Dan Savage and the "poly orientation" hornet's nest
This matters, for reasons we'll get to. Savage riled the poly world to such a point that he promised to devote a column to polyfolks' responses. That's what fills his column today.
First, here's his original bit that got things going:
Q: I am a 30-year-old straight man who has always known that he is a poly. The woman I love is not a poly. She is a monogamous person.... Can someone who is poly be happy with someone who isn't?
A: You are not "a poly."
Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it's not a sexual orientation. It's not something you are, it's something you do. There's no such thing as a person who is "a poly," just as there's no such thing as a person who is "a monogamous." Polyamorous and monogamous are adjectives, not nouns. There are only people — gay, straight, bi — and some people are in monogamous relationships, some are in open relationships, some are in polyamorous relationships.... These are relationship models, PP, not sexual identities....
Read the whole piece (Nov. 21, 2012; Scroll to the second item.)
His column today begins,
By Dan Savage
Sometimes I kick the proverbial hornet's nest intentionally — "bullshit in the Bible," for instance — and sometimes I kick the hornet's nest accidentally. I honestly didn't expect the outraged response I got after I wrote that poly wasn't a sexual identity in the "sexual orientation" sense of the term. Some people identify as poly, of course, just as some people identify as, say, dominant or submissive. While I recognize that poly (or D/s) can be central to someone's sexual identity, I've never viewed it as a sexual orientation and I didn't think this was a controversial point of view.
Many poly people disagree. I've received a ton of impassioned e-mails from polyamorous readers, most of whom see themselves as poly-oriented, not just poly-identified. And while some seem confused — I've never denied the existence of polyamorous people, I never said that people couldn't or shouldn't identify as polyamorous — I'm turning the rest of this week's column over to the polyoutraged....
Read on (Dec. 5, 2012).
He also had briefer things to say in the intervening two weeks. On November 26:
Is poly a sexual orientation?
I said "no" in last week's Savage Love, kicking off a shitstorm in the comments thread, in my e-mail inbox, and here and there on the interwebs. (Even the right-wing nutjobs have taken notice.) At least one poly person agrees with me:
There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.
Secondly, polyamory is not an orientation. Polyamory is not a physical desire or a feeling. While there is not complete agreement on what polyamory is, there is clear agreement about it isn’t. And it isn’t just an attraction to multiple people. As Shaun pointed out, if you define polyamory as a feeling or an inclination, then half of the country is polyamorous, which is an absurd result. Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time. This does not make them polyamorous.
A third problem with describing poly as a sexual orientation is that being poly is nothing like being GLB. Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted. Being polyamorous is about the amount of people you love. Describing polyamory as a sexual orientation suggests a false equivalence between the groups, and seems like an attempt to co-opt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.
I'm hearing from lots of poly folks who disagree....
And then more two days later (scroll to end).
Some backstory to understand what's going on: Savage, a long-partnered gay man who coined the word "monogamish" for his somewhat open relationship, used to snark at polys. He famously remarked that he'd been to poly multi-marriage ceremonies but never to a poly third-anniversary party. That prompted many long-term polyfamilies to speak up as counterexamples, jumping up and down to try to catch his attention. At the time Savage was already infamous for declaring that bisexuals don't really exist. He backed off from both attitudes, and two years ago offered this:
Q: Do you think polyamory is possible or healthy?
A: Polyamorous relationships are possible — I know for a fact that they're possible — but they're only as healthy as the folks who are in them. The same goes for monogamous relationships.
And he wrote a nice feature article about the folks behind the annual PolyCamp Northwest near his home base of Seattle, especially their children: Heather Has Two Mommies, One Daddy, and Several Matriarchal Women in the Community Who She Thinks of as Moms.
After Savage's You-Are-Not-a-Poly column, Anita Wagner posted on her Practical Polyamory blog,
...Over the last 15 years I've met many, many polyamorous people for whom being polyamorous is to them about a lot more than what (or whom!) they do. They say emphatically that it's about who they are. Many tried to live by mainstream society's monogamy rules because they thought they had to, but it chafed — a lot. Many always felt like they were different and like they were the only ones who saw relationships differently. We still have people come into our community who are delighted and relieved to have discovered they weren't alone after all.
Is polyamory a sexual orientation? Some will insist that it is not as to the traditional meaning of it. Yet many polyamorists express themselves differently sexually, i.e. with more than one person at a time. If not sexual orientation, then sexual relationship orientation or sexual relationship identity — that's how I refer to it, and I've done so for some years now.
I expect that this point will be made much more frequently in the future as research under way now gives us more scientific insight into such questions....
And Anita's round-2 followup November 28th.
A lengthy discussion got rolling on reddit/r/polyamory: Is polyamory a sexual orientation, or is this just a first world problem?
Franklin Veaux's take: You are not "a poly": Dan Savage runs off the rails:
...Every now and then, he says something that leaves me scratching my head and wondering what color the sky is on his planet. He has in the last few years backtracked from the notion that there's no such thing as bisexuality (a claim that seems so absurd on the face of it that it's hard for me to understand why it still has any currency whatsoever), but when it comes to polyamory, it's hard to find anything to like about his ideas.
...What's most interesting about this is that it mirrors almost precisely the attitude of folks who believe that homosexuality is an activity, not an orientation — that there is no such thing as "a gay" or "a straight" but merely those who engage in homosexual activities and those who don't. Dan Savage's words would be right at home in Ministry Today Magazine, which ran an article that claimed something similar about sexual orientation....
Now we're getting to the heart of why this is such an issue: because of the gay experience with the same debate, and the usefulness that the inborn-orientation model has had in winning gay legal rights and public acceptance.
Sarah Taub of Network for a New Culture wrote in a Polyamory Leadership Network discussion,
Folks are asking why people care whether polyamory is an orientation (sexual or relationship) or not. I agree with others that the reason is political and linked to struggles for rights and freedoms.
In the USA, we have (at least) two rationales for granting rights and/or freedoms. One is, basically, "It's not fair to penalize people for something they can't help." The other is, "Free people get to choose what they do."
We see the first rationale in many rights struggles — for people of color, people with disabilities, etc. We see the second rationale in our rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.
The GLBT movement, broadly speaking, made a choice to frame its case in terms of the first rationale. If sexual orientation is innate and unchanging, then it's something people can't help, and it's unfair to penalize people for it. This makes (e.g.) bisexuality and pansexuality a big problem — if a person can choose either to be in a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship, that person doesn't really fit in the "I can't help it" framework.
At the same time, there were voices within the GLBT movement who preferred to frame the case in analogy to freedom of religion — free people get to choose who they love and who is in their family.
Poly activists generally tend to frame their case in this second way, though sometimes we see polyamory framed in the first way. I believe that it is the tension between these two approaches to rights and freedoms that makes the question "is poly an orientation" keep coming up as a heated debate.
As our opponents are aware. Looking down this road two years ago, Ann E. Tweedy of the Hamline University School of Law published a sympathetic 55-page analysis of the question in the University of Cincinnati Law Review, looking to future legal battles:
Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation
This article examines, from a theoretical standpoint, the possibility of expanding the definition of “sexual orientation” in employment discrimination statutes to include other disfavored sexual preferences, specifically polyamory. First, it examines the current, very narrow definition of sexual orientation, which is limited to orientations that are based on the sex of those to whom one is attracted, and explores some of the conceptual and functional problems with the current definition. Next the article looks at the possibility of adding polyamory to current statutory definitions of sexual orientation, examining whether polyamory is a sufficiently embedded identity to be considered a sexual orientation and the degree of discrimination that polyamorists face. After concluding that such an expansion would be reasonable, the article briefly outlines some issues for further investigation, including potential policy implications and the conflicting evidence as to whether polyamorists want specific legal protections.
Date posted: June 30, 2010 ; Last revised: August 29, 2011
Tweedy, Ann E., Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation (June 29, 2010).
University of Cincinnati Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 1461, 2011. Available at
I went to Tweedy's talk on this at the Poly Living 2012 conference in Philadelphia. You can download her entire paper here. It's not too soon to start thinking about this.
P.S.: Here's Dan Savage's powerful Big Think video on why expecting monogamy is ridiculous (2:41). Directness has always been his trademark.