Poly 101

October 14th is the date of the second UK Polyday. If you want to find out more see the flyer enclosed with this edition of BCN, or check out polyday.org.uk.

Like our regular BiFests, Polyday will be a day of workshops, discussions and socialising but focused around the topic of polyamory rather than bisexuality. We’re hoping to encourage dialogue between people who have different ways of managing their relationships outside monogamy, as well as developing more of a sense of shared community. There is even talk of a future residential PolyCon if this event is popular. Because there is quite a lot of crossover between the bi and poly communities there will probably be a lot of familiar faces from bi events present on the day. However, I thought this would be a good time to write a bit about poly for people who haven’t heard much about it before or who want to learn more.

The most important proviso is that this is in no way an attempt to convert or persuade anybody. There are many, many people in the bi community (and elsewhere) who are very happily monogamous or without sexual relationships of any kind. Polyamory, and other kinds of non-monogamy, are just alternative ways of conducting relationships. They are worth knowing about if you’re thinking about how you want to manage your relationships and want to consider all the options, but they are neither superior or inferior to the various ways of being monogamous or celibate. Relationship style has to be something that each individual figures out for themselves and negotiates with the people around them.

What is Polyamory?
Polyamory, or poly, has been defined as ‘being open to having more than one intimate or sexual relationship’. It means having multiple relationships with the knowledge and approval of all parties, and it falls into the broader category of open ‘non-monogamy’ which generally refers to ‘honest and ethical’ non-monogamous relationships of any kind. Non-monogamy also includes swinging, which mostly involves couples having sex with other people. It also includes the common model amongst gay men of being in a couple but with the agreement that it is still okay to cruise and have sexual encounters with other men. However, people may use all of these terms different own ways. There is a glossary of terms at the end of this article that give some of the more common definitions.

Where does it come from?
The term originated in the US in the 1960s as part of the ‘Church of All Worlds’ project, to refer to the type of responsible non-monogamy advocated in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. The term ‘polyamory’ has only become popular during the last decade or so with the proliferation of poly websites and e-mail groups on the internet. Recently there has been a flurry of media interest in the topic with several newspaper and magazine articles and a number of documentaries being made on the topic. The TV show ‘Big Love’ represented another kind of open non-monogamy (based on traditional Mormon polygamy). It remains to be seen what this increased awareness of polyamory will mean for poly communities and relationships more generally.

How many polyamorous people are there?
This is very difficult to estimate because it depends whether we are talking about. For example, there may be fewer people who identify as polyamorous than those who openly have multiple relationships but don’t use the term. Some people do not publicly proclaim their polyamory/non-monogamy for fear of the implications for themselves or their families.

In the 1980s Blumstein and Schwartz did a study in the US which found that 65% of gay male couples, 29% of lesbian couples and15-28% of heterosexual couples had some kind of openly non-monogamous arrangement. If you do a google search for polyamory you get around a million hits. There are over 200 people in the UK signed up to the polyamory email list (uk-poly).

Why would some people not want to be monogamous?
People are non-monogamous for a number of reasons. In one survey that I conducted I found that about half the people felt that they were ‘naturally’ non-monogamous. They often said that they had felt like this from a young age and had been very relieved when they’d found out that other people also thought that it was possible to be attracted to more than one person and forge multiple relationships. Some pointed to the fact that lifelong monogamy is extremely uncommon amongst animals and that the majority of human societies have been polygamous in some way (usually with men having more than one wife, but occasionally the other way round or with acceptance of sexual relationships with both genders during life).

The other half of the people surveyed saw non-monogamy more as something they had chosen consciously for themselves, with many different reasons for having done so. Some felt that being non-monogamous was a more integral part of their sexuality than the gender they were attracted to or what they liked to do sexually. Others felt that it was something they could be at some times in their lives but might not always choose.

Non-monogamy is often seen as more acceptable in gay, lesbian and bisexual communities than it is in heterosexual society. Sociologists like Jeffrey Weeks have argued that this is because people who fall outside heterosexuality have to be creative with their relationships, negotiating new guidelines with each other because they don’t have access to a set of existing rules.

Some see open non-monogamy as a preferable alternative to ‘infidelity’ in a society where as many as 60% of men and 50% of women having had sex with someone other than their spouse while they are married and over half of marriages end in divorce.

Some feminists have argued that non-monogamy is a preferable relationship arrangement for women (going against the old stereotype that it is all about fulfilling male fantasies to have more than one woman). They have argued that monogamy and marriage have traditionally benefited men rather than women, with women being men’s property who work, unpaid, in the home, with little freedom or space for close female friendships. Some women feel that the common emphasis on openness about emotions and multiple supportive relationships in polyamory is particularly well-suited to women, and that poly can be good for domestic labour and childcare because there are more people to share the load.

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Poly 101, cont from previous page

Some feel that open non-monogamy is a way of retaining personal freedom and independence whilst also having relationships. Some feel that sex is one way of relating to people and don’t understand why they would only do that with one person. Some people struggle with the convention that people shouldn’t stay close with their ex-partners when they are involved with someone new. Some like the idea of building a family of people rather than the unit of the couple. There are probably as many reasons for being polyamorous as there are polyamorous people.

How easy is it to be polyamorous?
Polyamory still isn’t viewed in an unproblematically positive way by people in general and certainly isn’t considered as an equally valid way of doing relationships to monogamy. When people in a monogamous relationship break-up their friends seldom blame the split on them being monogamous, but most polyamorous people will have had people blame any relationship difficulties they encounter on their polyamory. Several polyamorous families have had ‘concerned acquaintances’ call social services to investigate them. In every such case I’ve heard of, the social workers have pronounced the children particularly happy and healthy.

In the mass media any kind of open non-monogamy is generally represented as either ‘evil and dangerous’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘freakish and weird’, despite the obvious fascination with the topic. The dominance of monogamy in our culture is apparent in the available language about relationships (e.g. partner, couple, ‘other half’, ‘other man/woman’) and this can make it difficult to develop a different way of doing things and to explain it to other people.

What different ways are there of being polyamorous or openly non-monogamous?
Again there may be as many different ways of being polyamorous as there are polyamorous people. It is worth remembering that monogamous people also arrange their relationships in many different ways with different rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, roles taken, and living arrangements.

Polyamory could involve being in a group (e.g. a triad, quad, tribe or family). It could mean having one or two main relationships and other less frequently seen partners (some people use the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ to refer to people at different levels or with whom they spend different amounts of time). Poly could involve having several ‘friends with benefits’. It is perfectly possible to be poly and single too.

Where can I find out more?
As well as coming along to polyday there are a number of websites and books that are useful for someone wanting to explore these ideas further.

Many poly people highly recommend Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt’s book ‘The Ethical Slut’ which goes through various ways of being openly non-monogamous and some of the important skills involved in managing such relationships. Other books on polyamory include ‘Polyamory: the new love without limits’, ‘Polyamory: roadmaps for the clueless and hopeful’ and ‘Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living’ (this last one is a bit more academic than the others).

Useful websites include uk-poly (where you can request to join the mailing list) at www.uk-poly.net, and alt.polyamory (which has a newsgroup) at www.polyamory.org. This website also includes a very useful list of frequently asked questions.

· An open relationship (sometimes open marriage) is one that includes the possibility for either partner to have sex with people outside the relationship with the other party’s knowledge and consent
· A polyamorous relationship is one that’s open to more than one loving and intimate relationship.
· Swingers are couples who get together with other couples or individuals, as a way of enhancing their sex lives.
· Non-monogamy is an umbrella term that covers the whole spectrum of honest and negotiated alternatives to monogamy.
· Compersion is the opposite of jealousy – the joy of a loved one being made happy by another. In Britain we might say we feel frubbly.
· Metamour is a word used for a partner’s other partner.

Do email BCN with your (preferably quoteable!) experiences of polyday if you do attend.