Commentary  Messy, Difficult, Liberating

What’s in Polyamory for Marginalized Folks?

Although I’m a polyamorous queer woman of colour myself, watching Netflix can easily make me feel like polyamory is only for people who make each other kale smoothies. Series like You Me Her, Easy, and Insatiable, represent polyamory as hip, able-bodied, white, middle-class, and (sub) urban. Although this stereotypical portrayal of polyamory has been challenged in shows such as She’s Gotta Have It, it remains the dominant narrative. Being poly is not an identity that is necessarily marginalized in itself. However, like all human interactions, polyamory is affected by power dynamics, making it difficult for marginalized folks to navigate it. So, how do being poly and being marginalized interact?

Polyamory comes in many forms. The form of polyamory I identify with, and will describe, is informed by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s book The Ethical Slut. As blogger Kim TallBear points out on her blog The Critical Polyamorist, the institution of monogamy is relatively recent. It was solidified by the advance of capitalism and by countries like Canada, which canonized it through the institution of monogamous marriage. As a project closely tied with administrative, colonial state systems, monogamous marriage has been forcefully imposed on Indigenous communities and on Muslim societies practicing polygamy to replace extended family models. The normalization of monogamy in the Western world extends to non-racialized religious communities.

What is Polyamory?

Polyamory is the act or the ability of romantically loving more than one person at a time. Polyamorous relationships are relationships where this ability is either lived or simply respected. It is a form of non-monogamy where the terms of the relationship are actively consented to by everyone involved. At this point, you may be thinking of polygamy, casual sex, or swinging. While these elements may be present in a poly person’s life, the essence of it is simpler: it is possible and okay to love more than one person at a time.

A central aspect of polyamory is honestly articulating one’s own feelings and listening to the feelings of others. Poly constellations cannot simply follow the mainstream relationship norms that inform monogamous relationships. They therefore depend on open communication, which helps us negotiate the nature of our relationships, articulate our needs and boundaries, and schedule time between more than two people.

A central aspect of polyamory is honestly articulating one’s own feelings and listening to the feelings of others. Poly constellations cannot simply follow the mainstream relationship norms that inform monogamous relationships.

Another aspect is engaging with jealousy, which we usually consider to be a reaction to infidelity or the threat thereof. Many poly people believe the source of jealousy to be their own fears and insecurities rather than the actions of their partner. For example, if I feel jealous of my partner spending a weekend with their partner, this may be because I feel less needed. This does not mean that jealousy is an illegitimate feeling. Instead, we give (healthy amounts of ) space to jealousy and its underlying causes.

However, feelings about our partners connecting with someone else also include “compersion,” which means being happy for our partners when they are happy with someone else. Many poly people also think about the hierarchical ordering of partners in their lives. Some of us practice relationship anarchy, where all partners have an equal say, while others have a primary partner. And yes, there can still be ‘cheating’ in poly relationships — the boundaries of loyalty just change from monogamy as the default to the agreements that partners have established together.

Polyamory and Liberation

Polyamory is not a choice, it’s simply the way some people function, and it can be invalidating to live in societies that socially and legally privilege monogamy. Encountering polyamory as a concept can be unsettling at first, but it also validates many feelings and experiences. As marginalized folks, we are often excluded from multiple other social norms and are more vulnerable to struggling with mental health. Being able to articulate or live this part of ourselves can be relieving.

Poly people cannot draw as easily on relationship norms usually associated with monogamy. It is complex to negotiate care, dependency, strength, and vulnerability among more than two actors who are often differently powerful and marginalized. There is nothing inherently subversive about polyamory. Like other relationship models, it can be practiced in violent ways that exploit folks’ vulnerability and further marginalize them. But having to sort out these dynamics rather than taking up their normative prefigurations can be liberating. For example, some women and femmes use polyamory to reclaim sluthood; in some poly relationships, more privileged partners take a step back and support their other partners as they venture through non-monogamy; and queer poly relationships often disrupt cis- and heteronormative relationship assignments of gender expression. We negotiate these dynamics collectively or individually with our partners, allowing for multidimensional expressions of our gender and sexuality, or lack thereof.

Polyamory has also given me space to evolve; now, I feel better able to relate to others without having to undo existing relationships. Being partnered does not stop our questioning and encountering of new desires. We may find that we are queer, kinky, or tired of only ever giving our Black and brown bodies to white partners. Once we move away from the idea that one partner has to satisfy all of our needs, we become able to explore these desires and identities even if they don’t fit within the frames of our already existing relationships.

In some poly relationships, more privileged partners take a step back and support their other partners as they venture through non-monogamy; and queer poly relationships often disrupt cis- and heteronormative relationship assignments of gender expression.

Accessibility

Members of the polyamorous community often have high degrees of formal education, financial means and race privilege. But not all of us fit this demographic. Blogger Kim TallBear documents her experiences as a Native American polyamorous woman in the US. She longs for Native American “meat-on-your-bones, humble, swaggering” feminists, but the men she finds in poly circles tend to be “pale, skinny, soy latte sipping, yoga bendy techies.” In 9 Strategies for Non-Oppressive Polyamory, Janani Balasubramanian reminds us that “racialised ideas of sluthood” make reclaiming promiscuity inaccessible to some people of colour.

Active communication in poly relationships sets high standards for expressing our emotional lives that can be ableist and neglect the power-ridden dynamics of whose feelings and which expressions of feelings we consider valid. Being in a poly relationship requires money, time, emotional availability, and mobility to link up with other people. Be it working multiple jobs, raising children, or simply feeling exhausted from living in a world that wasn’t built for us, there are many ways in which some may lack the resources that polyamory often requires. At the same time, polyamory that resists these economic limitations, for example polyamory as a way of coping financially as described by Ian Baker in Growing Up Poor With Three Parents, is underrepresented in common imaginations of polyamory.

Lastly, being poly does not absolve us of our potential to oppress forms of consensual non-monogamy that are racialized or marginalized in other ways.

Lastly, being poly does not absolve us of our potential to oppress forms of consensual non-monogamy that are racialized or marginalized in other ways. Brigitte Vasallo captures that we often claim “to have total legitimacy to decide what is love and what is not, [and] what an ethical relationship is and what not.” Similarly, it is not for us to police monogamous constellations, whether they come about as a result of the accessibility restrictions discussed above or simply by choice.

Being poly and being marginalized can interplay in messy, difficult, and liberating ways. Good allyship is recognizing these interplays and making space for us in the poly community. Getting rid of the kale smoothie trope would be a good first step.