamory: here on my blog, in other publications, and in discussion groups and forums. And as anyone who follows this blog has gathered, I can often be critical of some things that occur frequently within polyamorous relationships: hierarchical structures, rules and regulations, veto-power, etc. Frequently, I’ve been accused of saying that some things are more poly than others, or that there’s a “right” way to do poly. I don’t like it when others are poly-police, saying what is and isn’t more “perfectly” poly than something else. But I want to take a minute to talk about how that kind of policing is different than being critical of some tendencies within a lot of poly relationships.

I engage a lot with social justice, in a variety of ways. To me, a huge component of that is turning a critical lens on the dominant social structures of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, and hierarchies of all kinds. But just like I challenge the system of compulsory monogamy, I’m also going to challenge problematic things I see happening within polyamory. There is no free-pass given just because we are both poly; if you are doing something I find to be patriarchal, problematically hierarchical, heterosexist, or any other oppressive thing, I am going to talk about that. That doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone is doing poly “wrong.” Poly means being open to the potential of loving multiple people simultaneously, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think you’re more poly or less poly if you have a closed triad relationship, if you have seventeen lovers you only see once a year, if you have no lovers but know that the idea of loving multiple people sounds and feels right to you, if you have threesomes or foursomes or more or if you don’t, if you’re asexual and think polyamory works to describe the way you connect with others in your life. None of these is a more “correct” way to do poly, and I disagree with anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But if I see behavior within poly relationships that I think is hierarchical or oppressive, I’m going to talk and write about that. And I think those kinds of challenges to the status quo are not only acceptable, but necessary.

A lot of my freelance writing outside of this blog is centered on feminism. Part of that involves dealing with problematic hierarchies that often exist between men and women in heterosexual relationships. When I am critical of patriarchal power dynamics, it doesn’t mean I’m saying that relationships between men and women are in some way inherently wrong. It means I’m criticizing the way that patriarchy plays out in some of those relationships. A lot of radical queer activists are very critical of more mainstream LGBTQ politics. That doesn’t mean they’re accusing anyone of being “less gay” or of doing queerness wrong. It just means that they’re critical of some of the priorities and tendencies within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These kinds of criticism create important dialogue. And it is not about insulting individuals, but about challenging power structures that play out in very real ways, and that have very real and harmful consequences. When I write about what I see as the problems with hierarchies, restrictive rules and regulations, veto-power, or gender imbalances in poly relationships, what I want is to ask people to really think about the reasons they’re making the choices they’re making. I want to call out the social structures that cause us to behave the way we do, to question the status quo. I don’t want to tell anyone that they’re a horrible person or that they’re not poly enough. I want to have a conversation. I want to give people things to think about. Most of us have already accepted the fact that compulsory monogamy is a problem, that too many people are coerced by society into “choosing” monogamy without ever considering any alternatives. And I want to ask whether—even once we’ve broken that particular mold—some of the choices we make within poly relationships are rooted in similar unconscious social conditioning. These are questions I think we all must be willing to confront. And anyone who understands how pervasive the system of compulsory monogamy is should also be willing to turn a critical eye toward other social structures, as well.

I’m never going to tell anyone that their poly relationship is structured “wrong,” or that they’re less poly than someone else. But I’m always going to challenge hierarchies, wherever I encounter them. “To each their own” is a well-intentioned sentiment, but it’s not a worthy excuse for letting oppressive structures go unchallenged.

Definitions and Dichotomies

Any veteran of polyamorous communities and discussion groups has heard plenty of squabbling over what does and does not meet the definition of polyamory, and typically this debate is centered on a question of love vs. sex. And as someone who is in two loving, life-committed relationships, I can tell you that it’s frustrating when people portray polyamory as something that’s all about sex and nothing more. I understand why some people feel the need to assert that poly is about forming more meaningful connections; I’ve certainly made arguments along those lines myself. However, I find it equally frustrating when people take that argument to such an extreme that they look down on any sexual relationship that is not deep, emotional, and meaningful. To me, polyamory is about the potential for loving more than one person simultaneously. Just as people who are inclined toward monogamy do not necessarily only have sexual relationships within the confines of long-term, committed relationships, poly people, also, want different things with different people at different points in their lives. If someone has a rule saying “you can have sex with others, but no meaningful relationships,” I have no problem saying that definitionally is not polyamory (though that’s not meant as a value judgment). But as long as someone is open to more meaningful relationships with multiple partners, and along the way happens to enjoy some connections with others that are strictly sexual, I’m not about to kick them out of the poly club.

I’ve realized, though, that the discomfort I have with this tendency to define polyamory as only about multiple loving, romantic relationships is much more complex than a simple wish to allow for people to have casual sexual relationships if they so desire. Ultimately, there is an entire dichotomy of relationships as either casual or serious, and another dichotomy of relationships as either romantic or platonic, that I am unhappy with.

I do understand the desire to define certain relationships as being traditionally romantic and committed. I’m not one to advocate for a paradigm in which we simply eschew all labels. It matters to me to identify certain people as my partners, to declare some relationships as being central to my life, and to publically recognize my significant others as the people I am sharing a life and a future with. I don’t want to be misunderstood as advocating for a complete abandonment of such identifications.

However, that being said, there are relationships in my life that simply don’t fit neatly into the socially-prescribed dichotomies. I have had relationships that are physically intimate and ongoing, but which still feel emotionally more like friendships than traditionally romantic relationships. I have a physically intimate relationship with a woman, who I care about very much as a friend, but am not romantically in love with. And though I have never felt that I was in love with a woman, and am not certain of my potential to ever feel that way in the future, an interest in women is definitely a part of my sexuality. I have a very close relationship with my ex-boyfriend that is not at all romantic or physically intimate, and yet it still feels as though it does not neatly fit into the socially-accepted bounds of “normal” relationships because it is a relationship with a former romantic partner that is a central, meaningful part of my life. And I have had other relationships with male friends in the past that were not explicitly romantic, and yet did not seem to fit neatly within the bounds of platonic friendship. To me, this is all a part of polyamory. And the beauty of polyamory is that it can allow for all of these nuanced forms of intimacy. It does not require us to make choices about whether a relationship is romantic or platonic, casual or serious. It allows each relationship to be—organically, authentically—exactly what it is.

When I hear people describe polyamory as only about committed, loving, long-term relationships, I understand where they’re coming from. But I think the discomfort I feel is similar to the radical queer discomfort at assimilationist gay and lesbian politics that place a “we’re just like you!” argument at the center of the gay rights movement. I understand an impulse toward seeking validation by comparing our relationships to those which are culturally sanctioned and recognized. But I don’t believe we need to seek that validation at the expense of everything that is beautifully queer and undefined about our relationships, our sexualities, and our lives.

To me, the defining factor in polyamorous relationships is that they are not circumscribed by any external constraints. That means some polyamorous relationships will look very much like traditional romantic relationships, but others will not. Some relationships might appear “casual,” but last a lifetime. Some relationships might appear to be friendships from the outside, but look like something much more than that to those involved. It is all very complicated. It is all very queer. It is all very human.

I don’t want polyamory associated with people who are in committed partnerships, and only seeking no-strings-attached sex outside of those relationships. But I am equally determined not to see poly associated only with a narrow definition of “committed and loving.” At the end of the day, I believe the vision polyamory has to offer is something far more expansive and nuanced than that.

Poly Feminism: Monogamy’s One-Sided History

The supposed long and honorable tradition of monogamous marriage is often held up as an argument against everything from legal same-sex marriage to polyamorous relationships. But even aside from the fact that such arguments from tradition are inherently fallacious, this depiction of monogamy’s history is simply wrong. Throughout most of known history, in fact, monogamy has been a patriarchal double standard. In many times and places, sexual fidelity within marriage has been demanded of women, while men have been either implicitly or explicitly entitled to seek sex freely outside of marriage. In ancient Greece, often held up as a paragon of sexual liberty, it was only men who were given license to engage in free sexual relationships with women and boys outside of their marriages; Rome’s marital expectations were no different. In Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz writes: “The sexual double standard was so completely accepted by Romans that the educator Quintilian used the notion of a sexual single standard as the perfect illustration of an illogical proposition: ‘If a relationship between a mistress and a male slave is disgraceful, then one between a master and a female slave is disgraceful.’ This statement sounds reasonable to contemporary ears, along the lines of what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. But to Quintilian the parallel was ridiculous, and he had no doubt his audience would agree. To suggest that men should be bound by the same moral conventions as women, he argued, was as illogical as to conclude that human morality should be the same as animal morality.”

Of course, it’s difficult to fully draw comparisons between ancient civilizations and the modern world, but the sexual double standard is one feature of these civilizations that has persisted. In Western cultures, male infidelity was often discussed quite lightly and openly until the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, such conversations simply became more discreet. In times and places where the law has concerned itself with marital infidelity, punishments for sexually unfaithful wives have nearly always been far more severe than punishments for unfaithful husbands. When men have been legally punished for crimes of infidelity, it is usually when they have played the role of the “other man,” and in that case have “stolen” another man’s property. In fact, much of marriage law was written as a kind of property law. And marriage was not, historically, an egalitarian relationship that gave both partners a kind of “ownership” over each other. It was unapologetically one-sided, granting men ownership of women. Even rape of another man’s wife was not historically seen as a violation of the woman so much as an act of theft from the husband.

Barbaric as all of this might sound, we are hardly free from these double standards today. Society still largely condones the sexual infidelity of men with a dismissive “boys will be boys” response, or places the burden on women to keep a man interested—ie., if you don’t have sex at a certain frequency or maintain a certain beauty standard, he’ll cheat; it’s simply his nature to do so, and fighting that nature is an uphill battle on the woman’s part. Women, meanwhile, continue to face much harsher social condemnation for infidelity, as sexual desire is still not widely seen as a “natural” part of our characters. When women engage in infidelity, we are defying not only the bounds of monogamy, but the bounds of our (chaste and virtuous) gender roles as well. And while perhaps it happens, I’ve never once heard someone blame a man for his female partner’s unfaithfulness, and find it difficult to imagine folks saying things like “he shouldn’t have let himself gain those 30 pounds and she wouldn’t have found someone sexier” or “he should have gone down on her more often, then she wouldn’t have looked for it elsewhere.” Sexual double standards might no longer be codified in (Western) law, but they are no less engrained in society.

Many of the attempts to encourage more egalitarian marriage have centered on discouraging male sexual liberty. But polyamory can be seen as taking the opposite approach: not denying male desire for multiple partners, but claiming a right to that desire for women as well. By and large, men, as a group have never been monogamous (though obviously, plenty of individual men have been). And in that sense, polyamory certainly has the potential to exist as a new frontier for women in particular.

All of this is not to say, of course, that monogamy cannot be egalitarian. As human beings, we have the ability to constantly reshape and redefine our social institutions, and countless modern-day couples live happily in marriages that bear no resemblance to the historical woman-as-property model. But if we are going to have an open and honest dialogue about what monogamy means, I believe we need to have an honest awareness of its history. And we can’t possibly talk truthfully about the “tradition” of marriage without acknowledging that tradition as a patriarchal one.