he meaning of the word “polyamory” has been debated since the moment of–or perhaps before!–its entry into the standard English-speaking lexicon in the early 1990’s: Polyamory vs. Swinging; Polyamory vs. Cheating; is Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell Polyamory or not? All of these have been discussed nearly inumerable times on lists across the US and in some cases internationally. As a relatively new movement, gaining more and more exposure through broadcast media, newscasting, and the internet, the debate has only been increasing in intensity, as “we”–whoever we are–struggle to understand ourselves, to help others to understand us, and to create a culture to support this new/old relationship paradigm.
Last month on one of the lists I participate in, quite a few poly organizers and leaders had a particularly “spirited” debate on this topic. In amongst a torrent of words from a lot of thoughtful people, I wrote something I thought might be helpful to share.
One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever you define something, it creates a space where something is IN, and other things are OUT. A lot of folks seem uncomfortable with this necessity, preferring as inclusive an umbrella as possible; the “Big Tent” of non-monogamous relationships, if you will. However, it isn’t possible to have a definition that includes everything; that’s useless. The important point in my opinion is where we focus our attention. As others have said, we want to create our definitions and spaces through defining what we are, not what we are not. We can let other people decide whether they fit the definition we’re promoting, at the same time we continue to repeat our message of what we are.
I was particularly appreciative of Matthew Bobbu’s post in that thread [on the PLN list, Nov. 10, 2011], and I’d like to repeat a bit of it here:
“I define polyamory as ‘the belief in and/or practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of those involved.’ I don’t define the sort of relationship anyone has to have, how they have to structure their relationships, what kind of sex they can have, or what sort of love need be involved. For me, to do otherwise will strengthen the cause of a vocal minority at the expense of the quieter majority, who may not even realise that we’re fighting for their freedoms too.
Much as Martin Luther King didn’t fight for black rights, he fought for racial equality; I don’t fight for poly rights, I fight for the freedom to participate in any consensual relationship one might wish to – with the exclusion of none.”
Thanks, Matthew. *Raises glass.*
That’s the definition of polyamory I use as well. The key points are:
relationships (of the romantic adult human variety)†
full knowledge (aka open/honest)
consent of all
If it isn’t those things, it isn’t polyamory. If it is those things, it is. Swinging can be polyamory, therefore, but cheating cannot. One night stands could be polyamory if they meet all of those criteria. So can long term committed polyfidelitous triads, or newly established tribes. True lifelong monogamy is not polyamory, because it fails on “multiple.” Serial monogamy might be, depending on the other factors. Gay non-monogamy arrangements could be polyamorous, but anonymous bathhouse sex in particular isn’t (not a “relationship.”) A sexless marriage that includes other partners could still be polyamory, even if no one ever has sex. Tiger Woods’ outside relationships weren’t polyamorous, because his wife didn’t consent. To take an extreme example, gang rape is not polyamory even though it involves multiple people, because it isn’t loving OR consensual. And in my opinion, both the common “slippery slope” argument of bestiality and the spectre of child abuse can easily be eliminated as potentially “polyamorous” because neither animals nor children are able to consent. However, if beating more than one person with a flogger is everyone’s idea of loving, and everyone consents, then that can be polyamory, too. Intimate networks and open marriages can definitely be called polyamorous, if that’s what the people involved want to call their relationships.
This definition doesn’t talk about sex. It doesn’t not talk about it either. It just focuses our conversation on the salient points, in my opinion. We don’t need to say what polyamory isn’t. We just need to say what it is.
poly (derived from the Greek for ‘many’)
amory (derived from the Latin for ‘love’)
In other words,
Polyamory is the belief in and/or practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of those involved.
Proud to be polyamorous,
† Further discussion on the PLN list involved the question of how to distinguish familial relationships from polyamory. After all, they’re certainly (or they should be!) “loving” relationships amongst multiple people. No one asks the older brother to break up with his sister when a third child comes along, nor do parents need to end their relationship with their first-born to accommodate her brother. So why wouldn’t these “count” as polyamorous? The general assumption of most polyamorous people seems to be that we’re talking about adult romantic/sexual relationships, not, for instance, your familial relationship with your children or your grandparents, nor your platonic relationship between you and your aunt, or you and your cousins. “Kissing cousins” could be involved in a polyamorous relationship, though, if there were three or more of them! They wouldn’t be polyamorous just because they’re cousins; it would take more than a platonic peck to move the relationship over into potentially polyamorous territory.
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[© 2011 Dawn M. Davidson]