Some thoughts on poly identity

As I write this, I’m in Olympia, Washington. Alas, thanks to a signficant user interface misfeature in the program (Caron Copy Cloner) I use to sync my laptop with my desktop, I don’t have my laptop with me. I’m posting from an iPad. Which has a keyboard quite poorly suited to typing long bits of text (anyone who has a BlueTooth keyboard you’re willing to donate to the cause, see me after class). And I suspect this might get long. In other words, buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

A short time ago, I discovered an essay over on the Boldly Go blog called Why I’m No Longer Poly. It’s about seven or eight months old as I type this, but if you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth the read. It’s a critique of the poly community, and there’s quite a bit in it I want to respond to. (This blog post started as a comment over there but quickly overran what can reasonaly go into a comment.)

The critique as I read it breaks down into four main points:

  • Poly is a form of privilege. The time, resources, and attention necessary to find and maintain multiple romantic relationships are most available to middle and upper class people; hence, the poly community tends (unsurprisingly) to be very middle-class and very white.
  • The poly community, possibly because of point 1 above, is guilty of a great deal of appropriation. Some poly folks consider themselves ‘queer’ just based on having non-traditional relationships, which does a disservice to LGBT folks. Gay, bi, and trans* people have been murdered for who they are; to date, that hasn’t happened to anyone for being poly (at least not as far as I know; if you’ve heard of this happening, I’d love to hear about it in the comments). This appropriation is cultural, too, with some poly folk integrating a wishy-washy, Westernized, wildly inaccurate understanding of things like Tantra into the fold of polyamory.
  • The poly community shelters abusers. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the poly community has failed to create a robust culture of compassion and consent. Serial abusers operate with impunity within the organized poly community.
  • People in the poly commmunity tend to see polyamory as a superior alternatve to monogamy, and therefore (accordng to the Transitive Property of Smugness1) polyamorous people as superior to monogamous people.

The author is talking primarily about the UK poly scene, which I do have some familiarity with, though I’m more grounded in the US poly community.

I think this critique of the poly community has some important points, so I’d like to examine it more closely. Ready? Here we go!

Part 1: Poly Is Privileged

This is an easy claim to make. Look around the poly community in a lot of cities and you’ll see a whole lot of folks who are econmically and racially homogenous. The essay also makes the point:

I’m wondering if non-monogamy is seriously possible for people who are economically disenfranchised or people who blatantly don’t have the time to devote away from work, children, and other social responsibilities to give to other partners. And I wonder now, as I try and create a balance between work, blogging, writing fiction, working out, and all of the other things I have to do if, when I do decide to adopt children, I’ll have the time to devote to more romantic partners.

For a certain model of polyamory, this is true. Maintaining multiple dating-type relationships requires financial and time resources that a lot of folks don’t have. It’s also true that polyamory, as much as it may not be mainstream, is still a hell of a lot more accepted than LGB relationships or relationships with or between trans* people. I know poly folks who have lost custody of their children for being poly, but like I said, I’ve never heard of anyone being killed over it.

But these points, while they are valid, don’t tell the whole story.

One thing it’s important to remember is the poly community is not the same thing as polyamory. The poly ommunity is largely made up of racially and economically privileged folks, but it’s dangerous to infer that polyamory is mostly practiced by that demographic. I’ve met people who are polyamorous who don’t belong to or identify with the organized poly community (particularly when I was living in Florida and Georgia), and there’s quite a lot more variety in socioeconomic class than a look ’round the poly community might suggest.

Likewise, the notion that poly requires a certain level of disposable income and time is true for some models of poly, particularly the I’m-dating-a-bunch-of-people flavor of poly, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that polyamory is therefore limited to the economically privileged. I’ve known–and been involved with!–poly folks who are financially quite poorly off, and who discover in a more communal model of polyamory a way to increase their standard of living.

Indeed, many of the folks in my own poly network have a level of income that’s perilously close to, or in some cases below, the Federal poverty line. Poly people have discovered something that roommates have known for a long time: two can live almost as cheaply as one, and three can live almost as cheaply as two.

The same calculus works for time. A person who’s working two part-time jobs may not have the time to go out on several dates a week, but that’s not the only way to do poly! Both long-distance relationships and communal relationships require much less investment in free time to maintain.

Why is the organized polycommunity so homogenous? That question has a complicated answer. Even the simple version is probably outside the scope of this particular blog post. (That’s not an attempt to handwave away the question; it’s just a really, really complicated subject.) Is the organized poly community a showcase of privilege? You bet. Does that mean polyamory is only for privileged people? Well, that’s a tougher argument to make. The organized poly community does not necessarily reflect the diversity of people who practice polyamory, and identifying as polyamorous does not necessarily mean identifying as part of the poly community.

Part 2: Poly as Cultural Appropriation

This critique breaks down into a couple of broad categories: poly appropriation of the spiritual beliefs of other cultures, usually in a highly adulterated (and somewhat confused) form; and poly appropriation of LGBT identity. As to the first part, from the essay:

I get sick to death of seeing white people in polyamory communities reference a tribe or a culture outside their own, putting white names to their practices, and using them to validate their relationship style or choice. I get sick and tired of the “Ooh”ing and “Aah”ing over appropriated concepts of tantra, chakras, chi, and whatever I’ve seen white people mix together in a fruit salad of whatever cultures they want to build their ignorant burrito out of to try and make their polyamory practice more “exotic” and “sacred”. You shouldn’t have to justify your relationship choice via bigotry. When you act like your polyamory is valid because it’s made of “tiny bubbles of imperfections as proof that it was crafted by the simple, hard-working, indigenous peoples of wherever” you’re being a colonialist jerk.

This gets no disagreement from me. In fact, the urge to validate having multiple romantic partners by mashing together assorted bits of poorly-understood religious traditions from a number of different cultures and wrapping the whole thing up in a ribbon of chakra-expanding tantric sex is one of the more annoying facets of (part of) the poly community.

Does this happen? You bet. I don’t think blame for this rests on the doorstep of polyamory, though. First, most of the offenders I’ve personally seen did it before they became polyamory; they started out involved in alternative New Age spirituality and then, when they started exploring polyamory in the mid to late 90s, they brought their garbled mishmash of other cultures’ spiritual ideas with them.

At least here in the US. I can’t speak for the Tantric/New Age part of the poly community in the UK, because it’s not the bit I interacted with, which brings up a second point:

Not all of the poly community does this. In fact, the poly community is quite diverse in this regard. Most of the community I was part of in Florida, for instance, is made up of rationalists and skeptics with about as much interest in New Age tantric appropriation as they have in six-day-old potato salad.

There’s a polyamory meetup group in Portland for fundamentalist Christians. There’s a group in Vancouver that’s essentially entirely secular. The poly community is not monolithic; to accuse it of cultural appropriation is to miss big chunks that aren’t spiritual at all. Do some poly people do this? You bet. Do most? Not in my experience.

Which brings up the second kind of appropriation. Again from the essay:

I’m sick to death of “allies” telling me that they have a right to call themselves queer just because they date more than one person, especially when they have lipstick parties in middle class suburbia while queer kids are forced into homelessness, nonconsensual sex work, and death. I’ll feel more sympathy for Poly Patriarch not being able to marry all of his concubines when trans* people can get married without having to worry about going to jail for fraud.

I can definitely understand being pretty fed up with this sort of behavior. I personally am not sick to death of it, because so far I personally have not seen it. I certainly would never consider calling myself “queer” because I’m poly; as a cisgendered straight white guy, that would be profoundly nonsensical of me2.

This might be something that’s more common in the UK than the US; I don’t know. I do know that the poly communities I’ve been ppart of have had members who are gay, members who are bi, and members who are trans…all of whm have a reasonable claim to “queerness,” but no because they’re poly.

Part 3: Abusers In the Poly Community

This is the most head-scratching part of the essay to me.

Yes, the poly community has abusers. I don’t see it as a poly problem; I see it as a problem of minority sexual subcultures in general. Ironically, the essay’s author still identifies as kinky, whereas I’ve seen abuse happen a lot more in the BDSM community, as I’ve written about here (trigger warning: rape), here, and here. But saying it isn’t a “poly problem” doesn’t mean it’s not a problem in the poly community. It absolutely is.

And it pisses me off.

A couple of months ago, my partner zaiah and I hosted the first of what’s likely to be a bimonthly poly get-together, whose purpose is to create white papers–papers that an be used by other poly organizers. The very first one? Creating poly communities that are safe and do not shelter abusers. Last month, we hosted the Portland West Side Poy Discussion Group. The topic? Preventing abuse in the poly community.

When I say this is the most head-scratching part of the essay, it’s not because I believe the poly community is a beautific assemblage of saints. It’s because the claims of abuse sound a bit…strange to me. The essay contains this bit…

If I’m dating Tom and Tom is treating his boyfriend Phil like dirt, I can’t possibly tell Tom that I’ll break up with him or I can’t sit by and watch him treating Phil like dirt. Because then I’m being controlling, jealous, and manipulative. I’m stuck in a trap where I have to put up with abusive shit all for the sake of not exercising the dreaded veto. […] Until poly people stop demonising things like “veto power” and start talking and taking seriously how polyamory can work well for abusers, I have a hard time taking on the label…

…which I find a little odd. I’m not sure I get the connection between “opposing veto” and “sheltering abusers.” I am an outspoken opponent of veto3 in poly relationships, because in my experience vetoes are often used as tools of abuse. I almost always see them wielded with indifference of–even contempt for–the needs of the people against whom they are used (people who, most often, are on the short end of a significant power imbalance to begin with).

What I also tend to see in conversations aout veto is a strange sort of either/or, all-or-nothing mentality: if you don’t have veto, that means you have no say at all, and you just have to lie down and take whatever your partner does. You can’t express an opinion or an objection of any sort; to do so is the same as veto.

And don’t psychologists tell us that one of the defining characteristics of many abusers is the fact that they seek to control their partners and particularly control their partners’ interactions with others, cutting their victims off from other sources of love and support?

Frankly, I find the discussion of veto with regards to abuse bizarre. If I were dating Sally and I saw her mistreating Bob, telling Sally I’ll break up with her if her behavior doesn’t improve isn’t veto. Telling Sally “I demand that you break up with Bob”–that is veto.

I don’t do veto, nor get involveed with those who have it. Yet if I’m dating someone who is treating another partner like dirt, or who is being treated like dirt, I’m going to say so. And if someone says that’s “controlling, jealous, and manipulatiive,” that says more about that person than it does about me, I reckon.

Conflating “doesn’t do veto” with “supports abuse” seems…well, I’m not really sure what’s going on there, but in my experience if someone is being abused and won’t leave the abusive relationship if you say “hey, this is abuse,” they aren’t too likely to leave if you say “hey, veto” either.

Just sayin’.

Part 4: Smug

From the essay:

While many poly people acknowledge that “Relationship broke, add people” probably isn’t the best solution, just as many people act like polyamory is the solution for anyone’s relationship problems, or they look down on silly monogamous people who feel things like jealousy and fear (because, you know, non-monogamous people never feel that).

I’ve met this guy. Once. On a Facebook forum. He was roundly (and loudly) ridiculed.

This may be a regional thing. I totally get that there are folks who act this way, but in my expeience there aren’t “just as many” folks who say this as who say exactly the opposite. In fact, the poly groups I’ve belonged to in Florida, Georgia, and Portland, and the poly folks I’ve met in Boston and Chicago, actively frown on the notion that polyamory is more evolved, more enlightened, and/or good for what ails those poor Neanderthal mono folks.

If I were to meet a lot of people proclaiming how backward monogamy iis, I suspect it’d get right up my noose, too. So I’m willing to give this critique a pass; it’s not my experience, but different poly communities, as I mentioned in art 2 up there, have very different attitudes. Perhaps there’s a poly community over across the pond where this idea is prevalent; if so, I can certainly understand opting out of it.

Opting out of a community, though, isn’t the same thing as opting out of an identity. I’ve disassociated myself with the BDSM community, because it has a lot of behaviors and practices I find toxic. I still do BDSM. Distancing myself from others who do some of the same things I do doesn’t, at least for me, change my identity. If it did, the way I see it, I’d be letting folks I don’t like dictate my identity, and that seems an odd choice to me.

1 The Transitive Property of Smugness is what I call the propensity of some folks to talk about how doing some thing like having multiple partners) or being part of some group (like people who practice BDSM) requires skill at a particular thing, and then to assume that because they do that thing, they have that skill. For example: “It takes good communication to be polyamorous. I am polyamorous. Ergo, I have good communication skills. Yay! Go me!” There are variants of this in almost every subculture I’ve ever belonged to; its kink equivalent is “Consent is an important part of BDSM. I am part of BDSM culture. Therefore, I am awesome about consent! Woohoo!”

2 Not to mention insensitive. Rude, too. And kinda stupid.

3 Defined here as a right or agreement by which one person can tell another person “I require you to end your relationship with so-and-so” and have an expectation that the other person will break up with so-and-so. I’ve spoken to some folks who use the term “veto” to mean “I have the right to give you my opinion about whether I like so-and-so.” I don’t think that’s the most common usage of the word “veto,” and it’s not the one I use here.