“Hey, who are you calling poly?”
Are those “fighting words” on the non-monogamous playground? Why, or why not? Below I present some of my recent thoughts on this topic. I’d welcome your input, should you choose to share either here, or in my FB Page.
Recently — both online and in person — I’ve become aware of a trend that I find deeply disturbing. In the past week alone, I’ve heard multiple people say that while they identify as open, in open relationships, or in some other sort of ethically non-monogamous relationship, that they don’t identify as polyamorous in particular, “because poly people act as if they’re ‘better’ than swingers or those in other sorts of ‘open relationships.'” Honestly, I wish I didn’t know what the speakers meant, because I so much do not agree with this sentiment. Unfortunately, I’ve seen/heard it myself… and I’ve argued against it, ad nauseum.
For context, I strongly identify as polyamorous because that has been my community for 15+ years, as well as the way that I’ve felt about my relationships pretty much all of my adult life. I believe in the possibility and practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved. One of the things that drove me off the poly discussion lists early on, though, was the damnable, interminable arguments about poly vs. swinging! I think that the struggles of the poly community to identify as “not swingers” are largely due to the fact that when poly was starting to cohese as an identity in the early to mid-90’s, that was the response that many “non-poly” people would have: “Oh, you mean you’re SWINGERS?” And that would come with a whole set of assumptions that just weren’t true: about key parties, wife-swapping, sex, love, and so forth. So given that context, I think it’s natural that poly-folk would respond with, “no, we’re not swingers, and here’s why.” It’s understandable. I’ve even said it myself. And I now see that this way of responding — at least without a lot of context — can cause unnecessary division amongst our communities.
I do think, as some folks have mentioned in some of these online discussions, that a large part of the problem comes from the US puritanical ideas about sex (as being bad, “dirty,” and/or “immoral” in any context other than procreation), and from accepting the frame that the “moral majority” has given us (see George Lakoff‘s work for more about frames.) One of the struggles of the poly community over the last 10-15 years has been to open the minds of others to the idea that we were creating a new (or arguably renewed) paradigm that wasn’t in opposition to monogamy,” NOR was it “the same as swinging,” “just a different word for polygamy,” or even the same as “open marriage” (which already had an established meaning as well.) We were trying to create something altogether different, based on fundamentally different ideals and thoughts.
So a large part of what I see some of the leaders doing here — in particular those who prefer not to identify as polyamorous, but instead as “open” — is actually continuing this process–i.e., attempting to create an identity and form a community around the ideas of openness, honesty, and not limiting one’s number or kind of partners. I see the needs and struggles of people who identify in the manner that these folks have described — “open,” “open relationships” and/or “fluid”–as being more similar to one another (and therefore also to polyamory) than they are to the monogamous paradigm at large. It bothers me to see finger-pointing and division where I feel we should be sharing experiences and tools. I have always felt this way, even when we were still arguing over poly vs. swinging in the late 90’s. This is nothing new, in my opinion; it’s just that now we’re having the conversation about “open relationships,” instead of “swingers.”
My personal experience of the term “open relationships” is that it’s a better term than “open marriage,” but that it’s still saddled with the history of the O’Neils’ book from the 1980’s. The farther we get away in time from its publication, the more the term “open relationship” can come into its own, discarding the older assumptions about marriage as the only legitimate context for a sexual relationship, for instance. That said, for a long time the only people I saw using that term “open relationship” were closer in practice and ideology to swingers: they had a dyadic relationship as the core assumption, which then was allowed to be “open” to other satellite relationships of some sort. In other words, first you had to have a relationship (singular) in order to “open” it. It has been a very specific style of relationships that is NOT what I see as “polyamorous”, which involves more potential styles of relationships than a couple-centric model (e.g., a closed polyamorous triad marriage isn’t what I’d call ‘open,’ but it certainly does contain more than 2 people, which makes it not monogamous either.)
Of course, that is NOT the definition or practice of the open relationship community/ies that I see some of our local organizers suggesting, and it’s not what I’ve seen the people of this community actually doing either. What’s being developed here is a far more open usage of “open,” if you will. To reiterate, those I’ve interacted with in our local “open” community seem to be attempting to create an identity and form a community around the ideas of openness, honesty, and not limiting one’s number or kind of partners, as well as to create an atmosphere of openness in thought, and of questioning former limiting assumptions. I think that’s great, and appropriate, and I support it wholeheartedly.
What I don’t support is the idea that somehow polyamory is NOT “open” by definition, and that people who identify as “open” or being in “open relationships” are de facto “more enlightened” than “poly” people. I think that’s just continuing the whole idea of “we’re better than you” (because we’re “newer” or because we’re younger, more open-minded or not stuck in the past, or because we’re open and you’re not, or whatever…) and I think that’s BS. My own reaction to reading “hey, who are you calling poly?” was to be pissed off at polyamory being cast as something bad to be — I heard it as an insult, and I heard it as tacitly assuming that because I identify as poly that I obviously would engage in these sorts of negative behaviors that these people had encountered in the past. (Just in case it needs pointing out, if that’s really what happened — and I certainly might have read more into it than was really there — then that’s prejudice, and it’s not ok.)
So to reiterate: while I emphatically do NOT think that poly people are somehow “more enlightened” or “better” … I don’t think that people who identify as being in “open relationships” are somehow “better” either. We’re similar in some ways, and different in others, and that leads to diversity. While that can be challenging sometimes (differences can lead to conflict!), it’s also good, in my opinion, since it allows for more thought, more questioning, and more challenge to the status quo, which means that at the very least we’re not doomed to repeat the past for ever and ever. It may not be better, but at least we won’t be bored. ;^)
Related to that, I also don’t happen to see poly as a “subset” of open relationships, though I can understand that perspective. I see it as an overlapping set. I guess I can agree with those who have suggested that polyamory is a subset of the whole idea of “open”, and that both “open relationships” and “polyamory” are different ways to be open about love and relationships.
Others in these conversations have suggested that “open” describes a relationship, and that “polyamorous” describes a person. And that therefore, one can be both “polyamorous” (have multiple loves–of whatever kind) AND “open” (open to new people in relationship — and possibly open to new ideas and ways of relating in general.) That works for me, too.
So… what works for YOU? How do you identify, here in the Uncharted waters of love and non-monogamy? Poly, open, swinger, or something else? Or do you prefer to Love Outside the Box(es), and love without labels? Whatever your preferences, I hope you find something of value here, and are happy in your choices.
©2012, Dawn M. Davidson