Adriana Delgado explores the diverging strands of the polyamory movement and invites us to reconsider our preconceptions about those who choose to have multiple partners.
“Polyamory can be many things,” says Monica, one of the founders of the poly community in Portugal who’s lived in Germany for a long time, where she’s also been actively involved in the community and in activism. Ultimately, the only condition is that it is “consensual and informed non-monogamy. Consent is all it takes, in polyamory.” Defining consent and not non-monogamy as the cornerstone of this relationship model is an important aspect: there are various types of non-monogamy of which polyamory is just one. For example, there is swinging, relationship anarchy, or even infidelity.
The emphasis on consent has earned polyamory the fame of being a particularly ethics-concerned model of relationships and affections. David, a Catalan and facilitator of the international community at the European level, concurs: “There’s no poly without ethics”. To this image have certainly also contributed the many ties that can be observed between poly and queer / feminist activism, which raise the question: how present is this political dimension, really?
Daniel, one of the most visible faces of poly activism in Portugal, is cautious: “Is polyamory inherently… ” “No!” he cuts in, laughing. But then concedes, when I ask him if polyamory is a bit of a political movement: “I hope polyamory is a lot of a political movement. Because if we assume that heterosexual and gender norms structure our social relationships, then monogamy also structures our social relationships.”
For Daniel, the personal is, indeed, political, and in challenging the established structures that govern how we relate to one another, polyamory has the potential to be politically disruptive. It also links it to other system-questioning movements.
“These issues are built into the theory and the definition of what polyamory is, but of course it’s also possible for people to pick up that concept and to use it in all kinds of weird ways. Because one thing is the ideal, the concept. The other thing is how people actually behave. Polyamorous people don’t just spring out of the ground with their polyamorous ideas all inside their heads and then live polyamorously. The potential is there, but it does not guarantee inherently that the potential will be fleshed out and put into action.”
The relatively open definition may also lead to tensions, as people with different values identify with the same word.
And therein lies one of the biggest challenges that the community faces nowadays. While the relatively open definition allows it to encompass a wide array of relationship models, it may also lead to some tensions, as different people with different values identify with the same word. And as the community grows, ensuring that the ethical background is still respected becomes a challenge.
Pol, also Catalan, and moderator of a dynamic Facebook group on non-monogamy, recalls: “In the beginning I also thought the same, I thought that polyamory needs to be ethical, had to be like not hierarchical and so on. But polyamory is a double-edged sword. You can have that idea in your head, but the person you are talking to can have another totally different idea in their head of what polyamory is. And that is the thing that for me is dangerous.”
The lack of common ground and the openness of the concept might lead some to think that everything is allowed. Pol started to encounter with increasing frequency people who went to poly groups with this attitude. “Polyamory gives them the excuse to just fool around.”
This has led him and others to distance themselves from the word. “Once I saw that this happened, I thought that it was interesting to start and name things differently.”
He moved on to create a group that focuses on non-monogamy as a way of changing a capitalist neo-liberal word. “I think polyamory has become a way for neoliberalism to isolate us even more. I don’t very much like the word polyamory, and in this group we talk about non-monogamy more, because polyamory has a lot of given structures and some risks that come with the word. It’s a word that is being used by a lot of guys to justify not caring or doing whatever they like. If this label is giving this kind of just the excuse to behave like this, then I want nothing to do with that.”
The attitude that Pol describes might have something to do with the media’s recent tendency to portray polyamory in broad strokes as, as Monica puts it, “something very easy, very cool, very liberating.” In reality taking up polyamory takes some homework and preparation. “Nowadays there seems to be a lot of people thinking poly is just doing what you want. But many are experimenting in a somewhat clumsy way… They read a few things, it seems easy and they want to start trying.”
Opinions converge in pointing to presence in the media as the key factor for the community’s steady growth, with spikes generally coinciding with media appearances. Visibility of the movement, though, is not the same everywhere.
Monica paints a picture of a wide-spread awareness of this model in Germany, while David maintains that in Catalonia growth has been steady but not dramatic, since despite a few media appearances it is still not widely known. In Portugal, Daniel credits the inclusion of polyamory in the dictionary to the visibility garnered through media exposure.
It should be noted, however, that the new-found visibility isn’t only positive, as it may contribute to creating too simplistic a portrait and understanding of what polyamory is about, how it works and what its proponents seek through their activism.
One such example is the growing tendency to present polyamory as “the new normal”. In a tone that goes from enthusiastic to alarmist, more and more articles seek to answer the question: Is polyamory the new fashion?
The reactions to this claim vary. For David, the prospective of such a generalization is not necessarily a bad one. “If ethics is a fashion, for me fashion is very welcome. I’m not going to think that someone is not entitled to being poly because he’s not hardcore adherent/follower of some other principle than respecting consent and ethical things.”
Daniel, on the other hand, points to the rhetorical flaws of framing polyamory in these terms: referring to polyamory as the new normal implies perceiving it as a lifestyle choice, which denies polyamorous people an essential side to their relationship model.
“With lifestyle choice, what people usually mean is something that speaks to someone’s preferences, but not their being; not something you feel is part of your core personality.” Ultimately, the element of choice could derive from that essential component of polyamory, consent: “Obviously, the decision to live polyamorously is always a choice. You can always choose to cheat or not to cheat.”
I don’t see a need for a new standard. I see the need for the multiplication of possibilities of ethic and intimate lives.
But framing polyamory as the new normal also hints at a desire to achieve the status of new generalized model of relationship, which is in fact not in the polyamorous agenda. Daniel: “If you get a new standard, then you’re being normative again. You’re creating a status quo, and a position of power, a standard that is going to impose something on people and is going to oppress people. I don’t see a need for a new standard. I see the need for the multiplication of possibilities of ethic and intimate lives.”
At the same time, some voices denounce a tendency within certain activist circles to feed this perception: “I do think that it’s the new normal,” Pol says. “I think that in some spaces the cool new thing to be is polyamorous. I do feel that some people who advocate polyamory frame it as the solution for all the bad things in the world. And maybe it’s not!”
This issue of normalization is a hot topic within the activist groups of polyamory, in more ways than one. As the community welcomes increasingly diverse people, with diverse relationship models and opinions on what is and isn’t encompassed buy the term polyamory, the challenge arises of how to represent such diversity in activism and political demands.
“I think the movement will at some point begin to fracture,” says Monica, and gives as an example the German green party’s quest for the legalization of multiple marriages, which she is critical of. “It’s replacing an unfair paradigm, marriage, with a broadening of that same paradigm, creating a situation that doesn’t address the situation of all polies. You don’t speak for me. It’s just creating an inequality that encompasses a bit more variety.”
The particular case of this political demand reflects an inner tension: while some seek seamless integration, others want to challenge society’s construction of relationships and other institutions. “We call them the mimetists. ‘I’m poly but I’m a good person. We are just like the others.'” For her, what is happening is a mere repetition of relationship models which already exist. “It’s multiplying the model of monogamous relationship by three or by four.” It works as a sort of quest for respectability, by going along with inherited social structures, institutions and costumes that could very well be questioned. And in doing so, it validates the exclusion and ridicule of those who do not abide. “What I and others are trying to do is to deconstruct the very notion of relationships. Not trying to forcefully find ways of romanticizing things. I didn’t stop having long-lasting relationships, but I did start exploring the promiscuous side to polyamory. And I loved it.”
As different factions become more vocal about their criticism and concerns, it might be tempting to assume that, following a certain hype, polyamory might be heading towards its inevitable demise, but it would be premature, and even cynical perhaps, to see in this multiplicity of attitudes and positions a failure of polyamory as a whole. Movements are dynamic. Criticism and dissidence are to be expected as they mature. And if movements are made of people, it is only natural that they tend to showcase voices just as varied as the adherents they count.