Polyamorous Ideology:

Democracy and Power in Intimate Life

Abstract

           At the heart of the doctrine of American individualism lies the tension between personal freedom and obligation.  Ideology which prioritizes personal autonomy and the pursuit of rational self-interest has significant consequences for all levels of social life, including intimate relationships.  Romantic love has long been viewed as separate from public life and the relations of the market, and often as an escape from this sphere.  As such, some have posed the question, “Is autonomy good for love” or conversely, “is romantic love good for autonomy?”.  This study assumes that intimate life is entrenched in individualistic ideology and thus poses the alternative question “What kinds of intimate relationships are possible when individual autonomy is the key organizing principle?” And further, “What happens to gendered power relations under such an arrangement?”  These questions are addressed through a critical examination of polyamorous ideology, which supposes a highly individualistic conception of love and intimacy.  This paper is based primarily on 15 in-depth interviews with practicing polyamorists from which I draw several conclusions about the effects of individualistic ideology on intimate life. I argue that polyamorous ideology offers important insight as to the potentialities and limitations of highly individualistic ideology for the individuals that espouse it.

 Alyssa Montgomery

4/20/06

Northwestern University

Department of Sociology

Second Year Paper

Introduction

            The fundamental American discourse of political freedom and individual autonomy constitute the fabric of American political, economic and social life.  It operates as an organizing principle for everything from politics to popular culture, to choosing romantic partners.   Central to this ideology is the promotion of individual rights and the pursuit of self-interest.  While at once serving as a vital philosophical foundation for the struggle against oppression, the ideology of individualism has also been implicated in justifying or obscuring inequality.  In this way, individualism is sometimes regarded as sacred doctrine while at other times blamed as the primary source of anomic societal conditions.  This paper is particularly concerned with the effects of individualism on interpersonal relationships.  It should be noted however, that the tensions internal and external to the ideology discussed here are not unique to interactional manifestations of it.  The questions raised here are relevant for all levels of social life through which the individualistic vein runs.  The tensions inherent in the ideology of individualism come to the forefront when the individual must consider her role as a necessarily social being.  If nothing is owed but to the self, to whom or what is she committed?

The dilemma I wish to focus on here is the question of how, if we adhere to the ideals of individualism, do we form meaningful relationships with others?  Or, what kind of intimate relationships are possible when the key organizing feature is not one of obligation or entitlement but personal autonomy?

At the heart of the doctrine of American individualism lies the tension between personal freedom and obligation.  Ideology which prioritizes personal autonomy and the pursuit of rational self-interest has significant consequences for all levels of social life, including our intimate relationships.  Romantic love has long been viewed as separate from public life and the relations of the market, and often as an escape from this sphere.  As such, some have posed the question, “Is autonomy good for love” or conversely, “is romantic love good for autonomy?”.  This study assumes that intimate life is entrenched in individualistic ideology and thus poses the alternative question “What kinds of intimate relationships are possible when individual autonomy is the key organizing principle?”  This question is addressed through a critical examination of polyamorous ideology, which supposes a highly individualistic conception of love and intimacy.  This paper is based primarily on 15 in-depth interviews with practicing polyamorists from which I draw several conclusions about the effects of individualistic ideology on intimate life.  Most significantly, I argue that polyamorous ideology attempts to resolve tensions between individual autonomy and obligation implied by traditional notions of commitment.  This process however, is problematic in terms of its relationship to hegemonic norms because freedom from obligation does not ensure a break with these inequalities.

            This paper examines the stories of polyamorists in order to explicate the implications of individualism specifically for romantic love relationships.  The concept of love is of great importance for the questions posed here for several reasons.  First, the notion of romantic love suggests an escape from everyday life and constitutes a distinct emotional state.  Second, love is now taken for granted as the proper organizing principle of the intimate lives of adults, and hence the necessary condition for marriage and family.  Third, heterosexual love relationships have long been a primary site of the social construction of gender.  It is through these relationships that men and women have been defined and within these relationships that women have been often been disadvantaged.  Finally, and most significantly, romantic relationships constitute one site where the notion of commitment remains particularly salient. The rules and responsibilities associated with romantic relationships seem contradictory to the ideology of individualism, however, as several researchers have shown, this ideology does indeed pervade romantic relationships. 

            The first section of the paper briefly outlines the particular historical moment of polyamory and locates changes in romantic love to broader social trends.  The second part of the paper examines arguments made by sociologists, political scientists and feminists about the relationship between love and autonomy.   The third part is dedicated to methodology and methodological issues.  The fourth section is devoted to a detailed description of what I call the “polyamorous ideology”.  I outline three main aspects of the ideology that play a central role in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of polyamorists.  After establishing the main tenets of the ideology, in the final section I examine the ways in which polyamorists talk about their relationships and discuss the implications of the ideology for the conceptualization of romantic love.  I argue that polyamorous ideology offers important insight as to the potentialities and limitations of highly individualistic ideology for the individuals that espouse it.

Polyamory and the Romantic Love Complex

According to Elizabeth Sheff, who has done in-depth qualitative work with polyamorists, polyamory is, “a form of relationship in which people have multiple romantic, sexual, and/or affective partners.  It differs from swinging in its emphasis on long-term, emotionally intimate relationships and from adultery with its focus on honesty and full disclosure of the network of sexual relationships to all who participate in or are affected by them” [1] .  Local-level polyamory communities exist across the United States as well as “virtual communities” that exist on the internet.  Local polyamory groups sometimes hold monthly meetings where various issues regarding sexual relationships, family, ethics and other topics are discussed.  They also hold social events at restaurants and bars as well as support groups for people in polyamorous relationships.  People from different local communities communicate with each other mainly through internet groups and mailing lists.  Some also participate in national polyamory conferences, which vary widely in content, from scholarly presentations to relationship workshops and spirituality seminars. According to Sheff, most of the people in these communities tend to be in their mid-30’s to late 50’s, middle to upper-middle class socioeconomic status, usually college-educated and overwhelmingly white.

Polyamorists are not an isolated group, nor can their ideas be said to exist “outside” of mainstream ideology.  It is important that we do not allow descriptions of polyamory as a “fringe movement” or “unique lifestyle choice” to obscure the fact that not only did poly ideology come into existence in particular relationship to already existing ideologies, but in many ways it also depends on previously established, deep-seated norms.  It would also be naďve to assume that what polyamorists are doing is particularly new.  As several colleagues, friends and my mother have been quick to point out, and historical work shows, many of the central ideas and practices involved with polyamory have existed at other times and places and in various forms. This comes as no surprise.  However, as authors like Stephanie Coontz have shown, the social and historical context of polyamory is unique in comparison to past free-love movements in important ways.  The purpose of this section is to outline these important contextual factors because they are crucial for understanding the experiences and ideologies of polyamorists.  The elements I will focus on that are especially relevant revolve around issues of the organization of sexuality and intimacy. 

Stephanie Coontz’s History of Marriage [2] is an excellent account for considering the historical moment in which the current polyamory movement finds itself (2005).  By focusing on the evolution of the institution of marriage she illuminates the transformations of what has been, especially since the late 1800s, the primary institution that organizes sexuality, intimacy and gender, particularly among the white middle class.  Coontz argues that as marriage came to be defined more as a relationship between equals based on shared ideals, love and intimacy, the institution itself became destabilized.  Important for our discussion here is that factors propelling this transformation in marriage are far from solely ideological.  The changing economic climate which has eased women’s dependence on men, the changing value of children, and increasing separation between the public and private spheres have all contributed to the articulation of marriage as a union that is premised on romantic love.  Coontz argues that this has turned marriage into a more optional choice for many men and women.  The increase in factors such divorce, age at first marriage, children born out of wedlock, cohabitation and limited but slowly increasing acceptance of non-traditional relationship styles are telling evidence that change is indeed happening.  Marriage has for years been the major structuring force of heterosexual romantic relationships.  In fact, for many in modern society it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a romantic love not premised on the possibility of marriage.  This is well documented by sociologist Stevi Jackson, who emphasizes the need to see romantic love as itself a cultural construction (1993).

One way in which the transformation of love itself has been addressed is in Anthony Giddens’ work on love and modernity [3] .  He explores the changing nature of sexuality and intimacy, focusing on the dissolution of the connections between traditional institutions such as marriage and family and sexuality.  He argues that we are witnessing and will continue to witness the rise of “confluent love”, “plastic sexuality” and “the pure relationship”.  The idea of the “pure relationship” is especially important for our discussion.  The pure relationship, according to Giddens, is entered into on its own terms, contingent upon the individual characteristics and desires of the couple, and depends on the continuance of these factors (“I love you until further notice”).  Love is based on shared intimacy and mutual disclosure between equals, in short, the democratization of intimate life.  Gone are the overarching structures and ideologies which once provided an abstract basis for intimacy. This argument coincides well with Coontz’s account of the changing meaning of marriage in people’s lives.  It is important to note of Giddens’ argument that it is not merely an evolution of tastes or preferences or an overarching increase in “acceptance” that seems to be occurring in intimate relationships, rather the very nature by which we enter into these relationships- the emotions, desires that a new kind of subjectivity enables.

It is clear that intimacy is changing, or at the very least, ideologies about love and sex.  However, to suppose that our current time is one of freedom, choice and liberation from old structures is a dangerously incomplete and even deceptive story.  Sociologist Lynne Jamieson provides a crucial critique of Giddens’ argument.  In Intimacy Transformed?,she stresses the inequalities still overwhelmingly present in personal lives that Giddens ignores [4] .  She points out that Giddens’ use of therapeutic literature illuminates only a certain kind of ideology about love and intimacy.  When we study people’s actual experiences in relationships, we get a very different picture.  Jamieson does not challenge Giddens’ representation of late modernity as a time of increasing uncertainties brought about by important processes of social change.  Rather she emphasizes that “the nature of the fit between the ideological story and everyday relationships is not simple”.  And indeed the works of sociologists and feminist scholars she outlines in her piece suggest that ideology of the pure relationship serves to mask and obscure the reality of the reproduction of inequalities based on race, gender, class and sexuality in personal relationships.  Jamieson’s work reiterates the importance of considering the multi-dimensionality of personal life and the difficult relationships between individuals, their ideologies, and their social circumstances. 

When considered in conversation with one another, Giddens and Jamieson can be seen as a reflection of a fundamental dilemma that continues to emerge as traditional institutions deteriorate and disadvantaged groups march to the beat of freedom and autonomy.  The notion of the “pure relationship” is essentially the manifestation of increasing individualism occurring within personal relationships and also coinciding with the institutional and socioeconomic changes Coontz discusses.  The subjects assumed by the pure relationship are equals whose relationship is based on mutual fulfillment of self-interest rather than an externally imposed reality.   An aspect of modern relationships that Giddens seems to miss however, is that even as traditional forms erode and individuals become more liberated from traditional expectations, the externally imposed reality this ideology tries so hard to distance itself from is alive and well in the form of persisting hegemonic structures and norms.  Jamieson draws attention to many of these in the form of inequalities which are, in effect, “masked” by individualistic ideologies.  Yet there is another kind of problem that arises with the individualistic notion of the pure relationship.

Feminists have offered several powerful critiques of liberalism and individualism, examining the consequences of these concepts for women’s social position.  One kind of criticism concerns the required acceptance of specific practices that reproduce patriarchy under an umbrella of “multiculturalism” [5] .  One manifestation of the argument for multiculturalism assumes that such acceptance is necessary for a liberal democracy.  Another kind of critique concerns the problem of coalition building once the basis for a call for solidarity among women is dismantled by the call for supremacy of personal autonomy.  On the other hand, Marilyn Freidman argues for the continued importance of autonomy above all else for women’s lives.  She contends that the potential for social disruption and resistance offered by the concept of autonomy is crucial for improving women’s social position [6] .  Carole Pateman offers yet another very different kind of critique which envisions the fundamental structure of the contractual relationship as patriarchal.  Under this conception, not only is the “contract” a patriarchal form, but women do not have access to the status of “individual” that is assumed in contractual agreement [7] .  This paper does not side with any one of these arguments, nor is its major focus whether or not polyamory is “good for women”, though I believe this is a crucial question.  My discussion here does however offer important implications for gendered relations of power under ideologies of individualism.  It is my contention that in order to assess the functions of polyamory for gender we must first examine the details of the ideology and how it functions in the organization of polyamorous lives. 

A critical account of American individualism in terms of personal relationships is Bellah et. al.’s Habits of the Hear [8] t.  Though written in 1985, the description and outlook of the book seems more relevant than ever.  The authors chart the historical development of a very particular kind of individualism which now pervades everything from politics to romantic relationships.  Their study is based on 200 interviews with American men and women.  Similar to Giddens’ “pure relationship”, the authors argue that Americans have come to view personal relationships primarily in terms of the pursuit of their own self-interest.  Across the interviews they observe the overwhelming assumption that relationships should be based on free choice and personal preference.  As such, the only requirement or obligation of relationships is honest communication, and it is through honest communication that problems are resolved and intimacy achieved.  Especially prevalent among their interviewees was what they termed a “therapeutic individualism” emphasizing the need for self-knowledge and self-actualization.  This model encourages individuals to “work on themselves” and places a great deal of emphasis on the need for complete independence and “awareness” of one’s own needs.  The authors see several dangerous implications of this ideology for how Americans relate to each other.  One of the consequences of this ideology, they argue, is that while individualism is important for countering tyranny, as the traditional sources of obligation deteriorate people will become increasingly isolated, self-serving and incapable of forming meaningful bonds with each other.  In addition, the call for freedom and the right to choose based on one’s preferences in no way prescribes what a “good society” would look like.  Aside from autonomous individuals pursuing their own interests, there is no requirement for how a just society is to be strucutured.  Other authors have pointed to these problems as well, focusing on women’s rights [9] , and the gay rights movement [10] .

The rest of this paper explores polyamory in terms of these dilemmas.  Polyamory, properly understood is a highly individualistic endeavor.  This may come as a surprise, since it is generally based on increasing the sphere of intimacy to include more people, and is itself an ideology about relations.  But perhaps nowhere is Giddens’ “pure relationship” echoed so closely in terms of real-life relationships as with this particular group.  In fact, polyamory takes Giddens’ notion one step further, because Giddens does not explicitly suggest the dismantling of monogamy among the impending changes in intimacy.  Polyamory is also illustrative in that it proposes a fundamentally different kind of subject-object relationship, namely one that is specially tailored to an individualistic notion of self and relationships.  However, also apparent in my conversations with polyamorists are the dilemmas posed by both Jamieson and Bellah et. al.  Polyamorists struggle with contradictions between polyamory and normative heterosexual ideology with which in many cases they were raised and in all cases currently live within.  Additionally, polyamorists face the challenge of maintaining intimate relationships based on contingency and self-interest.  This is not a story of “successes” versus “failures” in polyamorous relationships, rather the process of negotiating intimate relationships through this type of ideology in the presence of considerable constraints. 

Methodology

An understanding of polyamorists’ ideological negotiation of relationships requires an in-depth examination of their thoughts and experiences.  Because this study deals with personal intimate relationships, the problem exists of how to “get into” individuals’ personal lives in a manner that is both meaningful and as non-obtrusive as possible.  I chose to conduct a significant portion of my analysis using in-depth semi-structured interviews with individual practicing polyamorists.   I was primarily interested in how polyamorists talk about their experiences, the ways in which the describe situations and evaluate their own thoughts and behaviors.  My analysis is based on 15 in-depth interviews with practicing polyamorists and participant observation at a national polyamory conference.  I recruited participants from a mailing list of an active local polyamory group.  As follows, these are individuals who subscribe explicitly to the idea of polyamory as such and engage with other polyamorists.  Because I was interested in the operation of individualistic ideology in personal life, I did not design my study in order to be able to generalize about all polyamorists.  However, based on my review of poly literature and academic work done on polyamory, my sample is fairly representative.  Questions focused on their ideas about polyamory, love and commitment and their experiences with sexual relationships.  My study is also informed by participant observation at a national polyamory conference and informal gatherings with local polyamorists.

The Researcher

            As in any study, the position of the researcher is important in thinking about the collection and interpretation of data.  It is necessary that I discuss my own involvement in the poly community to expose the advantages and possible disadvantages for my role as researcher.  I acknowledge that coming into this study, I had a certain affinity for the ideology espoused by polyamorists.  I stumbled upon the idea of polyamory two and a half years ago through a personal inquiry into different relationship forms.  At the time I was becoming involved in gender studies and rethinking my own relationship and ideology about love and sex.  I am open to the idea of polyamory and in spending time with my respondents I have seen many different manifestations of it, some of which found favorable interest in and others I did not.  My respondents often asked if my interest in polyamory was more than academic and I answered them honestly, yes.  Accordingly, it is likely that my respondents viewed me as an ally.  Because of their comfort with academia, many were also enthusiastic about having polyamory portrayed “accurately” and examined in depth.  The benefit to this is that they were willing to share many intimate details and emotionally distressing stories.  Overall, though my interviewees might have seen me as sympathetic to polyamory, they reported many both positive and negative aspects of polyamory, such that I believe was able to develop a fairly accurate picture. 

The Interviewees

            As mentioned above, my respondents were recruited from a polyamory listserv in the Chicago area.  I appealed to them by asking for help with a study about polyamorous ideology, specifically seeking individuals who were currently involved in a polyamorous relationship(s).  Accordingly, what my respondents shared was a general familiarity with the lifestyle of polyamory and a minimal understanding or interpretation of their own situations as consistent with the definition of poly shared by those in the group.  While they ranged in age from 35 to 71, most of them were between 38 and 50.  The majority of the respondents could be classified as middle-class such that they held well-paying jobs that afforded them significant leisure time and money for traveling.  Only two respondents specifically mentioned financial issues which caused recurring stress in their lives.  All of my respondents were native-born and all were Caucasion except for one African American man.  There were 9 men and 6 women in the study.  One interesting and striking commonality across all of my respondents was an interest in and familiarity with psychotherapy concepts and approaches.  Most of the time this familiarity came through personal experience with psychologists due to mental illnesses, particularly depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.  I argue that the implications of this trend among the polys I studied are particularly important for understanding poly ideology.  The configurations of their relationships varied, though the most common formation was two or more women and one man.  None of my male respondents were currently involved in relationships with men, nor did they talk about any past long-term relationships with men.  Only one considered himself “bisexual” while the others referred to themselves as “heterosexual”, though some expressed an “openness to experimentation” if sharing a female partner with another man.  On the other hand, all of my female respondents referred to themselves as either bisexual or lesbian and all had been in long-term sexual relationships with women. 

While these were important similarities, there were also several equally important differences among my respondents.  The actual structures of their relationships varied in degrees of “openness”.  I spoke with four members of triads whose configurations were relatively “closed”, such that the partners were involved with each other and no one else (and they were not interested in adding a fourth).  Some of them had “primary”-type partners they lived with and sometimes parented with and had long-distance relationships with others.  Still other respondents lived alone and dated multiple others locally or long-distance.  Another interesting variation in my respondents was how they described political attitudes and beliefs about spirituality.  A few described themselves as specifically liberal, while others said they held a mixture of attitudes that would generally be considered liberal with others that are considered conservative.  As one would expect, they are mostly socially liberal, however many also described themselves as “leaning toward libertarianism”, favoring absolute supremacy of the individual.  As far as religion, only one interviewee described himself as an “atheist”.  There were 3 who considered themselves “Christian” to varying degrees and the others considered themselves spiritual in other ways such as Pagan and Wiccan. 

The last two ways that my respondents differed greatly was in how they came to polyamory in the first place, and their relationship to the polyamorous ideology I describe in this paper.  Some are very invested and active in the poly community and present themselves as “experts” of sorts.  They have engaged at length in practical and philosophical discussions of poly and some consider themselves “poly activists”.  At the other extreme are those whose relationship to the poly community seems to only exist out of a desire for information that might help them better understand and handle their own relationships.  A few of these individuals have ended up in polyamorous relationships before even knowing that a term existed for it and are still coming to terms with their situations.  While some polys are experienced advocates who actively engaged in intellectualizing and “exploration”, it is clear that others are just trying to get by while maintaining some shred of emotional stability.  Therefore, when I describe the “polyamorous ideology” here, this should be understood as a kind of ideal type.  The description of this ideal comes primarily from the polys who are very active and engaged in the production of ideas.  It is individuals such as these who produce materials and resources that the people who are new to poly are likely to utilize.  It is important to recognize the varying levels of involvement among my respondents.  Lastly, while, for example, all of my respondents were familiar with the terms “primary” and “secondary”, not all them believed these distinctions were ethical or desirable and only a few used them to describe their own relationships.  There are many instances in which polyamorous individuals disagree with each other and with the major pieces of poly literature.  However, these disagreements are usually over specifics and nuances that most agree are secondary to the larger poly ethic, which I attempt to elucidate here.  The following section focuses on three central themes of polyamorous ideology which I found to be held consistently across interviewees.  Throughout the paper I sometimes substitute the word “poly” as shorthand for polyamory, which was a common practice among my interviewees.

Examining Polyamorous Ideology

Love: Unlimited, Uncontrollable, Manageable

            The most obvious and defining principle of polyamorous ideology is that love can be shared between more than two people in an open and honest way.  This means that, contrary to monogamous standards, adults can have multiple loving sexual relationships simultaneously.  Polyamorists believe that, although mainstream society views love as a limited resource, love or the capacity to love is in fact not finite.  They argue that polyamory is different from cheating or because it calls for all the parties involved to be aware of and consenting to the other relationships.  My respondents all stressed the importance of communication; they believed that the communication of needs, desires, and concerns is the necessary condition of properly polyamorous love.  Polyamorous love is posited as love between equals, in the sense that everyone is “free” to choose to end any relationship and is entitled to be “treated with respect”.  Much like the actors presupposed in Giddens’ “pure relationship”, polyamorists often stress the contingent nature of polyamorous relationships.  They posit that while the traditionally monogamous, and especially those who enter into monogamous marriage, vow unending love, poly relationships do not rely on any “rulebook” or overarching structure to keep people together- rather relationships must be continuously reassessed and negotiated according to changing feelings, desires and needs.  Thus, as one seventy-one year old male respondent put it, “what was yesterday is not the same today…literally!” 

            While the differences between polyamorous love and monogamous love seem immense, there is also a great deal of similarity.  Indeed, the actual emotion, belief, and physical experience of love as described by my respondents is not unlike the romantic love of Disney movies and popular love songs.  Many of my respondents used phrases like “fell in love” and “head over heels”.  One important difference, however, is that polyamorists encourage a unusually high level of self-reflexivity.  While it is often acknowledged that the physical, emotional and psychological experience of “falling in love” can happen beyond one’s control and can cause great disturbance in one’s life, it is emphasized that this is only one kind or phase of love.  A popular term in the poly literature and one also used frequently by my respondents is “New Relationship Energy”, or NRE.  NRE, unlike its more tantalizing synonym, “falling in love”, is a term used in a cautionary way.  NRE happens to everyone, but it must be understood as temporary and furthermore, those who experience it must be extra cognizant of how it is affecting one’s other relationship(s).  Therefore, polyamory retains many of the aspects of love usually reserved for traditional monogamy, but it removes the primary structuring principle- exclusivity- and replaces it with contingent love and intimacy between consenting, equal partners.  Thus love, while powerful and at times uncontrollable, is still manageable through honesty and communication. 

Sex:  Positive, Sacred, Profane

            Generally, polyamorists encourage a “sex-positive” view of sexuality, contrasting it to what they see as traditional, repressive and oppressive norms.  Many of my respondents and people I met at the poly conference expressed the desire to dispel popular myths about sex, including negative associations with certain sexual acts as well as between whom sex occurs.  They encourage sexual experimentation and “awareness” of one’s own sexuality.  They disapprove of the use of sex to coerce or abuse.  For some polys, this leads to a view of sex as relatively profane- sex is de-mystified by talking about it and considering it a fact of everyday life.  For others, a “sex-positive” attitude goes further than this; to be “sex-positive” is to view sex as distinctly liberating and fulfilling.  Sex can be seen as itself a form of communication between partners.  Some polys also engage in practices and rituals that involve the elevation of sex to a sacred level, hence the term “sacred sexuality”.  In this instance, sex can be seen as a form or mode of transcendence and participants can exchange “energies” or “essences” in addition to bodily fluids.  In most cases, polyamorists use the term “sex” to encompass a wider range of activities than just vaginal intercourse including oral, anal, manual, and group sex and masturbation.  While I never heard the issue discussed at length by any polys, the few times sex with children was mentioned it was dismissed as out-of-the-question, usually in the context of what “the religious right” speculated about polyamory.  Excluding the fact that sex with children is taboo, a large variety of sexual practices are accepted and encouraged, as long those involved are consenting adults.  One of my female and three of my male interviewees had had experience with sadomasochism in the form of dominant/submissive role playing and/or flogging and many described an overlap between the two communities.  

            While sex and love often go hand in hand, sex is not equated with love.  Most polys, while having their own personal preferences, do not argue that one should never have sex without love, nor love without sex.  Overwhelmingly, polyamorists see sex as “a good thing” as long as one person’s sexual choices and actions do not infringe upon others.  They express an openness and acceptance of a wide range of activities that, in cases where they themselves might refuse to take part, they would consider it wrong to prevent others from doing so.  This view of sex is highly individualistic and, to an extent, hedonistic in the focus on pursuit of pleasure.  Echoing many of the sentiments of the 1960’s sexual revolution in the United States, polyamorists believe that sex and its counterpart love should be released from traditional ideologies that attempt to dictate sexual morals for all.  For the most part, they do not call for a polyamorous society or a moral order that privileges their own views of sexuality.  Overwhelming the attitude put forth seems to be one of “to each his/her own”. 

The Self: Rational, Emotional, Accessible

            Many of the polyamorists I talked to described themselves and polys in general as “intelligent”, “sophisticated”, “mature” and “self-aware”.  It is posited that these are absolutely necessary qualities for individuals who engage in polyamorous relationships due to the complexity and dynamism of most poly relationships.  It is important that we closely examine what this means in terms of how poly ideology conceptualizes the self.  The self is of central importance here for two reasons.  First, the aspects of poly ideology discussed above as well other aspects presuppose a specific kind of self.  This is the self that is negotiating relationships with other polys and non-polys, engaging in sexual activities, going about everyday routines, and struggling with big decisions.  The self, as suggested by Judith Butler [11] and others, is itself structured by the ideologies it is embedded within as much as it is a handler or mediator for different ideologies.  Second, the self is particularly important to polyamorous ideology because it is one that deals very explicitly with the self and is in this way “self-centered”. 

            Several of my male respondents spoke specifically about being “rational” people, which often had a particularly scientific orientation.  While women used the rhetoric of science and rationality less, they nonetheless implied a similar desire or need to be able to think in a “rational” way.  The most obvious and telling way that this notion of the self is put forth by polyamorists is in their account of having to continuously “negotiate”, “process”, and “analyze” themselves and their relationships.  Implicit here is the assumption that through an ongoing, rational and democratic approach, most problems, from difficult-to-pinpoint feelings of jealousy or exclusion, to immediate practical difficulties of who is sleeping where, can be resolved through communication and cooperation.  It is also the case that relationship problems can often be traced back to the individuals themselves; that stresses in relationships often arise because of personal issues that have not been properly examined or dealt with by the individual.  In this way, it is assumed that a person can, through intense self-examination and reflection, uncover problematic aspects of their psyche.  Many of the individuals I spoke to had experience with therapists and counselors and were well-versed in psychological terminology.  Therefore, polyamorous ideology calls for a self that is both “rational”, in the sense that it can objectively analyze even the most emotionally charged situations, and accessible, something that can be clearly understood and intervened with.

            In addition to being rational and accessible, the self that is implicated in poly ideology is an inherently emotional one.  It is assumed that individuals experience a range of emotions and that these emotions are not necessarily under their control, though how they react to the emotions is.  Many of the women I talked to especially expressed a tension between being “emotional” in circumstances when they really wanted to be “rational”.  The best and most elaborately articulated example of how polys deal with certain negative emotions is the discussion of jealousy in group settings, polyamory materials, and interviews.  For the most part, polyamorists do not assume that individuals can completely eradicate jealousy.  “Everyone gets jealous.  Everyone.  The issue is how you understand those feelings and what you do with them,” as one of my male interviewees put it.  Polyamorous ideology presupposes that emotions like jealousy can be taken apart, their sources exposed, their manifestations understood, and ideally their wounds healed. 

In this brief description of polyamorous ideology, I have attempted to bring out three particular aspects.  I have focused on them in a relatively abstract way in order to clarify some of the core values that often turn out to be organizing principles in the lives of polyamorists.   In summary, polyamorous ideology posits that individuals should be free to love and make love as they wish, free of the trappings of traditional norms, as long as they do so honestly, openly, and without harming others.  Love is an unlimited resource that individuals possess and while they cannot necessarily control who they love or who loves them, love is something that can be managed through honest communication.  The self assumed by polyamorous ideology, or the polyamorous subject, is freely choosing, self-aware, sensual, and dedicated to the effort required in maintaining complex relationships.  Taken as a whole, polyamorous ideology is highly individualistic, centering on the needs and desires of individuals.  As an organizing principle in personal relationships, polyamory functions primarily through the attribution of negative rights- prohibitions against seeking to exert power or control over others and against dishonesty in relationships.  Inherent in polyamorous ideology then, is the ideal structure of a miniature pure democracy, almost identical to Giddens’ notion of the pure democracy.  Polyamory proposes freedom from overarching structures and locating intimacy in the choices of individuals. 

Polyamory is radical in that it is a major break from traditional, monogamy-centered conceptions of love and sex.  However, when we examine the form of poly ideology and the values it holds, we begin to also see some striking similarities between polyamory and other ideologies that rest on the assumption of independent, rational, free agents pursuing their own self-interests.  As Lynne Jamieson has argued in response to Giddens, we need to examine the real-life experiences of polyamorists in order to gauge how this ideology functions.  To this end, my analysis of interview and observation data focuses on specific aspects of polyamorists’ experiences in order to better understand how this ideology works in individual lives, especially focusing on the elements of ideology discussed above.  As I have attempted to show, polyamory is a particularly important case because it is an oppositional, marginal ideology that attempts to undo or counter hegemonic norms surrounding sexuality and intimacy through intense individualization.  While polyamorous ideology allows for an infinite amount of variation and diversity, there is also nothing inherent in the ideology or in how individuals incorporate it that ensures inequalities of gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. will not be reproduced.  Indeed, in her work with polyamorous women, Scheff finds that polyamory can be both empowering and disempowering in terms of sexual subjectivity. This study will focus on the possibilities, limitations, and complications of polyamorous ideology as it operates in the lives of individuals, for it is precisely within these socially and historically embedded individuals and their interactions that pervasive norms and inequalities reside.

            Notice that nowhere in polyamorous ideology is there any distinction between men and women, people of different races, socioeconomic position, sexual preference or age (with the exception of children).  All subjects within the polyamorous ideal are essentially the same- differences that exist are not ones which position subjects along a hierarchy.  By “welcoming” difference and “embracing” variety, these factors are rendered important but in no way determinant of personal qualities or status within the group.  This emphasis on the desirability of diversity and importance of freedom and choice strikes a common chord with the most exalted of supposed American values.  Particularly the language of choice and individual autonomy have been the rallying cry for several movements focused on individual rights.  Polyamorists often position the beliefs and lifestyle associated with polyamory as a rejection of and departure from mainstream hegemonic norms of heterosexual monogamy.  However a sociological and historical perspective reveals that many of the ideals polyamory claims are in fact part of broader ideological trends toward extreme individualism and the desire for autonomy.  As several authors have pointed out, as is the case whenever we speak, and crucially in this case when one speaks about the desire for options and freedom to design one’s own life trajectory, one is necessarily making a claim from a particular social position.  The leisure of choice and the false universality of ideologically equal subjects is masked by the form of ideologies which accord the individual sacred status.  The following section attempts to examine some of the ways in which this ideology operates in lives of polyamorous individuals.  I wish to call attention to the oppositional nature of poly ideology on the one hand, and the all-to familiar functions the ideology serves on the other.  The individuals I spoke with attempted to incorporate the idea of poly into their own personal and sometimes public lives.   I emphasize the particular implications of an intensely individualistic ideology for polyamorous subjects.

Love, Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: Stories From Poly Lives

In the ideology I have described and in my respondents discussion of their own experiences, emerges the overwhelming value of individual freedom and autonomy.  My goal here is to explicate the significance and the consequences of poly ideology for the socially embedded individuals who embrace it.  In my conversations and observations it became apparent that, for polys, there is a fundamental struggle between individual and community; freedom and obligation.  I focus on the creation and negotiation of boundaries and bonding through notions of shared experience as two major ways in which polys attempt to deal with this tension.  Lastly, I discuss the implications for how we think about individualism in relation to interpersonal relationships.

Swingers, Polygamists and Other Others

            Immediately apparent when I began both my personal and academic entrees into polyamory was the amount of work done in both poly materials and among the polyamorists I talked to, distinguishing polyamory from other relationship forms. In particular they distanced themselves from swingers, traditional heterosexual monogamous relationships, and Mormon style polygamy.  This should not come as a surprise since polyamory as such is very a recent development and much ideological work and framing is necessary to define the lifestyle.  When polyamorists describe themselves in a certain way and differentiate themselves from other groups they are defining both what is and is not polyamory.  However the issue of distinction is a great deal more than just an issue of framing.  This process of distancing serves particular practical and ideological functions in the lives of polyamorous people and it has significant consequences for the ideology itself.  By “the ideology itself” I mean the relationship between this part of poly experience to the rest of the ideology I have described.

            The most obvious distinction that polys make is between polyamory and traditional heterosexual monogamy.  While my respondents all described their own struggles with monogamy, none condemned monogamy, marriage or heterosexuality as morally reprehensible.  Many of them had had particularly painful experiences in monogamous marriages, complete with messy divorces and failed subsequent attempts at monogamous dating.  What is most objectionable about monogamy, according to my respondents was the imposition of a universal standard of romantic relationships.  While it was often emphasized that monogamy should be just one of many options for love relationships, many also explicitly and implicitly expressed a belief that monogamy had fundamental flaws and polyamory was a more “sophisticated” or “mature” and individually fulfilling way of doing relationships.  Polyamorous relationships are complex and require considerable effort to manage.

Polyamory is more complex than our standard simple monogamy because a polyamorist is breaking new ground all the time…you know both in defining what it means to do relationships differently than everybody else and also internally with each multiple partner I mean you have, just the fact that there’s complexity in numbers, you have more people involved so there’s more complexity there

 Several respondents also cited the fact that the majority of polyamorists are highly educated (meaning at least college in addition to an informal intellectual life) and must be capable of a heightened level of “self-knowledge”, emotional fortitude and reasoning capabilities.  Monogamy is a simpler and more traditional model, and it is the hegemonic standard for romantic relationships and constitutive of the social world polyamorists exist in.  Not surprisingly then, monogamy is often blamed for difficulties many polys find in “breaking out” of traditional forms, particularly with regards to managing jealousy.   Some also cited the difficulty in relating to the “monogamous world” because of the need to explain oneself and have one’s lifestyle subject to constant scrutiny.  As we have seen with the gay and lesbian rights movement, the institutionalization of hetereosexual monogamy and social stigma against those who deviate from it manifest themselves in constraints that polys also encounter.  One such issue is the danger of loss of custody expressed by many poly parents.  To date, legal contestation of a poly parent’s ability to properly raise children has had mixed outcomes, but it is clear that societal ideas about sexuality and parenting indeed pose a serious threat to poly parents. 

However, it is also worth noting here the commonalities that exist between polyamory and monogamy.  As mentioned above, when describing the feeling or state of “being in love” or loving someone, my respondents portrayed the experience of love in the same way that we would expect from the monogamous-minded.  The major difference of course being the idea of finding desirable the act of seeing the loved one made happy in the arms of another.  Still present in poly ideas about love are notions of love being sacred and transcendent, though not necessarily as transformative as popular notions.  Another important and obvious reflection of heterosexual monogamy on polyamory is the tendency for polyamorous to take on forms closest to traditional hetero relationships.  All of the men in my study were involved with one or more women and no other men, while all the women except for one were in triads with a heterosexual man and heterosexual or bisexual woman.  Even a brief glance at polyamory information resources, emailing lists and match-making sites suggests that the “open” heterosexual couple may be the most common form poly relationships take on.  Lastly, popular ideas about what one should expect from romantic relationships and marriage partners are many of the same ones that polys cite as important to them.  As discussed in Giddens and Coontz, intimacy through fulfillment of individual needs and emotional closeness among equals are considered to be the central values of love relationships.   

          A second major differentiation that polyamorists make is between themselves and individuals who practice “swinging”.  Swinging usually consists of married couples who openly engage in sex outside of marriage- sometimes in the form of “trading spouses” or “wife-swapping”.  Many of my respondents stressed the importance of distinguishing between swinging and polyamory.  Sam, a 71 year old anesthesiologist I met at a polyamory conference commented,

I’ve been in the swinging community too and many swingers don’t have any concept of what polyamory is.  No concept.  “we do everything together, we play together we travel together, we would never date anyone- it’s an entirely different mindset.  And uh I say well “why don’t you fall in love with your partners? (They say) Well that would threaten our sacred maaarrrriiaaagge and I’m not putting them down, that’s the way they believe but no one has ever told them there’s another way…you know there’s another option here, children, hahaha think about falling in love with the people that you fuck with.  It’s ok!  You know?  And you don’t have to go out and have sex on your first date you can actually go out and have dinner- you know chat em up haha and you can ask them questions about their life and they can ask you questions about yours.  You might find you have something in common, other than just a stiff dick…and that’s that’s what I find offensive- you go out with swingers and they say hi, how are you, how old are you, what’s your name, let’s go out in the car I wanna do a blowjob..whoa hahaha whoa waaait a minute! Hahahaha  Maybe when you’re 25 or 30 that’s something but..not at my age. 

            Sam’s tone here is clearly mocking. Though he maintains a to-each-his-own stance on the practice of swinging, he specifically refers to swingers as “children” who essentially do not know any better and portrays swinger sexuality as shallow and narrow.  According to Sam and many other respondents who commented on the practice, swingers hold the bond of the marriage to be sacred and impenetrable, such that the exchange of sex does not threaten marriage relationship.  While people were less explicitly mocking swinging when they discussed it, the same undertones were there of polyamory being a more radical approach reserved for the emotionally mature and highly intelligent.  According to my respondents, by separating love and sex and reserving love for the couple while making sex available outside the relationship, swingers uphold a “dyadic” model of relating.  This distinction is important not only in how polyamorists explain and present poly to others, but it is a fundamental aspect of virtual community organization.  Since both polys and swingers rely heavily on the internet for resources and meeting others, boundaries are drawn for the purpose of meeting others who are seeking similar relationships. 

            Another group the polyamorists distance themselves from, interestingly, is the popular conception of Mormon polygamy.  My respondents did not necessarily believe that polygamy was inferior to poly or even always distinguishable from it, but they did talk about the need to distance themselves from the image of one man with many wives who are subordinate to him.  They stress that polyamory is based on equality rather than hierarchy and that there is no basis in polyamory for the legitimation of one relationship configuration over others.  Essentially, while the form of one man and multiple women might occur often in the poly community, they do not assume a particular power dynamic and equally acceptable would be a situation where one woman had multiple male partners (it is also not necessary in poly for partners to be married).  These boundaries are important for our consideration because they are the ways in which polys stake a claim to a way of life that runs contrary to what is considered normal.    Polys’ critiques of monogamy and swinging tend to hold constant the polyamorous ideology, critiquing those parts of other ideologies that contradict what they believe to be the most fundamental values of polyamory- namely the capacity for multiple loves.  Boundary maintenance also serves the particular ideological function of solidifying a set of beliefs and practices defined internally by its relationship to the “outside world”.  This ideology is based on individual freedom, which is the key component missing from the other relationship styles discussed here, since in all of these there remains an obligation of the individual to their partner(s).  Also, in the case of an individualizing ideology such as this one, the creation of boundaries and distinctions aides in forming a “we” from the “I”s, or the individuals subjects of polyamory.  In other words, a community based on shared understanding and similar interests and goals.  But what is the nature of this “we”, and how does it effect individual relationships? 

The Trouble With Honesty and the Limitations of Negotiation

            How do individuals organize their lives using the core principles of polyamory and perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?  The next section will attempt to answer these questions by examining how my respondents talked bout the successes, failures and day-to-day struggles of their romantic lives. As discussed previously, the importance of communication is paramount and it is necessary that everyone involved be a rational, self-interested actor capable of critical self-examination.  In their struggles we begin to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of social bonds based on individualism.  It is also here that we see the dialogic relationship between poly ideology and other ideologies, but also the consequences of individualism for intimate lives.  Polys are constantly in the process of defending personal freedom with a religious fervor, while at the same time trying to forge deep bonds of commitment and intimacy.

            All of my respondents discussed the importance of honest, ongoing communication between partners.  Relationships are processes that are continuously subject to change.  My respondents stressed the amount of work that goes into poly relationships and the challenges of dealing with “drama”.  Elin, a 38 year old returning college student in psychology currently lives with two other women, one of whom is transgender.  They have been in a closed triad and living together for about ten years.  When discussing the issue of whether any of them wanted to date outside of that relationship, she responded,

You know, sometimes I think I would like to see other people but I’m not sure I even want to go through that negotiation process, cuz in some ways it seems like we do nothing but process stuff haha, that it would be much better on all three of us if one of us wanted to get involved with somebody else, have everyone discuss and everyone put their thoughts on the table and discuss some parameters so that nobody feels stepped on, intruded on, haha cheated on haha.   I could imagine a number of unpleasant emotional scenarios…

Joe, a 38 year old engineer who lives with his wife and 3 kids, has recently found himself in a polyamorous relationship which his wife initiated with another woman.  Now, all three have sexual relations with each other.  Joe does not consider himself attached to the polyamorous ideology like many others do, rather he has found himself having to make difficult changes to the way he thinks about relationships in order to maintain his relationship with his wife.  He is adamant about the amount of work this new relationship requires,

If somebody asked me if they should consider getting into polyamory, I would say no. 

That is you have to know that…you have to reeeallly willing to work hard, really.  And I don’t think most people do.  So…um…I don’t think it is for everybody and I think there’s too many people who try things out just to try it, and um…being a sensitive individual which I really am, um, you can put a lot of hurt feelings out there, so…no I wouldn’t suggest to anybody polyamory.  If you heard about it, you realized that you felt it, um…and you thought it was acceptable to you or a benefit to you, I would back you.  But I wouldn’t go up and down the street and spout polyamory because it isn’t right for everybody.  I don’t believe marriage is right for everybody you know?  For…for a couple you know? So…no, it’ll work for people that really want to work hard 

Joe expresses a severe need for communication and emotional labor in poly relationships.  The endeavor is in fact so intensive that many people, he thinks, are incapable of maintaining it.  Jack, a  37 year old self-employed engineer and seasoned polyamorist also expresses the importance of relationship work, though has a more formulaic attitude.   When asked about his idea of “commitment” he replied,

Oh that’s easy!  A commitment is something that is discussed…and resolved.  A commitment can be anything but a commitment means we’ve discussed it and we’ve agreed on the parameters that whatever it is we’re discussing…I’m a very firm believer in setting very clear boundaries and commitments to what people want…and everything that needs to be committed to…I believe that you have to really construct piece by piece every relationship which is, you know other than the emotional part of the relationship is a series of boundaries and commitments and expectations that come into play and desires and everything that’s considered.

            These quotes suggest several important things about the poly mantra, “Communicate, communicate, communicate” [12] .  For one, the amount of emotional and psychological work that goes into polyamory requires a great deal of time and effort.  Accordingly, polys must have adequate amounts of leisure time to allow for necessary deliberations and ongoing processing.  Indeed, the assumption that relationships require this amount of effort is a point of solidarity among polys, who often joke about the amount of time spent “processing”.  As several of my respondents pointed out, one reason that poly relationships are so challenging is that “there is no rulebook” for polyamory.  Where more traditional romantic relationships are imbued with taken-for-granted assumptions which are based on explicity and implicit rules that govern them, the only automatic assumption among polys is that honest communication is paramount. 

When asked what kinds of situations or feelings required the most processing, many replied that jealousy was often a key factor, even among long-time polys.  While some of my respondents said that they or others they knew “just didn’t get jealous, ever”, most people did talk about jealousy as an issue that had been problem and saw the recurrence of it as a real possibility.  I argue that the problem of jealousy in polyamorous relationships is primarily an expression of the tension between individualism and commitment.  Consider the following quote from John, 54, divorced technical writer on problems with his current relationship:

If I have…let’s call them Ann and Debby.  And Ann is the one I’ve known the longest and have had the most relation with.  Ann tends to be a little..um…it’s not jealousy, maybe it is but she tells me it’s not.  She tells me that I spend too much time with Debby and when I’m with Debby..she kinda wants to know about it ahead of time.  And I feel kind of like I have to report in, and I really don’t want to do that.  I like to think of myself as a free agent, that I can pretty much do what I please…and the idea that I would have to report my dates just doesn’t work for me at all.  So this is something we’re struggling with and we haven’t arrived at a satisfactory solution for both of us. 

This quote exemplifies the tension I wish to draw out.  John appears to be caught between his idea of himself as a “free agent” and obligations Ann is trying to place on him, which would he believes would threaten his autonomy.  In the context of a traditional heterosexual relationship, Ann would have reasonable grounds to be jealous and make demands of John , and John would have little grounds for denying an obligation to her.  Jack elaborated on some of the mechanics of his own jealous reactions,

Jealousy for me begins when…after my marriage after I was separated I was involved in poly relationships…usually several women at the same time and they were all aware of each other and I was always very honest about all of these open relationships and uh…you know sometimes what would happen is one of them would…on a particular day when I would have a desire to have a particular person’s attention…they would be out with another partner doing something else and so…you know then sometimes the other person would quote un-quote steal them away, in other words they would decide they wanted to end the relationship with me and move on with just this other person or other people...and it’s  my point is that over time I feel that the experience of jealousy, because I’ve never repressed it and I allow it to blossom, but I’m also poly-minded and um….you know I and very non-possessive of people.  Matter of fact I don’t want to possess anybody and I don’t want to have exclusive rights to anything.  I mean… I don’t want to be responsible for somebody else’s…life…you know I mean they’re responsible for their own life and uh…. jealousy for me…it was something that….i kinda…just…transcended almost…it became less and less important in who I was and what I did in my relationships.

Here we have several different statements being made about jealousy, all of which are connected to the ideology of individual freedom.  First and most basically, jealousy happens when someone else has the attention of a partner that you wish to have for yourself.  This is a kind of tension that exists in monogamous relationships as well, however in polyamory there is no pre-given justification for denying your partner’s enjoyment of another’s company.  In fact, this kind of restriction is considered forbidden unless explicitly agreed upon by both partners.  Second, Jack uses the therapeutic psychological terminology of “repression” to discuss how he has handled jealousy differently.  When jealousy is something that can be “allowed to blossom”, rather then “repressed” it becomes a symptom of some deeper issue, that once aired, may begin to be cured or healed.  Third, Jack vividly illustrates the tension between freedom and obligation.  He says that he “doesn’t want to possess anyone”, or “have exclusive rights to anything” in terms of another person’s life.  Jealousy, for Jack as with John, is a desire to possess another person entirely- as well as be shouldered with all the responsibilities of ownership.  These responsibilities are re-interpreted as dependencies of others, which inhibit personal freedom.  Accordingly, to “transcend” jealousy, as Jack puts it, is to absolve oneself of obligation while simultaneously not obliging others to oneself.  In the next quote, Jack describes his most current bout with jealousy, bringing out yet another important point,

…like when Jesse (Jack’s current live-in partner with whom he has a son) first met her new love Greg and it’s something that’s very fresh about two weeks ok she met him …I had a deep…I would say at least 5 second bought with jealousy…ok…and then when I thought about it I said you know, what I’m jealous about…the cause of the jealousy is not that I have any interest in preventing Jesse from enjoying her life or enjoying her relationship…it had absolutely nothing to do with that.  It had to do with…the question of, oh am I going to be a single parent now again? …you know is this going to take a lot more of my time?  And then I thought about that in like the 4th second and I said well, you know but I really like being…a parent and you know I’m really good with that and…then by the 5th second it was like ok…yeah you know actually I don’t think it feels bad at all…

Here, Jack identifies the source of his “jealousy” as his concern over being left a single parent.  This is another powerful example of the challenges that arise from creating family out of an ideology of individual freedom.  Even as Jack has been able to come to terms with and even enjoy sharing Jesse’s attention with other people, he must still cope with the consequential freedom Jesse has to leave their relationship and their family.  He discusses getting over this “jealousy attack” relatively easily through self-reflection and negotiation with Jesse.  However, had Jack not had the financial resources to easily support he and his son, this process might have been far more complicated.  The last quote comes from Sara, a 38 year old woman formerly in electronics assembly, now unemployed and on disability.  Sara discusses jealousy in a way similar to Jack and John, as something she has generally been able to overcome.  She has been through three marriages and her most recent lover, Dan is currently dating a younger woman and has been spending more time with her than Sara.

He’s the first one I’ve ever felt jealousy issues with, over all these yrs.  Cuz if I officially became poly when my second marriage ended that would have been like 95.  But I knew I wanted those relationships since 88.  But generally like if I see one of my lovers kissing somebody else, I get this like, thrill that’s like ooh can I watch, can we all do it together?  Dan is the first one I’ve ever really felt jealousy issues over and I know it’s my insecurity, I’m 48 and she’s 18!

The feeling Sara first describes is labeled by many polyamorists as the experience of “compersion” or the opposite of jealousy.  She considers this her regular and preferred state of being.  However, she locates her jealousy “in her own insecurity”, insecurity arising from the age (read desirability) of the other woman.  On the one hand, she knows that Dan has every right to spend time with the younger woman, regardless of whether this was due to her desirability or for any other reason.  On the other hand, she seems to want to disregard this knowledge by denying the validity of socially imposed norms of beauty.  Again, one way to think about Sara’s dilemma is that she is caught between a notion of wanting full autonomy and freedom while also having to forfeit any claim over Dan, who is not obligated to prioritize one lover over another or actively resist dominant beauty norms. 

Discussion

As many of my respondents commented, “with poly, there are no guarantees”.  While it is probably the case that most of us would not consider our intimate relationships as “guarantees”, indeed they can often be sources of stress and instability, requiring significant emotional work.  However, for many the structure of the heterosexual couple does provide a map for how to do relationships, increasing the chances that romantic partners will carry the same assumptions and expectations of obligations and responsibilities.  Polyamorous ideology removes the foundation of the heterosexual couple by challenging the assumptions at its core.  While formally removing the traditional sources of inequality, obligation, and domination/subordination in romantic relationships, it makes very few assertions about what these relationships should look like.  As I have shown here, this kind of liberation can be a double-edged sword.  The consequences of this particular individualistic ideology can be thought of in broader terms as encompassing the fundamental tension between freedom and obligation, or ideologically speaking, “individualism and commitment” (Bellah et. al. 1985).  The lessons learned in Habits of the Heart hint to additional problems we might expect to see in a large scale study of poly relationships.  Poly ideology may serve to mask inequalities related to race, gender and sexuality.  It might also be argued that the poly standards of intimacy through honest communication among equals is only relatively successful among practicing polys due to the homogeneity of race, class, sexuality and age of the current poly community.  I believe that in order to seriously discuss the implications of individualism, we must first develop an understanding of how the ideology operates for those who use it. 

In sum, in terms of the consequences of individualism for personal life, polyamory offers both inspiration and caution.  On the one hand, polyamorous ideology provides conceptions of self, love, and relationships that is compatible with personal autonomy.  The structure (or lack thereof) of polyamorous relationships offers a truly radical break with traditional heterosexual monogamy and provides an alternative which, if done “properly”, may indeed promote freedom and self-actualization, hence making more possible the disruption of many deep-seated norms of gender and sexuality.  However, the cautionary tale of individualism should not be overlooked for an optimistic view of the possibilities it may create.  The testimonies of polyamorists the polyamorists I spoke with suggest that hegemonic constructions of love and gender are not automatically obliterated by the adoption of polyamorous ideology.  While polyamory calls for a separation from obligatory relationship forms, it does not necessitate or ensure a particular vision of these relationships.  Apparent in the interviews was the notion that many polys struggle with traditional notions of commitment which, while they clearly threaten personal autonomy, they also create more stable, predictable and often comfortable relationship forms.  The notion of “comfort” here is particularly important because it is often in the quest for “comfort” that social categories and inequites are created and reproduced. 

Polyamorists represent a case of the “ideal type” free agents supposed by the American ideology of individualism.  I would also contend that as many of the traditional sources of obligation, as discussed by Coontz, are eroding, and a market-driven individualism pervades every aspect of our lives, the tensions that polyamorists express and the struggles they experience will become more and more relevant for everyone.  The problem of closeness, whether in the intimacy of lovers or the solidarity of communities, will become ever more salient.  The implications for individualistic ideology that spans across unequal groups are especially problematic.  It is crucial that we link individuals’ experiences and uses of ideology to larger social problems and relations of power.  The polyamorous ideology exists in dialogue with competing ideologies about love and sex, but is also imbued with many of the standard ideological assumptions about what it means to be “an American”.  In this study I have attempted to examine polyamorous ideology and the form it takes in the lives of polyamorists.  I have argued that the tension between freedom and obligation is one crucial development which arises from the incorporation of poly ideology into the lives of socially embedded individuals.  This tension is important because of its implications for the idea of “liberation” and the rhetoric of free choice.   Individualization necessitates a re-conceptualization of both the self and the relationship of self to others.  However this process creates tension with obligations presupposed by dominant norms.  Also inherent in the operation of this kind of ideology for individuals is the dilemma of forging bonds based purely on self-actualization and self-interest.  Polyamory represents a case which attempts to deal with these tensions not only through a redefinition of “love”, but through a kind of re-orientation of the self to other, such that autonomy remains sacred even in the notion of “commitment”.  The stories of polys discussed here suggest that the organization of relationships around the central ethic of individualism creates in some senses an opposition to traditional hegemonic forms, while simultaneously disabling any basis for recognizing the persistence of these forms within those relationsips.


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[1] Sheff, E. (2005). "Polyamorous Women, Sexual Subjectivity and Power." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 34(3): 251-283.

[2] Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a History. New York, Viking.

[3] Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[4] Jamieson, L. (1999). "Intimacy Transformed?  A Critical Look at the 'Pure Relationship'." Sociology 33(3): 477-494.

[5] Okin, Susan.  Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[6] Friedman, Marilyn.  Autonomy, Gender, PoliticsNew York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[7] Pateman, Carole.  The Sexual Contract.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

[8] Bellah et. al. Habits of the HeartUniversity of California Press, 1985.

[9] Saletan, William.  Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion WarUniversity of California Press, 2003.

Also See: Petchesky, Rosalind. Abortion and Woman's Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom. rev ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990

[10] Warner, Michael.  The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer LifeHarvard University Press, 2000.

[11] Butler, Judith.  Gender TroubleNew York: Routledge, 1989.

[12] Though I could not locate the orginal source of this “mantra”, it was cited as such by several of my interviewees as well as the following sources:

-Easton, Dossie and Catherine Liszt.  The Ethical SlutSan Francisco: The Greenery

Press, 1997

-Loving More Webpage.  http://www.lovemore.com/  Copyright 2004

-Anopol, Deborah.  Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits