ethical slut

Polyamory [poli-am-ory] is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It should not be confused with polysexuality, the attraction to multiple genders and/or sexes, or pansexuality, which is attraction to all genders and sexes. The distinction between sex and gender is a concept that distinguishes sex, a natural or biological feature, from gender, the cultural or learned significance of sex. Polyamory, often abbreviated as ‘poly,’ is described as consensual, ethical, or responsible non-monogamy.

The word is sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to sexual or romantic relationships that are not sexually exclusive, though there is disagreement on how broadly it applies; an emphasis on ethics, honesty, and transparency all around is widely regarded as the crucial defining characteristic. The term ‘polyamorous’ can refer to the nature of a relationship at some point in time or to a philosophy or relationship orientation (much like gender or sexual orientation). It is sometimes used as an umbrella term that covers various forms of multiple relationships; polyamorous arrangements are varied, reflecting the choices and philosophies of the individuals involved.

Polyamory is a less specific term than polygamy, the practice or condition of having more than one spouse. The majority of polygamous cultures are traditionally polygynous, where one husband has multiple wives. Polyandrous societies, in which one wife has multiple husbands, are less common but do exist. Marriage is not a requirement in polyamorous relationships. The ‘knowledge and consent of all partners concerned’ is a defining characteristic of polyamorous relationships. Distinguishing polyamory from traditional forms of non-monogamy (e.g., ‘cheating’) is an ideology that openness, goodwill, truthful communication, and ethical behavior should prevail among all the parties involved. People who identify as polyamorous typically reject the view that sexual and relational exclusivity are necessary for deep, committed, long-term loving relationships.

For many, such relationships are ideally built upon values of trust, loyalty, the negotiation of boundaries, and compersion, as well as overcoming jealousy, possessiveness, and the rejection of restrictive cultural standards. Powerful intimate bonding among three or more persons may occur. Additionally, participants in a polyamorous relationship may not have, nor expect their partners to have, preconceptions as to the duration of the relationship, in contrast to monogamous marriages where a life-long union is generally the goal. However, polyamorous relationships can and do last many years.

A 1990 article entitled ‘A Bouquet of Lovers,’ by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart in ‘Green Egg Magazine,’ a publication founded by her husband Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, is widely cited as the original source of the word, although ‘polyamory’ does not appear in the article. Jennifer L. Wesp created the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory in 1992, and the OED cites the proposal to create that group as the first verified appearance of the word. The term ‘polyfidelity,’ now considered a subset of polyamory, was coined in the 1970s by members of the Kerista commune (a NY based new religion). Naturally, such relationships existed long before the words for them came into use.

On the topic of ‘swingers,’ the Ravenhearts explained: ‘[Polyamory] was meant to be inclusive, and in that context, we have never intended to particularly exclude ‘swinging’ per se, if practitioners thereof wished to adopt the term and include themselves. As far as we have understood, swinging specifically does not involve ‘cheating,’ and it certainly does involve having ‘multiple lovers’! Moreover, we understand from speaking with a few swinging activists that many swingers are closely bonded with their various lovers, as best friends and regular partners.’ However, Ryam Nearing of ‘Loving More,’ a poly support group, says: ‘In all my talks with swingers it seems that the traditional (and most widespread) way of swinging is not polyamory as it is primarily sexual and specifically not relationship oriented. Some swingers and some locals allow for/choose more emotional connection, but they are the exception rather than the rule.’

The terms primary and secondary are often used to indicate a hierarchy of different relationships or the place of each relationship in a person’s life. Thus, a woman with a husband and an additional partner might refer to her husband as her ‘primary,’ and a lover whom she only sees once a week as her ‘secondary,’ in order to differentiate to the listener who is who. Some polyamorous people use such labels as a tool to manage multiple relationships, while others believe that all partners deserve equal standing and consideration and that a hierarchy is insulting to the people involved. Another model, sometimes referred to as an intimate network, includes relationships that are of varying significance to the people involved, but are not explicitly labeled. Within this model, a hierarchy may be fluid and vague, or nonexistent.

Although people who are polyamorous have adopted a number of symbols, none has universal recognition. The most common symbol is the red and white heart combined with the blue infinity symbol. The poly pride flag consists of three equal horizontal colored stripes with a symbol in the center of the flag. The colors of the stripes, from top to bottom, are as follows: Blue – The openness and honesty among all partners; Red – Love and passion; and Black – Solidarity with those who must hide their relationships due to social pressures. The symbol in the center of the flag is a gold Greek lowercase letter pi; the gold color represents the value that people who are polyamorous place on the emotional attachment to others, be the relationship friendly or romantic in nature, as opposed to merely primarily physical relationships. The color scheme of the flag was adapted (with permission) for use in the Polyamory Awareness and Acceptance Ribbon Campaign.

The symbol of ILIC (Infinite Love in Infinite Combinations) is a reference to the Star Trek kol-ut-shan or symbol of philosophy of Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations). It is a variation on Pi-and-the-three-colors from the Polyamory Pride Flag. Another is the image of a parrot, since ‘Polly’ is a common name for these birds. The parrot is a common poly ‘mascot’ or symbol. It is an emblem which marks the table when Poly’s meet in restaurants. This symbol an ironic reference to parrots’ monogamy. The Purple Mobius symbol was created to provide an abstract symbol for the poly community, which had some disagreements over the use of the heart/infinity, the parrot, and the pi-flag. It was intended to be a neutral symbol that referenced all the civil and social rights groups that came before, by alluding to the color and shape of related movements, such as the Gay Rights movement, the lesbian/feminist movement, the bisexual community, and the BDSM community, as well as making a nodding reference to the heart/infinity symbol (the infinity symbol being another example of a Mobius Strip).

The expression ‘open relationship’ denotes a relationship in which participants may have sexual liaisons with others not within their core group of partners. For example, when a dyad consisting of a married couple makes such an agreement, it may be termed an open marriage. Some open relationships may be open only sexually, while exclusive emotionally. There is broad overlap between open relationships and polyamory.

Another form of polyamory is polyfidelity (often referred to as ‘poly-fi’). Such polyfidelitous relationships are not ‘open.’ Within such an arrangement, the parties adhere to commitments of sexual and emotional fidelity or exclusivity to the group. Often, those involved in poly-fidelitous relationships will practice fluid-bonding.

It is possible for a person with polyamorous relationships to also engage in casual sex, traditional swinging, and other open relationships. Usually those who take part in such activities see these as separate from the emotional bonds shared with their polyamorous partners. Traditionally there has been a divide between the polyamorous and swinger communities, the former emphasizing the emotional aspects of plural relationships and the latter emphasizing the sexual activities of non-monogamy. Polyamorous people can engage in infidelities or secret affairs, although this is no better accepted in polyamorous communities than in monogamous ones.

Egalitarian polyamory is more closely associated with values, subcultures and ideologies that favor individual freedoms and equality in sexual matters – most notably, those reflected by sexual freedom advocacy groups such as Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation. Religiously motivated polygamy has its Islamic, Mormon fundamentalist, Christian Plural Marriage, Jewish and other varieties; similarly, some egalitarian polyamorists have cultural ties to Naturism, Neo-Pagans, BDSM, Modern Tantra, and other special interest groups. For example, egalitarian polyamory and BDSM often face similar challenges (e.g. negotiating the ground rules for unconventional relationships, or the question of coming out to family and friends), and the cross-pollination of ideas takes place between the two.

In most countries, it is legal for three or more people to form and share a sexual relationship (subject sometimes to laws against homosexuality). However, no Western countries permit marriage among more than two people. Nor do they give strong and equal legal protection (e.g., of rights relating to children) to non-married partners – the legal regime is not comparable to that applied to married couples. Individuals involved in polyamorous relationships are considered by the law to be no different from people who live together, or ‘date,’ under other circumstances.

‘Possessiveness can be a major stumbling block, and often it prevents what could be a successful polyamourous relationship from forming. When people are viewed, even inadvertently, as possessions, they become a commodity, a valuable one at that. Just as most people are reluctant to let go of what little money that they have, people are also reluctant to ‘share’ their beloved. After all, what if [their beloved] finds someone else who is more attractive/intelligent/well-liked/successful/etc.. than [themselves], and decides to abandon the relationship in favor of the new lover? These sorts of feelings act as inferiority complexes inside of polyamorous relationships and must be resolved, completely, before a polyamorous relationship can be truly successful.’

An editorial article on the polyamory website Polyamoryonline.org  in 2006 covered issues surrounding Poly parenthood: ‘The kids started realizing that there were three adults in the house that they had to answer to. **Big Shock** Then came the onslaught of trying to ‘befriend’ a particular adult and get what they wanted from that one adult. Another big shock when they found that it didn’t work and that we all communicated about wants or needs of any given child. After this was established, we sort of fell into our patterns of school, practices, just normal life in general. The kids all started realizing that there were three of us to care for them when they were sick, three of us to get scolded from, hugs from, tickles from; three of us to feed the small army of mouths and three of us to trust completely in. After trust was established, they asked more questions. Why do we have to live together? Why can’t I have my own room? … Why do you guys love each other? Why do I have to listen to them (non-biological parent)? We answered them as truthfully as we could and as much as was appropriate for their age. I found that it was more unnerving for me to think about how to approach a new kid and their parents than it ever was for the kids.’

Gay psychotherapist Michael Shernoff wrote that non-monogamy is ‘a well-accepted part of gay subculture,’ although ‘often viewed by some therapists as problematic.’ However, Shernoff states that: ‘One of the biggest differences between male couples and mixed-sex couples is that many, but by no means all, within the gay community have an easier acceptance of sexual nonexclusivity than does heterosexual society in general. … Research confirms that nonmonogamy in and of itself does not create a problem for male couples when it has been openly negotiated.’

In ‘The Ethical Slut,’ Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy (writing as ‘Catherine Liszt’) described an argument against polyamory which posits that when one’s love is divided among multiple partners, the love is lessened. They referred to this as a ‘starvation economy’ argument, because it treats love as a scarce commodity (like food or other resources) that can be given to one person only by taking it away from another. This is sometimes called a ‘Malthusian argument,’ after Malthus’ writings on finite resources. Many polyamorists, including Easton and Hardy, reject the idea that dividing love among multiple partners automatically lessens it. A commonly invoked argument uses an analogy with a parent who has two children—the parent does not love either of them any less because of the existence of the other.

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