[Image description: Two white feminine models wear exaggerated blue eye-shadow and crudely-drawn black eye liner which obscures their faces, red lipstick, and dramatic wigs (pale blonde on one, jet black on the other) with extremely receded hairlines. They have long painted red nails and touch each other with stiff hands.]
Monogamy is a relationship contract which demands sexual and emotional exclusivity under the guise of loyalty. Your one partner is expected to fulfill all of your romantic and sexual needs, or else face with horror the idea that they are not “enough”. In platonic friendships these behaviors would be rightly labeled as controlling and manipulative—but within romantic and sexual relationships they’re “normal” because monogamy reproduces the capitalist nuclear family, as well as patriarchal mores of people as property.
Because monogamous marriages are recognized by the state, they are given added social legitimacy. Through inheritance, they also keep resources (money, property, citizenship and all its benefits, class identity) consolidated within a minority of families.
Queer “ethical non-monogamy” is about the romantic and sexual autonomy of every individual involved. The only choice I make for my partners is whether or not they get to be with me—if I don’t like other choices that they make, I can leave, but I trust them to make the best choices for themselves and to be compassionate, decent people (hello, that’s why I’m dating them). But because we live under capitalist patriarchy where privileges are constantly reproduced, anti-capitalist polyamory requires deliberate reflection on how we can actively challenge patriarchy, racism, and ableism, and redress power imbalances within our relationships. Here’s a breakdown of why I’m polyamorous and what it means:
Social, emotional, and sexual autonomy.
Within a poly relationship, you have bodily autonomy but so do your partners: you are required to articulate and understand and respect the emotional and physical boundaries within each partnership. My partners are not “mine” and they don’t need my permission to do anything with anyone else. There are no “rules” on what my partners can and cannot do. I employ
safe safer sex practices and expect the same from my sexual partners, and that’s it.
Bodily autonomy doesn’t mean you get to do whatever the hell you want without consequences, or that you’re entitled to anyone’s time or body. Everyone is allowed to turn you down, and it doesn’t mean they’re “not sex-positive”—get over yourself.
Some poly people put guidelines/rules/boundaries on what their partners can do without them—”you can kiss but no sex without calling me first”; “you can have sex but don’t fall in love”; “you can fall in love but don’t leave me”—but kind of like Monogamy Plus (and I don’t get it).
Clear and honest communication.
Because it can be complicated, you need to be deliberate in your communication. Communicate jealousy, and fear, and desire. If you shame your partner/s for expressing jealousy, you’re doing it wrong. Active listening is a big component, and if I notice a date isn’t a good listener that’s a big red flag.
Being poly doesn’t mean I need to know about the details about my partners’ other relationships. I like to hear about it and I’m interested, but they’re not obliged to tell me any details they want to keep private. This isn’t license for anyone to be sneaky and refuse to communicate something important like, “I’m developing feelings for your best friend and we’re moving in together”, but they’re not “cheating” by not telling me something (nothing is “cheating”). I trust them to tell me the important things and not be deceptive.
Continuous communication means active and ongoing enthusiastic consent. Consent need not be enthusiastic to be valid (s/o to my sex worker friends), but in personal relationships I would hope your consent is enthusiastic!
I trust my partners to know what’s best for them, and to make the best decisions for themselves, so I don’t need to police or micromanage them. I also trust them to keep me updated on how my relationship with them is, and what they need, and what they expect from me. I trust them to leave if the relationship is no longer what they want. Mostly I trust that they’ll be honest and not be jerks (like, seducing my boss to intentionally complicate my business relationships).
This lifts burden of expectations for relationships. No one is “primary” or “secondary”. Even if I’m only seeing one person at a time, to call them my “primary partner” would be to put pressure on them to maintain that “status”, and to imply that I’m entitled to the majority of their time and emotional effort (and that they’re entitled to mine).
Strong sense of self.
I’m not part of a “unit”; I’m an individual. I treat all of my partners as individuals (whether they’re single, in a poly couple, or in other relationships). Don’t use other people to fill a void of desperation or loneliness.
Further to that—your needs are met primarily by the self, with the support of partners. There is no pressure to be your partners’ Everything. The burden of emotional labor falls on multiple partners, if you have them. Regardless of how many people you’re seeing, you’re required to do the Emotional Work of knowing yourself, learning how to articulate your feelings, and learning to be sensitive to and respectful of the emotions of others. Your partners should support you, but they’re not responsible for your growth.
Embrace the no-longer terrifying fact that your romantic and sexual relationships are not likely to last indefinitely. Being poly means allowing for fluidity not only between partners but within individual relationships which will undoubtedly change over time. There is no pressure to escalate relationships through the traditional linear stages (friends > lovers > couple > cohabit > marriage > children > divorce), nor to stick to a single relationship definition over time.
Intimacy with multiple people.
This is an obvious plus: you can pursue whatever relationships are mutually desired. Just as you have multiple friendships and work relationships, you can have multiple romances, flings, co-parents, friends with benefits, platonic cuddle buddies… Only the people involved get to define the terms of the relationship.
No love/sex scarcity.
There is no shortage of love or sex to be had, or to give—only time scarcity. This means I don’t indulge bad dates or bad sex; I politely excuse myself to spend time with people who are more fun, or to be by myself. Managing the time scarcity means being honest with partners about my availability and the amount of time I can realistically commit to them—it also means scheduling in time for myself. It’s not sexy, but it’s Important.
Diminished fear of losing partners.
Confront the reality that partners could lose interest, or fall in love with someone else, or leave you for no reason at all whether you’re monogamous or not. Polyamory gives them the freedom to explore themselves and other relationships while they’re with you, and makes it easier to leave if that’s the best course because you all have less invested in the idea of having One Partner Forever. There is liberation in not being afraid of being alone.
Polyamory is not just cishet couples looking for bicurious women to fulfill the man’s threesome fantasy (though OkCupid’s new linking account feature would have you think otherwise). It is not an excuse to lie to your partner/s about your intentions with other people. It is a somewhat unfortunate pairing of Greek and Latin roots, but we must choose our battles so I’m letting this one go (but not unnoticed).
There are bad practices within polyamory too, and some people use poly politics as an excuse to be abusive or misogynistic. I encourage everyone curious about it to click that link and get an idea of how to (and not to) poly.
I’m poly whether I’m with one partner, ten partners, or no partners. Here’s a comic with some examples of how polyamory manifests. You can practice polyamory while only having one partner by agreeing that neither of you is bound by rules over what you can and can’t do with other consenting adults.