Savaging Dan: Some Thoughts on Poly as Identity

The inimitable Dan Savage has stirred things up again, this time by saying it’s not possible for polyamory to be an identity:

Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it’s not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do. — Dan Savage, 11/21/12

For the record (although Dan’s actual advice to Polyamorous Polymath isn’t so bad — basically “if you really can’t compromise on this, then do both of you a favor and end the relationship as gracefully and as quickly as possible”), I definitely disagree with his statement around polyamory and identity. I think that you should be able to identify however you damn well please, as well as loving (and/or being sexually attracted to) whomever and however many people works for you (and for them.) I don’t think these are mutually exclusive concepts. (For some more good poly critique of Dan’s original post, check out Anita Wagner Ilig’s post in her Practical Polyamory blog.)

In a thread on the Poly Researchers list, author Meg Barker (Rewriting the Rules) said,

It is different things for different people, and sometimes at different times for the same person.
To which I added:
“…and for the same person with *different people.*”

As an example, I have some partners where the “fundamental harmonic” is kinky, and some for whom it is not. I literally cannot have vanilla sex with one partner, and I never or rarely have kinky sex with another. It’s about the dynamic BETWEEN individuals, not about some static quality of each person. The fact that there’s a “fundamental harmonic” doesn’t mean that other harmonics are less “real” or less “true” for any particular interaction.

By extension, I think it’s possible for people to be somewhere on the mono to poly/open scale, and to be in a fundamentally poly dynamic with one (or more) partner/s, and in a fundamentally mono dynamic with another.  I think they can APPEAR to change over time, much as bisexual people appear to change over time, when really, it’s more that they’re expressing different parts of themselves at different times with different people.  People are complex, after all!

I even referred to this (in a different context) a couple of months back in my blog:

“…I think it’s by far the most common case that polyamory includes sex. In my definition, polyamory most often includes sex, in the exact same way that monogamy most often includes sex, but can be experienced without it; they’re both relationship styles after all. But just as it’s possible to have a celibate or sex-free monogamous relationship,  it’s quite possible that someone might identify as polyamorous but not be having sex or in a sexual relationship.  The presence or absence of  sex is not like a light switch after all. Otherwise, we’d all walk around changing our status whenever we had a sexual encounter (or didn’t): Now polyamorous, now celibate, momentarily monogamous, polyamorous again ….” (

Ultimately, I am concluding, I do view polyamory as an orientation — whether a sexual one or “only a relationship one” pretty much doesn’t matter in this case — which might for some of us be/become an identity. As Jessica Burde said on the PLN list, I think it’s possible for poly to be BOTH “something you are” AND “something you do.”  Which, I’ll note, can be true of being “Queer” as well (much as Dan might prefer to skip over that part):  You can certainly engage in same-sex sexual behaviors, without identifying as “queer”; and you can certainly identify as gay, for instance, while not being in any currently sexual relationship whatsoever.

Sarah Taub mentioned in the version of this thread on the PLN list that she views the genesis of this tension (at least in the US, and I’ll add, possibly the driving force behind Dan’s need to exclude polyamory as an orientation or an identity) as being the struggle for rights and freedoms. The GLBT movement leaders largely chose to frame the discussion as a matter of “innate orientation,” saying that people should not be penalized for expressing their true nature (“we can’t help it.”) So therefore same-sex couples and families should not be penalized in terms of marriage rights and tax benefits, for instance, because “they can’t help being who they are.”

(This framework is, not incidentally, problematic for bisexuals (among others), since people who can choose to be in either a heterosexual or a homosexual relationship don’t fit well within an “I can’t help it” framework. This is undoubtedly at least part of why so many bi folk have felt dismissed, denigrated, or just erased by the GLBT rights activists over the years… and why poly folks and bisexuals seem to have found common cause in at least some cases.)

Polyamory banner in the 2005 SF Pride Parade

The polyamory contingent of the SF Pride Parade, on June 26 2005, marching under the registration of the Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN.)

On the other hand, there’s another common framework for the “fairness” discussion that dates back at least to the founding of our country, which is the idea of “free choice.” This is what our doctrine of “freedom of religion” is based upon:  “everyone gets to choose whether and how to worship deity/spirit, without interference from the government” (at least in theory).

As Sarah said, GLBT activists have mostly used the first frame, and poly activists have mostly used the second.  There are some GLBT activists that choose the second frame (e.g., “everyone gets to choose whom they love, and whom they call family”), but by and large the differences in these frames can explain why the conversation comes up over and over again as a point of tension, and why (inexplicably to me, previously), so many GLBT folks seem to view polys as “the enemy” rather than natural allies.

I think ultimately, I’m with Bonefish, commenting on Dan’s blog, who says that whether or not polyamory is a sexual orientation (which arguably it’s not under most current definitions of “sexual orientation”), it most definitely CAN be an “identity.”  The point, ultimately, isn’t “orientation vs. choice.”  The point is actually that regardless of whether polyamory is something innate, or something chosen, it can still be a primary part of one’s identity. And no one — not Dan, not some church, not the government — has a right to tell me (or you!) what and who is important to me. I get to love who I love, and to say that, and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of it, nor fear consequences for speaking out about it (though this latter is still unfortunately true for many people regarding employment and child custody issues in particular. See Woodhull’s Family Matters Project for more on “rights, recognition and respect for all families.”)

To sum up, I think that with regard to the issue of polyamory as identity, Dan has his loud mouth up his proverbial backside, and people have come out in force to tell him so.  What a shame he can’t recognize polyamorous people as potential allies if you doused us in glowpaint and shone a blacklight on us! I’ll surely be looking forward to seeing the responses he posts in next week’s promised follow up on the original post!  Should be very interesting indeed….

I’d be curious to know, by the way, how you identify. Feel free to fill out this quick checkbox form if you’d like. (You don’t even have to leave your email address for this one [ETA: and I’ve even made the name field optional, too]. 🙂

May you have as much love as you want, need, and deserve (no matter what your orientation is!)

~♥ Dawn

PS: It’s kinda funny, actually, because I said some stuff recently that might be read as agreeing with Dan, that poly is something you do rather than are (here in my most recent Agreements Tip, #6.)  To clarify, though, I see it more as a case of AND rather than OR.  Yes, when making Agreements, it’s a good idea to keep sexual behaviors separate from relationship needs.  That’s more about how Agreements (especially ones around Safer Sex) work, though, and not about the validity of viewing polyamory (or GLBT, or…) as either behavior or orientation.

PPS: And as weird as it feels to say this, I find myself agreeing with Tim Graham (Note: a “right wing nutjob” according to Anita) when he says to Dan:

This seems a little bit arbitrary in the world of Anything Goes, doesn’t it? You may behave however you want sexually in Savage World, but the political dictionary is strictly maintained.
That does seem a bit odd, doesn’t it, for someone like Dan who usually argues that no one else should be allowed to comment on his chosen relationship? So who made him god … er … the editor of the “political dictionary” when it comes to polyamory??

∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥

[© 2012 Dawn M. Davidson]

8 thoughts on “Savaging Dan: Some Thoughts on Poly as Identity

  1. Pingback: 21 Reasons to Be Yourself (and Other Thoughts on Identities) — Uncharted Love

  2. Pingback: — Uncharted Love

  3. Patrick

    My simple “Thought Rule of Thumb” is this: Whether you are/do something, and you are then locked in solitary confinement for the rest of your natural life—if you still ARE it, even then, then it’s a natural part of you.

    If I say I’m a “fireman”, because I fight fires, and I’m in solitary. Well, I’m not fighting fires anymore. If I say I’m gay because I am attracted to men, locked up I’m still attracted to men. If someone says that they’re gay simply because they have SEX with men, well locking someone up forever would change that.

    So maybe an identity such as gay isn’t as much something you “do” as is something you “are”. What about identity such as Polyamorous?

    For me, with polyamory. Even locked up in solitary for the rest of my life I would still have polyamorous feelings and desires… so, in short, I consider myself to be polyamorous and have a polyamorous identity.

    It’s not a perfect metaphor or thought experiment, but it’s somewhere for people to start thinking.

    1. Uncharted Love Post author

      Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate your response. I agree that some people would have an orientation and an identity as a polyamorous person. A few might be completely monogamous. And many might be able to go either way. Like you, I think my relationship orientation could be described as strongly and innately polyamorous. And I definitely identify as a polyamorous person, in the same way that others might identify as Christian, or gay, or Republican.

  4. Uncharted Love Post author

    Hi Christa: Yes, I loved that part of Old Crow’s comment as well. Most people in our culture view gender as innate. But there are many — like you — who do not resonate with it in the way most people do.

    “Telling people they MUST identify as something is just as destructive as telling people they CAN’T identify as something.” — Agreed entirely! Personally, I’ve felt forced around the matter of religion, as well as in several directions sexually. It’s not fun, and it’s not ok, and I believe that it creates trauma for those who are so forced.

  5. Christa

    Wow. I really love Old Crow’s comment:

    “I experience gender as a preference, not an identity. Gender is a set of arbitrary, learned rules that I follow because it was made clear to me that not doing so would result in a world of pain. Does it follow that other people can’t experience gender as an identity?”

    I’ve experienced it mostly as something people tried to FORCE me to identify as that didn’t fit so for me it’s more like an anti-identity. Telling people they MUST identify as something is just as destructive as telling people they CAN’T identify as something.

  6. Dave

    You make some good points, here, regarding the subtle distinctions between orientation, identity, and behavior.

    I find that I identify, innately, as polyamorous – that is, it comes naturally to me to love multiple people, to be attracted multiple people, to desire intimacy of many kinds with each of them.

    However, I also find that I don’t have an absolute need to act on this (i.e., be sexual with everyone I love), as long as I’m getting my needs met by at least one person. I want to act on it if conditions are right, but I can live without it.

    My sense is that Dan, by trying to say poly is not an orientation/identity, is trying to say that poly people never really *need* to have multiple romantic/sexual relationships to be happy as contrasted to a gay man who really *can’t* be happy without at least being able to have a romantic/sexual relationship with another man.

    Whether or not that is a reasonable thing to suggest is questionable, since what makes someone happy is a complicated set of things, not all of which, even an individual can be sure of at any given time (myself included).

    I just wanted to throw that out there for discussion since that’s what I suspect his intent is.


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