"Why Do We Think Polyamory Is Only for the Rich, White and Privileged?"
Here's a diligent examination of a stereotype, with good facts and figures, but think of it as an introduction. It's thin on the voices of the people it says ought to be heard, though quite a few of them are out there speaking up.
The article appeared in the online magazine Mel, which says it's about "men's lifestyle topics" where "there’s no playbook for how to be a guy." Mel was acquired by Unilever to sell the company's razors and other men's personal care products. Not where you might expect to find a politically hot, 2,500-word, link-filled article about intersectionality in a controversial subculture. The author couldn't have had much time; she cranks out about 10 long articles for Mel a month.
Why Do We Think Polyamory Is Only for the Rich, White and Privileged?
‘Those kinds of relationship have always existed amongst people of color and those of lower education and income, but they often don’t identify with the terms that whiter, more well-off people use to describe them.’
By Isabelle Kohn
20 percent of Americans say they’ve engaged in some form of a consensually non-monogamous relationship such as polyamory, swinging or opening up.
These types of relationships have existed since the dawn of humankind and continue to flourish in many cultures around the world, but ever since the book The Ethical Slut brought them to the Western mainstream in the 1990s, we’ve been fed the line that there’s a certain “type” of person who practices them. If TV and pop culture are to be believed, that person looks like this: educated, liberal, metropolitan, well-off and gainfully employed, a combination of privileges that affords them both the time and energy to embroil themselves.... Most often — though not always — they’re white, and frequently, they’re not entirely heterosexual. In other words, they’re Tilda Swinton.
...Shows like Broad City, Insecure, Unicornland, Wanderlust, Big Love and No Tomorrow do a pretty bang-up job showcasing the juicy, occasionally messy realities of non-monogamy, but they do so from an almost exclusively middle-to-upper class point-of-view. Hell, in House of Cards, even the POTUS himself has a bisexual, consensually non-monogamous relationship with his FLOTUS. ...
What we don’t hear about are stories of consensually non-monogamous people on Medicaid who split their time between double shifts at Boost Mobile and McDonald’s. We don’t see uneducated, rural couples trying to “open things up” or conservative Bible thumpers taking things down to the swinger’s club (though this story is an absorbing exception). Instead, all you get from poor, rural, under-educated and underemployed people are affirmations of monogamy and traditional relationships.
...To get at this question in depth, it’s helpful to look at a measure called “socioeconomic status” (SES), which refers to a combination of income, education level and occupation (you can also think about it as “class”). In most countries, SES is intrinsically linked to other demographic factors like race, religion, gender and political affiliation. ...
...In the research world, there’s no definitive consensus about who practices non-monogamy, and there have been some conflicting findings about whether SES and non-monogamous practices are actually related at all. One 2013 study by Christian Klesse of Manchester Metropolitan University, however, found that they are — the higher “class” someone is, he discovered, the more likely they are to have practiced polyamory (though his study didn’t mention other types of consensual non-monogamy, aka CNM).
“Research in the U.S. and many European countries draws a picture of polyamorous communities as predominantly white and middle class,” he writes via email. “Many research participants report a relatively high educational background and often find themselves in high income groups.” This finding has been mirrored by researcher Elisabeth Sheff and documented in research from polyamory communities themselves, such as the surveys conducted by Loving More magazine in [2000 and 2012].
There are a couple of reasons why that might be. ...
Throwing down money for events, parties, retreats and education that supports CNM communities isn’t a requirement for participating in alternative relationships, but as sex therapist and non-monogamy expert Gina Senarighi explains, many people do cough up the funds because it supports their desires and lifestyle. ...[Miles] Klee says that you also need a flexible schedule if you’re trying to get romantic with several people, something most people who are stuck in the washing machine of survival or gig economies don’t always have the luxury of.
Another possibility, [Debby] Herbenick theorizes, is that the power and privilege that comes with having a better education and more money give you the moxie (or the gumption, to use another antiquated word) to take a risk and go after the kinds of sex and relationships you want.... Several studies have found a connection between higher SES and greater risk-taking behavior.
...As Klee explains, being openly non-monogamous triggers many hostilities and exclusions. “A secure socio-economic status certainly provides a certain buffer of protection for warding off the threat of exclusion,” he says. “Basic economic security is vital in order to face potential conflicts at the workplace, within families or wider social networks.”
...It’s common for lower SES people and people of color to take their non-monogamy elsewhere, into spheres mainstream media often overlook. As sex therapist and alternative relationships expert Jamila Dawson explains, that doesn’t mean CNM isn’t happening — it is and it always has — it’s just not necessarily called the same thing as it is in whiter, higher SES communities. For example, she recently had one black, lower-income client who was part of a triad-style relationship — she was a woman, who was seeing a man, who was also seeing another woman. Both women knew about each other and were totally cool with sharing. They even split up child-rearing duties for the man’s daughter.
However, none of them labeled themselves as “poly” or even as members of an “open relationship.” They didn’t call it anything, for that matter — they were just three people in a relationship that looked a bit different. “Those kinds of relationship have always existed amongst people of color and those of lower education and income, but they often don’t identify with the terms that whiter, more well-off people use to describe them,” Dawson explains.
Likewise, many indigenous cultures around the world practice varying forms of CNM with great success....
...The relationship between high SES and CNM may be a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, some experts and researchers feel the two aren’t actually related at all. For example, Herbenick’s own analysis found that there was no correlation between socioeconomic status or income on non-monogamous practices, and another study published in the Journal of Marital and Sex Therapy concluded that the only predictors of past experience with non-monogamy were someone’s gender and sexual orientation, not their SES, race or political affiliation (men were slightly more about it than women, and gay, bi and queer participants had more experience with some form of open relationships than straights).
Another paper from Rhonda Balzarini of University of Western Ontario supports those findings, but adds another confounding variable as well — of the 2,428 participants she and her team surveyed, the polyamorous couples actually tended to make less money per year than the monogamous ones, and only slightly more poly people were educated beyond the Bachelor’s level and identified as a Democrat.
[Senarighi says] “It’s a total myth that CNM folks are white from a higher SES.” Often, she says, that myth is informed by the stereotypes we hold about what non-monogamy looks like and our ignorance of how low SES people and POC might express non-monogamy in ways we’re not used to hearing about.
Likewise, Dawson tells me... “If you’re surveying mostly white college students — which is what the vast majority of researchers do — you’re going to get a different response than you would if you went around knocking on doors in, say, a largely black community,” she says. “Same story if you go to a poly conference to collect your data. ...”
...Strangely, Match.com’s 2014 Singles in America Survey gives a pretty bang-up final word on all this. There isn’t really a “type” of person who practices CNM, the survey’s researchers conclude. “Despite previous speculation that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships tend to be homogeneous in terms of education, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, this proportion remained roughly constant across age, education level, income status, religion, region, political affiliation and race.”
...“We all benefit when we have healthier communities and better support,” says Dawson. “Given that CNM still isn’t completely socially accepted, we need our communities to be as healthy, vibrant and truly inclusive as possible so we can create situations that are best for all of us.”
Read the whole long article (undated; appeared in mid-April 2019).
"Isabelle Kohn is an L.A.-based sex and relationships journalist, educator and consultant who has written for Playboy, Broadly, InStyle and Harper's Bazaar."
So if we don't hear much in the article from those nonwhite, non-middle-class voices — and they exist in articulate numbers — where do you find them?
I asked Kevin Patterson, creator of Poly Role Models and author of Love's Not Color Blind (2018) for some of his recommendations, and he immediately sent back:
● Zach Budd
● Diary of a polyamorous Black Girl, by Alicia Bunyan-Sampson
● Dirty Lola's Sex Ed A-Go-Go
● Jimanekia Eborn
More suggestions, from Ruby Johnson of Poly Dallas (blacksexgeek.net): "Here are some much needed signal boosting educators:"
Aida Manduley (Sex Therapist and Educator; leading sex educator)
Ida Backoff (Sex Therapist and Educator)
Parnia Myx (Promotes for Solo Polyamory)
Ron Young (founder of Black and Poly)
Crystal Farmer (interviewed by NPR for her knowledge of polyamory)
Teresa Love (founder of Dallas Polyam and Black)
Evita Lavitaloca Sawyers (black and poly family were featured in a documentary)
Other recommendations, folks?