Polyamory as a Rejection of Capitalism

[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!

Trust.

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).

Nonhierarchical 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.

Relationship fluidity.

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.

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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.

17 comments

  1. I am reading the article and although this writer is an expert at poly vs monogamy he is clearly so far off the mark about economics that its making my head hurt. The problem in this country is the only version of economics people learn is this keysian crony capitalism nightmare that is perpetrated by the republicans and democrats as a free market when all it really is, is an Ponzi scheme where power and influence controls who gets rich and who stays poor.

    Capitalism is inherently anarchic in nature and is the only economic system that is compatible with individual equally/liberty. Polyamory is also inherently anarchic in nature. In a true free market all transactions all interactions are voluntary (same with poly). It is a full absence of coercion in a true free market scenario. Therefore “the market” is synonymous with negotiation and that is synonymous with freedom. All transactions in capitalism are negotiated and agreed to up front and “the customer” is searching for what they want and will try different businesses until they find the one that makes the product they are looking for. In a free market there is no one size fits all.

    So this article nicely explains how poly works but its conclusions are completely backwards. Poly requires NO central planning each individual is responsible for understanding their own needs and negotiating with others to get those needs met. It is completely a free market view point right down the line. The conclusions of this article is a complete work of projection by the writer.

    1. Hi James,

      In a true free market most transactions are not voluntary because people who lack resources (money, goods, time) need to survive and so are forced into transactions which are beneficial in the short-term but expensive over the long-term; it’s absolutely coercive. The idea of capitalism as compatible with equality and liberty is predicated on everyone having equal access to resources, which only exists in thought experiments about capitalism and even then requires everyone to participate in selling their labor in order to survive.

      Polyamory is a rejection of the *values* of capitalism, which are intrinsically tied to patriarchy, racism, the codified transactions of people (women) as property, and the consolidation of wealth amongst the privileged via marriage and inheritance.

      P.S. I got my degree in international politics in the UK, not the US (“this country”).

    2. capitalism is not anarchy, it is chaos for the poors organised by the need of capital to accumulate.
      Capitalism may allow hierarchical polyamory since that’s comfortable with the very core of the system (hierarchies, added value to one person above another, rules), but it’s definitely incompatible with what Morgan describes, which I call Relationships Anarchy and which is, in fact, anticapitalist in its own essence.
      Now go back to your Rothbard books, i don’t know, sell some children.

      @Morgan: have you read the article “Relationship Anarchy is not post-polyamory”?
      Great piece, btw.

  2. Polyamory is to monogamy as homosexuality is to bisexuality. No one trusts you. They think you are flakey and just in it for the sex (hence the sub-heading “no love/sex scarcity”). Love and sex are not analogous – they are totally different.

    Name the great polyamorous relationships that shaped history- there are none. Instead of polyamorous why not use the phrase “self centered made rooters” – it is a better description of what you do.

  3. I’ll be honest and say that I did not read more than the first line or two. Once they made it clear that they were going to tell me what monogamy is, I knew it was a lost cause. If they want to tell me what satisfies their needs, great. But to tell me that they understand exactly what it is that motivates me to want a monogamous relationship is nothing less than prejudicial. Neither their narrative nor mine ‘ fits the mold ‘. A monogamous relationship requires consent on both sides; a polygamous relationship, if everyone involved is happy with it, is still mutual consent. Having a relationship where sexual exclusivity is not part of the plan is fine for those who want that. But for those of us who choose something that is different that what you feel is right for you is putting way too much emphasis on how you feel, and not nearly enough thought about others having their own motivations.

    Forcing anyone to abide by either ‘ rule ‘ is ridiculous. If people are that off-base about something as important as how a relationship works, you’re probably not right for each other. Everyone involved being honest about their feelings is a whole other kettle of fish…

  4. it seems to me from this article that sex is the commodity in that relationship, not trust or support or companionship, like i would never disrespect my partner by leaving because the sex was “bad” if anyone was ever that rude it would take some serious explaining to me why i should attempt to pleasure them when they obviously care so little about my feelings. when people invest emotional capital in a relationship like in anywere else they invest time or effort they like to know its valued.
    not to mention the shit fight thats going to happen when someone gets pregnant, who is the dad who gets to name it ect theres no right choice someone always feels slighted shit hits the fan big time.
    i grew up on a commune i know first hand just how “free love” ends and its just as ugly as when a monogamous relationship beaks down theres just more people hurt
    and this article dosnt even describe free love it describes something far, honestly more capitalistic, in free love you have sex to pleasure the other person you would never go meh this is bad sex im going next door thats just….. mosewell go to a brothel
    and definately dont claim its a rejection of capitalism because according to this article its almost purely for personal benefit and one should learn to get used to partners leaving you
    (you might want to examine that bit a little as untill it totaly broke appart my commune was stable for a number of years and there wasnt a continual throughput of people showing up and leaving)
    and people definately valued and deeply loved each other its just life provides incidents.
    and in a poly community that tightly woven it only takes one person to fall out and the whole organism ceases to function.
    but please dont claim that treating sex as a commodity to barter or withhold is anything but capitalist.
    it might suprise you but in relationships were people care about the other person sometimes you make yourself feel like sex because your partner has a need for sex at the time even though you might be as uninterested as hell you get hard and you give it 100% because you care about your partners needs and want your partners needs met.
    mind you ive only had 2 proper relatonships and both only lasted a few years so im not one to call kettle black but trying to justify casual sex as a regection of capitalism is pretty funny, you should go and look at some of propaganda pamplets dropped to china and russia in the cold war, free sex was one of the big things they pushed about capitalism

  5. I don’t see how polyamory is a rejection of capitalism. If you want to reject capitalism then that means rejecting living inside this economy. Don’t use money, buy/sell, etc. polyamory has been practiced by many inside the capitalist society. I would argue that regardless of what political system we used, people would still be polyamorous. Rejecting the tradition of marriage is not going to stop capitalism.

  6. I mean, people were pretty upset at the unnatural Greek/Latin marriage of “homo” and “sexual.” Now we’re collectively over it. I’m sure the same will happen with “polyamory.”

    Great piece, although not necessarily about rejecting capitalism.

  7. hooray for this article. thank you for putting it out. my only pushback would be to say that time for myself can most definitely be sexy.

  8. Hey thanks for writing this! there feels like a shortage of possibility models for polyamory and ive just been flying by the seat of me pants! (though i admittedly havent looked that hard for cyber support until now). i also appreciate your attention to emotional labor and rooting polyamory in a denial/resistance/challenge to capitalisms reverberations in the realm of romance, love, sex and the domestic sphere. here are some parts of the article im finding i have some resistance to:

    “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).”

    I think there is a big difference between these examples, some of which i can see some validity in. One of the qualities im most attracted to in polyamory is breaking away from heteronormative relationship expectations (which can effect queer relationships too as its the dominant framework for romance that we’ve all grown up with) and instead offers the potential to build your own boundaries and expectations with your partners. So while i agree that setting a boundary like “you can kiss but not fall in love” is falling into the same cishet paradigm of ownership, having a mutually consented to expectation that there is a conversation before someone sleeps with a new partner could very well make sense in certain situations. the nuanced factors of a relationship (a recent betrayal, certain insecurities, past traumas including previous possessive relationships etc.) can inform how polyamorous people build boundaries and expectations with one another and make space for healing wounds and i think thats equally special to the sexier side of tearing down boundaries rooted in patriarchy.

    this is related i think to:
    “…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”).”

    this might be splitting hairs but i had to revisit this a couple of times because it made me feel slightly ashamed that i could envision scenarios where i might feel “cheated on” in my poly relationship. i dont doubt that i have more to work on in the realm of jealously/competition but i do think when you establish expectations in a poly relationship they should either be respected or reworked and if they are not that could be considered “cheating” or some degree of betrayal. when i first started dating my partner it was important to his other partner of several years that she and I hang out and chat before things keep going between him and i. it was all of our first experiences with polyamory and we were all tender and nervous and interested in looking out for each other. i think had he not respected that expectation of hers (i guess via me not being interested in that conversation and him discreetly continuing to see me) that could be considered cheating. ideally in these types of scenarios where partners expectations and desires are dyssynchronous there could be an ongoing conversation around those boundaries and a willingness to see them as fluid and adjustable but i think having no expectations or boundaries is somewhat unrealistic. in fact that might be setting yourself and others up for self shaming and bearing quiet disappointments.

    idk, these are just some rambly thoughts that came up for me while reading. Thanks again for writing and id love to hear your input if you have any!

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