Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

September 29, 2011

The future of our defining word

I'm disturbed by a troubling trend. As the word "polyamory" spreads into the mainstream, its usage is deflating there to become, sometimes, just another term for old-fashioned screwing around.

Not to be sex-negative or anything, but we've got plenty of terms for that already. We risk losing our defining word, one that refers to something different: the radical subset of non-monogamy that's open to good heart connections among three or more people all around. Even if those connections are merely good will and caring behavior among friendly acquaintances.

There is no other term in the language for this closing of the loop. "Polyamory" is our only brand name. If we lose the brand, we will lose the ability to find each other.

And, we would also lose the ability to refer to the concept without wordy explanations. In 2004, the people carrying the POLYAMORY banner in the San Francisco Pride Parade pictured above knew exactly what it said and why they were marching behind it. In 2020, will the banner (which they still have) be useless because its meaning has become vague and diffuse? A banner that had to be covered with a long, wordy explanation would be unreadable and pathetic.

The problem was recently discussed among the board members of Loving More, and the only solution proposed was to encourage people to be vigorous in correcting misuses of the word when you see them. This really does have an effect. And also, we need to keep getting the closing-the-loop concept out to the public more widely — to keep the meaning spreading along with with the word.

Articles like the one below may seem small, but they're important. With enough of them, our vision will be accurately understood by the mainstream sooner than we may think — while still encompassing the wide range of people and practices that fall under the polyamory umbrella.

In VueWeekly, the alternative paper of Alberta, Canada:

More the merrier

More people are coming out as polyamorous

By Brenda Kerber

...I used to hear about polyamory only in quiet conversations with the occasional person who "confessed" to me that they had a few partners or an open relationship. Now I hear from poly people all the time. Is it becoming more common, or are people just more comfortable being open about it? Kevin Cutting, a member and organizer of Polyamory Edmonton, thinks it's a bit of both.

"Less and less people are relying on the nuclear family as the model of how they shape their relationships. They're taking a 'whatever works' approach, and non-monogamy's growth can be partially attributed to that. On the other hand," he says, "you have more people being open about how they may have always been doing things. As the taboos fall away, open discussion ensues...."

Susan Larcombe, who teaches workshops on polyamory and is poly herself, agrees. "As more people hear about polyamory, I think there are definitely more people exploring it who might not otherwise have done so a decade ago."

...Larcombe has encountered a lot of misconceptions about polyamorists, that it's just cheating with a different name and that you'll sleep with anyone. She says polyamory means that you are open about your multiple relationships and that everyone knows and agrees. "I don't think I've ever gotten the same answer twice as to why people are interested in or practising polyamory. The reasons run the gamut: feminist or anti-oppressive statements against ownership of another person; loving partners with very different social or sexual needs; past histories of being controlled by partners; diverging interests; wanting a more solid family base for raising children; sharing resources... the list goes on."...

Brenda Kerber is a sexual health educator who has worked with local not-for-profits since 1995. She is the owner of the Edmonton-based, sex-positive adult toy boutique the Traveling Tickle Trunk.

Here's the whole article (Sept. 7, 2011).


At the risk of repeating myself again, I've talked about this before. From my speech at the 2008 Poly Pride Picnic & Rally in New York:

Steering the Bandwagon

For the last three years [I boomed into the mike] I’ve been running a site called Polyamory in the News. It's clear that during just these three years, worldwide interest in ethical polyamory, and the ideas and values behind it, has been growing rapidly.

Also growing are misconceptions about it, and misuses of the term that I think threaten to spiral out of control.

So at this historic moment, I want to deliver a caution, and some advice about our future.

People who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.

And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.

Think of what happened to the psychedelic drug movement a generation ago....

So maybe it’s time for us to pay less attention to just pushing the polyamory-awareness movement, and more to steering it.

If we are to save our defining word from serious cheapening in the next few years, and guide this thing in good directions as it gains momentum, we should, in my opinion, be taking every opportunity to do several things:

1. Keep stressing that successful polyamory requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;

2. Emphasize that poly is not for everyone, and that monogamy is right and best for many;

3. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the "full knowledge and consent of all involved";

4. Expand that to not just "knowledge and consent," but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of polyamory, I'm convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one's metamours not as rivals to be resented, or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, friends and acquaintances — perhaps family even — for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that, of course, there's no limit to how close you can become.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs. In this way it becomes a generalization of the magic of romantic love — into something wider, and more widely applicable, than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.

And, 5. Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, self-examination, tough personal growth, and a readiness to (as they say in the Marines) "choose the difficult right over the easy wrong."

Please — with the bandwagon now moving, let's not let it run away from us in the next few years to the point that "polyamory" goes mass-market as something careless or trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.




Anonymous Jen said...

Alan much of what you are posting appears to be about ownership and control of an idea, or set of ideas. Its a bit absurd for people to own a set of guidelines of how to relate to people; regardless even of an argument as to whether a set of folks 'should' own those ideals.

October 02, 2011 6:26 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

> ...a bit absurd for people to own a set of
> guidelines of how to relate to people

This is about a word and how to keep the word useful, not about guidelines for behavior. Don't confuse the word with the thing it describes (the map with the territory).

Some people say maybe it's time to come up with a new term for what "polyamory" used to mean exclusively. Ideas?

"Responsible non-monogamy" was a term the movement used before "polyamory" was invented. But that really refers to a wider range of things, which is one reason why "polyamory" was adopted so quickly after it was coined in the early 90s.

"Polyfidelity" was also used pretty widely before then, but even at the time people knew this one was *too* specific -- it refers to sexual exclusivity within a group (which was practiced by the commune that invented it).

October 02, 2011 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Jen said...

So you are far more concerned with people hijacking an image of what polyamory is? I already think it pretty much covers a wide range of ethical non-monogamy.
You want to introduce the word, have it become mainstream and an accepted acceptable lifestyle but you do not want other people diluting what you feel is your version, your 'brand' of polyamory with any other version? Why?

October 02, 2011 6:29 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Well, because if by 2020 "poly" means just "cheating around behind your wife's back," I'd be ashamed to call myself that anymore. And we'd have no word left for what we do, or to organize Meetups around, or for new newcomers to google, etc.

And -- I would have left a huge trail on the internet that would look like I'm bragging I'm a scumbag.

October 02, 2011 6:29 PM  
Anonymous Jen said...

I think you worry overmuch. ;)

October 02, 2011 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Jen said...

I haven't been following this blog very long, do you often post or come across media mentions of polyamory shown in a negative light? Or where is it is called cheating- with no explanations of the OED definition of polyamory?

October 02, 2011 6:30 PM  
Anonymous J Davila said...

I have to agree with Alan on this. What he's saying is that, if we want to be able to quickly describe our relationships, without being misunderstood, then we need to help polyamory retain its definition. I think having a (mostly) clear definition for polyamory is important if polyamorous folk don't want to be lumped together with all other "non-monogamous" folk when the word is uttered. While polyamory is a form of non-monogamy, all forms of non-monogamy do not fall under polyamory.

For example, a married couple who participates in swinging might be practicing "responsible non-monogamy", but the fact that (in general) swingers prefer for there not to be emotional attachments with play partners excludes most of them from being defined as polyamorous.

October 02, 2011 6:32 PM  
Anonymous John U said...

"but the fact that (in general) swingers prefer for there not to be emotional attachments with play partners"

In my experience this is not a fact. In the swing communities I have experienced, many members are friends with the people they play with. One of my first experiences of swinging was about 1978. A lover and I went to a stereotypical party in a suburban home in Vancouver, WA. People did recreational sex all night long. As the party wound down, I heard the hosts and another couple talking about how they were going to help pour a concrete driveway for mutual friends the next day. This is the quintessential pioneer America thing to do. These people clearly had emotional attachments with the people they got to know swinging over time. As far as I can see, swingers do develop emotional attachments if they play in the same group.

I think what often happens is that we tend to conflate an abstract concept, e g swinging, with the actual behavior of a diverse group of real people, those who identify as swingers. It should be noted that people who identify as poly also do recreational sex, when the spirit moves them. I have found a number of long time friends and poly lovers at swing events.

October 02, 2011 6:34 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

> ...Or where is it is called cheating- with no
> explanations of the OED definition of polyamory?

Not in articles about poly per se. (A lot of journalists are lazy, but not so lazy they won't click on wikipedia or a dictionary to avoid looking stupid.)

Where this is happening is in toss-off references to Tiger Woods, cheating celebrities, etc. -- and more importantly, out in general conversation. Or so I sometimes hear from poly people, to the point that they want a new word.

October 02, 2011 6:34 PM  
Anonymous John U said...

I've seen this happen with the term "folk music" during the '60's revival. The term got so widely misappropriated by the pop music industry that the hard core advocates of it lost the gut to defend it and did look for other names, vernacular music among the academics and Americana among musicians.

What really got lost was the idea originally espoused but the Seegers and Lomaxes, which was that folk music was a context (non-commercial, do it yourself) not a definable genre or style. At least polyamory will never be confused with using pornography or sex work, even though some polys do both.

October 02, 2011 6:34 PM  
Anonymous J Davila said...

@John U: I get that. I get that bonds form. It's part of the state of being human, and more so when something like sex is involved. I'm wishing I would have emphasized that "in general" more, and used a looser word than "fact". I understand that all swingers do not fall under such a strict description. I also readily admit that my knowledge and experience with swinging is second-hand, from anecdote, research, and from the handful of people that I know who swing, and I could still use a lot more schooling on the variety found therein. With that said though, what I've gathered is that a majority of people who participate in organized swinging prefer for these relationships to remain orbital and secondary, and without too many strings, and from my understanding a lot of the couples that drop out do it because these relationships were beginning to "threaten" their primary relationship. (Similar to how some open couples "close" the relationship up when they feel that secondary relationships are threatening theirs.)

But, as is the topic of this blog post, it is important to understand the differences. While I'm sure there are polyamorous folk who participate in swinging, all swingers are not polyamorous. This is why the (mostly) clear definition needs to be promoted and kept from being misappropriated and twisted into something else. And actually, the main reason that I used swinging as an example is because, while having a conversation about polyamory with a friend at school, my instructor jumped in and said "Oh, my girlfriend and I know a few swingers..."

October 02, 2011 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Alan, as well. Polyamory is about forming and maintaining multiple multi-dimensional (romantic) relationships with honesty and integrity. When it's used to describe anything else, at best, it dilutes the meaning of the word. At worst, it severely confuses people about what polyamory really is about.

My girlfriend's mother happened to see that I listed "polyamory" as an interest on my FB page (due to FB's extremely confusing privacy settings at the time), and freaked out, after reading about all its associations with other things.

It took a lot of damage control to help her understand that I'm not going to do anything that is going to harm her daughter.

October 02, 2011 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Natja's Natterings said...

I appreciate that Swingers may form emotional attachments with play partners, but that does not make their movement interchangeable with Polyamory. I am not a swinger, not in any way shape or form and I don't want to have to say. 'I am polyamourous but not a swinger' every time someone asks. Even if the behaviours sometimes cross over, the cultural movement behind them are dissimilar. Think about LARP and Historical reenactors, they both dress up and have mock battles, they both spend a lot of money and energy on their costumes, they often spend whole weekends immersed in their play but call an historical reenactor a LARPer you are bound to get an earful. However, some people who reenact can also do LARP but there are different cultures behind them. They are separate but people CAN do both.

October 02, 2011 6:36 PM  
Anonymous John U said...

I didn't say the behaviors cross over, I said some people do both behaviors. I think it is important to focus on the difference between abstract concept and what real people really do.

I also think it is a huge strategic blunder to start any kind of discussion of what poly is by disrespecting swingers. People who self identify as swingers are potential political allies. They are as moral, ethical, nice, well meaning, etc as people who identify as poly. Would you start off a discussion on your choice to eat show mein by saying I'm not a spaghetti eater?

I think the best strategy is to assert our take on polyamory and if swinging comes up, be clear about how the swinging concept is recreational sex, and the poly concept is multiple, concurrent, consensual, sexual, loving relationships, and that some people do both.

I don't think we have to find a new word. I think the best way to "defend" our idea of the correct use of polyamory is to write letters to the editors every time we see it misused. To paraphrase the Justice Brandies quote, the remedy for bad speech is more speech, not censorship.

By the way, something that bothers me much more than casual misuse of polyamory is when credentialed therapists go off on how poly doesn't work, or they've never seen a good poly relationship. Those people are a real problem and should be strongly confronted.

October 02, 2011 6:37 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

> People who self identify as swingers are
> potential political allies.

And, they outnumber the self-identified poly community so much (at least 10 to 1, maybe 40 to 1), that the subset of poly-interested swingers probably way outnumbers all self-identified "poly-only" people.

October 02, 2011 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Natja's Natterings said...

But still, I shouldn't HAVE to describe Swinging every time I describe my own life. I don't want to have to say what I am not, all the time, I just want to say what I am. And as other's have stated, it can cause a lot of problems with people misusing the term and we having to correct all the while. I am not against swinging, nor sex negative and I also realise in a Monogamy only culture we are on the same side. I just would like to keep the definition of Polyamory distinct from swinging (or heaven forbid, cheating).

October 02, 2011 6:38 PM  
Blogger Desmond Ravenstone said...

My most succinct yet tongue-in-cheek definition of polyamory is ... mindful promiscuity.

Yes, it throws people off, and triggers a laugh. Mindful?

That's the whole idea. Polyamorists don't just "screw around" -- we think about it, talk about it, consider the ramifications. Sometimes we decide that being sexual with someone isn't worth it, but find ways to maintain emotional connections and nurturing.

The problem IMHO is that our culture is so obsessed with "the sex thing" that many people can't get past it to see the reality behind polyamory. So sometimes you just have to shake things up with the right use of language.

October 02, 2011 8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Promiscuity, however, is exactly the opposite of what many people mean when they talk about polyamory, though I do know some who *practice* it
From the OED:
"Of a person or animal: undiscriminating in sexual relations. Also (of sexual intercourse, relationships, etc.): casual, characterized by frequent changes of sexual partner"

Though the Polyamorous misanthrope may say we aren't allowed to say that's not polyamory... I'm repelled by those who are casual and undescriminating in sex, even if they do have a permission slip.

I'd really not like to see the tolerant-wife+casual-hookups paradigm dominate the discourse.

October 02, 2011 8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have noticed a recent trend in the media to be paying a lot of attention to sexual nonmonogamy as a way of helping preserve couple relationships for the long term. I think a lot of this started after the NY Magazine cover story about Dan Savage, who is in such a relationship that he refers to as "monogamish" He definitely is oriented towards a primary - secondary model in which the primary bond is always the highest priority. A good example:


The advice basically is -- if you are starting to have some intense feelings for your outside partner, time to stop seeing him until those pesky emotions go away! Some of the commenters went further in saying that having emotional connections to secondary partners was always a bad idea. There were a few that spoke up for polyamory, but not that many.

I am fine with polyamory including lots of different kinds of amory -- friendship, romantic love, even spiritual love for the other. But it bugs me to have people say that love is forbidden. Definitely not polyamory.

And I also think it is unrealistic. Emotions aren't as easily controlled as all that. Sex can lead to love, and to try to decree that that isn't allowed to happen seems naive to me.

October 02, 2011 10:38 PM  
Anonymous John U said...

Natja's Natterings said...
"But still, I shouldn't HAVE to describe Swinging every time I describe my own life. I don't want to have to say what I am not, all the time, I just want to say what I am."

I think just saying what you are is the best strategy for two reasons. First it gets out the info that people need to hear to get more sophisticated about poly and it doesn't sound disrespectful to people I hope remain our allies.

If you find yourself in a situation like J Davila's, where someone says, oh I know some swingers, I think you can just say, oh, so do I, and but the idea of polyamory is a little different, and her is how I do it, and maybe then talk about some poly friends who do it a little differently.

One thing I think is more or less a general part of how we understand things is we start from something we know about or have heard of. So saying "I know a few swingers" may be a first step to asking what do you do, what do swingers really do, etc. If you can help them reframe the question from swingers (people) to swinging (concept), then you can tell them how the concepts are different and how some people do one or the other and some do both.

One of the great lessons I learned from Stan Dale the first time we had him give a workshop in Portland, and he did a radio interview, was how to take any question, deflect it quickly, and then say what he had come to say. That's a lesson we can use in everyday conversation to some extent, being careful to try to make our answers polite and relevant to the people asking them.

October 02, 2011 10:59 PM  
Blogger Rathowyn said...

I think it's a valid concern for a matter that none of us have MUCH control over, but we might have some. People will alter words. Language evolves. What is a gay man? Someone who is attracted to other men or a guy who's particularly happy?

The matter is, of course, mainstream. It always alters things, and it must, because the issue is that an idea, a term's definition, is easy to maintain the cohesion of when it's held within a small group. As soon as it enters a wider group you have the sheer weight of MILLIONS of people adding their own view to it. People see the term, see how it's presented, get their own ideas about the word, hear the ideas of others and the mass of thought bends the word to a new definition.

The only control that we can have over this is get out into the place the word WILL be changed in - mass mainstream media. Without spokespeople for polyamory explaining what it actually means again and again and again in a constant counterweight to the mental mass of mainstream consumers, the term will definitely alter. How can it not?

October 03, 2011 1:12 AM  
Blogger J Davila said...

Was my mention of swinging really that "offensive"? Thanks for alerting me that my narrow, known definition for swinging wasn't universal, John U, but I was simply using it as an example to point out that polyamory and swinging, like many of the other modes of non-monogamy, are different things. It doesn't matter if there is some overlap, every swinger isn't polyamorous, and every polyamorous person isn't a swinger. Is there really anything to argue about there?

October 03, 2011 2:33 PM  
Blogger Delta Pinkston said...

Back in the 80s the term "AD/HD" used to cover a lot. As the research got deeper and better it's become clear that under that umbrella term there are several distinct sets of functions that benefit form different approaches.

I see this as what's happening with poly. When it was new and radical, it was a blanket term that covered a really broad field. And yet, no one who practices would deny that there are as many ways to "do" poly as there are people who try it. No two versions are identical. When you meet someone, poly or not, that you're interested in, you have to talk to them, see how you fit, make decisions and clarify meanings.
How does a media "dilution" of the term take away from that?

Getting knickers in a twist about someone taking "our" term and applying it to things we don't want implies that it was ever "ours" to begin with. That there is an Us and a Them and They are taking language that belongs to Us and doing things We don't like with it.

There's no guarantee that people don't say "poly" and mean "cheating " now. You have to do due diligence in any relationship to be a responsible adult. You have to talk to potential dates either way. Maybe someone has a freaky take on poly that's not what you think of but it turns out to work for you. Maybe that dyed-in-the-wool cannon poly person who's read all the books and goes to the meeting still isn't right for you.

Why does it bother you what other people call it? Does their version of poly makes yours less valid? Does gay marriage make straight marriage less valid? People do what works for them, and they can call it what they want to. There's very little to be done about the diffusion of ideas, but if you'd like to play Sisyphus on principle, that's cool.

I'll be the one having fun with people, whether or not they have their credentials up to date, if you get bored with that.

October 03, 2011 4:48 PM  
Blogger Dark Daughta said...

I'd have to agree with the idea that it seems like control issues are rising, ownership of an idea/l. The very notion that the word could spread and retain its original definition, original meaning, makes no sense. We all bring our contexts, our experiences, our particular usage and understanding of wordings to language. Language lives and evolves. It's a collective, shared process owned by none. As a Black woman, I'm aware of the concept of appropriation and how culture, ways of being, dress, spirituality, language can all be taken and twisted, emptied of meaning, usurped, transformed when touched by people who do not fully grasp it. :) Black people are often being told to get over it when we complain about this inexorable process that so many of us understand as theft and/or unwelcomed repositioning of our ideas and concepts. I've been on the receiving end of this kind of stern admonishment before. :) It's very, very rare that I have the opportunity to tell someone perhaps not so accustomed to the sense of disempowerment, anxiety, lack of control that comes with seeing their beloved concepts and wordings get used and abused by someone else in a way that might cause them to also be seen differently, misread...that they should just breathe, surrender and get accustomed to that lubless penetrative feeling. ;) And yet? Here I am. :) lol :)

October 11, 2011 3:34 PM  

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