With gay marriage settled into law and the movement for trans rights forging ahead, polyamory might just become the next big battleground in the culture wars around sexuality. Polyamory is the practice of having multiple loving, romantic and/or sexual relationships simultaneously with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. The term polyamory was invented in 1990 by Morning Glory and Oberon Zell, the founders of a neo-pagan church, All Worlds. It described an alternative to monogamy, one that was already being practiced by some, typically called responsible or ethical non-monogamy, emphasizing love over sex, which distanced the practice from other forms of non-monogamy, such as swinging, cheating, or open relationships.
Creating new relationship narratives can be a form of subversion to the patriarchy and state. According to Gustav Landauer, “The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e. by people relating to one another differently.” While forming polyamorous relationships is not always a consciously political act, such relationships inherently resist cultural norms. By organizing people into potentially non-monogamous, non-heterosexual, and/or non-cis-gendered configurations, they qualify as queer. While there are many alternatives to monogamy, all with their own sets of advantages, I see polyamory as the relationship form with the most promise for creating what Charles Eisenstein refers to as the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. Polyamorous relationships greatly trouble the idea of “normal” relations, and can be subversive to state and patriarchy. Polyamory can move beyond the confines of identity politics because it is not simply an identity category, and because it does not necessarily revolve around sex, many people can practice it by being polysocial. Thus, polyamory can be a sort of “revolutionary love,” problematizing old narratives of relationships and creating new ones.
I do not mean for polyamory to replace monogamy; healthy, deliberate monogamous relationships that do not replicate the capitalist possessive ought to exist alongside healthy polyamorous relationships. By “healthy monogamy,” I mean relationships that are deliberate; if monogamy is practiced as the unexamined default, as is the cultural norm, the relationship is unlikely to be a healthy one. Healthy monogamy allows each partner freedom to develop all aspects of their self and intellect through outside friendships with people of all genders, including the one(s) they are attracted to. This contrasts with monogamous relationships that do not allow for outside friendships and freedom for self-actualization, replicating the structure of restrictive patriarchy.
Like lesbian, polyamory is a way or lens of knowing and experiencing the world and a way of relating to people that is different from the way people relate to each other under monogamy. In Towards a Black Feminist Criticism, Barbara Smith defines lesbian as a frame of reference rather than a sexual identity. She says lesbian writing contains sentences that “refuse to do what [they] are supposed to,” and the resulting literature is “nothing like what white patriarchal culture requires or expects” (23). Thus, “lesbian” describes a way of relating to and acting in the world, even if the “lesbian” characters do not have female “lovers” in the strictest sense. According to Adrienne Rich, “Lesbian experience comprises…the rejection of a compulsory way of life” and is “a form of naysaying to patriarchy, an act of resistance” (649). Polyamory, too, comprises the rejection of a compulsory way of life and is a form of naysaying to patriarchy, an act of resistance. Polyamory rejects the compulsory relationship configuration, monogamy, just as lesbian rejects the compulsory sexual orientation, heterosexuality. Adrienne Rich further posits that all female experience lies along a lesbian continuum:
I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range…of women-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman (648).
Rich’s definition rightly understands that being lesbian does not depend only on whether or not female to female genital sex is had or desired. Lesbian experience is simply experience women have with other women; all female experiences lie along the lesbian continuum. Similarly, in Between Men, Eve Sedgwick describes the homosocial continuum, which includes all male relationships from friendship to sexual.
Some monogamous and all polyamorous interpersonal experiences fall along a polyamorous continuum, which encompasses possibilities ranging from the polysocial to the polysexual. A polysocial couple would have a happily and deliberately monogamous relationship, but would also maintain close friendships with multiple people of the gender (or genders) they’re attracted to. Polysocial would not necessarily be an identity marker this couple would identify with or even be aware of, and they might be even less aware of the fact that their sexually monogamous but polysoical relationship would fall along the polyamorous continuum.
Further along the polyamorous continuum are polysexual relationships. An example of a polysexual couple from The Ethical Slut is Chris and Laurie, whose arrangement permits them to sleep over at lover’s houses two times per month, with room for negotiations for special occasions or circumstances. The rest of the month, they spend together in their own bed (150). Some polysexual people develop constellation relationships, where a large, extended family of lovers and friends choose to live together, co-parent, and share finances, property, and major life decisions. These arrangements can sometimes be referred to as tribes or pods. Contrary to what mainstream thought might tell us, these relationships can be excellent for raising children. This example is shared in The Ethical Slut:
We have never had problems creating consistency and security for our children in a sexually interconnected extended family. While you might assume that inclusive relationships might generate massive inconsistency, our experience is just the opposite. Our connections tend to form sprawling extended families that have plenty of energy to welcome all the children, and the children readily learn their way around the tribe (101).
These tribe relationships can include present lovers as well as friends or lovers from the past. Easton and Hardy say, “The binary nature of monogamy-centrist thinking tends…to cause problems: you’re either the love of my life, or you’re out of here” (101). Tribe, pod, or constellation relationships can get past this binary “monogamy-centrist” thinking: just because a relationship has shifted and two people are no longer lovers or as close of friends, they need not discard each other. They can still play important roles in each other’s lives, cohabitate, and share child-raising duties within a tribe relationship.
Monogamous cultural narratives tell us these polysexual, or even polysocial,
relationships would be impossible because of jealousy. However, jealousy is in part a culturally constructed emotion, and people in healthy polyamorous relationships are able to manage and overcome it. Charles Eisenstein provides insight into jealousy:
Scarcity…is mostly an illusion, a cultural creation. So our responses to this scarcity—anxiety and greed—are perfectly understandable. When something is abundant, no one hesitates to share it. We live in an abundant world, made otherwise through our perceptions, our culture, and our deep invisible stories (32).
Eisenstein identifies that scarcity is culturally constructed; it does not reflect reality. Love and sex are not scarce or limited resources. Polyamory recognizes that love is abundant, and each individual has an infinite capacity to love. Our culture’s narratives tell us that love is scarce in order to enforce the hegemony of monogamy. If we recognize that sex and love are abundant, we do not hesitate to share them, because we know there are enough of them to go around. Monogamous narratives tell us we can only love Amy or Christine; polyamory recognizes the defect in this story and reminds us we can love both Amy and Christine. Our love for Christine would not necessarily diminish our love for Amy; in fact, our love for Christine might increase our love for Amy. One way to think of this is parenthood. When a mother has a second or third child, she does not necessarily stop loving her first child. Her love can encompass all her children. Polyamorous relationships recognize romantic or sexual love is similar and can also expand to include multiple people.
Human response to scarcity—defined by Eisenstein as anxiety and greed—appears as jealousy in interpersonal relationships. However, jealousy, like scarcity, is culturally constructed. Jealousy is not a necessary emotion in polyamorous relationships, because it is understood that your partner will not stop loving you just because they also love someone else. Revealing the dual illusions of scarcity and jealousy makes polyamory a radical sexual politics because it tears down old cultural narratives surrounding love, sex, and relationships, and begins to create new cultural narratives of expansive polyamorous love.
It is no wonder monogamy is the dominant relationship under capitalism; the two institutions are remarkably similar. Under capitalism (and monogamy), people must see themselves as separate individuals because they compete against each other for limited jobs and resources (and partners and love). Capitalism requires people to step on each other to climb the ladder of success; monogamy requires people to step on other potential suitors and lovers to climb the ladder to the goal of marriage. Both institutions are founded on competition instead of collaboration.
Both monogamy and capitalism came into existence together because of the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture. In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jehta say, “Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern” (15, emphasis in the original). Private property is a hallmark of a capitalist economic system. If someone can own property, that property has to be able to be passed on to its rightful heir, which is why paternity suddenly mattered for the first time in human history. Monogamy became necessary to ensure paternity and a successful land-owning lineage.
Societies before and outside of capitalism are not typically monogamous. Ryan and Jehta set out to prove this, and the fact that humans are naturally polyamorous, in Sex at Dawn. They say:
Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent societies together (10).
It made sense for our pre-agricultural ancestors to share sexual partners; they did, after all, share everything. Sharing was necessary and mandatory in hunter-gatherer culture; hoarding was not allowed and would have been culturally shamed. Ryan and Jetha also write about modern-day indigenous peoples and tribes that still practice non-monogamy. Some examples include the Mosuo in China, the Kulina of Amazonia, and the Warao of Brazil (Cacilda and Jetha, 121, 125).
Polyamory contains revolutionary political potential because it is a worldview that is not divisive and is able to privilege collective interests over individual ones. Many aspects of modern society are divisive, including our political system, which pits the interests of one political party and its subscribers against the opposing political party and its subscribers. Under this divisive system, both parties struggle to get anything done due to their general unwillingness to compromise. This system operates on the premises of us vs. them and competition, forcing people to pick one side or another.
Monogamy is isolated and competitive; polyamory is communal and collective. Polyamory is radical because it is inclusive. Interpersonal relationships under polyamory are based on love for every person, whether or not there is ever sex involved. Because polyamorous people are permitted to have unlimited sexual, emotional, intellectual, or physical relationships with an unlimited number of partners, they are able to connect with any number of other people in deep and meaningful ways, because every potential interaction is not viewed with suspicion by partners or society at large.
Charles Eisenstein identifies the narrative of separation that has permeated our culture for hundreds of years as the central problem for humanity. Eisenstein describes the problematic, separate self:
It is a self conditionally dependent on, but fundamentally separate from, the Other: from nature and other people. Seeing ourselves as discrete and separate beings, we naturally seek to manipulate the not-self to our best advantage.
Polyamory is one way to move past the narrative of separation. The ability to connect deeply with other human beings begins to melt away narratives of us vs. them that exist under monogamous ideology. If we begin to dispel the narrative of us vs. them as a culture and begin to care about other people and their opinions, our world might begin to look much different. Systemic change can only happen when people realize their problems are everyone’s problems, everyone is oppressed by the same system, and the only way to make life better is to fight together. The answer lies in cooperation and unity, not competition. In his essay In a Rhino, Everything, Eisenstein says, “Love violates the story of separation. Love is the expansion of self to include another, whose well-being becomes part of one’s own.” Polyamorous love is especially able to violate the story of separation because it can expand to include many others, not just one or a few over the course of a lifetime. In this way, polyamory is a radical perspective on sexuality that contains revolutionary political potential. By creating polyamorous relationship configurations, we can help bring the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible into being.
Easton, Dossie, and Janet W. Hardy. The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures. 2009.
Eisenstein, Charles. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition. EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. 2011. Print.
– In a Rhino, Everything. CharlesEisenstein.net, Feb. 20, 2016.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 4, 1980, pp. 631-660.
Ryan, Christopher and Cacilda Jetha. Sex at Dawn. Harper, 2010.
Sedgwick, Eve K. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.
Smith, Barbara. “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” The Radical Teacher, no. 7, 1978, pp. 20–27.