Today we are going to talk about one of the many, many consensual expressions of sexuality to be found among humans: polyamory, which is the practice of or interest in maintaining several sexual/romantic relationships concurrently. And we are going to talk about why toxic Christians have latched onto the idea of polyamory, and why they need to quit doing that.
Before we begin, because I notice we’ve got a lot of new folks coming in from all sorts of places, let me preface with a very warm welcome and a couple of disclaimers. First, I am not a Christian or an atheist. Second, I’m aware that there are many, many flavors of Christianity. And third, what we’re really criticizing here is a particular mindset within Christianity that I’ve started calling toxic Christianity, which is not restricted to fundagelicals by any stretch, but seems most prevalent in that group. And last, please review our Rules of Engagement before you post if you’re new. Okay? Great! Let’s begin.
A Quick Overview.
First, let’s talk about what polyamory is: the practice of or interest in maintaining more than one relationship at the same time. That’s a pretty basic definition, isn’t it? But we’re not talking about cheating, which is promising to stay faithful to just one person and sneaking behind that person’s back to have a second (or third, or fourth…) relationship or liaison. We’re not talking about being unfaithful to anybody. We’re talking about someone whose partners are aware that they are not an exclusive couple.
Most of us know about polyamory because of TV shows like “Sister Wives” or “Big Love,” so most of us probably associate the practice most with weird religious groups. Others of us might associate the idea with “open marriage,” which seems like a synonym for a husband who wants a little strange in his diet, and indeed, the way that Newt Gingrich famously pitched the idea to his wife seems to be the way that most women come into contact with the concept. That was the big deal in the 70s–I have some old paperbacks my mom bought and presumably read about this very idea, and they painted some really hair-raising images of reluctant wives exposed to STDs and worse as they sullenly followed their gleeful man-child husbands into swingers’ dens.
Obviously, little of that is truly representative at all of the folks who live this way (there’s a standing joke about the “open marriage” practice Newt was after–“Relationship broken! Add more people!“). But mainly, we think of it when we think of religious whackjobs.
In fact, there’s a huge divide I perceive between quasi-religious practice and non-religious practice of polyamory. For a start, when religious people start doing polyamory, usually it’s going to be depressingly misogynistic, with younger-than-average brides and one husband who holds the reins in the family. The family groupings tend to clump together into communities of like-minded religious zealots, especially off in the middle of nowhere to avoid scrutiny. Young lower-status men may find themselves run off from the group so they won’t be as much of a threat or competition to the higher-status men. What I’m saying here is that the problem isn’t especially the polyamory itself, but in how the women and lower-status men involved in those groups tend to be treated. Even what Newt Gingrich did to his wife as she lay on her sickbed could be seen in a religious context; right-wing Christians have enshrined a husband’s sexual needs into law, and those needs must be met somehow, anyhow, no matter what, the wife’s sickness be damned.
In non-religious groups, by contrast, I’ve noticed equal numbers of men and women participating in relationships, and all of the parties involved have a say in how the relationship(s) progress. They normally live right out in the middle of other folks, existing right under the noses of their neighbors. They normally don’t clump together into communities and don’t insist on religious homogeneity.
The polyamory I am talking about is more the second type than the first. It involves consenting adults deciding how they are going to handle their relationships on their own. It involves grown-ups handling their own business their own way. There are no laws being broken and no adults or children being harmed or marginalized. It’s just people choosing to do things a little differently, is all.
And there is nothing like a grown-up deciding to defy and (worse still) ignore toxic Christians’ insistence on how relationships between grown-ups should look to get toxic Christians to completely lose their collective shit.
Who Chooses This Kind of Relationship?
I’ve known a lot of polyamorous people over the years. The one thing I can say about them is that whatever wiring is required in a person to make him or her jealous, polyamorous people don’t have that wiring.
Humans have been practicing one form or another of polyamory for many thousands of years. If anything, we’re wired for it or for serial monogamy, which is the other major form of relationship we practice, in which we pursue one relationship at a time but have many in our lives, or even just infidelity, in which we pretend to be faithful to someone but have illicit pairings behind our partner’s back.
Generally, when we find out that a partner has extracurricular interests, we get super-jealous–we feel angry, hurt, betrayed, and humiliated. We want revenge. We feel pain at realizing that we are not our partner’s only lover.
But what if it wasn’t like that for us? What if we didn’t feel that kind of betrayal or pain? Jealousy is not a sign of love. Love doesn’t mean those who love will feel jealous, either. People often confuse themselves about jealousy, but really it’s most often an expression of insecurity and control, not love. And polyamorous people don’t feel that kind of insecurity. I realize that to most monogamous folks, it’s just alien to consider not feeling jealous, but it’s probably also alien to most straight folks to consider feeling genuinely attracted to someone of the same gender. Alien doesn’t mean morally wrong.
A long time ago, at a pagan party I was at, my boyfriend at the time discovered that one of our mutual friends was polyamorous and had two girlfriends. He stared at our friend and blurted out, “How do you find the time?” Other people might have asked “How do you avoid jealousy?” or “How do you keep your girlfriends from finding out about and wanting to kill each other?” But my boyfriend just wanted to know how our friend managed to maintain quality relationships with limited time. That was probably the first time I ever noticed that my boyfriend lacked that jealousy wiring.
Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that about all my boyfriend was missing, compared to our polyamorous friend, was enough time to maintain a second (or third, or fourth) relationship–and a partner who didn’t mind. He had never expressed a desire to control me in any way, nor had he ever seemed in the slightest jealous about anything I ever did or anybody I ever spent time with.
We got to know a variety of polyamorous groups as we went along with this community. Some were established groups (with three or four permanent members); one of these had three kids among the two women involved, and both women were happy and grateful to have the extra help around the house. Some involved a straight or bisexual couple, either or each of whom might have outside relationships. One couple was a poly man with a monogamous woman who didn’t seem to mind if her husband had discreet outside relationships. And some were just one man or woman who maintained a variety of relationships on their own terms. All of these relationships involved a lot of communication, honesty, and trust; all parties involved had rules about who they could contact, how the contact would work, and what priority competing requests would have. It was downright dizzying, but fascinating too–I’ve always been simply mesmerized by how people figure out how to handle their relationships. They were all pretty stable; most had lasted many years with their primary partner, longer than I ever had at that point with anybody.
Unsurprisingly, after we broke up, my now-ex-boyfriend decided to try polyamory. To his astonishment (but not mine!), it seemed to work really well for him. Not long after our breakup and his entry into polyamorous society, he met and much later married a polyamorous woman. I don’t know how he finds the time to maintain extra relationships even now, but both he and his wife do have outside interests. They’ve been together and married, almost to the week, the same amount of time my husband and I have, with no signs of weakness or instability so far.
Now, would I have gone along with polyamory had he decided it might be a good answer for him? No, I know better. I’m not able to even think about living that way. But my ex-boyfriend and his wife both choose to live that way, and it is their right as adults to do so. I’m happy they’ve found an arrangement that makes them happy. One of the big ideas in the alternative community is “Your Kink is OK” (YKIOK)–it’s about not feeling threatened that someone else wants to go a direction that’s really different from the one you want for your own life. His decision does not invalidate my own.
One might also say that it’s not always puppies and rainbows for all of these folks, either; just as monogamous couples can have drama, so can polyamorous groups. And as you can guess, the more people are involved in a relationship, the more explosive the drama seems to be. But the existence of drama doesn’t mean that something should be outlawed. They’re all adults, and they have the right to choose to get into something that might result in drama.
In all their various arrangements, polyamorous folks are like many other friends of mine–people who have communicated clearly and honestly with all parties involved about what’s going on; people who are totally okay with their choice; people who have arranged their lives in a way that feels meaningful and pleasing to them.
Unfortunately, a big chunk of Americans think that this arrangement is not only inferior but shouldn’t be allowed. A lot of those Americans use the Bible to justify why they are intruding on other adults’ private lives. And a lot of those Americans are attacking polyamory as part of their attack on equal marriage.
I guess I should just feel relieved that toxic Christians are slowly, finally, learning that comparing equal marriage to bestiality and pedophilia is not okay. Now they’ve leaped to comparing it to polyamory–to excuse why they are demanding that equal marriage not be allowed. They’ll say it on message boards and comment threads, ending with a “tee-hee! And we sure don’t want polygamy to become okay, now do we?!?” like of course all good and moral people don’t want to see that, right? I can easily see that they’re playing upon people’s unfamiliarity with the idea and their natural knee-jerk personal responses to it, much like they were doing when they compared equal marriage to pedophilia or bestiality. They are counting on people just knowing about the religious-whackjob side of the lifestyle, not the one I’ve outlined here. All they did was take the “is like X!” and put a new word in there, one that isn’t quite as emotionally-charged, one that isn’t as obviously unlike equal marriage. And we’re just supposed to forget all the stuff they said about the previous X they used. The arguments are precisely the same. The objections are exactly the same too. They just plugged a new word into it. Now you have grandmothers who probably never even heard of polyamory before parroting these lame arguments and calling polyamorous people “discredits” to the human race (and yes, I heard that personally on a comment thread last week).
Once you start noticing this word-substitution, it’s hard to stop seeing it. Mitt Romney famously compared equal marriage to polygamy (and drug use!) back in 2012. Rick Santorum also famously warned that legalizing equal marriage would be a tacit approval of polygamy, and we’ve had to patiently explain to this dunce, who folks once thought might rule America, why that isn’t true. And when Utah shockingly decriminalized polygamy, we then had to explain why equal marriage itself hadn’t really had any effect on that decision.
I can see why Christians would consider it that way. Both equal marriage and polygamy involve people going a way different direction than the toxic-Christian playbook says they should go. The very existence of long-term LGBTQ couples and polyamorous groups is a raised middle finger to the mold that such Christians insist all men and women should be able to force themselves into fitting.
But Christians making such comparisons are just pissing on their own shoes. Here is why, and again, we’re not talking about religious whackjobs who are in it more to get lots of young women into their beds and doing their laundry; that brand of misogyny is a whole different kettle of fish; we’re talking about the folks who choose this relationship style not out of religious extremism but out of personal cognizance and a clear desire to show respect and honesty toward all partners:
* Like a LGBTQ person’s personal choices of partner, polyamory is a person’s personal choice. In the same way that a LGBTQ person is born that way, someone who goes into polyamory is born with a different kind of wiring about monogamy. Some people are much happier in same-sex relationships. Other people are much happier when they’re not forcing themselves to be monogamous. Wouldn’t you hate to be the woman married to a guy who was trying to force himself to be straight? Think about that–and how inevitable it is that you’ll find your husband watching gay internet porn or sneaking off to bath-houses or whatever it is closeted gay men do nowadays when they try to get married to women and force themselves to act straight. In the same way, if someone’s just not able to be monogamous, isn’t it a lot better if that person is totally honest about it and seeks partners who know what’s going on and consent to it?
* Snidely denigrating polyamorous people just reminds us that these Christians are upset about people making their own personal, private choices about their own lives. And it reminds us as well that such Christians think that not only do they have a say in other people’s private lives, but that they have an obligation to stick their snoots into those other folks’ lives.
* Inevitably, we’re going to wonder why anybody should have a say in someone else’s personal life, and we’re going to wonder if polyamory is really that bad of a problem that it simply must be disapproved at and stopped by any means possible. Again, the big problem with polyamory is when it’s done out of religious zealotry, when there’s a much greater risk of people being treated badly. Remove that risk, make everybody of-age and consenting, and make sure that honor, respect, and courtesy are the premium values, and what exactly are Christians upset about here? Someone’s boinking someone Christians didn’t pre-approve? OH NOES! Won’t somebody think of the tender widdle fee-fees of the CHRISTIANS?
* And we’re going to see, if we follow that logic, that what a polyamorous couple (or grouping) does in their private life does not impact anybody else in the very slightest. My ex-boyfriend being able to have several girlfriends at once does not make my marriage less secure any more than a gay woman being able to marry her one true (female) love makes it less secure. Polyamory may well ensure that children have an easier time getting the resources and attention they need to grow up happy and healthy, and it certainly allows adults a lot more freedom around the house when the burdens of housekeeping are shared and the costs of living are halved further. I never saw a kid growing up in that environment who was mouthy or mean-spirited. Nor did I ever see a woman in that environment who looked put-upon or victimized somehow. So exactly how is a polyamorous group impacting anybody negatively?
This comparison is just not a parallel that Christians would be making if they had any sense at all. All they’re doing is making us realize just how invalid their hamfisted attempts to control other people are. I sense a sea change in how Americans view each others’ private lives; there’s still a huge chunk of people who really think that their vision of relationships is the only valid vision of them, and will do absolutely anything to keep that vision enshrined in law and cultural dominance. But there’s a growing tide of people who see, correctly, that the only people who have the right to dictate how someone lives are the people directly involved, and drawing comparisons this way only serves to make more of us realize that meddling in one type of relationship is just as bad as meddling in the other. We knew all along that diddling animals and children is not okay because animals and children can’t consent to the goings-on. But in poyamory, if they’re all adults, we are more squeamish about overriding someone else’s personal choices–as we should be!
I know that a lot of this discomfort is coming from a place of insecurity. A lot of stuff is changing, and a lot of those changes revolve around how men and women are defining themselves and setting up their private lives. Christians used to be the defining and pre-eminent voice in culture, and they used to set the tone for gender roles and relationships. That’s not the case anymore. I know they probably feel very uncomfortable with not knowing just how to respond to these varied and infinitely flexible new ideas. And I know they’re very uncomfortable with being knocked down from the top of the pyramid of power.
Remember, a big part of what draws people to fundamentalism is the rigidity and authoritarianism of its worldview. Such a worldview puts fundagelicals at the top of the heap and makes them superior to all other people, and then gives them permission to try to control other people and to dominate society as best they can. It confers a privilege upon adherents that outsiders can hardly even imagine. It tells them that their opinions are vitally important just because they are fundagelicals and had the wild luck to run across and believe just the right sort of nonsense.
And now, suddenly, they don’t have that control and dominance anymore. Fundagelicals don’t handle ambiguity or loss of privilege very well, and they really don’t like seeing that their input is no longer required for the rest of us to live our lives happily and meaningfully. We’re no longer asking them for that input, or welcoming it. It’s little wonder that they’re losing their shit over polyamory just like they did over LGBT people living their lives authentically and openly.
A Final Word.
To the people reading this piece who still, somehow, for some reason, think they have some kind of right to tell other adults how they’ll conduct their private relationships, I’ll say this: you already know polyamorous people. Just like women who’ve had abortions, just like LGBTQ people, just like atheists, they walk among you. They may even sit beside you at church. You might even think very highly of that person. So be aware of what you’re saying about someone else’s private choices. Just as even I’m perceptive enough to notice the switcheroo in the “gay marriage is just like X” argument, I’m sure poly folks have noticed as well that suddenly they’re being put into the variable just like pedophiles and beast-lovers were once. And that’s not okay.
There are only a few questions we need to concern ourselves with here when we see a relationship pinging our radar like Ramius’ sub in The Hunt for Red October:
* Is everybody involved 18+?
* Is everybody there of his or her own free will?
* Do we lack signs of direct (physical/emotional/sexual/abandonment) abuse that would require legal intervention to protect anybody being victimized?
If those three things check out “yes,” then the affair in question is none of our goddamned business (and you might notice that religious-nut groups practicing polygamy miss on all three counts depressingly often). Even if we don’t like the relationship, even if we’re not okay with the kind of sex going on there, even if we feel that it’s just too dramatic for words, even if we’re uncomfortable with knowing it exists–if nobody’s being legally-actionably hurt and everybody’s of-age and consensually there, then it’s not any of my business what they do, or Christians’ business either.
“Mind your own damned business” may well become the cardinal virtue of the new millennium.
A pity Jesus never really talked about that, but I suspect that even if he had, that would have just quickly become one of the “optional” verses.
On that note, I would like to apologize to the polyamory community if I have gotten anything wrong with terminology or communicated monogamous privilege too much. Feel free to correct me on any point that I’ve gotten wrong or said poorly. I realize I am an outsider and my experience with the community is based upon personal interaction with polyamorous folks and reading books/sites about it like The Ethical Slut. I am not trying to remove polyamorous voices or silence anybody, or distract from primary sources of information. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just sick of hearing that people who I personally know to be good people, people who are trying to be good to each other, people who just want to live their lives free of meddling and nosiness, are getting compared to animal-fuckers and child-predators even indirectly. I’m sick of people I know and yes, love being called discredits to humanity. I’m sick of Christianists’ shameless grab for power and dominance and their constant attempts to strong-arm and wrestle control away from private people making unapproved personal decisions. I want it to stop, and I perceive that the first step in resolving a problem is calling out that the problem exists. This problem exists. If enough people recognize that it exists, then we can start dealing with it. Thank you all for listening. This seems like a good place to say: I heart you all.