I’m Poly ‘Cos I’m Better
This is an addendum to my old article entitled “I’m Better ‘Cos I’m Poly”. I don’t entirely want to retract my previous statements because I do feel that being in an non-mainstream culture still creates defensiveness when trying to explain it to outsiders. But, I would like to announce that I have found the smugness, and forthwith apologise to people who I doubted in the past who had a lot of criticisms of the poly community. I often found myself wondering (as I continued going to poly events and getting involved in the community) why it seemed to be dominated by certain types of people, and while I explored the difficulties of jealousy and the shame around it in our community, I’ve begun to see the smug.
I feel it’s important to address this. Not because I enjoy being a naysayer, but I can see why the community alienates people. The smugness comes in two forms – a lack of acknowledgement of intersectional issues, and unchecked blatant privilege.
I have experienced a lack of acknowledgement of intersectional issues, both online in polyamorous groups and at polyamorous events. I have been repeatedly chastised for bringing gender or sexism into any discussion; and I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of “playing the gender card” when expressing frustration with the constant hetero-normative assumptions about the way people may or may not experience jealousy or possessiveness based on gendered stereotypes. People who say they’re polyamorous and critical of the assumption that we’re biologically suited to monogamy do not seem to bat an eyelash at gender stereotypes, and are more than willing to glue themselves to biological imperatives of the way “males” and “females” behave.
I find myself (and I’m not exaggerating) constantly having to remind fellow poly people that not only do intersex and gender variant people exist, but sometimes even that bisexual individuals exist. And when I bring up how sexism probably impacts the way people interact with others; the way people find partners; how comfortable, for example, those who identify as female may feel in situations where being poly means they are sexually available, I’m told that I’m pissing in everyone’s Cheerios or being too negative.
At one poly event, when a friend of mine brought up the struggles of women & gender variant individuals, and how – as poly activists, we need to mention and address these issues, she was condescended to by a fellow “poly activist” who told her that those people need to fight their own battles while we need to focus on poly struggles and poly issues.
Yet, almost ironically you find individuals within poly who are not queer identified, or who have no little to no personal lived experience of heterosexism or cissexism, who feel as though poly should be included within the LGBTQ (or QUILTBAG) acronym. In all of the arguments where people have volunteered to add a “P” to the alphabet soup, absolutely none of them have been in any way queer. Most of them have been white heterosexual cis men steeped in economic and educational privilege. And when I voice my concerns as a queer person, that adding “P” to an acronym built on backs and blood of beaten, raped, tortured, and slain individuals is insulting when, while polyamory is misunderstood, it has yet to be a death sentence – I’m told by individuals who have no concept of being queer that I’m being divisive and discriminatory. What sort of welcoming do queer people find in a community that tells them to keep their issues to themselves, unless of course heterosexuals want to co-opt their struggle?
This unchecked lack of intersectionality extends to class and race. To put it bluntly, being polyamorous may cause one to endure all manner of ignorant comments and may even threaten the custody or family lives of a few, but practicing polyamory is overwhelmingly a privilege. Loving more than one person is a capability I believe all human beings have. But having the time, energy, and resources for more than one relationship is, without doubt, a privilege. I see a lot of poly people online and offline wax poetic about polyamory being the next stage of human evolution, degrade and devalue monogamous people for their silly triflings; all the while ignoring that a working single mother barely has enough time for herself, let alone dating.
These discussions about how advanced polyamory is and how much better we are at relationships and life come off to me as incredibly ignorant of the realities many face. There’s a difference between being happy in and of ourselves for what we have, and being arrogant and ignorant. I have the economic privilege and free time to date more than one person, but I haven’t always had that. And people who have to spend most of their time working to keep their head economically above the water may have little time for conventions and long discussions about compersion. Love is infinite. Time is not.
I cannot specifically comment on race relations within the UK and, as a white person, my commentary on race relations in general is very limited. I do not pretend to speak for poly people of colour. Instead, I ask why I have seen so few poly people of colour at events or in online communities? I’m hazarding a guess that economic privilege has a play in it in certain instances. But I also feel like the exoticising and simplifying of cultures which have some sort of polyamorous practice also has something to do with it.
There’s a lot of oohing and aahing, and assimilation of the practices of “others”. I think it’s great to try to find examples of poly outside of the West. But there’s a line between appreciation and exoticification. And just as poly practices in the West aren’t as simple as they seem, one should not assume poly practices anywhere else are equally as simple. I’m not one to tell anyone what their spiritual path is, but I urge people to consider, before adopting something from another country or a completely different mind-set, ask yourself what you’re doing and why.
I’ve previously written about jealousy, the ways in which mental illness causes difficulty in my relationships, and how I’ve found very few people within poly circles who are willing to acknowledge jealousy as a constant issue. Discussions that centre around shaming jealousy, or the assumption that security is a realistic goal for all, or that you need it in order to be “good at poly,” create an environment that encourages people with mental illness (and people without) to not only misjudge red flags and pangs they experience as jealousy but also encourage them to ignore those feelings for fear of being the “green eyed monster”. There’s little to no discussion around these assumptions unless it’s pointed out that insecurity could stem from mental illness, and no advice or acknowledgement on how exactly folks with mental illnesses are supposed to navigate poly situations.
My physical disabilities don’t usually interrupt my daily life, but I wonder about individuals whose physical abilities do create obstacles when navigating through a world that rarely accommodates. Is the poly community inclusive of those people, and I mean in more ways than just making our events wheelchair accessible? Do people take for granted the ease at which they can physically visit or see partners, go on dates, do certain activities? Or, when giving advice for how to deal with poly situations, do we take into consideration certain physical and mental disabilities that directly affect communication?
If you’re incapable, for example (and for whatever reason), of certain types of physical intimacy, and you feel insecure next to partners who have that capability, would that impact how you navigate poly situations? How exactly, given the typical advice poly people are given about insecurity, are you supposed to feel “more secure”? Again, I can’t entirely speak on these issues, but I want to ask if we even think about this when we’re talking about polyamory.
Is this lack of intersectional acknowledgement a result of unchecked blatant privilege? I see people who refuse to acknowledge that practicing polyamory is a privilege; who refuse to allow other people to voice their concerns unless they want to co-opt queer identities and struggles to do the hard work for them; I see a community lacking in individuals of colour; and I see individuals who bring up problems being judged and told they’re hurting the cause of poly, being martyrs, or playing whatever “card” they have. Would there be more diversity in our community if this wasn’t the case?
Also, when we co-opt phrases to describe things within our community that are problematic, we further deny our own privilege. I’m speaking specifically here on the use of “couples privilege” to describe a lack of consideration a poly couple may have for a secondary partner. Privilege within a social justice context and within the world is understood as an unearned advantage, often within systems of oppression, which grants power of all types. Using that word within the context of a couple of individuals wherein there is not an unearned privilege but either a lack of consideration or a preference is incredibly off-putting and insulting. Couples existing as couples do not have an unearned privilege akin to whiteness, heterosexuality, and any other social identity or concept with which the application of the term “privilege” is far more appropriate.
I’m open to explanations or interpretations of the concept of couple privilege, but being in a couple is not the same as me being white, especially when I consider practicing polyamory in and of itself to be a privilege. It makes me wonder if using this term to describe this – while it articulates something perfectly valid, isn’t a sign that individuals either don’t understand the concept of privilege within systems of power, or believe it can be applied to any situation wherein one individual has power over others — which is not the case.
So, I have found the smug poly people. But it’s more than smugness. To me, smugness implies at the very least that there is something to be proud of, and you’re going the extra mile beyond being proud to being boastfully arrogant. This isn’t boastful arrogance, this is unchecked ignorance – and that is nothing, as a community, to be proud of. I see this problem in many communities, and I’m hoping that this is something that will change.
I do understand and empathise with defensiveness: It’s just as tiring for me to explain to people that yes, my partner knows I date other people, as it is to explain to people that I didn’t actually get my tattoos because I wanted to be touched without my consent. But like I have the economic privilege, time, and energy to afford to get tattoos, I also have the privilege of time to engage in multiple relationships. I sincerely hope more people acknowledge these issues within poly groups and poly events, and stop forcing out discussions of intersectionality.