Polyamory's success in popular media is making it a national fetish.
Polyamorous relationships — the practice of having multiple lovers — are all over the news, recently placing in a prominent NY Post article among others. In the last couple of years, there has been an explosion of discussion around alternative relationship styles and now that the gay marriage debate is all but over, at least legally, it seems that everyone is looking for the next sexual frontline. This is good news, and something I predicted a few months ago, but all the media attention does have an unfortunate, though not wholly unexpected, side effect: polynormativity.
While I didn’t coin the term, that credit goes to Andrea Zanin of Sex Geek, a blog about all things sexual and kinky (though she doesn’t actually take credit for the term – read her article to understand), I’m happy to help spread the warning. In short, "polynormativity" refers to the general sense of what should constitute a normal poly relationship. According to Andrea, this normalized media version of polyamory generally includes four popular misconceptions about the movement:
1. Poly relationships are built around a “couple”
2. Polyamory depends on hierarchy
3. Poly relationships require a lot of rules to work well
4. Polyamory is practiced by white, young, cute people and usually tracks the “one penis per party” theory of modern patriarchy.
While I’ll leave you in Andrea’s capable hands if you’re looking for more detail on each issue, I’d like to focus on the bigger problem that her article addresses, particularly because it’s this bigger picture that is at stake in the ongoing political/social debate about the future of sex.
The recent fervor in the LGBQA community over marriage rights aside, the entirety of the alternative sexuality movement has historically been about challenging the monogamy norm. It absolutely wasn’t about replacing that norm with another, equally restrictive, objective alternative. Instead, it was about choice. The freedom of each individual to pick for themselves the relationship/romance/sexuality style that works best for them. The freedom to practice life as the individual saw fit; not as religion, government, or the community approved.
It is this freedom that the polyamory movement really supports, and it is this freedom that is at stake if polynormativity takes too deep a root in our popular imagination. Under polynormative guidelines, poly relationships aren’t really poly at all. Instead, they’re just new, edgy, versions of monogamy. They’re for regular, hetero, couples to explore a little bit of the excitement that comes from breaking with tradition; all without straying into anything overly dangerous or “bad.”
If the polyamory movement is to accomplish anything, we have to step outside the box of the national fetishism that is developing around alternative relationships. We have to stand up for the ideas that underlie open relationships. We have to take the time to explain that polyamory is about options, not about rethinking monogamy by simply adding a side-car. It is the theme of monogamy itself, nay, the idea of definitions in the first instance, which must be challenged; removed as obstacles. We have to stop thinking of people as gay, straight, single, married, man, woman, polyamorous; and instead start thinking of people as people – people who have sexual inclinations that we have no right to judge, no burden to approve.
As our understanding of human sexuality expanded over the course of the last few decades, we attempted to cope by simply adding new definitions, new terms, to our vocabulary. What we need now is not a revolution in vocabulary, but a different framework altogether; a framework that does not depend on our ability to define the sexuality of those around us.