Thursday, October 28, 2010


Prodomme and sex columnist Mistress Matisse opened a can of worms over the terminology of polyamory:

Some days, I miss the term nonmonogamy. I should dust it off and give it some daylight, because I'm put off by how reductive the definition of the word polyamory has become lately.

I first heard the term polyamory on a Usenet group in the early 1990s. Its appeal was obvious: Saying that one is nonmonogamous implies that monogamy is what's proper and that being nonmonogamous is a deviation, with all the negative baggage that word carries...

However, as the term became more popular, factions developed, and one of them might be called poly literalists. "Polyamory has the word amor in it, which is Latin for love," they say. "So if you don't love the other person, then what you are doing is polyfuckery, not polyamory. You're just using the word polyamory to justify your promiscuous sexual activities. And you're a dirty slut who is tainting my morally pure system of having sex with more than one person."

Okay, they usually don't say the "promiscuous dirty slut" part out loud. But it's clearly implied, along with every other sex-negative shaming strategy in the book...

...sexual- minority groups of all kinds have an unfortunate habit of eating their own young. Certain individuals in the group proclaim themselves the protectors of the Right Way, identify some subgroup within the ranks, and say, "Their way of being X isn't pure enough, we must ostracize them!" Bonus points: They then turn to mainstream society and say, "See, we're not like those people. They're bad. We're good, like you."

I'm nowhere near as connected to the sexual minority and sex activist cultures as Matisse is, and don't doubt there are dicey internal politics involved. But in my case, at least, I do think the word "polyamory" is used too broadly, and it has nothing to do with disapproving of others' relationships.

I practice an exclusive relationship with two people. This doesn't make me any better or worse than people who practice the open-relationship or swinging models of poly, any more than my distaste for onions makes me better or worse than the weirdos who love the things. My way isn't truer, purer, or morally superior to theirs; it's just different.

But it is different. Quite frankly, I think the "closed relationship of more than two people" model falls closer to monogamy than to open relationships and swinging on quite a few sliding scales. Calling it all "polyamory" actually suffers from exactly the same problem as "nonmonogamy": it defines what we are by saying what we're not. Getting rid of the negative prefix doesn't actually change the situation when you're still lumping together very different lifestyles in one big folder of "y'know, not what normal people do".

When I was working at a pharmacy in my college days, one of my coworkers was a woman from a fundamentalist Christian family who was away from home for the first time. Once she referred to a mutual acquaintance as "gay", and I pointed out that the person in question was actually bi. She gave me an utterly perplexed look, like I'd just grown tentacles out of my head: what's the difference? Aren't all those people equally distinguished by being not-us?

Gay isn't better than bi and bi isn't better than gay, but we don't define them all as unstraight, or lump them all into one unstraight category with a more pleasingly obfuscatory name. I don't much care who gets to use "polyamory", and certainly don't want to freight healthy, fulfilling relationships with a deliberately dismissive word like "polyfuckery". But it would be nice to have good words that distinguish between these very different kinds of relationships.


  1. At the risk of causing some thundering apoplexy among a certain set - I'd say you're married. Committed, stable, long-term relationsship, right?

  2. Funny you should mention that. The three of us are actually having a wedding ceremony on the 13th. It's exactly as legal as the weddings gay Americans have been having for years, but for a crotchety libertarian, lack of government recognition isn't so great an issue as it might otherwise be.

  3. Congratulations! I seem to recall a mention of tht happy event over the lunch lo those many moons ago.