CBC: "Polyamory during a pandemic? It's complicated"
Polyamory during a pandemic? It's complicated
With social circles tightened, people with multiple partners are forced to make difficult decisions
Daria Valujeva, seen in Vancouver on June 4, is only seeing one of her two partners while B.C. starts easing COVID-19 restrictions. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)
By Alex Migdal, CBC News
In mid-May, Paula Hughes was ready to bring her boyfriend into her social bubble. Two months of texting and taking walks two metres apart due to COVID-19 restrictions, she said, had "really, really sucked."
But first, the 40-year-old bookkeeper had to discuss her plans with her long-term partner, his spouse and the spouse's partner — who happens to be Hughes's soon-to-be ex-husband. The four of them are polyamorous and share a six-bedroom home in Surrey, B.C.
"I really needed a consensus," Hughes said.
The group acknowledged that allowing her boyfriend into their bubble posed a risk of infection. But given that he lived alone, they deemed any danger fairly small and acceptable.
"If any one person had been uncomfortable with it, or said, 'No, I don't like that idea,' it probably would have been the end of it," Hughes said. "It's about everyone."
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated many relationships, with physical distancing and social bubbles redefining intimacy, romance and sex. B.C.'s provincial health officer has recommended people stick to one partner and avoid rapid, serial dating to limit the spread of the virus.
That guidance has forced uncomfortable and sometimes wrenching decisions on those in the "poly" community, many of whom consider multiple partners not just a lifestyle but a fundamental part of their identity.
"It kind of reminds me of elementary school — if someone ever told you that you had to pick your top four friends ... how difficult that is for the social situation," said Cora Bilsker, a Victoria-based counsellor who specializes in polyamory.
"People are having to make really hard decisions that don't necessarily represent where they're at emotionally."
...Polyamory plays out in many ways. A couple may choose to pair up with another couple and form a quad. One person may partner with two people who aren't attached, known as a vee; a triad means all three people are intimately connected.
Some of these arrangements are hierarchical — meaning a person may have primary, secondary or tertiary partners — while others operate equally. ...
Nienke van Houten, a 45-year-old higher-education instructor who is polyamorous, said she has found the public health guidance unclear and largely focused on traditional households.
"This has left a big gap for people who don't have typical nuclear families," van Houten said, "or [those] who do have typical nuclear families and have polyamorous relationships."
To clear up some of the confusion, a polyamory support group known as Vanpoly held a session in late May about forming "risk-reduced, ethical social bubbles."
"Lots of things still remain somewhat of a mystery," said Dr. Kiffer Card, a behavioural epidemiologist at the University of Victoria, who led the online session.
The best advice from the province so far, Card said, is found in its guidelines for sex workers. It encourages workers to consider erotic massages and stripteases, minimize kissing and saliva exchange and opt for sexual positions that minimize face-to-fact contact.
"These sorts of practical things … need to be tailored in a way that's accessible to people broadly in the community," Card said, pointing to similar guidelines from New York City's public health department. ...
One idea raised in the poly community is "resetting" social bubbles. For example, someone has two partners they want to see but those partners live in separate households and neither want to be connected. That person could interact with the first partner, wait two weeks and monitor for symptoms, then interact with the second partner. ...
Bilsker, the counsellor, said polyamory requires lots of frank discussion around safe sex, which is why some polyamorous people are better equipped than monogamists to navigate risk during a pandemic."There's so much honesty," Bilsker said. "A lot of the conversations I've been having with people is how they can take skills that they already have into a really unknown situation and feel a little bit more prepared." ...
Carole Chanteuse and I monitor the firstname.lastname@example.org email address on behalf of Vanpoly. ... We felt that the reporter's initial request (on May 21) was respectful and well-meaning, but was couched in the usual misconception that poly is all about couples opening up or seeking a third. If floated in our group as is, we felt the request could receive a predictable backlash from people tired of that constant media misconception, especially from those who considered themselves solo-poly or relationship anarchists.
Carole diplomatically corrected the reporter, who was then happy to adjust their pitch.
In the past we've maintained a list of members who we knew were well spoken that we could refer to media on short notice. That list was getting out of date, so our group's admin team agreed to put a call out to people we thought could represent us well for those willing to be interviewed, and we would present a list of people the reporter could choose from. To make that easier for the reporter, and to ensure that a diversity of styles could be represented, we would confirm each and ask a few questions first.
The call was an edited version of the reporter's pitch, along with Carole's response. That resulted in a healthy discussion and a number of people who considered themselves solo or diverse stepping forward saying "we need to be represented". I contacted each who stepped forward or was suggested.
One of the people recommended was Nienke E. van Houten -- a B.Sc. in Microbiology and Molecular Biology and a senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University (near Vancouver). She's a scientist who has studied vaccine design. She's new to poly, but coincidently had organized an info session for the Vanpoly group about polyamory and COVID-19, with behavioral epidemiologist Dr. Kiffer Card, called "Building a Bubble While Poly".
In presenting our list to the reporter, I hoped they would pick up that we in the polyamory community treat safety very seriously in all aspects of our lives -- and as part of that we're doing a seminar on keeping ourselves safer during the pandemic.
I was happy to see that the reporter did pick up on the seminar. Here is the publically available information from that seminar that may be useful to others in the polyamorous community.
Pay attention. They showed how it's done.