The idea that you can be romantically, sexually and/or emotionally involved with more than one person at the same time is a radical concept in a society that, generally speaking, practices monogamy almost exclusively. That radical notion, however, is the basis of polyamory – a way of being intimate and connected without being exclusive.
Polyamory is a consensual relationship style in which people establish emotionally and/or sexually intimate relationships with multiple others at the same time. The partner(s) all know about each other and are often friends or chosen family members (although sometimes they do not like each other which can cause problems). While occasionally it translates as group sex, most often poly people interact sexually in pairs.
Polyamorous relationships should not be mistaken for cheating or swinging or polygamy. There is no deception involved in pursuing polyamory. Relationships are openly conducted and negotiated so that each relationship has its own rules, values, and ethics that structure interactions. Both males and females have negotiated access to additional partners outside of the traditionally committed couple. Intimacy and affection are important components of polyamorous relationships. It is not just about one-time sex.
The language of Polyamory
People who have polyamorous relationships are called polyamorists, and they use the term poly as a noun (a person who is “poly” engages in polyamorous relationships), an adjective (to describe something that has polyamorous qualities), and an umbrella term that includes polyfidelity, or relationships based in sexual and emotional fidelity among a group larger than a dyad.
People manage poly relationships by being honest and communicating extensively about feelings and boundaries. Polys try to deal with jealousy directly by talking about it and using safer sex protocols to help everyone feel secure. Some poly people feel that the relationship style is a choice and others see it as a sexual orientation that is “hard-wired” into their essential being. Both types of poly are united in their ability to love more than one person at a time, which they explain by relating it to parents’ ability to love multiple children simultaneously.
Some poly people have a primary partner(s) or spouse-like person with whom they usually share housing and money. Some may have children and some may legally marry. Secondary partner(s) are like dates – they do not usually share housing or finances. Tertiary partner(s) are often involved in long-distance, new, or casual relationships. Other polys reject the hierarchy of tiered importance and, instead, characterize their relationships as nesting in which they live together or non-nesting in which they live separately.
Poly singles generally prefer secondary relationships that are emotionally and often sexually intimate and avoid primary partner(s) and partnerships. The most common form of poly relationship is the open couple that might appear to casual observers as if they are monogamous except that they date other people individually or, more rarely, as a unit.
Triads and vees describe relationships with three people. In triadic relationships, all three people establish an emotional and/or sexual connection with each other. Vee relationships have sexual and emotional connections between one person (A) and two other people (B and C) independently, and the two others know about each other and may even hang out, but do not have sexual or intimate emotional relationships with each other (A+B, A+C but no B and C together). Quads describe a relationship among four people, sometimes all of them romantically connected, but more often only some members with sexual connections and others with platonic (polyaffective) connections. Moresomes relate to five or more people in a relationship.
In most groups, some members have sex with each other but others do not. People in platonic relationships who share connections to the same lover or poly family can establish enduring emotional relationships that can be referred to as polyaffective. Even though the sexual aspect of polyamorous relationships gets the most media attention, my research found that the polyaffective relationships are what keep polyamorous families together in the long-term.
Who is polyamorous?
The majority of the people who identify as polyamorous live in Australia, Canada, the US, and Western Europe. I did my research in the US and found similar things to research done in the UK and Australia. Almost all of the poly persons who have participated in my own (and others’) research on polyamory are white, middle or upper middle class, or highly educated. Those who identify as women in poly communities tend to be either bisexual or heterosexual, and the majority who identify as men are heterosexual with a few bisexuals. Polys are often personally and politically liberal, with either no religious affiliation or they practice a non-mainstream religion such as Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism.
Some poly people are legally married and others span a wide range of types, levels, and styles of commitment from none at all to quite deep. Usually, these commitments do not include sexual exclusivity, though people in polyfidelitous relationships often agree to sexual exclusivity among a group larger than two. One of the ways people show commitment in poly relationships is through fluid bonding in which they decide to stop using latex barriers during sex and share body fluids. Usually, poly people only fluid bond when they are serious about each other and share results from recent tests for sexually transmitted infections. While many poly folks live together, usually in groups of two to five, others live alone or with roommates.
Many polyamorists have children, sometimes from previous monogamous relationships, and others when children are born into polyamorous families. These children are often self-confident, articulate, and thriving – in part due to their parents’ privileges that come with being white middle class people, and in part because they get copious attention from well-educated adults who pool their time and money to care for the children.
Polyamory is not for everyone. It is an intense relationship style that necessitates a profound belief in the ideals of freedom, intimacy, connection and a devotion to enacting those principles responsibly. Many people might prefer the exclusivity of monogamy to the web of interactions that mark polyamory. Fortunately, individuals are granted the right to make that decision for themselves.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.