Polyamory 101

Breaking with normative ideas about relationships can be tricky, but rewarding

The names in this article have been changed, so don’t get any ideas.

Polyamory seems to be rocking the boat a little these days, from MTV’s True Life: I’m Polyamorous, to a workshop at Queer McGill’s sex (re)education series next week. Yet because monogamy is so accepted and normalized, poly is often misunderstood or stigmatized, leaving me curious: what exactly is polyamory?
Lickety Split, an amazing and hilarious smut zine, differentiates polyamory from swinging, which is a “purely sexual and recreational practice.” It’s a whole lot more than being an “honest player,” because players are usually in it for themselves and not for the relationship.

And it isn’t just dating multiple people until you find “the one.” Rather, poly is about loving, dating, or being intimate with more than one person at a time in an honest way that is responsible to everyone involved.  The more we’ve read, researched, and talked about polyamory, the more we’ve realized most people are just focused on building healthy relationships.

Sitting down with my good friend Francesca, she explained that for her, polyamory is “rearranging how you think about relationships and breaking down normative ways of thinking” – about what sex is, for instance, or what makes a relationship or a family. A lot of this focuses on actively working against ideas of possession or control. Instead, she described polyamory as loving someone as a whole person, which includes letting them be with other people as well. That said, people interpret polyamory in many different ways, ranging from casual sex to lifelong partnerships – so it can be a number of things depending on the person.

For some people, polyamory is about reclaiming the way we talk about sex. People who have multiple partners are often labelled as sluts or players. These labels are incredibly problematic for the ways in which they affirm men having multiple partners, but degrade women who do the same. Moreover, both terms can be used in extremely derogatory ways that stigmatize the practices of those labelled. This can leave people with multiple partners without much positive vocab to talk about how they live.

When talking to my other friend Roberta, she described to me how polyamory can be a way to question how “emotions, love, and desire are normatively understood to be natural human qualities that aren’t politically shaped.” Poly relationships can be the result of a conscious and critical engagement with unpacking how certain patterns of behaviour and thought are conditioned and socialized – the idealization, for example, of the nuclear family by the media and government.

As part of next week’s (re)Doing It! (a series of events on sex (re)education), sex blogger and educator Andrea Zanin will hold a workshop called “10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy.” When looking over her blog, sexgeek.wordpress.com, I noticed many of the rules seemed to be applicable to making any relationship happy and healthy: know yourself, love yourself, be happy alone, communicate honestly, know what you want, be nice, practice safe sex, and go with the flow.

Polyamorous relationships have their own unique challenges as well. First: time. It can be a struggle to date one person while balancing classes and work and eating and sleeping – try making time for two people or more! Second: because our society is so damn focused on two-person relationships, it can be difficult to convince people of genuinely caring for them when being involved with more than one person at a time. “Love is not limited to one person,” Francesca told me, yet building trust is hard when we grow up hearing that being with more than two people automatically means cheating. Third: safer sex – always important, but a top priority with multiple people involved.

As polyamory has become more popular, particularly in queer communities, it can become an expectation, without a full understanding of the responsibility and emotional work involved. Even as poly opens up space for rethinking how we conceptualize relationships, there remains the risk of falling into old structures of oppression, where different people may be eroticized or sexualized in specific ways due to their social position (i.e. race, class, age, et cetera). But despite the challenges involved, its underlying framework of honesty, communication, and sex-positivity makes polyamory an approach to relationships’ potential for reclaiming language and breaking down social norms.

Maddie and Amanda work at The Shag Shop. Their column appears weekly. Write them with your sex and sexuality-related questions at sextalks@mcgilldaily.com – the answers might make their way into the paper.