Friday, May 06, 2011

Barry Smiler: There's No Such Thing As Polyamory

There's No Such Thing As Polyamory
by Barry Smiler
Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 14 (2011)


What Polyamory Isn't, What Polyamory Is

It's a truism that there are as many definitions of polyamory as there are people that do it. Why is that? It has seemed to me for some time that polyamory isn't about how many relationships one has; I know many people who call themselves poly yet who have just one partner, or no partner at all. And it isn't what one does within those relationships; there are as many poly structures as there are people doing them.

So what's left? The way I've expressed it for the last several years is, if you feel without reservation that the person who gets to choose how to structure your relationships is you, then no matter what choice you ultimately make, you're poly. (Choices to be made in open, honest, sex-positive communication with your partner(s), of course, who naturally have the same choice. Every stakeholder gets a say, everyone negotiates, hopefully leading to agreements that meet everyone's needs. Thus, poly is also about finding win-win. But that's an effect, not a cause.) You get to decide how your relationship life looks. Not your mother, not your culture, not your government ... you.

Recently, though, I've come to feel that all this is just a smaller restatement of a wider context, and not something that exists by itself. In these terms polyamory is merely an example, or special case, of the much larger principle of self-determination.

The Evolution Of Self-Determination

Looking back through history, the evolution of self-determination is clear. In earlier days of Western civilization, individuals had far fewer choices regarding behavior and lifestyle options, not just around sexuality but in many other areas as well. More was based on community morals and strictures; fewer choices were in the realm of personal options. For example, who one could socialize with, where one could live or travel to, or what kind or color of clothing was considered appropriate, all these were more tightly regulated by then-current societal norms than they are today.

Over the years, more and more options have shifted away from this model, and today it is natural and accepted that many choices which had previously been dictated by societal rules are now made by individual personal choice. For example, in earlier days, due to social strictures, it was considered scandalous for certain types of people to do something as simple as sharing a meal, or even having a conversation --perhaps people of different races, religions, or genders. Today it is entirely unremarkable for people in such categories to do so.

The concept of intermarriage is a good example of this. Indeed, the word itself has itself evolved, and meant different things in different eras. Depending on the times, intermarriage might have indicated a union of two people of different religions, ethnicities, or races (and race is another word whose meaning has changed over time). Who today would describe a wedding between a Lutheran and a Catholic as intermarriage? Or a German and an Italian? In an earlier era these might have been cause for social ostracism, financial repercussions, or even more serious punishments. Nowadays it is so unremarkable that even the word sounds dated, and the most socially charged sorts of intermarriage are now commonplace. Intermarriage between people of differing skin color is the last vestige of this, and that is also dissipating. For example, within my lifetime it was illegal in much of the USA for a designated-black person and a designated-white person to marry. Today, the child of such a marriage is the President of the United States.

These are only a few examples of how, especially over the past hundred years, many such options have moved remarkably from the realm of the society to the realm of the individual. Previously, groups such as Irish, Jews, Catholics, women, gays, and many others were openly and unashamedly denied entree to employment, housing, and social arenas. Today, though discrimination is far from vanished it is sotto voce, and the defined cultural ideal has come to a place where work and life roles don't depend nearly so much on religion, gender, race, or ethnicity, and the sexual orientation barrier is in the process of falling even as we speak. The trend is away from cultural determination in such choices, and towards self-determination.

Self-Determination Today

Today, more and more the assumption is that the person who gets to make the decisions about what your life looks like is ... you. With polyamory, we're discussing the sexual/relationship aspects of one's life. But doesn't that make polyamory simply a special case of the more general right of every person to decide the course of their lives for themselves? That is, self-determination?

Self-determination is an honored goal in many circles. In our current culture the well-respected ideal is for everybody to support making up your own mind for yourself. While this is sometimes honored more in words than in practice, it is a basic touchstone of our current modern culture.

What would happen if we reframed polyamory as not a thing unto itself but rather as simply an example of every person's right to self-determination?

Suddenly everything becomes clearer. All the charge around who is doing what with who gets defused as it becomes obvious why polyamory isn't about sex. The American mythos is all about having the right to live your own life in your own way. "Live free or die" is a core-values concept, and with this way of looking at polyamory, it's right on target.

This isn't intended to remove from the polyamory "look" the valuable elements of honesty, clear communication, and a sex-positive approach, all in service of building a web of mutually negotiated trust among the direct stakeholders and using that to find a way that works for everybody. But in this framing, these too become part of the larger picture of living your own life your own way.

The funny thing is, it's not hype. I feel it's perhaps the most valid and honest way at looking at the poly experience, and it explains a lot.

Polyamory In Comparison

What distinguishes polyamory from other movements it is often lumped in with by mainstream observers, and what does this indicate about the self-determination framing I propose?

To Read the Rest of the Essay

1 comment:

Claude said...

I agree we may be talking about a broader philosophy on society here, but calling Anthony Weiner a misunderstood libertarian rather than a libertine plays into the hands of those who would call him a hypocrite or insensitive. He does whatever he wants without admitting it, so why would he really do what his constituents want? Then people find out he does what he wants, and he still wants to do as he chooses without considering the views of others. He is no longer cheating; he is asserting his non-existent right not to be judged by others in the public arena.

If we were living in Polynesia (no pun intended) before Christian missionaries arrived, even with food readily available on trees year round, even without the need to build a secure, warm house, surround it with a fence and dogs and two cars, keep all the inlaws out and the outlaws in, we might be so busy caring for our wives’ children by other men or devoting quality time to our multiple lovers that we would not have any time to question the status quo and assert our individual rights to live as we please. We would follow the Joneses. Yes, polyamory is about one’s beliefs, not about what one does in the bedroom or a biological sexual orientation in some way different from that of other mortals, but it’s fundamentally communitarian. That’s the real reason we have only one partner. Even when living in a coop in college, responsible, respectful people are often too busy studying to share their lives intimately with many friends, and in contemporary America, only the independently wealthy have the emotional capital for multiple rewarding relationships. The discouraged, uncounted unemployed may have the time for this, but not the energy or the attitude to make it work. The anti-sex agenda of the abstinence-only anti-abortion crowd is not a campaign to limit individual rights, it’s a campaign to limit sharing with others and barricade ourselves. In America, it’s fine to devote your life to worshipping an imaginary being rather than getting married and having kids, but if you are a happily single person who wants to teach children the rest of your life, not so you can meet another teacher and settle down, but so you can engage deeply with a number of other people’s children, you are eyed with suspicion. I am not a teacher, but I am so thankful that part of my job involves interviewing members of the public about their experiences, as my friendships have degraded into a series of happy hours and networking events.