A Can of Worms: Polyamory Definitions

Got an interesting one in my mailbox this morning:

How is Polyamory different from being in an open relationship?

I got into an argument with someone about it, I think it’s an unrealistic idea for most people.

I personally believe that “polyamory” for many people  is an intellectual validation/ politically correct term  for “promiscuity” or “being in an open relationship,” that feels less dirty for people due to it at least superficially being about “love.”

I use the terms polyamory and open relationship nearly interchangeably myself.  Many poly writers don’t.  And yes, if a differentiation is made, the definition revolves around love and commitment.  But, ya know, I’m not going to run down love and commitment.  Those are good things.

I even agree that some people use a lot of contortions to use terms to differentiate themselves in the mainstream’s eyes from those other dirty, dirty sluts.

However, there are a couple of premises upon which we disagree.  I think having lots of sex partners is okay.  I think consensual sex among adults is totally fine.  I’m pretty indifferent to being perceived as a slut.  Since the worst treatment and gossip about my sexuality I ever got was when I was in high school and still a virgin, it always seemed that letting other people’s perceptions of my sexuality drive my behavior and choices was mostly self-defeating.  For some people, my high school experience might have made them skittish and ashamed. It just burned out my give-a-damn.

I also disagree that polyamory is unrealistic for most people.  I don’t think it is.  I think tastes vary.  I think there are people who will be happy poly, and I think there are people who are not.  I think that our culture is set up to support the One True Love idea so strongly, however, that you do have to unpack a great deal of cultural baggage before polyamory is an intelligent or realistic choice.

Sometimes I think that there is this fear that polyamory is going to turn the world into a 21st Century Fuckfest.*  I think this mostly comes from this idea that if there weren’t powerful restraints against it, all people would do is spend their time pursuing sex.

Even if this wouldn’t be the worst thing I could think of, I think it’s inaccurate and the perception comes from seeing the behavior of some outliers.  Are there people whose main hobby seems to be sex and its pursuit?  Of course. I know several.  Is it bad?  I don’t think so. Can it be done unethically?  Yep.  You can say the same for making lots of money or going into politics.  I’m not willing to separate the ethics of sex from the ethics of any other pursuit.

Even if sex as one’s main hobby were a bad thing, it would still be an anomaly.  Sex is awesome, but so is building gadgets, writing books, going to the beach with your kids, learning a new language, making a movie, climbing a mountain, hanging out with friends or any of a number of other things people do.  Being poly doesn’t really change having a full human life.  In fact, I’d say that there is a fair proportion of poly people who do have their multiple relationships, but spend an enormous amount of time on family, community and other project.

You know, just like normal people do.


* Presuming this would somehow be a bad thing.  I don’t see it that way.

19 thoughts on “A Can of Worms: Polyamory Definitions

  1. Week Bi Week

    I was going to comment on a select quote, and then another, and eventually realized that this whole entry is to awesome to select a “best” bit. Really, your wording and the ideas that your wording conveys are wonderful. Societal views do seem particularly harsh and confining about sex versus about other pursuits, and those who want to pursue sex and/or love with multiple partners have a lot of baggage with which to content, as a result.

  2. Lucius Scribbens

    You took the words right out of my mouth. It seems whenever the subject is anything except one man/one woman monogamy the focus is always on the sex. Yet, outside of having more than one partner a polyamorous person’s life is pretty much the same, and just as mundane as a monogamy-oriented person’s.

    One thing I would add is to this comment, also:

    “I think it’s an unrealistic idea for most people.”

    To that I would say: So is monogamy. Everyone tries it, and most people fail at it. Especially if you’re not just looking at marriage statistics. For instance, how many failed long-term relationships did a person have before they met the one they married? Then half of those fail also, and infidelity occurs at some time by one person or both in around 7 out of 10 marriages whether it’s discovered or not.

    1. DDA

      It seems whenever the subject is anything except one man/one woman monogamy the focus is always on the sex.

      Of course the focus is on sex; if you have multiple close non-sexual relationships with others, we call them, “friends.”

      1. PolyVerve

        Of course the focus is on sex; if you have multiple close non-sexual relationships with others, we call them, “friends.”

        Maybe your close, non-sexual relationships are friendships. A few of my close, non-sexual relationships have been alot more than that.

        1. Storm

          in my experiences, i have had both sexual and non sexual relationships with my multiple “friends”..
          when you have that deep committed relationship with multiple people that is with more than friendship and more than physical interactions, i would declare to be polyamourous. for me, it isnt about sex. it is about the depth of the relationship.

  3. storm

    I am a two spirit person and was a tran-gender child who prefers women yet as a boi I have also been with bi-men and other trans-gender or gender queers. As a leather play partner switch I have belonged to a Mistress on the weekend and had a lesbian submissive and a submissive pan-sexual partner at home.I have had open and closed relationships and have lived alone. I have been married to a woman once, a man once and a trans-gender once. The one thing people not of my persuasions do not get is it is so not about the sex but the human heart. I do get jealous when a primary relationship becomes a secondary one unless it is just a friend with benefits. I have had close intimate relationships with straight girl freinds and gay men without ever having sex with them and loving them. I have enough love for many people. It is so not about the sex. I am actually leaving the ploy lifestyle to get married to a straight woman I have been in love with for 15 years and separated. She is ready to be with a woman now. Right now there is still an soon to be ex boyfreind living with her so technically it is a poly relationship even though they no longer have sex. Just because they lived together for 5 1/2 years and he still loves her. What is not to love. Really is it not about love. The journey of loving without all these labels to get in the way. My freinds call me storm and I have love for other humans and even love for a few cats.

    1. Storm

      thank you for sharing, your name caught my eye, and your journey is inspiring, and the love you have to give seems to mirror my own love. i believe that our ability to love more than one makes us a vessel for a universal energy that each living thing strives for.

  4. PolyVerve

    “Polyamory is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”

    This is the most widely accepted definition of polyamory, and it includes swingers and those in open relationships. It really gets me when people refer to those in relationships in which romantic love is not the prime objective and say: ‘They’re not poly. They’re swingers.’ or other such bullshit.

    Don’t get me wrong; I support the right of individuals to choose which terms they identify with, but the above attitude isn’t about identity. It’s about exclusion.

    1. Goddess of Java Post author

      Yes, I agree that it is about exclusion to have the poly/swinging argument. And you’re right, I should have whipped out the Oxford definition.

      polyamory, n.

      orig. U.S.

      Forms: 19- polyamory, 19- polyamoury. [< POLY- comb. form + classical Latin amor (see AMOUR n.1) + -Y suffix3, after POLYAMOROUS adj.
      In form polyamoury prob. after French amour AMOUR n.1]

      The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.

      Etymology: [1992 J[ennifer] L. WESP Proposal for alt.poly-amory in alt.config (Usenet newsgroup) 21 May, I propose to form the group alt.poly-amory. It would be a place for people who have multiple lovers to talk about the various problems unique to us.] 1992 Re: Reasons not to be Monogamous in soc.singles (Usenet newsgroup) 28 May, Serial monogamy is often more risky than long term polyamory. 1998 Guardian 21 July II. 2/3 The burgeoning polyamoury community in the US — with its offshoot organisation in Britain — is supporting and promoting all kinds of polygamous relationships. 2005 Seattle Weekly (Nexis) 2 Mar. 75 [He] began preaching meditation, polyamory, and disco dancing as ways of unmooring oneself from earthly ties.

    2. Lucius Scribbens

      I think polyamory encompasses swingers and other types of open relationships when those relationships go beyond recreational sex. There are many swingers who will not say they are polyamorous, but are “exclusive” with another couple. They won’t call themselves that because many swingers recoil in horror when the idea of having affection for a swinging partner comes into the picture. However, in my book that is being polyamorous.

      The same goes for the umbrella term “open relationship” which really just describes any kind of non-monogamous relationship. There are those that have long-term relationships with lovers that truly are polyamorous but they don’t want to call it that.

      Regardless, they both fit the Oxford Dictionary definition of polyamory.

      As far as my comment “everyone tries monogamy” I should have said “most everybody”. That would have avoided the nitpicking. };^)~

      1. PolyVerve

        …when those relationships go beyond recreational sex.

        Why do casually intimate relationships not count, and what do you call them instead?

        I ask out of curiosity, not for the sake of argument. :)

        1. Lucius Scribbens

          In my mind a casual intimate relationship that is ongoing, like FB’s instance could be included in the term “polyamory”. However in the way I see polyamory a one night stand would not be. Most swingers who simply swap partners at swinger parties are not in any way practicing polyamory if your definition of polyamory goes beyond needing nothing more than parts that fit together in some manner or another. I just see a difference between sportf*cking and having an actual ongoing relationship with someone such as friends with benefits.

  5. Leah

    I’m amused, because if poly is an intellectual validation for promiscuity, I have been doing it all wrong. I’ve been in active poly relationships for a decade (I’m 30, so that’s most of my adulthood) and I have only had 5 sex partners in my life. Keep in mind that while some poly people enjoy casual or semi-casual sex (and more power to them!), not all of us are wired that way. I’m betting that many monogamous people have had sex with way more people than I have!

  6. Serina

    @Leah. Yes! That’s how I feel. I’m in 4 long term poly relationships….and I have less sex than the UK average (apparently 2-3 times a week, from what I’ve seen?).


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