"Dear Media: Polyamory Is Not All About Sex." (And those feet pix?)
This was recommended to me as a meta article about poly in the media. Yes, the white duvets.
It appeared in the online feminist magazine The Establishment. I imported the pix from the other places that the author references in the text.
Dear Media: Polyamory Is Not All About Sex
By Carrie Jenkins
If you read about polyamory in the media, you’ve probably seen The Photo: an image of three (or more) pairs of adult feet at the end of a bed, poking out from under a white duvet.
In reality it is not one photo, but many, yet it’s a visual trope recycled so frequently and predictably that it might as well be just one. The Photo is supposed to provide a glimpse into the lives of those naughty non-monogamous people having their naughty non-monogamous sex; while only slightly risqué, it gets its point across — the point being that polyamory is all about having sex with lots of people.
You can see The Photo in action here in The Guardian, here at news.com, here at GetReligion.org, here at stuff.co.nz, here in the Georgia Straight, here at Mic, here at Cafe Mom, here in Soot Magazine, here at Role Reboot, and here at The Frisky. Sometimes it’s not feet, just three or more people in a bed—under, yes, a white duvet. (I confess I don’t own a white duvet, but I didn’t realize it was such a sine qua non of poly life.)
There is more going on here than editorial laziness. It suggests that our culture’s default visual image for polyamory is “lots of people in bed together.” This hypersexualization of polyamory might be normalized, but it’s far from harmless. Because we live in a sex-negative society, presenting poly relationships as “just” sex is a powerful way of signaling that these relationships don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
...On the whole, we tend to think that “real”-love relationships are serious — and should be shored up with social and legal privileges — whereas sex is “just” sex. When poly relationships are hypersexualized, they are also shuffled out of the realm of what we are taught to respect.
...A few months ago I gave an interview to a journalist for an article about polyamory in the print edition of Cosmopolitan UK. Her article was well-written and well-researched; it addressed various issues that can come up in poly relationships, like scheduling, jealousy, misrepresentation, and stigma. The journalist included some material from my interview on how polyamory is often stigmatized through hypersexualization and sex-negativity.
So perhaps you can imagine how demoralized I was when I saw that Cosmo had chosen to illustrate this article with full-page, full-color, graphic images of a pile of naked people in mid-orgy. And that the article itself was presented under the subheading “Young, hot and…polyamorous. Why everyone you know is getting multiple action.” Not only that, the front-page headline was “Greedy Lovers: Is a Foursome the New Threesome?” This bore no connection to the article; it was only used to play up the stereotype that poly people are sexually greedy.
Whoever was in charge of these editorial decisions made the Cosmo article into a perfect example of the exact problem I described in it. Either they didn’t read my quotes, or they didn’t care about what I said. I suppose giant orgy photos sell magazines, and what happens to people like me doesn’t matter much to Cosmo. But it matters to me. This kind of harmful imagery is partly to blame for the fact that I get called a “cum-dumpster” and a “cheap skank that bones a bunch of dudes” when I talk openly about being in two loving relationships. It’s what makes strangers feel okay about saying that my partners and I are trash, that our relationships are hopeless, that I’m only pretending to be married, that they hope I get STIs, that I already have STIs, that I’m disgusting.
It’s important to note that the harms caused by the hypersexualization of polyamory are not equally distributed among its targets. As a poly woman, you stand to be labeled a “slut” without a second thought, and there is no male equivalent. Being poly doesn’t necessarily entail having any sex (never mind nightly orgies!): It’s also consistent with being asexual, not being in any relationships, or just, you know, not having sex — like how monogamous people are sometimes allowed to be not having sex. But that’s irrelevant to how stereotypes and stigmas work....
Due to the gendered norms for sexual behavior, everything about this harms poly women far more than men. In fact, any kind of privilege can help protect you from the costs of being openly poly. It’s less costly for rich white people to be out as poly, which reinforces another stereotype: that poly people are all rich and white. (In the examples of The Photo that I listed above, you might have noticed that the feet in the bed are all as white as the bourgeois bedding from which they emerge....
Strategically devaluing disfavored relationships by “reducing” them to sex is nothing new. The same strategy has long been deployed against same-sex relationships and interracial relationships. It’s effective not only as a way of inciting disgust and disapprobation, but more insidiously as a means of othering — making the people in those relationships seem weird and alien and not like us. We fall in love and have serious relationships, but those people are lust-driven animals. It’s okay to treat them like garbage.
It is tempting to push back by demanding that poly relationships be treated as “real” love, and distanced from sex.... But it also throws sex under the bus. When sex-negativity is weaponized against us, we can run from the weapon — reinforcing its effectiveness — or we can work on disarming it....
Carrie Jenkins is a polyamorous philosophy professor currently based in Vancouver, Canada. She previously lived in Scotland, England, Wales, the U.S., and Australia so that her accent would be confusing and nobody would be able to figure out where she was from. Her book What Love Is And What It Could Be comes out in January.
Read the whole text (July 27, 2016).
And once again: Photographers, please supply the stock agencies with some better poly pix! Anyone with a camera and a good eye can do it.