Messy, Dif­fi­cult, Lib­er­at­ing

What’s in Polyamory for Marginal­ized Folks?

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Son­suz Aşk The Mcgill Daily

Al­though I’m a polyamorous queer woman of colour my­self, watch­ing Net­flix can eas­ily make me feel like polyamory is only for peo­ple who make each other kale smooth­ies. Series like You Me Her, Easy, and In­sa­tiable, rep­re­sent polyamory as hip, able- bod­ied, white, mid­dle- class, and ( sub) ur­ban. Al­though this stereo­typ­i­cal por­trayal of polyamory has been chal­lenged in shows such as She’s Gotta Have It, it re­mains the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive. Be­ing poly is not an iden­tity that is nec­es­sar­ily marginal­ized in it­self. How­ever, like all hu­man in­ter­ac­tions, polyamory is af­fected by power dy­nam­ics, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for marginal­ized folks to nav­i­gate it. So, how do be­ing poly and be­ing marginal­ized in­ter­act?

Polyamory comes in many forms. The form of polyamory I iden­tify with, and will de­scribe, is in­formed by Dossie Eas­ton and Janet Hardy’s book The Eth­i­cal Slut. As blog­ger Kim Tall­bear points out on her blog The Crit­i­cal Polyamor­ist, the in­sti­tu­tion of monogamy is rel­a­tively re­cent. It was so­lid­i­fied by the ad­vance of cap­i­tal­ism and by coun­tries like Canada, which can­on­ized it through the in­sti­tu­tion of monog­a­mous mar­riage. As a project closely tied with ad­min­is­tra­tive, colo­nial state sys­tems, monog­a­mous mar­riage has been force­fully im­posed on In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and on Mus­lim so­ci­eties prac­tic­ing polygamy to re­place ex­tended fam­ily mod­els. The nor­mal­iza­tion of monogamy in the West­ern world ex­tends to non-racial­ized re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties.

What is Polyamory?

Polyamory is the act or the abil­ity of ro­man­ti­cally lov­ing more than one per­son at a time. Polyamorous re­la­tion­ships are re­la­tion­ships where this abil­ity is ei­ther lived or sim­ply re­spected. It is a form of non-monogamy where the terms of the re­la­tion­ship are ac­tively con­sented to by ev­ery­one in­volved. At this point, you may be think­ing of polygamy, ca­sual sex, or swing­ing. While these el­e­ments may be present in a poly per­son’s life, the essence of it is sim­pler: it is pos­si­ble and okay to love more than one per­son at a time.

A cen­tral as­pect of polyamory is hon­estly ar­tic­u­lat­ing one’s own feel­ings and lis­ten­ing to the feel­ings of oth­ers. Poly con­stel­la­tions can­not sim­ply fol­low the main­stream re­la­tion­ship norms that in­form monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ships. They there­fore de­pend on open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which helps us ne­go­ti­ate the na­ture of our re­la­tion­ships, ar­tic­u­late our needs and bound­aries, and sched­ule time between more than two peo­ple.

An­other as­pect is en­gag­ing with jeal­ousy, which we usu­ally con­sider to be a re­ac­tion to in­fi­delity or the threat thereof. Many poly peo­ple be­lieve the source of jeal­ousy to be their own fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties rather than the ac­tions of their part­ner. For ex­am­ple, if I feel jeal­ous of my part­ner spend­ing a week­end with their part­ner, this may be be­cause I feel less needed. This does not mean that jeal­ousy is an il­le­git­i­mate feel­ing. In­stead, we give ( healthy amounts of ) space to jeal­ousy and its un­der­ly­ing causes.

How­ever, feel­ings about our part­ners con­nect­ing with some­one else also in­clude “com­per­sion,” which means be­ing happy for our part­ners when they are happy with some­one else. Many poly peo­ple also think about the hi­er­ar­chi­cal or­der­ing of part­ners in their lives. Some of us prac­tice re­la­tion­ship an­ar­chy, where all part­ners have an equal say, while oth­ers have a pri­mary part­ner. And yes, there can still be ‘cheat­ing’ in poly re­la­tion­ships — the bound­aries of loy­alty just change from monogamy as the de­fault to the agree­ments that part­ners have es­tab­lished to­gether.

Polyamory and Lib­er­a­tion

Polyamory is not a choice, it’s sim­ply the way some peo­ple func­tion, and it can be in­val­i­dat­ing to live in so­ci­eties that so­cially and legally priv­i­lege monogamy. En­coun­ter­ing polyamory as a con­cept can be un­set­tling at first, but it also val­i­dates many feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences. As marginal­ized folks, we are of­ten ex­cluded from mul­ti­ple other so­cial norms and are more vul­ner­a­ble to strug­gling with men­tal health. Be­ing able to ar­tic­u­late or live this part of our­selves can be re­liev­ing.

Poly peo­ple can­not draw as eas­ily on re­la­tion­ship norms usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with monogamy. It is com­plex to ne­go­ti­ate care, de­pen­dency, strength, and vul­ner­a­bil­ity among more than two ac­tors who are of­ten dif­fer­ently pow­er­ful and marginal­ized. There is noth­ing in­her­ently sub­ver­sive about polyamory. Like other re­la­tion­ship mod­els, it can be prac­ticed in vi­o­lent ways that ex­ploit folks’ vul­ner­a­bil­ity and fur­ther marginal­ize them. But hav­ing to sort out these dy­nam­ics rather than tak­ing up their nor­ma­tive pre­fig­u­ra­tions can be lib­er­at­ing. For ex­am­ple, some women and femmes use polyamory to re­claim slut­hood; in some poly re­la­tion­ships, more priv­i­leged part­ners take a step back and sup­port their other part­ners as they ven­ture through non-monogamy; and queer poly re­la­tion­ships of­ten dis­rupt cis- and het­eronor­ma­tive re­la­tion­ship as­sign­ments of gen­der ex­pres­sion. We ne­go­ti­ate these dy­nam­ics col­lec­tively or in­di­vid­u­ally with our part­ners, al­low­ing for mul­ti­di­men­sional ex­pres­sions of our gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, or lack thereof.

Polyamory has also given me space to evolve; now, I feel bet­ter able to re­late to oth­ers with­out hav­ing to undo ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ships. Be­ing part­nered does not stop our ques­tion­ing and en­coun­ter­ing of new de­sires. We may find that we are queer, kinky, or tired of only ever giv­ing our Black and brown bod­ies to white part­ners. Once we move away from the idea that one part­ner has to sat­isfy all of our needs, we be­come able to ex­plore these de­sires and iden­ti­ties even if they don’t fit within the frames of our al­ready ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ships.


Mem­bers of the polyamorous com­mu­nity of­ten have high de­grees of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, fi­nan­cial means and race priv­i­lege. But not all of us fit this de­mo­graphic. Blog­ger Kim Tall­bear doc­u­ments her ex­pe­ri­ences as a Na­tive Amer­i­can polyamorous woman in the US. She longs for Na­tive Amer­i­can “meat- on-your- bones, hum­ble, swag­ger­ing” fem­i­nists, but the men she finds in poly cir­cles tend to be “pale, skinny, soy latte sip­ping, yoga bendy techies.” In 9 Strate­gies for Non- Op­pres­sive Polyamory, Janani Bala­sub­ra­ma­nian re­minds us that “racialised ideas of slut­hood” make re­claim­ing promis­cu­ity in­ac­ces­si­ble to some peo­ple of colour.

Ac­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion in poly re­la­tion­ships sets high stan­dards for ex­press­ing our emo­tional lives that can be ableist and ne­glect the power-rid­den dy­nam­ics of whose feel­ings and which ex­pres­sions of feel­ings we con­sider valid. Be­ing in a poly re­la­tion­ship re­quires money, time, emo­tional avail­abil­ity, and mo­bil­ity to link up with other peo­ple. Be it work­ing mul­ti­ple jobs, rais­ing chil­dren, or sim­ply feel­ing ex­hausted from liv­ing in a world that wasn’t built for us, there are many ways in which some may lack the re­sources that polyamory of­ten re­quires. At the same time, polyamory that re­sists these eco­nomic lim­i­ta­tions, for ex­am­ple polyamory as a way of cop­ing fi­nan­cially as de­scribed by Ian Baker in Grow­ing Up Poor With Three Par­ents, is un­der­rep­re­sented in com­mon imag­i­na­tions of polyamory.

Lastly, be­ing poly does not ab­solve us of our po­ten­tial to op­press forms of con­sen­sual non­monogamy that are racial­ized or marginal­ized in other ways. Brigitte Vasallo cap­tures that we of­ten claim “to have to­tal le­git­i­macy to de­cide what is love and what is not, [and] what an eth­i­cal re­la­tion­ship is and what not.” Sim­i­larly, it is not for us to po­lice monog­a­mous con­stel­la­tions, whether they come about as a re­sult of the ac­ces­si­bil­ity re­stric­tions dis­cussed above or sim­ply by choice.

Be­ing poly and be­ing marginal­ized can in­ter­play in messy, dif­fi­cult, and lib­er­at­ing ways. Good ally­ship is rec­og­niz­ing these in­ter­plays and mak­ing space for us in the poly com­mu­nity. Get­ting rid of the kale smoothie trope would be a good first step.

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