In the battle for the right to choose how to demonstrate your sexuality, polyamorists are the new ‘convenient issue’, the latest depraved people to pick on. We are the slippery slope. Because the mind loves polarities of definition. A polarity of definition is an unnatural polarity; it is an invention of the mind for the purposes of the mind being right (and the mind loves to be right). Gay people used to be the ‘wrong’ people. But if there’s one thing the ‘right’ people fear, it is being judged to be ‘wrong’. And thankfully, it’s now ‘wrong’ to consider gay people ‘wrong’.
However, the increased acceptance of gay people – evidenced in the numerous countries bringing in same-sex marriage – means that there has to be a new ‘wrong’ and polyamory is often it. In the UK fears were expressed by one side of the debate that gay marriage would be the first step on a slippery slope to ‘polygamy, bestiality, incest and paedophilia’. On the other side, proponents of gay marriage promised that it would not open the door to ‘polygamy, bestiality, incest and paedophilia’. Neither side of the debate saw any problem in lumping multiple relationships/marriages in with those other – largely non-consensual – practices. Also, the proponents of same-sex marriage were very quiet on the topic of open non-monogamy (something that is very common indeed amongst gay men in particular).
Jenny Erikson is a self-described ‘conservative chick with a strong opinion and a smart mouth’. Her post from December 01, 2013 clarifies this point of view.
Agree or not, at least gay and polygamous marriages show some sort of committed union between adults — promises to stay together for life. Of course promises get broken, but how can you raise children in such chaos that no promise is ever even made, let alone attempted to be lived?
Well, it depends on what you consider to be sustainable. Is a relationship with a lover whom you see a couple of times a week and have done for 30 years less sustainable than your relationship with a co-parent who you have lived with for 5 years? What if you don’t want to cast aside your old love for your new? Polyamory says you don’t have to, because in an open relationship the two can co-exist.
And yet, we must admit that the universe is in a constant state of flux and change is a part of life. That relationships can and do change should come as no surprise. Should we shield children from the realities of how relationships work? To specifically address Jenny’s concerns, that adults decide to part ways, does not mean that they dissolve their promise to parent their children. Polyamory concerns relationships between consenting adults about their role in each others’ lives not their children’s. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact an acceptance of the changing nature of relationships and the practice of good communication – advisable in all relationships – will mean less chaos, not more.
But instead of attempting to draw such polarities around the moral rights and wrongs of sexuality and relationship practices, there needs to be a move towards recognising the diversity of identities and practices that exist and are possible. Within such a recognition, an increased focus on ethical behaviour and consent would be helpful, rather than the current focus on which sexualities are ‘natural’ or which relationship types are ‘normal’.
Over in Sweden, they’re making progress to have “P” added to the string of letters which used to be ‘wrong’ LBGTQ-P’. It represents huge progress because it means a certain legitimacy, a certain ‘rightness’ and a chance to enter into the lexicon of queer theory. And yet, the ethos of polyamory is inclusion. And the act of supporting the chance of P entering simply means leaving another convenient people to be picked on. So how can we teach the next generation to discard all the labels and embrace the continuum. when labels are what we use to teach the continuum in the first place? How can we tell polyamorists who hunger the legitimacy of recognition that we’re not fighting for that anymore?
The importance of this is highlighted by research that finds that it is difficult to clearly distinguish between monogamous and non-monogamous people. Like all such polarities they break down when examined closely. Consider Alfred Kinsey and Lisa Diamond’s work on sexuality – both finding that this is a lot more complex than the gay/straight polarity would suggest. On the monogamy/non-monogamy continuum lie people who have affairs, people in openly ‘monogamish’ relationships, polyfidelitous people who may have stricter rules to contain their relationships than some monogamous people, people who are sexually monogamous but have multiple emotionally close relationships, and people who identify as monogamous but engage in plenty of online, or solo, sex.
Adding letters to the list is one strategy in gaining rights and visibility for marginalised groups, but another strategy is pointing out the problems with such clear divisions. When we recognise that everyone’s attractions are complex, sexualities are unique, genders change over time, relationships have their limits and openings, and identities intersect with other aspects of a person (class, race, age, etc.) then we can better represent the full diversity of experience.
Co-written with Dr. Meg Barker, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, LGBT actvist and sex & relationship therapist who has written many books on this topic. Their blog and book ‘Rewriting the Rules’ is on www.rewriting-the-rules.com.