Polyamorous. Asexual. Marie Crosswell explains how these two things really can work together.
If you Google any combination of the words “asexuality” and “polyamory,” most of the results that come up treat the two as diametric opposites, as the two extremes of the relationship style/sexuality spectrum. As a radical relationship anarchist and celibate asexual, I find this amusing but also symptomatic of the challenges facing polyamorous asexuals. There are a few reasons why this juxtaposition of asexuality against polyamory doesn’t make any sense:
1. It’s based on the assumption that asexuals don’t feel romantic attraction or form romantic relationships, which is untrue.
2. It’s based on the assumption that being asexual means you can’t or won’t have sex, which is untrue.
3. It treats polyamory like a sexual orientation, which it isn’t, and implies that poly is primarily about sex, which it isn’t if you know what you’re doing and if you’re using the word correctly.
4. It implies that monogamists don’t experience sexual attraction to more than one person at a time, which is bullshit. Monogamists don’t have sex with more than one person at a time, but as most asexuals know, behavior does not equal attraction or vice versa.
So, here’s your Polyamorous Asexuality 101 post.
What is polyamory?
Just so we’re clear, polyamory is a specific type of non-monogamy: it is honest, open, consensual, ethical, and about having more than one romantic or emotionally intimate relationship at the same time.
Here’s what polyamory IS NOT: having a romantic/sexual relationship that is sexually open but romantically closed; having lots of casual sex with no romantic or emotional ties; cheating on your romantic-sexual partner who believes that you’re monogamous; having sexual relations with someone other than your romantic partner who knows about it but really doesn’t like it; any kind of sexual activity that involves lying, hurting other people’s feelings, violating other people’s boundaries, or that doesn’t involve emotional attachment; swinging.
There’s an irritating number of sexual people out there who are not polyamorous but use the word to describe themselves because it sounds better than saying “I have lots of unemotional sex” or “My romantic partner and I can each have sex with other people but we’re not interested in being romantically/emotionally involved with anyone besides each other.” Polyamory literally means “loving many.” Not “fucking many.” If you’re sexual, then sex is a big part of being poly, but it isn’t the only part. There are other forms of non-monogamy besides polyamory, so there is no need for you to pretend that you’re poly—thereby confusing and potentially misleading people who really are polyamorous—when what you are is non-monogamous in some other form.
The Polyamorous Asexual
Given that polyamory is about wanting and being capable of having more than one romantic/emotionally significant relationship at the same time, it should be easy to understand that some asexuals are polyamorous. Many asexuals experience romantic attraction. Polyamorous asexuals are no more likely to be okay with having sex than monogamous or aromantic asexuals, because polyamory is not just about sex, but they can want more than one romantic relationship. They can fall in love with more than one person at a time and be comfortable pursuing romantic connection with all of their romantic interests simultaneously.
That’s why it makes absolutely no sense to say that asexuality and polyamory are opposites. The opposite of not experiencing sexual attraction is experiencing sexual attraction. The opposite of having more than one romantic relationship at a time is having only one romantic relationship at a time. Asexuality and polyamory aren’t even on the same axis; one’s about sexual attraction, the other about relationship style. It’s asexuality vs. allosexuality. Polyamory vs. monogamy.”
How Asexuals Do Polyamory
This is probably the most obvious and the most common type of non-monogamy that asexuals engage in: the ace has a romantic relationship with someone sexual, who has sexual relationships with other sexual people. In this case, the asexual is monogamous, while the sexual person is not, but the sexual openness of their relationship is consensual between them. Technically, if there is no romantic connection going on outside of their relationship, they aren’t poly but are non-monogamous. If the sexual person has both romantic and sexual relationships with other people but the asexual doesn’t, their relationship is poly, despite the fact that the ace is practicing monogamy.
It is also possible for both the asexual and the sexual person to be polyamorous, so regardless of the sexual status of their own relationship, both want to pursue romantic relationships with other people. If that’s the case, the asexual wouldn’t necessarily be having sex with their other partners either; they may pair up with fellow asexuals or with other sexual people who accept that the ace won’t have sex.
Authentic Mixed Poly vs. Band-Aid Mixed Poly
There are two kinds of “polyamorous” configurations between asexuals and sexual people: the kind where both the ace and the sexual person are enthusiastic about polyamory/non-monogamy and comfortable with having a sexually open and romantically open relationship, and the kind where the ace and the sexual person are only trying out the poly lifestyle to make up for the fact that the asexual doesn’t want to have sex and the sexual person can’t live without it.
Because polyamory specifically includes romantic/emotional attachments to more than one person, it’s only accurate to call a mixed couple poly if one or both of them have or seek romantic connections outside of their own relationship; if it’s only sexually open to allow the sexual person to have sex without getting it from the asexual, that is not polyamory. That’s just a sexually open romantic relationship.
That being said, if an asexual and allosexual have a polyamorous or sexually open relationship, but only because the asexual won’t have sex and does want to be romantically involved with their partner, that can be a really bad situation. It’s not authentic non-monogamy. It’s band-aid non-monogamy or polyamory: non-monogamy for the sake of “fixing” or compensating for an incompatibility in the starting romantic relationship. It’s an unhealthy situation for one or both partners because the non-monogamous/polyamorous status of the relationship is unwanted on at least one side, and that partner who’s a monogamist at heart is going to suffer the whole time, watching their partner be involved with others.
I think most romantic asexuals have, at some point, considered trying non-monogamy with romantic partners, because most of them assume they’ll only ever have a chance for romance with sexual people, and if they don’t want to have sex but do want a romantic relationship to last longer than 10 minutes with minimal misery, they have to find some way to get around The Sex Issue. So, they start to consider whether they could accept their romantic partner having sex with other people—because if it works for the ace and their partner, it takes the sexual pressure off the ace and provides the sexual person with the sex they need. The problem is, there are romantic aces out there who are either considering or currently involved in a romantically/sexually open relationship with a sexual person, while being monogamous at heart. They don’t want to share their romantic partner with anyone. They don’t like the idea of their romantic partner having sex with other people, even if it’s allegedly unemotional or nonromantic sex. But they try to go through with that kind of open romantic relationship because they don’t see any other way to have a romantic partner, who is sexual, without having sex.
Trying to live with non-monogamy/polyamory when you’re actually a monogamist who needs a totally closed romantic relationship, is asking for a whole lot of pain and drama. It never ends well.
That being said, there are mixed couples—one person’s asexual and the other person’s sexual—who are authentically polyamorous: they’re both interested in having romantic connections with other people and they’re both okay with the sexual person having sex with other people. Or, the romantic ace is monogamous but cool with their partner having both sexual and romantic connections with other people (and their partner wants to have sex/romance with other people not because their ace partner is ace/celibate but because they are truly poly.)
Asexuals can do nonsexual polyamory with each other! What does that look like? It depends on what the asexuals involved consider “romantic” behaviors or how they define romantic relationships. It could mean that a poly ace is physically affectionate with all of their partners to a degree that they are not with friends. It could mean that the poly ace lives with more than one partner. It could mean that the poly ace raises a kid with more than one partner. It could mean they spend the same amount of time, and most of their time, with all of their romantic partners. Basically, based on however the aces involved in the poly configuration define “romantic” relationships, a poly ace in love with other aces will do their version of romance with all of their partners.
The important thing, the thing that most readily qualifies their poly romantic relationships, is the “in love” feeling that the ace has for all of their partners. It may not be something that spectators can easily see and it may not even be something that the ace can explain. (Defining romantic feelings when you don’t experience sexual desire/attraction can be damn near impossible.) But it’s something the ace can feel. A romantic ace can feel the difference between “friendship” and “romance”, if the two are definitely separate for them. That’s how they know that they’re romantically attracted to people of a particular gender, for example. That’s how they know they want a kind of relationship that’s different than the normative friendships they have.
Even though I don’t personally differentiate between “romance” and “friendship,” I love the idea of nonsexual polyamory happening between asexuals. It’s the type of poly that I’m most interested in, from an intellectual standpoint. I know a handful of polyamorous or poly-friendly asexuals, and I also know of a couple poly aces currently involved with more than one partner, all of whom are asexual-spectrum. And for your information, the actual management of multiple romantic relationships isn’t any different or any easier for a poly ace not having sex than it is for a polyamorous sexual person.
Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? But hey, most sexual people think that “asexual polyamory” is a contradiction, and I just proved them wrong.
Aromantic polyamory is something I believe in because I expand that concept of “loving many” to include nonromantic love and relationships. I think polyamory is more about those Super Important, Super Intimate, Super Involved bonds, than about romantic or sexual relationships. It’s just that in sexual world, the only super important/intimate/involved relationships happen to be romantic-sexual relationships.
But if you’re asexual or aromantic or asexual and aromantic, you still have important, intimate, and involved relationships—or at least, you probably want to. (Some people don’t. That’s fine.)
So, an aromantic person can have more than one significant relationship. Relationships that can look a lot like traditional romantic relationships or have several properties that most people consider innately “romantic,” but which are not romantic for the aro because the aro doesn’t experience romantic attraction. What the aro does experience is love, connection, friendship, emotional attachment, etc.
“But, dude,” you may be thinking, “surely, you can’t believe that having a bunch of really good friends counts as a type of polyamory?”
I do, in fact, believe that. Not all “friendships” are created equal. What the average sexual person considers a “friendship,” I consider a friendly acquaintanceship at best. (I also probably consider it meaningless, pitiful, and unnecessary.) If you’re a romantic-sexual person and a relationship traditionalist, whether you’re monogamous or poly, your “friendships” most likely have next to no involvement, commitment, passion, importance, emotional intimacy, etc, in comparison to your romantic-sexual relationships. But if you’re an aromantic, friendship is at the top of your relationship pyramid (unless you’re a relationship anarchist, in which case you don’t really have a pyramid, but I digress). Many, if not all, of the things that a romantic-sexual person would only do with a romantic-sexual partner, an aromantic person can do and may do with a special friend or more than one special friend.
In which case, it makes a lot of sense for an aromantic person who wants more than one special friend/nonromantic partner to identify as polyamorous. They want to love more than one person and be involved with more than one person in ways that exceed normative friendship.
One of my favorite posts by a fellow asexual blogger is actually about friendship as polyamory. Go read it, if you want more food for thought. And if you want a REALLY excellent mindfuck, check out this phenomenal article written by lesbian activist and women’s studies professor Esther Rothblum, author of Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians, about her conceptualization of Friendship as Polyamory: Poly-Friendships.
Also by Marie Crosswell:
Male Asexuality and Its Challenge to Masculinity