Last weekend, sex educator Arden Leigh gave up the label “poly”, and for good reasons. Her critique of polyamory is valid. Here are some thoughts of my own.
Given the reaction, it seems it was very controversial. It’s difficult for some people to criticize communities that express a minority. After all, if we can’t get along among ourselves, how can we exact change in the wider world so we don’t have to feel so marginalized anymore?
But self-criticism and self-exploration—even if “self” in this case means “within a given community” is essential for growth and for doing better work in the world. When communities cannot handle criticism, they become no better than the larger hegemony they criticize.
Arden makes several very important points that I have met either in my experience as a solo polyamorous person or that people I know have encountered. She comes from a very wise, very experienced point of view, and I respect what she’s trying to do. Although throwing away the label “polyamorous” altogether seems counterproductive to me, I think that those who call themselves polyamorous, and the leaders in our community, should take some of her advice to heart.
Here are the main points that are coming out for me, and my thoughts and experiences on them.
Poly and non-poly singleness
Poly people will plow straight into flirtation with single people merely because both are available, with zero thought to whether they are able to meet their needs. These assumptions lead to mismanaged expectations and the idea that there is something wrong with the single person for not wanting to participate in something which is not designed to end in any satisfaction for them.
As poly people, our ability to juggle different relationships and to give a fair amount of quality relationship space to every one of our partners isn’t necessarily reflected in the capacities of monogamous people. Just because a monogamous person is single doesn’t mean they want to, or can, handle the kind of relationship that a poly person can offer.
That’s something I often see: poly friends start seeing single, previously-only-monogamous friends, only to see themselves being dumped at the first occasion once the monogamous partner finds another monogamous person. It’s unfair to both the poly and the mono partner. Few monogamous people are interested in the kind of relationship that polyamory offers. And that’s not a fault on our part; it’s just the way things are.
I personally would not start developing a relationship with someone who’s unsure about polyamory until I’ve made it very clear what the expectations are. And I’ll ask honestly: if there is any chance that you’ll leave me once you find a monogamous partner, this is not worth it. It’s not worth giving attention and time and effort into a relationship that’s doomed from the start.
I have had multiple poly people assume without asking that my spending time with them was a date.
Her description of several instances of this is pretty awful. Poly people can hang out with other poly people without it being a date. Assuming the opposite is like saying that men and women can never be friends. Yes, poly people can be friends and hang without dating. I’m not interested in dating every poly person I meet, but I can certainly be friends with most of them, if only by the fact that we’re both poly.
Making assumptions is the worst thing you can do in a relationship. We need to stop making assumptions. About everything. About other people’s intentions, and feelings, and desires, and needs. And in turn, we need to be clear with our intentions, feelings, desires and needs.
At the last kink party I attended, for example, I met a really cute girl in the bathroom. She was wondering about what clothes to wear, and so I helped her choose an outfit (which she eventually changed like three times over the evening.) Anywho, eventually I come up to her and say: “Hey, I have two questions to ask you. First: are you available? Two: are you into girls?”
She said yes to the first and no to the second. Which is great. Because I didn’t waste my time flirting with someone who wouldn’t be interested in me. I made my intentions clear, and I avoided any kind of disappointment or miscommunication. I can be friends with that girl, and that’s okay with me.
Sex with poly people
The assumption that anyone in our community is up for “untethered intimacy” ignores the fact that many people have deep triggers around abandonment.
This one. THIS ONE.
The continual offer of sex without attachment erodes a person’s feeling over time that they are worth getting attached to. Stop collectively implying that people are worth a fuck but not a relationship.
That’s not polyamory. That’s polyfuckery.
And I’m totally with Arden on this one: the idea that polyamory means always available for NSA sex is fucking bullshit.
If I want NSA sex, I’ll get NSA sex. It may or may not be with a polyamorous person. But at least I’ll be clear about the relationship type we’re having. But honestly, I prefer strings. Strings make you feel connected and loved, and cared about. I have plenty of strings, with E., with C. I’d be sad if either relationship ended. I care. I love. And breaking up poly is going to hurt just as much as breaking up mono.
Being poly doesn’t mean we’re not looking for serious relationships. The fact that I’m unwilling to live with a partner or marry them doesn’t mean that I can’t care for them and love them deeply and support them in all the ways that are available to me within the frame of relationship that I choose. I won’t marry them, but I can be there for them when they hurt, when they need me, when they are in trouble. The quality of my love doesn’t change just because it’s divided.
When I got into poly, I was under the impression that it was about the possibility of being in a relationship with more than one person at a time. People have been fucking around forever; fucking around happens with or without polyamory. But polyamory is not fucking around. You can be monogamous and fuck around. Polyamory is loving more than one person at a time.
Turning poly into a shibboleth for fucking around only hurts its validity as a relationship model.
Relationships with single people
When you are already in a poly relationship and you attempt to seduce or flirt with a single person, you are ignoring the enormous power inequality at play: that you have an emotional support system already in place that they likely don’t. If your lovership with them fails, you can theoretically receive support from your existing relationships while they cannot.
This one is worthy of an entire book in itself. As someone who’s interested in power differentials and fairly fluent in the kinds of theories that try to describe it, this is fertile ground for an exploration of the privilege (yes, I said it) that poly people can have in certain situations.
As a community, we need to be aware of this power differential and to act to minimize it as much as possible. That means avoiding dating single monogamous people if they aren’t ready/aware of the power differential. Remember the times when you had to go through a breakup without a second lover/partner to soothe your bruised soul? Yeah, I certainly do. It’s no fun. I’m glad that I have my two partners to cushion my worse moments and to support me. But we need to remember that not everyone has access to the same support system.
Let’s show up
As poly people, we’re not free from the obligation to show up in our relationships. Our status of “poly” doesn’t make us not responsible for the well-being and care of those we choose to enter in relationships with. After facing dozens of people who “didn’t show up in relationship space”, Arden has a right to be angry about how she’s been treated by polyamorous partners.
If, as a group, all we care about is the fact that we’re free to have sex with anyone we want, we’re missing the point.
For me, polyamory isn’t about fucking around. I can do that and not be poly. Poly isn’t a prerequisite for NSA sex. For me, poly means the possibility of shaking the hegemonic monogamy box, of questioning a standard that is both unfair and ridiculous, especially in these modern times when women can support themselves without the help of a husband.
For me, being poly is a political act as much as it is a personal one. And we can’t be taken seriously as a critique of monogamy if we keep acting like, well, horny assholes.
I must say that I haven’t had the kind of experience that Arden describes. Maybe my choosiness is to thank for this. Maybe it’s the size of my community (rather small) that helps with that too.
I try to show up for my partners. Can we all show up for each as a community and be open to the idea that we’re not more “evolved” or “enlightened”? That we sometimes can be pretty shitty to each other, but that we eschew the blame because somehow being poly makes it okay?