What is Polyamory Anyway?
The kids are fighting about the definition of polyamory again.
forbidding your partner from having extra-relationship intimacy. It doesn’t matter if they’re acting on it or not, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like banging anybody else, as long as your partner could go have sex/love someone else if they wanted, then to me, that’s polyamory.
Yassine Meskhout takes exception to her definition and favors the traditional definition of “the practice of or desire for multiple concurrent romantic/sexual relationships.” Yassine argues that Aella’s definition is incoherent, conveys little information, and risks confusion.
Some of Yassine’s objections strike me as somewhat self-serving. For instance:
someone hitting on me tells me they’re poly, my first thought would be “they have a desire for multiple relationships” and definitely not “if we were in a relationship, and if I had a desire for multiple relationships, this person is willing to tolerate me pursuing these relationships”. What purpose could this circuitousness possibly serve?
Yassine’s confusion here stems from the fact that he is monogamous. Of course, if you’re monogamous, hearing that you could date someone but still be able to pursue other relationships wouldn’t be terribly useful information to you. But it’s very useful information for me! I’m polyamorous! The single most important thing to know about a person I’m considering dating is whether they will want or expect me to be exclusive! Whether they personally want multiple partners is relevant, but less so. In fact, I used a similar definition of monogamy in my post steelmanning it. So in this sense Aella and Yassine are both advocating for self-serving communication norms. Given that the definition we’re discussing is for “polyamory,” it seems only right that the one used should be the one most useful for, you know, polyamorous people. Hey Yassine (I never get to say this), it’s not for you!
That aside, I’m a descriptivist in most circumstances. I want the definitions of words to match how people actually use them. The categories were made for man and whatnot. In my experience, people casually use the term “polyamory” to refer to people or relationships such as:
Two or more people in a relationship who are openly and actively dating each other and other people
Two people in a relationship who are openly trying to date other people but haven’t met any good matches yet
Two people in a relationship who want to date other people and are supportive of each other’s ability to do so, but haven’t gotten around to it
Two people in a relationship who are supportive of each other’s ability to pursue outside intimacy, but only one of whom has any interest in doing so
A single person who will only enter the relationships described above
So far, both Aella and Yassine’s definitions seems fine. They both include all of the above. People tend to use “monogamy” to describe:
Traditional relationships where partners express intimacy exclusively with each other
Two people in an exclusive relationship, despite the fact that they feel strong attraction to other people
Two people in an exclusive relationship, despite the fact that one or both of them strongly desire intimacy with other people but forego that intimacy because of their monogamous commitment
Two people in a relationship who have no explicit rule mandating exclusivity but both implicitly understand that any outside interest or intimacy will end their relationship
A single person who will only enter or stay in exclusive relationships
A single person who will be in nonexclusive relationships temporarily, but expects that if a relationship passes a certain “seriousness” threshold, it will become exclusive
Here is where Yassine’s definition starts having issues. While Aella’s definition excludes all of the above, under Yassine’s definition nos. 2, 3, and 6 would be polyamorous.
The following are not typically described as polyamory or monogamy, but some secret third thing:
Yassine’s example of a harem where the man isn’t exclusive, but all of the women are. The term “harem” works fine here.
A relationship of more than two people, all of whom have restrictions on outside intimacy. This is known as “polyfidelity.”
A couple who have no explicit or implicit agreement prohibiting outside intimacy, but genuinely just want to be with each other. This one is open to interpretation, but I think the least confusing thing would just be to call this an open relationship
Two people in a relationship who have outside sex but no (or limited) romance. This is typically called “swinging.”
Two people in an otherwise exclusive relationship who have an occasional non-romantic threesome. There’s no real term for this, but I don’t think we need one.
This is where Aella’s definition starts having overinclusion problems. Under her definition (and Yassine’s), all of these except #2 and #3 would be considered polyamory. Confusion like this is why I prefer that we not use “polyamory” to refer to all types of nonmonogamy. “Nonmonogamy” works perfectly well as an umbrella term, with polyamory as a subset. Aella disagrees (“there’s a lot of words to designate different types of open relationships, but I’m old fashioned and am going to stick to the word polyamory”) but doesn’t really explain why.
I also prefer that terms like polyamorous and monogamous are defined with reference to relationships, not people. It’s fine to describe a person as polyamorous or monogamous, but that just describes the type of relationships that they are in or that they prefer (with varying intensities of that preference). This clears up a lot of the confusion. I’m unsure how Aella feels about this. She says:
It feels weird to use polyamory to refer to an active practice. If you have two boyfriends who die in a tragic orgy accident, are you suddenly not polyamorous anymore? Maybe, but the way I like to use the concept of polyamory is closer to an orientation than a description of a relationship; much as you might be in a gay relationship but also be gay.
“Is polyamory a sexual orientation?” has been a hot debate in polyland for decades. I tend to come down on the side of “no.” Sexual orientation describes a person’s attraction on a visceral, primal level. For some reason, people these days are trying to make things more ambiguous, but traditionally, a gay man or a heterosexual woman is attracted exclusively to men and not to women. Personally, I’m tragically heterosexual. I believe in my heart of hearts that it would be much better to be bisexual. I am convinced that bisexuality is more advantageous in nearly every way. And yet the idea of sex with a man is completely unappealing to me. Conversion therapy, regardless of how convincing it is, almost always fails. “Relationship orientation” doesn’t work that way. I am very attracted to monogamous people! And while there are some people who could be convinced that one style or another is strictly superior and yet still not be able to be happy in such a relationship, I strongly suspect those people are a small minority. The vast majority of people choose their relationship style because it’s the default expectation, they think it’s advantageous, or it is consistent with their values. There are plenty of people who feel primal, visceral sexual jealousy, but choose polyamory for those reasons and work to change their relationship with jealousy. That’s not really something you can do with a sexual orientation. I’ve tried.
I agree that polyamory shouldn’t be defined as an active practice, and my preferred way of defining a polyamorous person as a person who prefers polyamorous relationships could be fairly called an “orientation” so I don’t know that there’s any actual disagreement here.
Overall, I’m much more sympathetic to Aella’s definition. Requiring exclusivity seems to be the defining feature of monogamy. Aella’s definition works fine as a definition for nonmonogamy. Polyamory refers to something more specific. I would define a monogamous relationship as a two-person relationship which is (explicitly or implicitly) conditioned on sexual and romantic exclusivity. A nonmonogamous relationship is a any relationship that doesn’t feature monogamy. A polyamorous relationship is a subset of nonmonogamy where parties are free to pursue both romantic and sexual intimacy outside the relationship and at least one party is at least in theory interested in doing so. A polyamorous person is a person who prefers that type of relationship.