Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 14, April 7, 2011


There's No Such Thing As Polyamory

Barry Smiler © 2010

An attempt to reframe polyamory and place it in the context of larger social issues in a way that retains all of its power yet makes it culturally acceptable in terms even John Wayne could support.

What Polyamory Isn't, What Polyamory Is

It's a truism that there are as many definitions of polyamory as there are people that do it. Why is that? It has seemed to me for some time that polyamory isn't about how many relationships one has; I know many people who call themselves poly yet who have just one partner, or no partner at all. And it isn't what one does within those relationships; there are as many poly structures as there are people doing them.

So what's left? The way I've expressed it for the last several years is, if you feel without reservation that the person who gets to choose how to structure your relationships is you, then no matter what choice you ultimately make, you're poly. (Choices to be made in open, honest, sex-positive communication with your partner(s), of course, who naturally have the same choice. Every stakeholder gets a say, everyone negotiates, hopefully leading to agreements that meet everyone's needs. Thus, poly is also about finding win-win. But that's an effect, not a cause.) You get to decide how your relationship life looks. Not your mother, not your culture, not your government ... you.

Recently, though, I've come to feel that all this is just a smaller restatement of a wider context, and not something that exists by itself. In these terms polyamory is merely an example, or special case, of the much larger principle of self-determination.

The Evolution Of Self-Determination

Looking back through history, the evolution of self-determination is clear. In earlier days of Western civilization, individuals had far fewer choices regarding behavior and lifestyle options, not just around sexuality but in many other areas as well. More was based on community morals and strictures; fewer choices were in the realm of personal options. For example, who one could socialize with, where one could live or travel to, or what kind or color of clothing was considered appropriate, all these were more tightly regulated by then-current societal norms than they are today.

Over the years, more and more options have shifted away from this model, and today it is natural and accepted that many choices which had previously been dictated by societal rules are now made by individual personal choice. For example, in earlier days, due to social strictures, it was considered scandalous for certain types of people to do something as simple as sharing a meal, or even having a conversation --perhaps people of different races, religions, or genders. Today it is entirely unremarkable for people in such categories to do so.

The concept of intermarriage is a good example of this. Indeed, the word itself has itself evolved, and meant different things in different eras. Depending on the times, intermarriage might have indicated a union of two people of different religions, ethnicities, or races (and race is another word whose meaning has changed over time). Who today would describe a wedding between a Lutheran and a Catholic as intermarriage? Or a German and an Italian? In an earlier era these might have been cause for social ostracism, financial repercussions, or even more serious punishments. Nowadays it is so unremarkable that even the word sounds dated, and the most socially charged sorts of intermarriage are now commonplace. Intermarriage between people of differing skin color is the last vestige of this, and that is also dissipating. For example, within my lifetime it was illegal in much of the USA for a designated-black person and a designated-white person to marry. Today, the child of such a marriage is the President of the United States.

These are only a few examples of how, especially over the past hundred years, many such options have moved remarkably from the realm of the society to the realm of the individual. Previously, groups such as Irish, Jews, Catholics, women, gays, and many others were openly and unashamedly denied entree to employment, housing, and social arenas. Today, though discrimination is far from vanished it is sotto voce, and the defined cultural ideal has come to a place where work and life roles don't depend nearly so much on religion, gender, race, or ethnicity, and the sexual orientation barrier is in the process of falling even as we speak. The trend is away from cultural determination in such choices, and towards self-determination.

Self-Determination Today

Today, more and more the assumption is that the person who gets to make the decisions about what your life looks like is ... you. With polyamory, we're discussing the sexual/relationship aspects of one's life. But doesn't that make polyamory simply a special case of the more general right of every person to decide the course of their lives for themselves? That is, self-determination?

Self-determination is an honored goal in many circles. In our current culture the well-respected ideal is for everybody to support making up your own mind for yourself. While this is sometimes honored more in words than in practice, it is a basic touchstone of our current modern culture.

What would happen if we reframed polyamory as not a thing unto itself but rather as simply an example of every person's right to self-determination?

Suddenly everything becomes clearer. All the charge around who is doing what with who gets defused as it becomes obvious why polyamory isn't about sex. The American mythos is all about having the right to live your own life in your own way. "Live free or die" is a core-values concept, and with this way of looking at polyamory, it's right on target.

This isn't intended to remove from the polyamory "look" the valuable elements of honesty, clear communication, and a sex-positive approach, all in service of building a web of mutually negotiated trust among the direct stakeholders and using that to find a way that works for everybody. But in this framing, these too become part of the larger picture of living your own life your own way.

The funny thing is, it's not hype. I feel it's perhaps the most valid and honest way at looking at the poly experience, and it explains a lot.

Polyamory In Comparison

What distinguishes polyamory from other movements it is often lumped in with by mainstream observers, and what does this indicate about the self-determination framing I propose?


Polyamory is sometimes compared to swinging. But if they are so similar, why are there so many swingers and so few polyfolk? To outsiders, both seem based on similar elements of open sexuality, yet the lifestyle gang can fill entire Las Vegas hotels with their conventions, while polyfolk count it as a big success if there are even a hundred people at one of their conferences.

The difference, I feel, is the challenge of self-determination. Very broadly stated, swingers buy into a new set of externally generated rules to enjoy a new form of recreational activity. That is, they simply trade the mainstream rules for the lifestyle rules. By contrast, the poly way is to make up one's own rules, internal to the specific relationship in question, to create a new way of structuring deep aspects of one's life. (These are broad generalizations. I know many people in the swing scene who take it deeper, and many polys who don't. But for this broad discussion, I feel these generalizations are basically valid.)

This is relevant because it is far easier to buy in to a new set of external rules than to take full responsibility for the self-examination and honest discussion necessary to create your own. So it's logical that there are far fewer polyfolk than swingers. The poly ideal is that all interested parties sit down and co-create the rules they want to live by, personally and between themselves. This is worthwhile, but it's not easy, and most people are unwilling to do the tough self-examination and open-hearted negotiation it demands.

Even more, most people are unwilling to take the necessary personal responsibility for creating a successful outcome. With some other paradigms, people accept external rules as provided. This lets them blame any failures on the external rules. But polyamory is where you write your own rules, so "the buck stops here", because "here" is where the framework got set up in the first place.


Polyamory is also sometimes compared to religious-based polygamy. People who do poly know that this is an inaccurate comparison, but how can this be articulated in a way that resonates with a larger audience? The self-determination framing makes this clear.

Religious-based polygamy is typically a set of inflexible, choice-poor, and paternalistic rules that are imposed on its adherents by an external hierarchical organization. More choices are made by the organizational hierarchy, and fewer by the individual. Polyamory, by contrast, has some widely-acknowledged principles (honesty, communication, win-win) but few rules. Polys make their own choices, and thus tend to be self-directed and independent.

Thus, the poly ideal of self-determination strongly mitigates against acceding to an organization. And to me this explains why an organization of polyfolk is cat herding on steroids, precisely the opposite of how religious-based polygamy is typically organized. (Note, I am fully in favor of people making their own choices. This is only to describe the generalized difference in mindset between these groups.)

There's No Such Thing As Polyamory

So in the end, polys are simply people who have come to the conclusion that they themselves are the best source for the rules of how they will live. This self-determination appears in many areas of life, and people who feel this right to self-determination in other areas of their lives will decide their own rules for those areas. But when they apply this to decide relationship rules, and give themselves the right to consider a range of nonstandard possibilities, sometimes that is labeled polyamory.

Of course, other times it is labeled other things. And there's self-determination again, because when people aren't feeling constrained to a set of external rules, the rules they choose are unlikely to totally match the rules other people choose, making externally applied labels difficult. Which, I think, explains the common observation that there are as many ways to do polyamory as there are people doing it. People who make up their own rules will seldom reinvent exactly the same rules.

All this is why I offer the reframing that there's no such thing as polyamory. Instead, I suggest that polyamory might well be presented as simply a special case of the larger social ideal of self-determination, a trend that has for hundreds of years been irresistibly moving our society towards individual empowerment and away from cultural/societal strictures, towards everyone's right to manage their own lives in their own way. Reframing polyamory in this way reveals common ground with other social movements, which could well be advantageous for all.

As time progresses and social trends continue to evolve I expect that greater numbers of people will incorporate multiple loving relationships into their lives. As this happens, inevitably these behaviors will become more accepted by mainstream society as a valid option, as interracial or gay relationships have in our era. Ironically, the more that happens, the less these behaviors will reflect social ideals of self-determination. Polyamory will become just another mainstream choice, in the same way that once-edgy options like vegetarianism, jazz, or premarital cohabitation have now become just another mainstream choice. When that happens we won't even use the word "polyamory" any more. It will just be what (some) people do.

But we're not there yet, so for now I feel it might be useful to consider polyamory as part of the trend towards self-determination. If polyamory was seen simply another part of this broader social context I think that would advance the current discussion tremendously.

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