Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

October 27, 2022

"Has Ethical Non-Monogamy Lost Its Way?" And other polyamory in the news

●  This is a big important one, in Vogue: Has Ethical Non-Monogamy Lost Its Way? (Oct. 26).

This question needs to be said and spread. I've warned since that speech in 20081 that when any promising new social trend goes mass market it goes downmarket; that the meaning of "polyamory" is likely to cheapen and degrade as it spreads; and we need to defend and shore up its ethical, honestly caring foundations especially when the going is difficult (cue Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart) — lest our word and idea degrade to the point of becoming almost meaningless. 


Everett Collection / Vogue
By Alexandra Jones

“This language was supposed to be about trust, honesty, communication, and commitment— defining commitment in a different kind of way.” Across a staticky Zoom call, Emily Witt and I are comparing notes on non-monogamy. “It was supposed to prevent lying and concealment,” continues the journalist and author of the seminal 2017 book Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love. “But I don’t really see it accomplishing that anymore—it actually seems to be giving people an excuse to act worse than ever.” She is in her office in New York, I’m in mine, in London—but despite an ocean of distance, our “notes” are markedly similar. “I’m sure this will feel familiar to most people on dating apps right now,” says Witt, rolling her eyes.

There had been a time when, like Witt, I approached non-monogamy with a kind of puppyish idealism. It was 2017 and terms like “poly” and “ethically non-monogamous” (ENM) had just begun to penetrate the mainstream—as refreshing as a cold Pepsi on a hot day. It felt like the start of something brave and new—the start of a redefinition, as Witt says.

Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder whether we weren’t all a little too hasty in embracing this newfound terminology. For far too long, all I have heard is horror stories—friends (almost always women) unmoored by the dynamics in these “relationships.” “Nowadays,” says Witt, “you see the term ‘ethically non-monogamous’ [on someone’s profile] and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will behave ethically or articulate what those ethics mean. More often it’s like they’re making a pronouncement: ‘Play at your own risk, I’m not going to take any emotional responsibility for you.’” 

Take 31-year-old Kate, for example.... “There are maybe three monogamists left in London,” she quips....

“...I was just lying in bed feeling really… I mean, it affected me, mentally. I felt used,” Kate tells me. And the worst part, she points out, is that she felt like she couldn’t voice her discomfort. “I thought it was illogical for me to feel used, because he’d been upfront about having a primary partner—and having a responsibility to that person….  It was like he’d used all this language about compassion, and openness—about bringing people in ‘ethically’—to lure me into a false sense of security about how he’d treat me....”

Sound familiar? That's the same guy mothers were warning their daughters about in the 1950s. 

For Leanne Yau—a non-monogamy educator and founder of Poly Philia, a platform that offers digestible information on poly best practice—this is the absolute antithesis of what a poly lifestyle is meant to be about. She opens our conversation with an emphatic “I have a lot to say on this issue.” Yau, who has spent years advocating for this community, is irked by the influx of people co-opting the language of non-monogamy, without ever trying to understand the theory behind it.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people have begun to conflate polyamory with being single and casually dating,” she says. “But being poly or ethically non-monogamous is about responsibility, and taking responsibility for your partners: you factor them into your decisions, you consider their feelings, you uphold your commitments to them and respect their boundaries. You strive to be open, honest, and compassionate towards them—it isn’t just a matter of reading someone their rights, then doing whatever you want.” 

The problem clearly isn’t the relationship configurations themselves—which, as Witt points out, were always meant to be about defining commitment, rather than safeguarding apathy. For her, it comes down to dating apps, which have spread the language of non-monogamy so widely, “that people who may not have heard the terms before, read a book like The Ethical Slut, or come out of a subculture where these practices are discussed and studied, will go on a dating app, see ‘ethical non-monogamy’ or ‘poly-curious,’ and take it to mean whatever they want it to.”...

...This story is echoed by a friend who’s recently sworn off dating anyone on the ENM spectrum. “I’ve just found that what a person usually means is that they want to have regular sex without committing to you or to anyone—or they want the full relationship experience but without taking accountability for your feelings.... “Ultimately I felt like people were whitewashing their bad behavior by couching it in these terms.”

...For Yau, the misuse of poly and ENM terms comes down to the fact that we live in a highly individualistic society. Non-monogamy is ultimately a relational state—something that’s meant to be discussed, explored, and defined by the people engaging in it. It’s not so much something you “are,” as something you do with other people.... 

...I learned rather quickly that the utopian ideal of “anything goes as long as we’re honest” could, in practice, be corrupting, painful, and humiliating. It wasn’t because I personally was a bad-faith actor—as I said, I entered with an idealistic outlook—but rather, that I hadn’t taken the time to properly educate myself on what was required.

...All of which is to say that I’m not here to call anyone out or point any fingers. I’d like to think that most people don’t have bad intentions—we’re all just trying our best. It’s just that as people calling themselves “non-monogamous” take up more and more space within the dating sphere, we must try to understand the emotional sticky patches—the murkiness, as well as the light. It clearly isn’t ever okay to make someone feel disposable—but it’s particularly not okay if you’re co-opting terms which have been specifically developed to guard against that. ...

1. The meat of that speech in Central Park 14 years ago:

...People who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.

And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. The survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.

...So maybe it’s time for us to pay less attention to just pushing the polyamory-awareness movement, and more to steering it.

If we are to save our defining word... and guide this thing in good directions as it gains momentum, we should, in my opinion, take every opportunity to:

1. Keep stressing that successful polyamory requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;

2. Emphasize that poly is not for everyone, and that monogamy is right and best for many;

3. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the "full knowledge and consent of all involved";

4. Expand that to not just "knowledge and consent," but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of polyamory, I'm convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one's metamours not as rivals to be resented, or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, friends and acquaintances — perhaps family even — for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that, of course, there's no limit to how close you can become.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs. In this way it becomes a generalization of the magic of romantic love — into something much wider, and more widely applicable, than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.

And, 5. Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, ruthless self-examination, tough personal growth, and a quick readiness to (as they say in the Marines) "choose the difficult right over the easy wrong."

With the bandwagon now moving, let's not let it run away from us in the next few years to the point that "polyamory" goes mass-market as something careless or trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.

●  Change is hard, but it's harder to become ethical than to become non-monogamous. Here's a popcorn-worthy story of a once-happy open couple who began sneaking and, you might think, entered a Who's The Asshole contest. A surprise ending resulted. My Husband Cheated On Me — Now She’s My Best Friend (Your Tango, Oct. 22).  

● On a happier note, from Jenny Block, author of the groundbreaking 2008 memoir Open, comes Why Our Kids Are So Lucky We Have An Open Marriage (Your Tango, Oct. 9)

Sometimes I forget things. ... I forget to be thankful, to marvel, to bask in my life and the people I live it with.

This economy has driven my husband out on the road. ... I'm drowning, working 10-hour days and trying to keep the house from falling down around my ears, and the kid from starving or flunking or just plain hating me. Except somehow, I'm actually afloat despite how my mind imagines it some days.

The truth is... aside from a husband, I also have a girlfriend.

I knew I was lucky to have her in my life because of the love and support and sheer giddiness in being together.

What I was not conscious of was just how lucky we all were to have three parents, three adults, three spouses really, to pitch in when things were less than stellar.

I forget how lucky I am, how good I have it despite the difficulties.

...I forget that this lifestyle isn't just about love or sex. It is also strangely practical despite people finding it so very unusual.

My girlfriend doesn't take my daughter to the doctor or register her for school or keep up with the home warranty or schedule the exterminator. She does, however, help me cook and clean and grocery shop. She does do spelling words with my daughter and helps her grow crystals for her science fair project. 

...I forget life wasn't always so isolated. Families weren't always mom and dad and 2.5 kids and a dog. It has always taken a village.

...I wished for extended family, for a house full of friends sharing the load. That's not the way the world works, I was told. I didn't open my marriage to create a village, but it has certainly been a lucky side benefit.

... This economy sucks. But I'm grateful that it has improved my memory.

●  That New York City housing-court ruling that a polyfamily should count as a family is stirring up reaction from conservative outlets and the religious right around the country. For instance,

--  The courts are coming for monogamy. We should resist. (Deseret News [LDS/Mormon], Oct 16). "Opening marriage to polyamory ultimately means liquidating its meaning beyond recognition."
--  NY judge: The ‘time has arrived’ to legalize polygamy [sic] (Christian Post, Oct. 8) "Every novel iteration of modern family infringes on the rights and well-being of children in a novel way."

It's a reminder that when people who lack a legal right try to gain it, some of the people who have it will get angry and try to pull up the drawbridge. A short definition of privilege: When equality for others feels like oppression to you.


Meanwhile: Turn the tide.

Why have I been ending posts to this polyamory news site with the Ukraine war?

Because I've seen many progressive movements become irrelevant and die out by failing to scan the wider world correctly and understand their position in it strategically.

We polyamorous people are a small, weird minority of social-rule breakers. Some influential people call us a threat to society — because by living successfully outside their worldview, we expose its incompleteness. Our freedom to choose our relationship structures, and to speak up for ourselves about the truth of ourselves, is just one way we depend on a free and pluralistic society that respects people's dignity to create their own lives, to access facts, and to speak of what they know.

The Russian family-cartoon series Masyanya
turned dissident. Watch. The cartoonist has fled.
Such a society is only possible where people have power to govern themselves, combined with legal structures that are at least supposed to guarantee the rights of all.

People, communities, and societies who create their own lives, and who insist on the democratic structures and legal rights that enable them to do so safely, infuriate and terrify the authoritarians who are growing in power around the world and in our own United States.

Such rulers and would-be rulers seek to stamp out other people's freedom to choose their lives — by intimidation, repressive laws, inflammatory disinformation and public incitement, or, eventually, artillery.

For what it's worth, this site has received more pagereads from Ukraine over the years (56,400) than from any other country in eastern Europe.

For now, you can donate to Ukraine relief through this list of organizations, or many others. We're giving to a big one, Razom, and to a little one, Pizza for Ukraine in Kharkiv, a project of an old friend of my wife.


But that is only the start. For those of us born since World War II, this is the most consequential war of our lifetimes.

The coming times are going to require hard things of us. We don't get to choose the time and place in history we find ourselves born into. We do get to choose how we respond to it. Buck up and be ready.

Need a little help bucking up? Play thisAnother version. More? Just some guys in Kharkiv (our Pizza for Ukraine town) helping to hold onto a free and open society, a shrinking thing in the world. The tossed grenade seems to have saved them. Maybe your granddad did this across a trench from Hitler's troops — for you, and for us,  because a world fascist movement was successfully defeated that time, opening the way for the rest of the 2oth century. Although the outcome didn't look good for a couple of years there.

Remember, these people say they're doing it for us too. They are correct.  The global struggle between a free, open future and a fearful revival of the dark past that's shaping up, including in our own country, is still in its early stages. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. The outcome is again uncertain, and it will determine the 21st century and the handling of all its other problems.

We'll have a better idea after the election. Whatever else you do, vote.

BTW:  The single most cost- and time-effective thing you can do to Get Out The Vote is ask your friends and family to vote, and tell them why you're voting.


PS: Ukraine should not be idealized as the paragon of an open democratic society. For instance, see If Ukraine Wants To Stand for Liberty and Democracy, It Should Rethink Some of Its Wartime Policies. And the country had quite a history of being run by corrupt oligarchs — until the Maidan Uprising of 2013, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and Zelensky's overwhelming election in 2019 as the anti-corruption candidate. So they're working on that.

Now, writes US war correspondent George Packer in The Atlantic (Sept. 7),   

Here was a country with a tragic history that had at last begun to build, with great effort, a better society. What made Ukraine different from any other country I had ever seen—certainly from my own—was its spirit of constant self-improvement, which included frank self-criticism. For example, there’s no cult of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine—a number of Ukrainians told me that he had made mistakes, that they’d vote against him after the war was won. Maxim Prykupenko, a hospital director in Lviv, called Ukraine “a free country aspiring to be better all the time.” The Russians, he added, “are destroying a beautiful country for no logical reason to do it. Maybe they are destroying us just because we have a better life.”

They have a word there, with a deep history, for the horizontal, self-organized mutual get-it-done that grows from community social trust: hromada. Learn that word. It's getting them through as well as they've been able. We polyfolks often dream of creating something like that community spirit in miniature, in our polycules and networks. Occasionally we succeed.

Social attitudes in Ukraine are generally traditional, but not bitterly so like often in the US; the ideal of modern European civil society is widely treasured, and social progressivism has room to thrive. More than 40,000 women volunteers reportedly serve all roles in the armed forces, including as combat officers, platoon leadersartillery gunners, tankers, and snipers. LGBT folx in the armed forces openly wear symbols of LGBT pride on their uniforms, whereas in Russia it can be a crime for even a civilian to show a rainbow pin. Writes kos in the big lefty news site Daily Kos (July 29),

I find [this] particularly salient given American conservative hostility toward women serving in our military. People like Ted Cruz praising the supposed manliness of the Russian army, while claiming ours is weak because of “woke culture.” Ukraine puts that bullshit to bed, not just with the women serving in its ranks, but with gay soldiers very publicly sewing unicorn patches on their uniforms to denote their pride.

He retweets a meme from a military blogger on the plight of the abused gay Russian draftee:

To hell with any conservatives who impugn anyone’s service as somehow less effective or honorable than white straight men. 

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