Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

December 5, 2012

Dan Savage and the "poly orientation" hornet's nest

Two weeks ago Dan Savage, America's most important sex-and-relationship columnist in a lot of people's opinions including mine, walked into the controversy over whether poly is an orientation — something you are —— or a way of life, something you choose.

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?

—Polyamorous Polymath

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,

Poly Orientated

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
Suggested Citation:
Tweedy, Ann E., Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation (June 29, 2010).
University of Cincinnati Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 1461, 2011. Available at
SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1632653

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.


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Blogger Pete Schult said...

With respect to the "it's inborn" vs. the "free people should be free to make choices that don't harm others" question, I see why the LG community chose the innateness path, but I think that as progressives, we need to move more struggles onto the path that makes no bones about demanding freedom to do things that don't harm and that all parties involved consent to. The reason I feel this way is twofold: On the one hand, inborn predispositions might not all be benign, and we would want to be able to deal appropriately with people who have an innate tendency towards harming others.

But my second reason is equally important, and that is that by ignoring the notion that all benign activity should be allowed, we are letting the bible-thumpers set the boundaries on permissible conduct, and we're operating in a fashion of asking for exceptions to be made on a piecemeal basis to rules that shouldn't be there in the first place.

December 05, 2012 11:23 PM  
Blogger Anita Wagner Illig said...

Alan, thanks for including my POV here. And what a good and comprehensive report on this saga.

Today Dan replied to a tweet of mine, saying: "In the real world, Dan not convinced. But listening & talking to researchers who've studied poly as orientation." I thanked him for keeping an open mind. That said, considering all the enlightening message he's received and published, why he is holding out is still not clear. I expect it may have to do with trying to fit polyamory into the sexual orientation mold.

I know that identity politics is fraught with controversy for the reasons you, Alan, describe. When I posted in response to Dan's erroneous statements to his advice seeker that polyamory is what you do, not who you are, I wasn't playing politics but saw it pretty much entirely as being about lack of awareness and Dan needing some enlightening. Naive, I know, but wow, what great, impassioned personal stories we've been reading. Dan will hopefully be convinced that whatever the surrounding politics, the simple truth is that many people feel in their gut and heart that they are oriented toward polyamory. I've been referring to this as a relationship orientation, and in my reply to Dan today on Twitter I said that what we are witnessing is the emerging of a new kind of orientation - relationship orientation. Or love relationship orientation, or sexual relationship orientation, etc. Hopefully the researchers with whom Dan is in contact will help him figure this out.

December 06, 2012 2:52 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

I find Taub's argument very persuasive. I don't want my relationships accepted because I can't help being poly. For one thing, I personally can help it -- I was happily monogamous in the past, and could be again in the right circumstances. (And "you can be poly because some other people can't help it" is extra weird.) And I think an emphasis on the freedom (and responsibility) to choose one's own relationship arrangements has broader beneficial effects on how we conceptualize relationships beyond simply winning acceptance for one specific arrangement.

I'm also uncomfortable about how easily many poly people appropriate and piggyback on the vocabulary, concepts, and partial victories of the LGBT struggle -- talking about "orientation," or "coming out" as poly, or arguments by analogy with gay rights. It's a tricky balance because many poly people are LGBT and may see connections between their LGBTness and their polyness. But the straight cis poly population should be very careful about treating LGBT rights as a tool for their own advancement rather than a still-struggling movement that needs their support.

December 06, 2012 10:11 AM  
Anonymous Belle said...

I think people forget sometimes that Dan Savage is human and he makes mistakes. Yes, he is progressive on some issues, but there are so many things he doesn't have experience with. And it's the job of the community to write to him and help him understand. It'll take time. He has ingrained beliefs and reactions, just like any human. We can't expect more of him just because he's a hotshot sex advice columnist.

December 06, 2012 11:50 AM  
Blogger Anita Wagner Illig said...

Stentor, what language would you suggest polyamorous people use when speaking about revealing their poly inclinations to family and friends? How shall they refer to their natural inclination toward polyamory? Do we make up new words for what is in reality the same experience, especially as to those who oppose all of us?

You wrote: "But the straight cis poly population should be very careful about treating LGBT rights as a tool for their own advancement rather than a still-struggling movement that needs their support."

I find it troubling that LGBT people are suspicious and defensive and see polyamorists as a threat, especially because there are plenty of poly LGBT people in their midst. We want the same things, to be treated with respect, to be supported and to be understood. We want to be free to love as we wish. Some issues may vary, but most do not.

I've been an active polyamory community leader and advocate for a long time, attended numerous leadership summits in recent years, and never once have I heard anyone in a leadership capacity even remotely imply that we should jump on LGBT coattails and take advantage of their hard work. Never. It simply doesn't exist as an attitude, at least not that I'm aware, and if it did, I'm pretty sure other leaders would speak up and express the very concerns you express.

That said, the truth is that their hard work *has* opened a lot of minds to the idea that there is more than one way to be a healthy sexual human being. I am grateful for that, and though we polyamorists have been bashed about by LGBT leaders and especially same-sex marriage advocates over the years - quite rudely in some cases, I might add -I am not aware of any poly community or leadership tendencies to be similarly disrespectful. Quite the contrary. We are generally in favor of same-sex marriage rights as a matter of fairness, whether we believe in marriage ourselves or not.

The same people who oppose LGBTs also oppose polyamorists. We've all been set up by their ilk, and in 2003 when Stanley Kurtz published his odious slippery slope argument, polyamory became the political football that got kicked around between the two factions for a very long time. Same sex marriage advocates denied that we even exist, and certainly dismissed the argument as irrelevant. It was a political strategy, of course, but it sure didn't offer we who are also discriminated against *by the same people* any support, quite the opposite. At that point in time almost ten years ago our movement was not as well established as it is today, and our voice was not so strong. This is a different time, there being much greater awareness of polyamory in the mainstream, and wow, how our numbers have grown. Our interests aren't going to be able to wait until all LGBTs feel secure and comfortable, nor should they have to if we really do support each other. We really are all in this together. I know that's a radical concept, but it's a fact no matter who likes it and who doesn't and has been so for a long time.

Perhaps we should thank Dan Savage for sparking this conversation. And you for that matter. These are very important issues. Perhaps the right time is here to engage in discussion that heals perceived rifts instead of seeing them continue to be exacerbated and letting the opposition manipulate us against each other. But we have to meet each other half way. I'm open to ideas about how that could take place, as I know many others surely are. Over the years some of us have reached out to HRC multiple times about forming alliances, and we couldn't even get a return phone call. That's pretty harsh. Fortunately NGLTF is much more supportive and friendly, so perhaps someone there can help.

Now I've gotten into brainstorming mode, so I'll leave it there and welcome any additional suggestions and perspectives you and/or others may have. Thanks again for the feedback.

December 06, 2012 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan Savage.
Really, that's all you need to say.
Arguing with him about his narrow views of what is ok is like arguing with Dr. Laura, but less ironic.

However-- about drawing analogies between GL and Poly lifestyles-- sometimes the analogy is kinda right in your face. Like when you're the third and one of the conventionally married partners objects to someone knowing about the poly relationship because "I don't think people need to know who I have sex with." (Duh! You are married and have a child. Most people figure they know who you had sex with at least once!)

I do tend not to talk about it with too many people, because unlike gay/lesbian marriage, knowing about poly relationships may in fact be a threat to someone else's monogamous lifestyle, depending on how mature and committed the monogamous partners are to one another. See Newt Gingrich, which I personally find 'ugh.'

December 06, 2012 2:22 PM  
Blogger Desmond Ravenstone said...

Interestingly, this debate is also occurring within the BDSM/kink community. And likewise, we're hearing people argue that kink is about "what you do, not who you are" (or, alternately, "who you love").

Here's the problem folks: The more "what you do" differs from the majority, the more people on both sides start to wonder why.

For many kinksters, even those coming late into the Scene (like me), we do "what we do" because we feel it to be integral to "who we are." With this experiential sense so closely paralleling that of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transfolk, that leads to the question of what really defines sexual/affectional orientation - gender-based attraction, or enduring patterns of desire.

So coming back to poly, I think it makes sense to pose the question of whether the desire for multiple romantic/sexual partner is or can be as much an "enduring pattern" as gender-based attraction or the desire for particular forms of erotic expression.

December 06, 2012 8:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dan Savage posted something that I thought cleared up his thought process incredibly well -

"If all people are naturally nonmonogamous—a point I've made about 10 million times—then from my perspective, polyamory and monogamy are relationship models, not sexual orientations. (And if poly and monogamy are sexual orientations, Lily, wouldn't going solo have to be considered one, too?) That was my point. Poly can be central to someone's sexual self-conception, and it can be hugely important, but I don't think it's an orientation in the same way that gay, straight, or bisexual are orientations."

He's basically saying that EVERYONE is non-monogamous, and so the way you express that is what you do. I feel that (while I don't necessarily agree) this really helps me understand the distinction Dan Savage was trying to make.

December 06, 2012 10:43 PM  
Anonymous Clarisse Thorn said...

I feel about the "polyamory orientation" like I feel about "BDSM orientation" -- the whole idea of orientations was broken from the start, and this is just highlighting the breaking point. Here's my old post on BDSM as a sexual orientation.

December 07, 2012 12:40 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It may not be a "sexual orientation", but there is no question that it *is* a sexual identity. Cross-dressing, drag queens, various forms of trans and intersexed are not orientations - they are identities - but they are acknowledged, supported, and protected by the LBGT community and human rights activists. Cross-dressing is something you do or wear, not who you are attracted to. The varieties of trans doesn't indicate which genders you are attracted to, yet it is included all the same.

Dan would probably suggest to a straight cross dresser to 'fess up to a potential long term partner pretty early on about his requirements. If she balked or refused, he could either marry her anyway and suppress his needs, do it elsewhere in secret, or not bother with her at all.

Dan isn't against poly, but as a sexual identity, the same advice applies. Potential partners should be asked to deal with it. If they can't, they need to be dumped or, if you are really a sadist, practice that identity in secret. But poly is about openness, and secret poly isn't poly, it's cheating. So polys are left in even worse shape than the cross dressers.

Poly is a sexual identity in that there are entire communities formed around it, even those who are non-practicing at the moment. We are persecuted, lose jobs, lose our kids, can go to jail in many places in the world, and yet still we fight to have our rights recognized. Why would anyone go through that if it wasn't vitally important to the core of our being? It's not a 'habit' or something you do. It is who you are, and is just as valid an identity as any other. And it's still far more normalized in many places.

December 07, 2012 6:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, I think this whole argument is completely ridiculous...do we demand that as a poly community we be recognized and respected as a collective and as individuals? Of course--but to claim that poly as an orientation is pushing the envelope too far...truly. I'm "bi"--bi-sexuality is an orientation...poly is a way of choosing to live, NOT an orientation. I would argue that since we have fairly well established the fact that human beings are not a monogamous species, than NONE of us are monogamous....however, when I was living a monogamous life I never asked for "monogamy" as my orientation....we in the poly community cannot expect to be taken seriously if we continue to have tantrums regarding the fact that we feel differently than most people, that we have found a different way to live than others. This life does not sit well with most "normals" and by asking for ridiculous labeling of "orientation" you aren't helping move forward for acceptance....poly is NOT an orientation, it's a choice--flat out.

December 10, 2012 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Ann Tweedy said...

Alan, Thanks for posting this information and for mentioning my paper. Dan had contacted me about whether I'd be willing to discuss the issue but then never got back to me. I get the sense that his resistance is due to his investment in the current notion of sexual orientation. If that notion were opened up to include poly or anything else, it might suggest that the current understanding of sexual orientation was somewhat arbitrary.

December 11, 2012 7:27 PM  
Anonymous LScribbens said...

Here's my take on it in a simple explanation:

I have to force myself to be emotionally and sexually monogamous, therefore my orientation is polyamorous. It may not be a "sexual orientation", but it is a "life orientation" or "relationship orientation". I can no more be happy and be monogamous than Dan can be married to a woman and be happy. It really is that simple.

December 16, 2012 12:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If the community is unwilling to include poly as an indentity, they will have to be consistant in removing trans and intersexed, too. Those have nothing to do with who you are with or attracted to, so they are not "orientation." They are entirely sexual indentity. Despite Dan's reluctance..

December 17, 2012 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Ettina said...

"For many kinksters, even those coming late into the Scene (like me), we do "what we do" because we feel it to be integral to "who we are." With this experiential sense so closely paralleling that of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transfolk, that leads to the question of what really defines sexual/affectional orientation - gender-based attraction, or enduring patterns of desire."

I'm not sure if I fall more under 'kink' or 'fetish', but it's certainly true for me. I can only be turned on by imagining a certain kind of scenario (someone being mind controlled or having their mind altered in some way). I was fascinated (non-sexually) by this scenario from an early age (my Dad tells me I freaked out my daycare providers by pretending to be the snake from the Jungle Book), but I thought I was completely asexual until, at 26, I found myself getting turned on reading some online fics. The common theories about fetishes don't really explain me - why was I fascinated by this stuff at the age of four? Why have I never, ever felt remotely sexual in any other context? It certainly feels like this is a core feature of my sexuality, and my personality in a broader sense too.

February 23, 2017 6:34 AM  
Blogger Quadalarie said...

Exactly. Why is this so difficult for people to understand? It's a relationship orientation, just like monoamory, ambiamory, and aromantics are relationship orientations. You don't choose to not want romantic relationships, so why would you choose what sort of romantic relationship you want to be in? An ambiamorous person can choose, sure, but that's no different than a bisexual or pansexual person choosing which gender to date for the time being. It's still an orientation. There are different orientations. When you think about it, even transgender and non-binary people are not sexual orientations, but we don't deny that they didn't choose to be that way. A relationship orientation is still valid. Like you, monoamory had never made me comfortable. Even in my childhood, it wasn't something I really grasped.

October 06, 2022 9:03 PM  

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