Even Polyamory Is Not Open Enough

7 minute read
Olds is an Australian writer based in Melbourne. Her work has been published by Sydney Review of Books, un Magazine, AQNB, and the Institute of Modern Art, collected in anthologies, and shortlisted for the Griffith Review’s Emerging Voices Competition and the Sydney Review of Books / Copyright Agency’s Emerging Critics Fellowship. People Who Lunch was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award

Recently, I became interested in theorizing what I’m calling “post-work polyamory.” This concept arose from a relatively simple question: how do people manage to hold down a job, or multiple jobs, while holding down multiple relationships? And what could relationships look like if we didn’t have to work for a living?

In its loosest definition, post-work polyamory is a relationship form premised on and committed to anti-capitalism. It is, or would be, a romantic, caring, sexual relationship between any number of people working to democratize the distribution of care, resources, property, love, sex, intimacy, and work within a couple or other closed unit. It would be a form against the nuclear family as an atomized site of consumption and production. Its post-work ambitions are exactly what they sound like. Post-work polyamory does not just want to redistribute labor but, where possible, abolish the need to work within exploited waged, and unwaged, relations in order to survive.

This may seem a little far-fetched. If it does, that’s partly due to the way polyamory has been defined—and narrowed—by both its champions and detractors. Now, on OKCupid profiles and in Tinder bios, “queer, geeky, poly, kinky” appear together so often they are practically idiomatic. This iteration of poly has an embarrassingly utopic bent, though somewhat deflated by the terrestrial pragmatism of scheduling and painstaking communication.

Polyamory’s lamentable sensibility stems from its exclusivity—ironically, an exclusivity that no one particularly wants to join. It’s not for nothing that poly’s current‑day avatar is a white neckbeard huffing crumbs across his keyboard as he posts on the “r/relationships” Subreddit. Polyamory, as one common critique goes, is made possible by a life of relative structural ease. You need the time and energy to do it; you need support systems, which usually form within progressive urban centers; you need access to contraception and health care; you need a decent‑paying job, or a financial safety net, to facilitate all of the above.

Note here that I’m talking about polyamory, not related forms—among them, relationship anarchy and what Angela Willey, a scholar of non/monogamies, calls “dyke ethics”—that attempt to divest from both monogamy and polyamory. Polyamory is thought of as a practice, sometimes an orientation, and, increasingly, an identity and a subculture. A one‑off kiss with someone other than your partner but with your partner’s consent does not make you polyamorous; the scaffolding that allows the kiss to happen, on the other hand, gestures toward a polyamorous ethos. Promiscuous coupled queers, especially gay men, are rarely seen as polyamorous and are perhaps less likely to identify as such; non‑monogamy from gay men is viewed as natural, or at least natural to gay culture, dispensing with the need for a separate moniker. In any case, many poly people don’t want their own nuanced forms of non‑monogamy tarred with the same brush, so polyamory is more and more taking on an identity of its own.

There are four main negative responses to polyamory from monogamous‑leaning people:

  1. Ridicule and hilarity. An emphasis on its geekiness. This is often performed by otherwise progressive young lefties who give themselves a free pass to make fun of, or dismiss, poly. See: Vice magazine. See: conflation of aesthetic and moral objections. See: Twitter.
  2. The “objective interest” response. See: endless online articles about “what is polyamory?,” features on polyamorous individuals, couples, and groups. See also: Tilda Swinton.
  3. Suspicion and hostility: thinly veiled take‑downs framed as “investigations” into polyamorous lifestyles. See: “polyamory wouldn’t work for me”; “polyamory doesn’t work”; “I’d like to be poly but I’m too jealous.” See also: legitimate critiques of uneven power dynamics. See also: the Franklin Veaux debacle — the hard‑line author of More Than Two who has recently been accused of decades of abuse by his co‑author Eve Rickert, and several other women.
  4. Absolute outrage. Moral panic. Decline‑of‑Western‑civilization discourse.

In response to these, polyamorists are tasked with defending their relationships; in interviews and essays, poly people emphasize the bigness of their love, the richness of connections, their personal growth. There’s always a question about jealousy to which the poly person submits the standard response: “Of course I still get jealous. But when I do I work through it.”

Read More: Why I Love My Open Marriage

Whatever the angle, polyamory is rarely discussed beyond the confines of empowerment for individuals, couples, and—at most—small units. As long as polyamory remains sequestered in a hero’s journey narrative of personal triumphs over jealousy, insecurity, and possessiveness, over the limitations of monogamy to sexual and emotional freedom—as long as this remains the end point of the poly unit—its political potential remains obscured. As long as poly is only ever discussed according to whether or not it “works”—when its end goal becomes the cohesiveness and harmony of the unit, when it is constantly asked to defend itself—it is framed as an aberration, requiring polyamorists to spruik its benefits, reiterating the narrative of triumphs over jealousy, insecurity, possessiveness. And as long as polyamory is subject to an overemphasis on its unorthodox sexual customs, polyamorists will define polyamory not only in opposition to monogamy but to promiscuity, polygamy, infidelity, free love, and swinging: a sanitized, secular, moral, and implicitly hetero form of love—emphasis on the love, which is used to sell a suspicious mainstream on all manner of forms (gay marriage being the most obvious example). Within this closed loop, the highest achievement for poly is banality.

Polyamory becomes what Angela Willey calls a “minoritizing discourse.” This is a kind of ecological approach to relationship forms that does not seek to displace monogamy but to position polyamory as something that can flourish harmlessly alongside it. Again, gay marriage is a good example: if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay-married. Of course, as things stand, this means that monogamy remains at the center, polyamory at the margins—in a structurally monogamous society, the forms will never have true equality. You can see how this plays out in an influential study of “monogamous” prairie voles. Led by neurobiologist Dr. Willem Young in the early 2010s, the study claimed to have isolated hormones and even a gene determining the tendency toward commitment‑phobia (vasopressin and RS3 334, a section of the gene coding for vasopressin receptors, if you wanted to know). The study and the hyperbolic media coverage it generated framed non‑monogamy as a pathology to be fixed with scientific intervention—for example, straying partners could take oxytocin, the so‑called bonding hormone, in pill form.

The counter‑strategy, a “universal” approach, might read the above results and reverse the terms; if there is such a thing as a cheating gene, perhaps non‑monogamy is natural and monogamy the aberration. Universalists could cite the percentage of non‑monogamous species in the animal kingdom (“only 3–5% of mammal species mate for life”), or conjure primitivist tropes of polymorphous perversity before European invasion, or reference broken homes, or Ashley Madison, or the divorce rate—is anyone actually monogamous?

In both approaches, it becomes a matter of bringing human nature and social structures into harmony. Non‑monogamy can be fixed or prohibited in order to meet the ideal of a monogamous society. For polyamorists, society can be overhauled to match the non‑monogamous reality we already live but strenuously deny. In each case, the apparent naturalness of a tendency, whether it’s toward monogamy or non‑monogamy, remains unquestioned. It’s always possible, of course, that both monogamy and polyamory are deeply unnatural.

Excerpted from the book PEOPLE WHO LUNCH: On Work, Leisure, and Loose Living by Sally Olds. Copyright © 2024 by Sally Olds. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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