Tag Archives: bisexuality and polyamory

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.

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Bisexuality as an Argument for Plural Marriage?

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article by Cary Tennis over at Salon arguing that bisexuality should be seen as an argument for plural marriage. He says “I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?”

Of course, there is a backlash to this, because many bisexual folks are offended by the suggestion that they’re incapable of monogamy (because unfortunately, in our society, being non-monogamous is something that one is “accused” of). To this, Tennis states “One can of course be bisexual and make the choice to marry monogamously. But must one? Why?”

As someone who’s long been interested in connecting the rights of poly folks with LGBTQ struggles, I find this argument tremendously interesting. But there are also some reasons why I find it worrisome.

I’ve definitely said in the past that bisexuality can be a compelling reason to engage in polyamory; while I totally recognize that many bi folks are perfectly capable of monogamy and don’t feel that their orientation manifests itself as a desire for two partners simultaneously, others do feel that they need both male and female partners to be completely fulfilled. And that should be embraced as a valid desire, not frowned upon as something that makes all bisexual people look bad or incapable of monogamy. I think what this comes down to, though, is not so much about bisexuality, but about the fact that some people—of all sexual orientations—are polyamorous, and others are not. When someone is both bi and poly, it only makes sense that they generally want to have both male and female partners. But in my mind, this desire is ultimately a feature of their poly-ness far more than their bisexuality.

I’m concerned that if we essentialize bisexuality as a “legitimate” argument for polyamory, we will find ourselves in a place where we only validate plural relationships that are bisexual in nature. Personally, I tend not to label my sexual orientation, because it feels too nuanced for any of the available labels. But “bisexual” would be the closest to accurate, if I was forced to choose one. And yet, my interest in potentially being in relationships with women was never a particularly driving force in my desire to live polyamorously. I’m in love with and deeply committed to two men, and I can easily conceive of a life in which I only had relationships with those men, but I cannot conceive of a life where I was forced to choose between them. Similarly, even most people I know who do feel that bisexuality was a strong factor in their desire for polyamory still want to be free to form relationships with people of both (or all) genders, not only people who are a different gender from their current partner. I’m sure that there are some people who feel that they specifically need one male and one female lover in order to be happy, nothing more and nothing less. But it seems that for the majority of us who for whatever reason feel compelled toward polyamory, we are far more interested in being able to form meaningful, loving relationships with multiple people in an organic and authentic way, which is not circumscribed by a rule that says “you can be involved with other women, but not other men.” If we argue for plural marriage on the basis of bisexuality, does that mean that we are arguing for plural marriage only in cases where one desires both a male and female spouse?

Tennis says that “It seems only logical that a bisexual person is capable of having equal and simultaneously deep, committed relationships with more than one person.” But why is it logical that all bisexual people are capable of this, and that no strictly heterosexual or homosexual people are? Being attracted to both men and women and being capable of deeply loving either a man or a woman says nothing about one’s capacity to deeply love two people simultaneously, and being capable of loving only men or only women does not mean that someone isn’t able to form simultaneous deep, committed relationships with more than one person. Again, to me this is a question far more of whether one is more “oriented” toward monogamy or polyamory, not a question of how many genders one sees as potential partners.

I am definitely interested in a stance that says bisexual people shouldn’t have to be limited to only one partner; even though many might make the choice to have only one partner, that should be their decision, not something forced upon them. But this is exactly the way I feel about all discussions of monogamy vs. polyamory, not only those which involve bisexuality. If we’re going to talk about maximum freedom under the law, then we need to give all people the ability to freely choose whether to be with one or more than one deeply committed partner, regardless of gender. If we actually recognize polyamory as a form of sexual orientation in its own right, we don’t need to rely on bisexuality as an inroad to validate polyamorous relationships. Regardless of the genders of their desired partners, some people simply are polyamorous. To me, that’s all the argument we should need for the recognition of plural relationships.