Polyamory: Nature or Choice?

Where does polyamory begin? Is it an orientation? Is it something you pick? Micah Schneider shares his experience and tries to answer this complex question.

Polyamory is loosely defined as “many loves”. While defining it is easy, understanding it is not. I’m not just talking about how to “do it”, or make it work in your life. I’m talking on every level, starting with the most basic. Why are some people polyamorous and others aren’t? Is polyamory something that you do, or is it something that you are?

My answer is simple. Yes.

The longer answer is not so simple.

In an old saying I’m shamelessly stealing and modifying, ask ten polys a question, you’ll get eleven answers. This question, whether or not polyamory is an orientation, is definitely one of those questions. I’m very lucky in that I live in a part of the world where there are enough poly people that I can genuinely say that the majority of my friends are also poly. And most of them would probably agree with me that being poly is just as much a part of their identity as any other sexual orientation. I know because this is a fun argument to have at poly social gatherings, and it comes up fairly regularly.

Think about it this way. If you consider yourself heterosexual, are you suddenly not anymore if you don’t currently have an opposite sex partner in your life? You can ask the same question of every other sexual orientation you can think of, including heterosexuality and monogamy. Is a straight white girl suddenly not anymore if she’s single?

Of course not. And it’s the same way for the rest of us.

But that’s where it gets a little complicated. Someone can be poly by orientation, meaning that they prefer, even need, to be involved in multiple loving relationships, but monogamous by circumstances or choice. In the previous century, I was legally married. My ex-wife and I were polyamorous, but we went long stretches of our marriage where it was just the two of us. That didn’t mean that we weren’t poly anymore, we just didn’t have a large dating pool to fish in at the time. I’ve heard of plenty of poly folks that choose to be monogamous with one partner, because the other person is not poly and doesn’t want to share. There’s nothing wrong with them negotiating those limits. That’s their choice to make. Some of those people stopped identifying as poly, but just as many didn’t.

It works the other way, too. I know more than one poly couple where only one half is functionally poly. The other is mono by nature, and negotiated a poly relationship with their poly partner so that partner can express their orientation. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this arrangement; it’s their business. And some of the mono partners identify as poly, but some don’t.

Again, think about it this way. If someone identifies as bisexual, and then begins a monogamous relationship with someone of the same sex, are they suddenly homosexual? Or straight, if it’s someone of the opposite sex? I don’t think so, and lots of bisexuals (maybe most) would agree.

I believe that poly and mono are orientations, the same way that homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are. I also think that pansexuality, asexuality, kink and a whole host of other alternative sexualities are also orientations. But that doesn’t mean everyone thinks about them the same way I do.

I’m a gender and queer activist, and in those circles, I’ve often described myself as a poly, kinky, bisexual pro-feminist male. Since I was being specific, I should have said I was cis male, but that’s not the point. Those things are not what I do, they are what I am. Who I am. They define me and how I look at the world. If I was suddenly single (Gods forbid!), I wouldn’t change that description to monogamous, vanilla, straight pro-feminist cis-male. Who I am is much more than how, who and how many people I like to fuck or happen to be fucking at any given time.

Photo credit: Flickr / malias

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Comments

  1. I love your closing line.

    My husband and I both identify as bisexual despite being in a monogamous heterosexual marriage. We’ve had other people in our bedroom in the past but neither of us would identify as poly. If anything, those experiences were intended to let us express and explore the other side of our sexuality while staying in a committed relationship. We’ve stopped doing that, but I do appreciate that neither of us has to mask our bisexuality around each other. We can comment on attractive members of our own sexes, respectively, without it being a challenge to our monogamy or our heterosexual relationship. (Obviously we’re not the type to get truly jealous over wandering eyes. “Look but don’t touch.”)

  2. Jasmine says:

    This concept is difficult for some to understand. I recently realized that I am poly. When my partner and I talked about what this means (he being staunchly monogamous) he couldn’t understand why I would identify as polyamorous if my intention was to maintain our monogamous relationship. For him, because I’m in a monogamous relationship it makes me monogamous. I even tried using the examples of bisexuality (does a bisexual person in a relationship with someone of the same sex suddenly become homosexual) and heterosexuality and singledom. But he still can’t understand why I continue to identify as poly. For me, however, it is something that I am, not something I do.

    • @Jasmine. I totally relate, I have come to the same realization myself in the past year. Fortunately my wife and I seem to be in tune of this issue. We both believe we should offer each other the freedom to choose to be poly if we so choose. Whether we exercise that freedom or not, is really not the point. It the the fact that we are deeply in love with each other, secure in our relationship, trust each other completely and want an open and honest relationship. The more we read and learn, the more we see that our sexuality have been stifled by our Judo-Christian up-bringing and the constant brain washing from society that monogamy is the only true way to live. I personally feel no jealousy or possessiveness towards my wife, she is a free person; I don’t own her or her body.

      • Jasmine says:

        That is just such a wonderful and healthy way to approach a relationship! I wish my partner would see it that way, as well. Although, I do also understand how for him monogamy is extremely important.

        “She is a free person. I don’t own her body” <- Love that sentiment!

  3. wellokaythen says:

    I’m curious where the boundaries of the poly identity are, assuming they exist. This is not meant to be a criticism in any way, I’m just curious where you see monogamy ending and polyamory beginning, in terms of oirentation. For example, a monogamous married man who fantasizes about sex with women besides his wife would not necessarily by polyamorous in orientation, would he? Does being poly in orientation mean that it’s more than just a little curiosity, more than just a little desire?

    It sounds like it’s about placing oneself on a spectrum, even more of a spectrum than the homo/hetero distinction. If I find men and women sexually attractive then I’m pretty clearly bisexual. If I find my wife and other women sexually attractive, that doesn’t clearly make me poly, though, so it seems a little different than knowing whether or not I’m straight.

    • I think it is one thing to have fantasies about yourself and another lover; those are just normal fantasies, they don’t make you poly. But how about fantasying about your spouse having sex with another lover or lovers. How does that image make you feel? If it makes you feel jealous or possessive, you are definitely not poly.

      In my case, the idea of my wife with other lovers turns me on a lot, so besides coming to the realization that I am poly by nature, I also believe in compersion—that there is a loving, erotic component—I will definitely be turned on and find joy in my wife receiving pleasure from other lovers. That is in essence what compersion is.

      • The funny thing is when I first started to realize that I felt the way I did, I thought there was something wrong with me. I remember telling my wife that I felt no sexual jealousy whatsoever and that the thought of her having sex with another man turned me on. At first, she thought that was a little weird, not the “normal” response expected from men she has had relationships with. But the more we shared and talked the more we started to question just what “normal” is. Now after reading many books on sexuality, open marriage, polymony, etc., we realize that there are thousands of people out there that feel similar things and that there is no such thing as “normal.” The only thing that matters is what feels right for us as a couple. We should have the right to choose what orientation works best in our marriage without judgment. For us, that will probably be some kind of partnered non-monogamy leaning toward polymony and compersion.

        • I’m very odd in this whole sense and I’m glad there are others on the spectrum. I relatively recently discovered that watching porn (focused on women) with a partner is a MAJOR turn on, as are thoughts of him with other women, yet I don’t like him commenting on how hot or pretty girls are in public or outside of a sexual situation. I get very irritated and jealous. Yet, I fantasize sexually about him getting turned on and with other hot women. These kind of feelings have occured with all of my long term partners. They’ve always confused me, particularly with the dichotomy. It’s nice to know that other people aren’t ‘normal’ about this kind of thing either.

          Look (and maybe even touch), but keep in mind that I’m always the hottest, the best, and your number one girl, and you’re the same for me. Respect and love.

        • wellokaythen says:

          Thanks for the definition. I hadn’t even thought of it in those terms, but it makes sense. What I hear you saying is that it’s as much about what you envision for your partner as it is for yourself. I’m guessing being poly could also refer to a man who doesn’t get any particular thrill from imagining his wife with someone else but don’t feel jealous about it either, more of a “could go either way”?

          I can imagine that some people are poly but experience a little bit of jealousy in certain scenarios. Perhaps being poly also includes people who can feel jealous but manage it well?

          • Being poly doesn’t preclude jealousy. Jealousy can happen in any relationship.

          • Nick, mostly says:

            The simplest definition I’ve seen of polyamory is loving (romantically) more than one person at a time. Given that definition, I think we’re all polyamorous.

            Being poly doesn’t preclude jealousy; practicing poly means you need to be able to talk about your jealousy and figure out ways of getting beyond it.

            I’d count myself among those who aren’t the jealous type. I decided that my reasons for being with someone have nothing to do with who else they love or shag, and everything to do with how they treat me. As such, my partner has my blessing should she want to seek out others.

            What I have found curious, however, is how some people react to the lack of jealousy. I’ve encountered more than one woman who have told me that were they in my partner’s situation they would be quite upset. Apparently my feeling jealous is somehow a sign of how much I care for them, and they confuse a lack of jealousy with apathy towards the relationship. I can’t say I was prepared for that reaction, and it’s part of the monogamy narrative we don’t often hear about.

        • I’ve felt totally non-jealous at the thought of my husband with other women for a long time now, and we’ve had that conversation where I’ve told him and he was not to cool with it. But now the conversation has actually really opened up, if not the relationship at this point, and I think we may be finding common ground on this. For me, it was so helpful to read this article and shift my thinking of polyamory to an orientation rather than a choice in a relationship. I am definitely polyamorous and he is not necessarily so, and our relationship is not open right now. But I am fine with that now that he knows and understands how I feel, and we have the dialogue going. And I used this article to start the conversation!

          • Micah Schneider says:

            Thank you for sharing. This kind of comment is why I became a poly and queer activist, and is exactly the sort of thing I will use as fuel in the future. Many thanks!

  4. There’s also a theory out there that polyamory could be kind of like the Kinsey scale of heterosexuality to homosexuality.

    0: Completely monogamous by nature and prefers to be completely devoted to a partner and generally wants the same from him/her.
    1: Monogamous, but with a wandering eye.
    2: Monogamous, but ‘incidentally’ polyamorous. The possibility of an affair or two, honest or not.
    3: The middle. Preferences for both depending on the person and situation.
    4: Polyamorous, but ‘incidentally’ happy in a monogamous relationship type situation.
    5: Prefers polyamoury, but occasionally happy with short term relationships or a relationship that allows for polyamory.
    6: Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother) or Samantha Jones (Sex and the City) stereotypes.

    I’m not saying I believe this kind of thing is true, just a thought.

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      I’ve had this very thought for years. I’m probably between four and five. One thing that surprised me is that, at 66, my desire hasn’t seemed to diminish one bit.

    • This is a great though Aya. I very much agree with you. I am about a 5 on the scale whereas my current primary partner would be more around a 2 or 3. I honestly believe that all sexual orientations are on a sliding scale similar to the one for Homosexuality to heterosexuality. I believe that kink works in the same way. Hopefully more people start thinking in the scale mindset rather than the black and white, you are or you aren’t mindset.

    • I’m curious where I fall on the spectrum. I’m definitely a bisexual female. I prefer relationships with men. However I do get turned on by my partner having sex with other women, but only if I can watch and join in. I have had multiple encounters with couples and swingers. I like multiple partners but I’m not ok with my partner sleeping with someone if I’m not there. So no jealousy if I’m involved in the event, yet extreme jealousy and anger if I’m not involved. I enjoy sex with women and men. Does this mean I’m just bi? Just a swinger? Or poly? I have had several monogamous relationships, and several swinging relationships and I am comfortable in both.

      • Nora, I think it’s a matter of how you self-identify. I love having threesomes, but that isn’t why I identify as poly. Even if I were in a committed relationship, it wouldn’t be my love of threesomes that makes me, personally, identify as poly. It’s really, I think, a matter of defining oneself. I am heterosexual (although I’ve had sex with women) and poly. I’ve only ever really had monogamous relationships, but I know that, essentially I am polyamorous. So I can do monogamy, but it doesn’t make me monogamous.

  5. I have read that the most reproductively successful arrangements have been monogamy with access to cheating on the side.

    It seems clear to me that we’re descended from ancestors that slept around, because if we were descended from ancestors who mated exclusively w/one partner for life (as many species do) then (to my mind) we would have evolved to stop finding members of the opposite sex attractive while in a relationship.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      That’s not how evolution works.

      The reason I suspect our evolutionary ancestors slept around is because contrary to your assertion that many species mate exclusively with one partner for life, you’ll be very hard pressed to find animals that are sexually monogamous, particularly mammals.

      • wellokaythen says:

        And, a good case can be made that humans evolved to be capable of a variety of mating arrangements. Perhaps what helped human survival the most is the fact that humans can be monogamous and polyamorous and all kinds of combinations of the two. There’s no reason to assume that there is only one way that humans are “supposed to be.”

    • “I have read that the most reproductively successful arrangements have been monogamy with access to cheating on the side.”

      The problem with that idea, as with much of evolutionary psychology, is that it’s more about rationalizing social norms than it is about hard science.

      For a while, there was a popular evo psych notion that men are hardwired to cheat (because that way they spread their genes as often as possible) and women are hardwired to be monogamous (because that way they have access to a mate to help them rear young).

      Problem is, the idea is rubbish. It has not stood up to examination of parental data among most mammals, especially primates. The truth is that there are MANY reproductive strategies that are effective at propagating genes, and that mammals employ several strategies, even within a species. (For example, a woman getting a man to help rear young is one strategy; a woman having many male partners to increase the genetic variability and therefore genetic resilience of her offspring is another.)

  6. Polyamory is certainly not a sexual orientation. Given a choice most of the people would like to do as many attractive partners as they can. Monogamy is the restriction placed on individuals to maintain social order.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      I’m inclined to agree with you, albeit in a nuanced manner.
      The idea that we might be sexually, or even romantically, attracted to only one person at a time seems quite the odd concept. How strange that our past lovers should be dead to us, simply because we’ve moved on to someone (hopefully) more compatible. No, I believe we’re all capable of loving and lusting after more than one person at a time.
      Given the strong social pressure to be monogamous, many people haven’t had reason to pause and consider that what feels “natural” to them is thus because of social conditioning. Jealousy is pressed into the service of ensuring we extract monogamous commitments from each other. And there is some amount of evidence suggesting that monogamy leads to reductions in violence and increased social cohesion.

    • Micah Schneider says:

      With this comment, you are making my point for me.

      “Given a choice most of the people would like to do as many attractive partners as they can.”

      The key word: most. There are plenty of people in this world that are perfectly happy with only one sexual partner. There are some like myself that need more. There are those that don’t want any.

      Polyamory becomes more nuanced when you look at the specifics of how people have multiple relationships. Most Americans, who have bought into the monogamy paradigm, are completely wrapped up in the negative side of multiple relationships: cheating, affairs and the like. There are positive ways to go about it. Being poly (which emphasizes relationships) is only one way.

  7. Polyamory: Nature or Choice?

    It is just as natural as homosexuality. Polyamarous is troublesome that so many people want to continue discriminating against them having the right to marry.

    • Oops.

      It is troublesome that so many people want to continue discriminating against them having the right to marry while arguing for same-sex marriage.

  8. I’m one of those folks for whom polyamory feels like a hard-wired orientation; I have, to all intents and purposes, been polyamorous my entire life, since long before I was even involved in sexual relationships of any sort. As a very young child, I remember being totally baffled by stories about the beautiful princess being courted by two princes; given that princesses live in castles, and castles are large, why on earth wouldn’t all three of them just move into the castle together?

    I have never been in a monogamous relationship (though I have been in relationships with people who identify as monogamous themselves), and I can’t imagine being happy in one.

    I do think it’s important to distinguish between two different kinds of monogamy, though. For some folks who identify as monogamous, what that means is they want a relationship in which each person is sexually fidelitous to the other. For some folks who identify as monogamous, what that means is “I don’t want any partners other than you, but it’s fine with me if you have other partners.”

  9. MichelleG says:

    Polyamory is by choice. We’re higher beings than the animal kingdom and thus supposedly use our critical thinking to justify the choices that we make. Animals with less brain power, just do it…whatever comes naturally for them — they have no self-control, nor conscience and don’t give a crap what others think of them.

    These days anything goes, even bestiality; which is a CHOICE and activity engaged by some so called “humans”. Recently a Georgia teen was arrested for raping two female PIT BULLS (nasty!!!) : http://loop21.com/life/man-rapes-pitbulls-arrested

    • According to your logic, then all orientations are choice. That includes monogamy and heterosexuality.

      However, the trouble with this is that it overlooks much of the nuance of interpersonal relationships. I identify as poly. I am in a monogamous relationship. I did not choose to be poly; it’s just inherently an aspect of my being. Did you choose heterosexuality or monogamy (assuming you are either or both of those orientation)? Or is it merely part of who you are? One can choose how to express these aspects of who they are, but it doesn’t mean that orientations are chosen.

    • MichelleG says:

      I’ve never seen bestiality sex topics on GMP before and that’s rather unusual because GMP is pretty liberal and nothing is taboo. I think someone should follow up with an article to poll: Bestiality: Nature or Choice?

      I would love to hear people’s opinions on that. And I think the Georgia teen was being pretty polyamorous by having sex with not just one, but TWO pitbulls…this guy knows nothing about commitment or monogamy!

      • Micah Schneider says:

        So in your worldview then, consent means nothing? Open multiple relationships between consenting adults is exactly the same as fucking a dog?

        Could you be more insulting?

        I think I’m going to ignore the troll, and recommend everyone else do the same.

      • Nick, mostly says:

        I was willing to engage you before because you appeared to be ignorant but open to dialogue. Heck, almost all of us have held ill-informed positions in the past and had to eat some serious crow when we’ve discovered the error in our thinking.

        However this comment has thoroughly poisoned any remaining respect I had for you or your ideas. I’m not one to label people “troll” but if ever there was a sentiment befitting that crown, your posts on this topic surely have merit in that regard.

      • Do you believe homosexuality to be a choice?

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      One of the markers of becoming an adult is to care somewhat less about what people think of you. Then you’re freeer to act or not act with real compassion. Too many people these days are dominated by fear and looking over their shoulders every second. I think that there should be real norms (like not abusing animals) but there are many fake norms having to do with wishing to control others’ sexual behavior. For Theodore Adorno (a writer I ordinarily don’t care for) a feature of the authoritarian personality was an interest in controling others sexually.

      • MichelleG says:

        One of the markers of being less adult is in lacking morality…no wrong or right — very child-like mentality. Everybody makes their own rules…because it’s about ME, MYSELF and I…this is a culture of self-pleasure and self-interest. Moral relativism is deadly. This has nothing to do with authoritarian personality…me authoritarian? That comparison is laughable. This is a democracy, nobody controls anyone’s sexuality — that’s why bestiality exists, polyamory exists, pedophilia, rape…keeps everybody happy! What goes on in the bedroom is nobody’s business right? :D

        • It’s interesting to see someone compare rape and pedophilia–violent acts in which one person commits wrong against another–with polyamory, which is a voluntary choice between consenting adults that causes no harm to those who choose to engage in it.

          • The same rhetoric is often employed in homophobic diatribes, as well. What I have never been able to understand is why some people seem so vested in the lives of others, when what it has absolutely zero impact on their own relationships or life.

            • Which is why polyamorous marriage should be no less on the path to legal status as same-sex marriage.

          • Polyamory is no more a “voluntary choice” than homosexuality.

            • Micah Schneider says:

              Despite the vile comparison made by Michelle V., I do agree with her on this point. Lots of people in poly relationships are there by choice, rather than orientation. I gave some brief examples in the article. As Franklin said above, I am also one of those people “hardwired” as polyamorous. I’ve been poly my entire adult life, predating before I knew the word. But my experience shouldn’t be taken as “typical”. There’s no such thing in this regard.

            • If that is your basis, then since there are homosexuals in heterosexual relationships, including marriages, homosexuality can just as well be considered a choice.

            • Micah Schneider says:

              For some people, I think any sexual identity can be adopted by choice. I’ll use my own history as an example. I identify as bisexual. The first time I was sexual with a same-sex partner was completely by choice. I wanted to try it and see how I felt. He understood. Prior to that, I didn’t feel like I was “hiding” or “suppressing” my true sexual orientation. And it took a while before I started calling myself bi. Not because I was uncomfortable or ashamed, but because I wasn’t sure if my experience was just a one-time fling. Over the last few years, I’ve been ruminating over whether or not to start IDing as pansexual. My family often accuses me of over-thinking things. I simply prefer to be sure before I say or do anything. :-)

              I am not in any way saying or implying that sexual orientation is not or never can be an inherent trait. But I do believe that the spectrum of human sexuality is far too complicated to reduce everyone down to genetics.

            • Nick, mostly says:

              What makes you think polyamory isn’t the default, and monogamy the choice?

              Rather, I think you’re caught in a semantic trap here. Every relationship, whether mono or poly, is a choice. That says nothing of our capacity to love more than one person at a time. It is in this respect that I believe it’s neither a spectrum nor an orientation – we are all poly because we can all love more than one.

              The question then turns on the relationships – sexual and romantic – that we form. Here I don’t think it’s as clear. Do we form monogamous relationships because that is our inherent “nature” or because we are conditioned to do so from birth. There is considerable evidence that, at least on the sexual front, monogamy is the choice.

            • “There is considerable evidence that, at least on the sexual front, monogamy is the choice.”

              This is a correct statement given the evidence. However, it is not just on the sexual front. Think of the many people who have wanted to maintain two or more concurrent relationships but are judged and condemned for even having the desire – even if they work to control that desire. That would be considered homophobic and intolerable if a homosexual were treated that way.

        • Michelle? Really? Comparing consensual behavior between adults with bestiality? Come on.

  10. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Well, I didn’t hear anyone arguing for no morality or no wrong or right. I do think one’s adult morals are chosen, however, not dictated. As such, they’re going to vary somewhat from person to person, particularly with regard to sexual behavior. Not basically agreed-on-pretty-much norms like not stealing or killing, but things like one’s sexual behavior. (Norms are more interesting than laws because most social control is from them.) I actually think much of the economic self interest demonstrated in the last crisis (2007-08) is due to the warped personalities produced by a highly sexually repressive society (which this is.) It may be hard to see because we’re in the middle of it and haven’t seen an alternative.

    You do know that you’re contradicting yourself above, right?

  11. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I don’t think I could be married to more than one person. I sort of like the primary-secondary model. I’ve learned that the the other person must be married to someone else or in a solid relationship with someone else. If not, there can be unfortunate expectations. Even if the other person is in a relationship, it can get crazy.

    Polyamorous marriage should be legal, however. Based on some of the bad experiences from Utah (with patriarchy) I believe the genders should be balanced.

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