"Is Polyamory a Choice? Does It Matter?"
Is Polyamory a Choice?
By Michael Carey
When my last essay appeared in Slate, a number of people were offended that I compared polyamory and homosexuality. The commenters’ chief objection seemed to be that homosexuality is innate, like race, and therefore “more worthy” of civil rights, while polyamory is a choice.
Even a cursory examination of the facts will blur any claim of a black-and-white, binary distinction. Sexual orientation... is informed by both nurture and nature. Otherwise you couldn’t get the vast differences that are observed across cultures and eras. There’s good reason to believe that it’s partly genetic and perhaps partly developmental as well, but at the margin, there are surely some people for whom same-sex intimacy is a choice.
Meanwhile, there are some people whose innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one....
...My experience suggests that perhaps half to two-thirds of polyamorists — those who want to be able to fully embrace multiple loving relationships, with sex as merely part of that (albeit an important part, just as it is in monogamous relationships) — are “obligate poly.” I’ve heard a lot of stories from people about having a few miserable monogamous relationships before they were introduced to the concept of honest, consensual non-monogamy. I doubt there are many gay folks, anymore, who get to age 20 or 25 without learning that the kind of relationship they yearn for is actually possible. That kind of experience was common when I first joined the poly community in the ’90s. Media exposure is gradually ending that problem, just as it did for gays. I suppose it may also lead to an increase in the number of “optional poly” folks joining the community, just as increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships has probably encouraged more bi people to try a same-sex relationship....
Still... this entire conversation is a red herring. The “born this way” argument has been politically useful, but the moral argument for acceptance of gay relationships doesn’t require it. Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter....
Read on; it's worth it. (Oct. 16, 2013).
More on the topic:
This paper appeared in the Journal of Bisexuality early this year:
Polyamory and Monogamy as Strategic Identities
By Margaret Robinson
Increasingly, challengers to antipolygamy legislation have framed polyamory as a sexual orientation, arguing that some people are immutably predisposed toward forming multiple relationships. Drawing on a qualitative study of 40 bisexual women in Toronto,
Canada, this article argues that polyamory and monogamy are better viewed as strategies of sexual expression rather than as immutable orientations. Such an approach accommodates identity shifts between monogamy and polyamory that enable women to manage and negotiate their visibility as bisexuals. Viewing monogamy and polyamory as strategic identities can help health
care practitioners more accurately assess their clients’ needs and health risks.
Read it here (you may need to exit from a download window and reload the page once or twice). Here's the article's formal publication site (requires payment or library access).
Discussion of this article arose on the Polyfamilies Yahoo group. Commented Michael Rios, "[Robinson] seemed intent on considering polyamory as a choice, not an orientation -- which is directly contrary to my own experience, and the experiences of *most* of the polyfolk I hang out with.... This would support [a] suspicion that this is aimed at delegitimizing polyamory.
"...Using bisexuals to prove anything is suspicious in itself.... For that matter, a researcher could reach the same conclusion about being gay -- it's a matter of personal choice -- by studying only bisexuals."
At Sex and the State, a libertarian site, Cathy Reisenwitz wrote Is Polyamory an Orientation? when DOMA was struck down in June. She thinks yes.
Here's Angi Becker Stevens' Orientation or “Lifestyle Choice”? at The Radical Poly Agenda (March 5, 2013). "Rather than responding to opponents by denying that we make active choices, I think freedom of choice is exactly the thing we should all be fighting for."
Here's Ann Tweedy's much-cited University of Cincinnati Law Review article, Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation (Oct. 17, 2011; 56 pages). She argues that a good case can be made that it is. Abstract:
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.
Eleven months ago Dan Savage waded into the topic, infuriated readers, and provoked much debate.
During that episode, Sarah Taub summed things up in a Polyamory Leadership Network discussion:
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."
...The GLBT movement, broadly speaking, made a choice to frame its case in terms of the first rationale.... 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 the tension between these two approaches to rights and freedoms is what makes the question "is poly an orientation?" keep coming up as a heated debate.