The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms…. polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it.
~ Sex Geek, “the problem with polynormativity”
This article on polynormativity, quoted and linked to above, appeared recently on poly-friendly blog Sex Geek, and has triggered shouts of joy from those for whom poly-normativity isn’t a part of their paradigm, with contrasting outcries from those for whom polynormativity is a valid and functioning structure for their relationship style.
What is polynormativity? SexGeek defines it as four norms being perpetuated by the media:
- Polyamory starts with a couple
- Polyamory is hierarchical
- Polyamory requires a lot of rules.
- Polyamory is heterosexual-ish. Also cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy.
Sex Geek goes on to highlight three key problems she has with polynormativity:
- It’s a hierarchical model that can come with a host of problems for everyone involved in part because rigid adherence to rules can ignore the emotional and physical needs of individuals.
- The media presents polynormatvity as the way to do Poly.
- The perpetuation of this norm screws over newcomers to poly who do not line up with those four norms.
I think it’s important for us in the Poly community to engage in discussion about the many ways to have multiple open and ethical, loving and intimate relationships. Your poly may not be my poly, but our ways of being poly can co-exist, and can even be compatible.
Once upon a time, if you weren’t straight, you were simply ‘gay’. We now possess a much richer lexicon for describing sexual orientation and identity. The ethically non-monogamous world has still too few descriptive labels to really accurately capture the full spectrum of how people approach their relationships. Swinger, monogamish, polyamorous… these few words are insufficient.
I have no problem with people who practise polynormativity. In fact, many friends from within the poly world are arguably in relationships more closely resembling polynormativity than anything else.
But, I look at my own personal relationship style in comparison and, well:
- I’m not part of any couple, I’m single… ish.
- The only hierarchical structure in place for me is that my own needs take top priority at all times.
- If I am in a relationship with someone who has a primary with rules and guidelines set out for how they take on new lovers and partners, then I will gladly respect and accomodate to these as long as I’m not beng taken advantage of or treated as a lesser being. In my own life, too many rules are restrictive, and I prefer ever evolving guidelines. My only non-negotiables are disclosure about STIs and testing, and honest assertive communication.
- I’m definitely bisexual, of mixed ethnicity, and whilst I am often told I am cute and exciting, I think all it is, is I’m just doing my best to be the most awesome me I can be!
Polynormalcy has its role, and has its value. For many it’s the first exposure to the idea of polyamory as a ‘thing’, as something beyond just straight up swinging with no emotional involvement. But it’s not what works for everyone. Being in a monogamous-primary partnership before opening up is a huge leap. It takes dedication, and the couples I know who have been able to make it work have, for the most part, done some kind of counselling or therapy together at some point in the journey, with a professional who ‘gets’ and understands open relationship dynamics.
I arrived to polyamory through an attempt at polynormativity. I was in a primary relationship, married. We were unicorn hunters for a while. After having one night of drunken unicorn fun, I realized I wanted more. We played with the idea of dating outside, but he wasn’t comfortable with me dating other men. I went ahead and did it anyway and had an affair. Eventually, for various reasons, our relationship unravelled.
Once single I thought that I now had a mission to find a new primary. Thats how it goes, right? You find a primary, and then add secondaries. I met someone who, like me, was single and polycurious. In our oxytocin fuelled rapture for one another, and innocent naivety about things poly, we thought, “Oh so we’re like primaries now,” first come first served, finders keepers. We attempted to develop something with a primary-esque flavour and needless to say it didn’t work. We broke up, despite the incredible passion between us.
Fuck, I thought, now what?
I spent hours analyzing the diagram of non monogamy, trying to picture myself in various different scenarios. Nothing quite fitted with what I wanted- and still want- a freedom without boxes. It didn’t seem to exist, at least no one was writing about it. So many people were reading Dan Savage and toting the word monogamish around. Even on OkCupid, single and coupled folks alike were using the term. And, though it didn’t really suit where I was feeling I might fit, it gave me the inspiration. And that was how I came to decide I was Singleish.
And that’s why I am here. This is why I write Polysingleish. Why I am coining new terms to try out within the poly lexicon.
We can only feel a sense of belonging and identity when we find the language with which to describe ourselves.
I am passionate about finding a voice for us non ‘polynormative’ folks who don’t have a primary partner, who pursue poly with as much love and fire as anyone else, who break down the boxes of preconceived notions and write our own individual and unique paradigms I knew I needed to write this because I couldn’t find anyone else writing about the relationship things I was experiencing. I didn’t see anyone connecting the philosophy of self relationship to keeping sanity within poly relationship fluidity the way I found I was connecting them in my journals.
Polynormative has done much to bring poly and non monogamy into the arena of public awareness and discussion. And, it will probably continue to do so. I do believe it is now time to add poly-alternative to the mix. There are so many ways to be non monogamous, and there are so many ways to do so ethically. So many ways to be polyamorous with multiple emotional and sexual loving relationships in our lives!
The danger with polynormativity is that newbies to poly encounter it first because it is so prevalent and proliferated now in subculture. Amidst confusion of how to navigate open relationships it offers a clear structure, yes, but it is one that doesn’t actually work for everyone. And for folks like myself who come to it single, or start in a marriage that ends and find themselves partnerless… there has to be something for us. About us.
Bottom line? There’s no single ‘right’ way to ‘do poly’ or ‘be poly’.
There’s many many ways to be ethically non-monogamous in multiple loving and intimate relationships, and over time we all figure out which way brings us the most happiness.
And, perhaps the time has come to start getting the non-normative models of polyamory into the public eye and craft out a language for this new poly paradigm.