Up until a very short period of time ago, I identified as “polyamorous”, but have since then changed my mind about that label for a variety of reasons. I want to share them partly as a way to express a variety of frustrations that I have with this particular label and the issues with the community surrounding it.
I wrote an article on a polyamorous political website when I identified as polyamorous that described the practice of polyamory as a privilege, mostly due to the amount of time it takes to develop and cultivate relationships – time being something that economically disenfranchised people do not have. Many people were (unsurprisingly) lax to describe practicing polyamory as a privilege and told me that if I believed that the practice of polyamory was a privilege, then I’d have to believe that having a relationship in general is a privilege. At first, I wasn’t willing to admit that.
Relationships as a privilege
But now, as I examine it, having a relationship is a privilege in more than one way. It’s a privilege that many people have been denied. For years, queer people were not allowed to publicly be in a relationship or show any signs of a relationship. Because being queer was so stigmatised, relationships were damn near impossible to make or cultivate, and that’s even true today for many queer kids who are the only queer people in their small towns. Interracial couples have been consistently denied rights due to their relationships or have avoided making their relationship public for fear of retribution.
When black Americans were enslaved, the freedom to have relationships with each other was certainly not equal to the freedom given to whites. And women, due to being unable to support themselves in a society that gives them equal rights, have had to choose “relationships” based on factors other than love or their feelings. Disabled people “safeguarded” by caregivers and ableist institutions may be prohibited from having relationships either through physical obstacles or people’s infantilisation and assumption that disabled people cannot be sexual or cannot love in the same way others can. Relationships, having one, cultivating one, and having it out in the open is a privilege in many ways.
But the time to devote toward non-monogamy is without doubt a privilege, one that I’ve not had in the past. Before I moved to London I was working almost constantly. I had little to no transportation access outside of my parents or people from work driving me places. I was in a conservative area where it was not safe to divulge all of who I was, even among people I trusted and liked. Non-monogamy was not possible there. And I’m wondering if non-monogamy is seriously possible for people who are economically disenfranchised or people who blatantly don’t have the time to devote away from work, children, and other social responsibilities to give to other partners. And I wonder now, as I try and create a balance between work, blogging, writing fiction, working out, and all of the other things I have to do if, when I do decide to adopt children, I’ll have the time to devote to more romantic partners.
Most of the people I’ve had contact with in the polyamory community have been economically privileged, most of them don’t have kids, some of them don’t have jobs or subsist by borrowing or, for lack of a better term, mooching off of the people that they date. (To clarify, this does not mean people who live off of benefits, unemployment or any other government assistance. But, specifically, to people who are class privileged because of who they date and choose to subsist off of their partner’s monetary wealth.) I wonder, as I try and take relationship advice from these people, if their experience is really so applicable to mine.
Being an immigrant, I don’t have the benefit of social supports a lot of people do. I don’t have parents who can bail me out. And I will never feel comfortable with relying on my partners to provide for me economically and am lucky to be in a place where I don’t need to. Yet, most poly people refuse to acknowledge their privileges in this context or they give relationship advice or talk about polyamory as if this is all a given when it isn’t. And it gives people unrealistic expectations.
Appropriation in poly communities
The second huge problem I’ve run into within the poly communities is the massive amounts of all sorts of horrible appropriation going on. Most of the community I’ve run into is predominantly white and while I’ve been lucky to come across a queerer subsection of a poly community, a lot of the poly communities I see online are dominated by straight people. In both of these cases, there’s a massive amount of appropriation going on.
I get sick to death of seeing white people in polyamory communities reference a tribe or a culture outside their own, putting white names to their practices, and using them to validate their relationship style or choice. I get sick and tired of the “Ooh”ing and “Aah”ing over appropriated concepts of tantra, chakras, chi, and whatever I’ve seen white people mix together in a fruit salad of whatever cultures they want to build their ignorant burrito out of to try and make their polyamory practice more “exotic” and “sacred”. You shouldn’t have to justify your relationship choice via bigotry. When you act like your polyamory is valid because it’s made of “tiny bubbles of imperfections as proof that it was crafted by the simple, hard-working, indigenous peoples of wherever”** you’re being a colonialist jerk.
And to compile ignorance on top of ignorance, I cannot count how many times in many poly communities I’ve come across the ever fun figure of the Poly Patriarch. A white, economically privileged male “ally” of “the gays” who appropriates queer struggles, queer blood, queer death, and queer hatred because if he tells his mean ex-wife about having two girlfriends in their 20s, she might go all harpy on him and tell the courts and he *could* lose custody. While I won’t deny that there are real threats that non-monogamous people face due to slut shaming, misogyny, and general heterosexist cispatriarchical bullshit, I seriously doubt that Poly Patriarch who snorts at mentions of feminism and who probably has never got shit for who he loves in his life is going to be one of the first ones that the hammer falls on.
I’m sick to death of “allies” telling me that they have a right to call themselves queer just because they date more than one person, especially when they have key parties in middle class suburbia while queer kids are forced into homelessness, nonconsensual sex work, and death. I’ll feel more sympathy for Poly Patriarch not being able to marry all of his concubines when trans people can get married without having to worry about going to jail for fraud.
Abuse in poly communities
The third huge problem that I’ve run into is something that I see in a lot of communities: the perpetuation of abuse and abusers. This is a similar problem to what I’ve run into with the BDSM community, where people swear up and down that abusers are eliminated by some sort of Darwinistic natural selection within communities – that no one of course would put up with that sort of awful behaviour! And I run across a similar sort of sentiment within poly, except there’s little to no actual acknowledgement about how poly is kind of ideal for abusers, whereas, at least within the BDSM community there are efforts like Consent Culture to acknowledge that there are actually people who use BDSM as an extenuation of their abuse.
But within poly communities, no such dialogue exists, even though polyamory is a perfect choice for a lot of abusers, especially ones that don’t want to be caught. If you’re an abuser trying to sucker someone into your snares, it makes perfect sense to treat them lovely at first. Then eventually, entrap them, make them feel worse and worse, until they tolerate some of your more toxic behaviours. That approach involves two people being around each other all of the time and monogamy can be used easily to perpetuate abuse, but equally polyamory can provide protection.
When you’re a non-monogamous person who sees someone occasionally, you don’t have to spend quite so much time suckering someone into your snares. You can be casually abusive in a way that people may dismiss in between the times they see you. And if you lose one person who refuses to put up with even your casual abuse or witnesses you being abusive to another partner, you can just get another one. And if that person dares to say anything about you and your behaviour, they look like a bad ex.
Not to mention, it becomes really hard to identify abusers when everyone’s boning them and no one seems to think about accountability. There’s so much focus in the poly community about not controlling who your partner dates, that people put up with an astounding amount of shitty behaviour from others and let their partners treat other people in astoundingly shitty ways all just so they don’t be “controlling”. Because nothing could be worse than that. If I’m dating Tom and Tom is treating his boyfriend Phil like dirt, I can’t possibly tell Tom that I’ll break up with him or I can’t sit by and watch him treating Phil like dirt. Because then I’m being controlling, jealous, and manipulative.
I’m stuck in a trap where I have to put up with abusive shit all for the sake of not exercising the dreaded veto. And then if Tom’s also dating Jane and casually seeing Alex and both of them have no problem with Tom’s behaviour, you’re outnumbered and you look even more jealous and controlling. If you thought abusers were harder to identify and ban when everyone’s beating each other, imagine how hard it is when everyone’s boning each other – and boning the abusive people too! And they don’t seem to care all that much because they don’t have to live with the abusers all the time and, hey, they’re getting their rocks off.
There are people making efforts to fix the concept of Darwinism of abusers within BDSM. There are people still willing to realise that, as fun and as exciting as some kinky scenarios can be, they can also provide fodder and attraction to abusive mindsets and behaviours. Until poly people stop demonising things like “veto power” and start talking and taking seriously how polyamory can work well for abusers, I have a hard time taking on the label — especially when some of the most prominent people in the community I frequent are people who have told me they are “natural sadists” when I questioned how the treated their partners or people who have told me “emotional abuse doesn’t exist” and that I didn’t have the right to have a problem with the way someone treated their partner because I wasn’t a psychologist. Needless to say, I don’t have much optimism that things are going to change.
Superior attitude of poly people
My fourth huge problem puts the cherry on top of the shit cake: the superiority. I know not all poly people think they are superior and I’m more than willing to acknowledge that going against a dominant monogamous narrative exposes you to a lot of relationship obstacles that monogamous people may never really tackle, but I’ve run across enough superiority to be annoyed by it. While many poly people acknowledge that “Relationship broke, add people” probably isn’t the best solution, just as many people act like polyamory is the solution for anyone’s relationship problems, or they look down on silly monogamous people who feel things like jealousy and fear (because, you know, non-monogamous people never feel that).
Some poly people are so Regina George. They’ll tell monogamous people to their face how pretty their skirt/relationship style is and how much they love it and appreciate it, but then within their own communities and behind the backs of monogamous people will act like monogamy is some sort of subaltern caveman state of being that people only resort to because they just don’t know any better.
It’s even worse when this superiority is combined with appropriation. Not only are they superior because they’re polyamorous, but it’s in their true nature to be so, it’s their “orientation”, just like being queer! And that’s why they’ve cheated so much and hurt people when they were monogamous. Instead of holding themselves accountable and realising that a broken commitment is a broken commitment, whether it’s to one person or many, they’ve Calypso-ed their way into a different relationship style that allows them to shrug and say “It Wasn’t Me” to anyone who points out that, actually, breaking someone’s heart is a pretty crap thing to do and just because you find yourself doing it frequently doesn’t necessarily mean that non-monogamy is your orientation, especially when it seems like being an asshole is more likely what your orientation is.
Which is not say I’m questioning whether people feel more comfortable with a non-monogamous approach in their lives or invalidating people who have felt much more free under the more patriarchal confining aspects of culturally encouraged monogamy. Monogamy is encouraged by Eurocentric societies and quite often reinforces sex shaming, misogyny and all sorts of lovely bigotries. It’s not surprising that freeing yourself from that feels better. But being a cheater, asshole, or commitment-phobe doesn’t mean you have a poly orientation and the people who seem most adamant about declaring poly as their “orientation” and comparing it constantly to queerness, at least from what I’ve seen, have been doing so to shirk responsibility either for their own privilege or for the crap behaviour towards partners.
Social anxiety and polyamory
And lastly, as I’ve examined myself and my needs more and more, I’m realising that polyamory does in fact mean “many loves” and “love” itself is a pretty varied personal concept. I’ve had many discussions in poly communities about the line between “friend” and “lover”. In many cases people don’t seem to have a line and they like it that way. That has never been my experience. Whether due to having social anxiety, being on the spectrum, or (possibly, still investigating this concept) being demisexual, I know clearly the difference between friends, lovers, and acquaintances. New people are extraordinarily exhausting and difficult to deal with. Friends I can be around for a long time before I reach my peak. And lovers I can be around constantly without any drain. All of that takes time. I have to get used to people, get to know people. Often I find myself not attracted to any one or only attracted after having learnt more about them, having frequent contact with them, etc.
But people don’t seem to have these requirements or don’t seem to define a relationship in the same way I do. One of the reasons I chose to identify as polyamorous in the first place was because of it’s emphasis on love as opposed to swinging which seemed more about casual sex. Except, to be blunt, a lot of polyamorous people are doing exactly the same thing swingers are doing physically, they just call it love. And while I’m not going to tell people who they do and don’t love, I can’t pretend like there isn’t a huge gap in between my needs to cultivate a relationship and other people’s needs. While that’s less of a community problem and more a personal problem, it’s still another reason I’ve chosen to change how I identify.
Every community has some of these issues. There are simply some things that others will tolerate in exchange for what the label brings to their life vs. some of the downsides. I make that sacrifice for the label of “feminist”, but I don’t feel I get much in exchange for the label of “polyamorous” for what it has to mean and the communities I have to interact with. It would be interesting to see how things change, but until then, I prefer to approach things from a simple non-monogamous perspective.
** That’s a reference to the film Fight Club where the narrator is satirising material possessions sold to middle class white people.
This article was published in September 2012 and last updated in September 2014.