Polynormativity and the New Poly Paradigm.

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.

Im-With-ThemWhat is polynormativity? SexGeek defines it as four norms being perpetuated by the media:

  1. Polyamory starts with a couple
  2. Polyamory is hierarchical
  3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The media presents polynormatvity as the way to do Poly.
  3. 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:

  1. I’m not part of any couple, I’m single… ish.
  2. The only hierarchical structure in place for me is that my own needs take top priority at all times.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Unicorns ahead!

Unicorns ahead!

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.


7 thoughts on “Polynormativity and the New Poly Paradigm.

  1. You, you get it. So many of the responses I read thought they were being condemned. You flesh it out in a way that I hope some of them will read and understand the intent behind Sex Geek’s original post.

    • Thanks TerminalSix. I was definitely inspired to write this after reading some of the uproar in comments- both on the SexGeek page, and on other poly forums the article was reposted on.
      There’s certainly issues with polynormativity. As there are with all relationship structures. I don’t feel any of us can judge the way we do poly, but we can certainly engage in dialogue to understand and refine our language. And maybe uncover ways to improve by learning from one another?

  2. I am trying to understand poly (abbreviated to cover all of the variations that start out with these four letters), but I don’t.

    My question to those who identify as straight and poly is, why isn’t one love enough? I understand having many lives in life, I love my family, I love my friends, but having love that involves intimacy, incredible connectedness and sex is different. So why is having that different love with only one not enough?

    • I think I can answer that, Dawn: It’s because we, as humans, have the ability and capacity to intimately love more than one person. In fact, we are taught to do it, beginning with family, siblings, etc., but as we mature and get interested in people outside of our family unit, we are then warned, cautioned, and prohibited from loving more than one person at a time because it’s complicated, confusing, goes against the tenets of monogamy, and most people can’t get their heads around being able to do it because of our social conditioning… and being in love with one person is messy enough.

      How many time in your life have you felt love for someone… but you were already in love with someone? Did you tell yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling these things for that other person? Polyamory, in essence, removes the prohibition against actively and intimately loving more than one person.

      Being in love and monogamous presents a lot of problems in that one person cannot take care of every need and desire you may have; monogamy says that if you’re feeling unloved, unfulfilled, etc., too bad – you’re either stuck with this or you can leave the relationship and start over.

      But what if you didn’t have to start over? What if leaving the current relationship would create more problems than it would solve? If you were single, what’s really wrong with surrounding yourself with people who love you and in every way that’s implied? If you’re already in a relationship and you could have more love, more interactions – sexual or not – and without believing you’re committing a crime, well, would that not make you feel good, restore or enhance your sense of worth?

      If you didn’t have to put a limit on your emotional happiness, why allow it to be limited?

      Is there really such a thing as too much love? They say this is hip and trendy and I don’t buy into how the media is representing this and their attempts to normalize being actively and intimately in love with more than one person. True enough: being poly presents its own problems, like trying to use monogamy’s rules in a situation where they can’t work and a few others I don’t have the time to get into… but those problems can be minimized and/or eliminated and poly situations can and do work because, as it is written, love conquers all.

      Being poly thumbs its nose at monogamy and its restrictions but at the end of the day, being poly is about using that ability and capacity to love and be loved and as much as you can stand it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s