This post grew out of a conversation with my friend Heina Dadabhoy, who writes Heinous Dealings at the Orbit, a new blog network focused on social justice minded atheism. Heina has a companion blog post with their take on this issue here.
Like other unpopular groups, the poly community has developed somewhat defensively. Only a very small percentage of the world is polyamorous, so understandably, a number of the norms and ethics that are popular in the poly community developed to be as nonthreatening as possible to mainstream society. Andrea Zanin discussed this issue in her 2013 post The Problem With Polynormativity:
At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.
The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms.
Zanin skillfully exposes the fact that the media tends to represent a very narrow view of polyamorous people that doesn't reflect the overall diversity of the community. In addition to that, though, I've noticed that a lot of the discussion that takes place within poly communities tends to present a narrow set of values that not everyone shares, and in private conversations it's become clear that not everyone shares those views, but that dissenters don't always feel safe speaking up. With that in mind, I've come up with a set of rules that I see enforced in "polite poly society," and why I disagree with them:
Polite Poly Rule #1: Don't Speak Ill of Monogamy
In nearly every discussion of polyamory, poly people will trip over each other rushing to be the first person to indicate that, while we may choose to live the lifestyle we do, there is of course nothing wrong with monogamy and we support anyone's decision to be monogamous. The position is valid, of course. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual exclusivity, if practiced in a truly voluntary and non-coercive way. But it's very difficult to discuss monogamy critically, even within poly communities, without facing accusations of arrogance, anti-monogamous bias, or believing in "one true way" to have relationships.
Truthfully, I do feel that the majority of the ways that monogamy is practiced throughout the world are coercive and unethical. I think that having monogamy as a cultural norm is harmful. I think that the way mainstream American culture promotes, depicts, and enforces monogamy is awful. I think that many fewer people would choose monogamy if it they felt they had a meaningful choice. And I think we ought to be able to say so without the conversation getting derailed over the (obvious) fact that it's not impossible to be monogamous in an ethical way.
This rule is the clearest example of how poly society has evolved to be nonthreatening to mainstream society. It might as well be "don't scare the normals."
Polite Poly Rule #2: Don't Enable Cheaters
In polite poly society, it is considered unethical to have sex with a person who has a monogamous partner. Despite the fact that the hypothetical "other woman" or "other man" has made no promises or commitments to either member of the relationship, the community still has no problem placing part of the ethical responsibility for avoiding cheating on the third party.
I've written before about the ethical issues I have with this attitude, and I've discussed it at length in private conversations and on social media. In public, there seems to be a strong consensus toward the idea that enabling a cheater is wrong.((There is also a more reasonable consensus - that one should be reluctant to trust a person who is willing to cheat with you, and that it's often a bad idea to have sex with someone you can't trust. However, the discussion is often had in moralistic terms about what's right or wrong, or what a person should or shouldn't do. The discussion often overlooks the fact that in other contexts, poly communities respect the idea that a person is free to have sex with whoever they want and determine for themselves how much to trust someone, and how much trust in necessary before engaging in a sexual relationship. It is only in this context (and STI risk, as discussed in Rule #3) where people feel qualified to instruct others about who they ought to be having sex with. I guarantee, if this post gets more than five comments, someone will derail with something like "well, why would you want to sleep with a cheater???")) Fundamentally, I feel this is an attitude that is reliant upon the centralization and promotion of the monogamous couple as the ideal in our society.
In general, we do not hold people responsible for enabling people to break promises. We would not blame a bartender for serving someone who made a promise to his pastor not to drink anymore. If my friend promised his mother that he would spend Saturday evening with her, I'm not a jerk for inviting him to my party. If a PETA member wants to break her commitment to the group to avoid eating meat, her sister is not a jerk for cooking her a steak.
It is only in the context of a sexually exclusive couple that we feel the need to place responsibility on non-parties to help enforce an agreement. This attitude reflects the mainstream belief that monogamous commitments are so important and so valuable that we should all accept the responsibility for enforcing them. And I think the poly community should be the first to speak up against this idea. Monogamous commitments are not any more important than other commitments. I don't accept the responsibility for enforcing them, and I don't think we should be telling anyone else to do so. If individuals would like to accept that responsibility, that is their choice, but I don't believe that anyone has the right to place that responsibility on someone else.
Polite Poly Rule #3: Be Extra-Super-Duper-Careful About STI's
In poly communities, the more careful one is about STI's, the better. High-status poly people boast about getting "full panel" STI tests every six months (which, of course, always come back negative) and insist on seeing a prospective partner's up-to-date results before any sexual contact. In public spaces, discussions tend to center around how best to avoid STI's and what precautions to take. It's often assumed (or stated outright) that sex with a person who has an STI is out of the question. In private, however, many people will comment that STI's are unfairly stigmatized, STI's like HSV, HPV, and others are a minor inconvenience in most cases, and that actual transmission rates are very low for most infections.
I tend not to stress about STI's. I take reasonable precautions, but I don't insist on strict rules. I don't freak out if there's a chance of exposure. I generally trust my partners to make their own decisions and inform me if there's anything to worry about. In my experience, this is how a lot of people operate, but publicly, people are often reluctant to say so.
The disconnect seems to be a reaction to the "dirty slut" stereotype. Mainstream society tends to assume that (a) anyone who has a lot of sex gets STI's (and only people who have a lot of sex get STI's); (b) all nonmonogamous people have a lot of sex; and therefore (c) nonmonogamous people all have STI's. So naturally, poly people overcompensate to show that they're not like that. The problem is that in reacting that way, we tend to validate the problematic and false mainstream assumptions noted above. When we rush to insist that we are free from STI's, we too often insinuate that there's something wrong or blameworthy about having STI's. When we go out of our way to make sure everyone knows we're very selective about sexual partners, we suggest that there's something wrong with promiscuity. When we suggest that certain precautions are mandatory, we can't help but exaggerate the negative effects of becoming infected, adding to STI stigma and further marginalizing people who have contracted infections.
Allowing more critical discussions of monogamy, recognizing that third parties aren't responsible to enforce other people's monogamous commitments, and dialing down the panic level about STI's probably won't help our image in mainstream society. But I do think it will improve our communities. To me, that's the more important goal. I'd rather not sacrifice the quality and diversity of our conversations in the name of public relations.