The Privilege Behind the Word Polyamory

LouisaActivism, Open RelationshipsLeave a Comment

The people at the party were the type of people who answer a question like What do you think of this wallpaper?' with interpretive dance. Singers, actors, performers.

So it wasn't surprising that when the cake came in, the rendition of Happy Birthday was theatrical. I, being a mere audience member, assumed an appreciative expression and then applauded wildly to cover up my British embarrassment, which in turn was a deeper cover for some residual envy of their glorious freedom of self-expression.

Over pink champagne and exotic aperitifs wrapped in leaves, I chatted with the man of the moment's boyfriend about 'sex-positivity.' As you do. But he'd never heard of the term. Unlike me, he'd never had to learn it because he grew up in a sex-positive household (queer), in a sex-positive country (Sweden), beautifully bisexual and well, fabulous. His relationship is open, and so are his friends'.

They don't need a further label--whether that's polyamorous, monogamish, or swinger--because as Eli Sheff quotes in her Psychology Today article 'Honey, we invented open relationships and certainly don’t need another label for them.'

Both academia and mainstream literature on consensual non-monogamy are disproportionately (but unsurprisingly) represented by white cis- het folk. But even allowing for privilege, other studies (Ritchie and Langdridge, 2010) suggest that non-monogamy via swinging and polyamory, is perceived to be a deviation from the norm for those who are groomed in monogamous conditioning [which is so often reinforced by sex-negative religiosity] whereas within the gay-male culture variations of non-monogamy are often the more popular choice.

Some research investigating rates of CNM among gay men suggest that 50.3% identify as part of a CNM relationship (Valentine & Conley, under review).

Which means that many queer folk do polyamory or are polyamorous (as defined by most folk practising polyamory), but call it open whilst the cis-het folk who might engage in exactly the same type of behaviour identify with the label polyamorous? Why have we created two different lexicons?  Why wasn't open--which came first--enough?

1. "Open" was derived from "peasant language"

Etymology is a fascinating study and human beings love labels. As cultural and social identities evolve, we seek ever more precise definitions. But that's rather a simplistic reason, because our choices and creations of labels reveal deeper motivations. Why in the english language alone, there are usually three different words for the same thing. How do we choose among them?

One is Anglo-Saxon (usually direct, neutral and informal), one French (usually formal and denoting sophistication) and one is clearly derived from Latin or Greek (abstract, usually specialised or technical).

Consider luck, fortune and success. The first--anglo-saxon and monosyllabic--has earthy and gutteral notes, the second--french--is aspirational and noble, the third originally meaning 'happy outcome' from the latin successus is nowadays much more associated with drive, education and ambition. Our choices, even if unconsciously made, reveal our attitudes, values, education, self-image and purpose1.

The Urban Dictionary. Often more accurate than Oxford's.

But where the Saxons were blunt and direct, the advent of the French who pervaded the upper echelons of English society, meant that such language was downgraded to the 'peasant' language of illiterates.

Open comes from old english/anglo-saxon openian meaning to open, open up, disclose, or reveal, but also meant "exposed, evident, well-known, public," often in a bad sense, "notorious, shameless." To be open, was to be shameless2.

2. "Open" was associated with unacceptable behaviours & queer society

Non-monogamous relationships--especially of the 'secret' kind--are not a new thing, so terminology for them has been around for centuries. But, that it should be defined in opposition to monogamy--a negative as opposed to a positive--is telling in itself. It is not the norm. Even so, non-monogamy was the least offensive of the group of words associated with the practise (consensual or otherwise) until polyamory came into being.

Adultery appeared around 1300 derived from old french, which in turn was derived from the Latin adulterare meaning 'to corrupt.' Other, usually derogatory words also appear early on. Cuckold for example, deriving from cuckoo--a bird famous for laying its eggs in another's nest and denoting appropriation of property--appeared in literature around Chaucer's time.

It was famously  used by him in The Miller's Tale whilst cuckquean, the female equivalent appeared around 100 years later [note, if you've never heard of the word, a quick search on Google should not be done at the office. #NSFW]

Similarly the word gay has had connotations of promiscuity and immorality since Chaucer's time and by the 19th century the term 'a gay house' was used to mean brothel before it became slang for homosexual.

Perhaps then, open did just fine for the queer community who defied prevailing rigidity and cocked a snook at normative society. But less so for the mainstream population who might have envied the freedom of the open lifestyle of their queer counterparts, but still wanted to be regarded as acceptable for purposes of social conformity. They chose a more respectable and more seemingly academic term to lend legitimacy to their behaviour.

The invention of the word polyamory can be perceived as an unconscious intention to create distance from the queer community who were considered immoral and promiscuous.

Does that mean the word polyamory is inherently homophobic? Maybe not, but I suggest the word is certainly laden with privilege.

3. "Polyamory" (Greek & Latin), was not promiscuous!

In my broad and admittedly highly skewed sample of poly/open folk, most I've encountered have migrated over from a sex-negative world which means there's a lot of deprogramming to do. Yet the first stage of deprogramming is the thin end of the wedge; it's usually to simply add another long term loving relationship,  aka. monogamy + one.

There's still some sex-negativity to encounter, but in the end polyamory is more acceptable. Because it's about long-term love, not indiscriminate one night stands (and sounds rather respectably mathematical). Which means it might be borne itself of sex-negativity.

Despite many well-intentioned protestations to the contrary, sex-positivity is not synonymous with polyamory. In her chapter "What is Queer About Polyamory Now?" in the publication Understanding Non-Monogamies (Barker & Langdridge, 2010), Eleanor Wilkinson suggests that almost every popular portrayal of polyamory attempts to distance itself from practises such as swinging which involve "having more sex", but focus instead on "having more love" (which is considered virtuous, even in religious circles).

Thus promiscuity, which has and continues to be judged as a sign of underdevelopment, immaturity and worthlessness can be relegated to "open", where practitioners seek a shallow narcissistic pursuit of pleasure and ego-centric self-absorption (Seidman, 1992).

"Yet are poly-relationships that are founded upon emotional ‘intimate disclosure’ really any different? Can individualization not also be seen as shallow, narcissistic and egocentric?"

- Eleanor Wilkinson, Chapter 25, Understanding Non-Monogamies

Thus polyfidelity was coined by the Kerista Village Commune (1971-91) and highlighted that trust, faithfulness and morality could still exist even within multi-partner relationships. The term polyamory quickly followed coined by Morning Glory Ravenheart, in her May 1990 article "A Bouquet of Lovers" in which she promoted the concept of responsible group marriage. Notably she, like me, also came from a very strict protestant upbringing. Like me, she grew up in a sex-negative household; she abandoned her birth name Diana (the virgin huntress), precisely because she didn't like the 'chastity' requirement demanded of Diana's followers.

What other word might she have chosen for her clan's philosophy? The term polygamy was coined in the late 15th century but largely due to the fact that society is and was patriarchal, polygamy--which was too closely associated with the hierarchy of one man-many women and contractual possession of women as chattel--was less useful at describing Morning Glory's vision of a loving responsible configuration.

She could also have stuck with greek etymology--not poly-filia, as several internet memes jokingly suggest because filia means the love of friendship and even worse to mainstream minds, is used to describe inclinations considered perversions--but 'poly-eros'. Eros is the greek for love, mainly of sexual passion, but to my formerly sex-negative ears that borders a little to closely on erotic. Maybe she thought so too.

So whilst polyamory adequately captures what the Zell-Ravenhearts practised, perhaps Morning Glory also defined it thus because it distances polyamory practioners from the perceived negativity of casual sex, even if many polyamorists theoretically embrace sexual freedom in all its forms. Like us all, Morning Glory was a product of her environment. Just as when I came out to my family, she cannily distinguished her behaviours from the rather subconsciously tainted open, by reframing it in an academic language softened by love.

And this superior framing continued by authors and academics in the field. Deborah Anapol (who I admire greatly) even developed her own term "sexualoving" to indicate that these are inextricably linked together in polyamory. Easton and Liszt (The Ethical Slut) also first stipulated in their 1997 issue of their book (p. 268) that polyamory could be described as an "advanced" form of sexuality (note, I havent checked later versions).

4. What "Polyamory" has come to mean

Yet the term polyamory has since evolved. Back then it came with hierarchy, a veto in the initial period--defined by Morning Glory as a year and a day--and the need for all partners to prefer polyamory. Today we find that poly-mono relationships with good communication can work successfully and that modern day flavours of western ethics may well eschew old ideas of veto and hierarchy. Why, is a matter up for debate.

If you are to take a kind view of this evolution, the rights of secondary partners as human beings entitled to their say in their relationships may be the dominating narrative. If you are to take a more critical perspective, especially given the recent polyamory metoo movement, it can be perceived as the mischaracterization of a natural human inclination to devote personal resources according to attraction preference, without taking personal responsibility for the end of a relationship and instead framing it as an ethical human rights debate.

Still the notions of hierarchy baked within the original definition of polyamory persist and the term relationship anarchy was coined in 2006 by Swedish Activist Andie Nordgren. Perhaps as a reaction to these lingering echoes, perhaps also that polyamory was too highfalutin for the Swedes who live in a largely classless society caring very little for self image through sophisticated language. Their language still sounds to foreigners what Ralph Waldo Emerson once described as the 'speech of brash bitter waters'. Polyamory rolls off the tongue in soft consonants, whereas anarchy (or anarki) is more reminiscent of their Nordic diction. It's creation may also be in reaction to a strong anti-american sentiment, where the word polyamory has taken a foothold.

As my own vision of what polyamory means seems to have evolved I have discarded the label. My preferred lingo is relationship fluid. It has become 'the capacity to build ethical intimate relationships in the form that they organically flow.' Whether that's emotional intimacy, mental intimacy or physical intimacy. Whether that's in parallel, integrated with the family, separate or sequential. It has less of the political implications of anarchy itself, and even less of the 'anything--even cheating--goes' that some hardcore relationship anarchists practice. And then there's the word fluid itself. I admit, I also prefer to define something which does not evoke negativity of those who might judge us. It comes from the Latin fluidus--capable of flowing--and is also the source of the word flumen, latin for river. It symbolises journey, freedom and the humble admission that we have no knowledge of where life's tide may take us and how we might ebb and flow, in the future. I am relationship fluid, which means that I am also open, in the sense that there is always a doorway to change. And I am proud to be.

1.The Secret Life of Words: How English became English, Henry Hitchings