Why do the media so often miss the mark when they write articles or do a feature on polyamory? Why do so many approach the subject with a ready-made idea of what they are looking for? Sometimes I really have to ask; why is polyamory seemingly so evasive as a subject for so many?
Many times when Loving More is approached about people to interview for an upcoming article or casting for a TV show the reporter or producer is looking for their own idea or picture. TV is often the worst. They will be looking for folks in their 20s or 30s, attractive, all living together and raising kids or looking for sensational sexy hip adults all getting it on. Should we expect any different given that TV is all about sex, sensation and whatever drama makes ratings.
With newspapers and other publications it can be a bit better, but still they come with similar preconceived ideas. Often when they do decide to go in depth they can misunderstand and/or misrepresent what they see and hear.
The recent article in the Atlantic is a good example. It has stirred a bit of backlash and criticism, which is fairly typical of the response to articles that attempt to show polyamory in a positive or somewhat positive light. The Atlantic article was called out for its focus on heterosexual polyamory and making polyamory sound like Mormon polygamy because of the focus on men with multiple partners and the age difference between Michael, Sarah and Jonica. Anyone in the community who know this triad knows their relationship is not anything like the misogynist polygamy. These are strong, powerful people who practice a relationship style rooted in personal freedom.
Critical people within the community do not understand that those being interviewed have no control over how they are represented or the understanding of the reporter writing the articles. So often these articles present pictures of sexual liaisons, couples seeking sexual variety built around a strong centric couple or women and men being coerced as unwilling participants putting up with a partner’s need to stray. There is absolutely some of this going on in polyamorous relationships, but it is not as common as many articles hint at.
What many reporters or TV producers are seeking is something new and exciting to grab the attention of the public. Something titillating and morally questionable that fits with their preconceived notions of polyamory. Much of the early coverage of gay and lesbian relationships suffered from the same issues and preconceived ideas. We as a culture have since learned that most gay men are not effeminate hairdressers or decorators and very few lesbians are butch dykes working in the meat packing district. Our views have evolved as people have been willing to go on record and correct misconceptions and portrayals done over the years. But all this took time and a lot of being misconstrued.
Polyamory is no doubt facing this same trial. Polyamory is controversial and challenges many people on a core level. Polyamorists are often not easily classified as heterosexual or homosexual. Yes, many polyamorists do identify one way or another, but in a mono-centric culture where a majority are seen as heterosexual it can be hard to understand the nuances in polyamorous connections.
With a same sex couple we now tend to think they are just like any other couple and the average person can relate, even when their assumptions may be way off base. Polyamory can be very different. Many people who are in polyamorous relationships experience sex, love and relationships in ways that it can be hard for others to relate to. A self-identified heterosexual, polyamorous man may well share a bed with his female partner and her other male partner. For many people this is hard to fathom. In another case a lesbian woman may share an intimate emotional relationship with her lover’s husband. The media struggles to wrap their head around this and often consciously choose to focus on a heterosexual couple rather than the blended triad of a husband, wife and the husband’s boyfriend. The media wants to keep it simple.
Another tendency of the media is to present polyamory as a couple-centered relationship with lovers or liaisons on the side that are secondary to the couple-centered relationship and/or to “spice-up” their relationship. They imply polyamory is, or even say it is, another form of swinging and emphasize the sex. Interestingly, I have never heard polyamory presented as a person who enjoys loving connections to many people but wanted to add a committed relationship or two on the side for some stability and support. This could be just as valid a statement and in many cases is more descriptive of some polyamorous relationships. Often, when couple-centered polyamory is presented, the reporter or show is leaving out the richness of loving more than one and why so many people are drawn to explore polyamory as a possibility.
The media in many ways has it tough. Polyamory is diverse in the possibilities of how relationships can look and be. If I am polyamorous, I can explore same or opposite sex attractions without jeopardizing existing relationships. I can see if BDSM works for me, even if my partner isn’t interested. Exploring sacred sex can become possible with one partner while another would never have interest in anything spiritual. I can explore many ways to love and relate and find what works for me. Loving relationships don’t have to end because career or other matters move us apart; we can both connect to others and keep our love for each other alive. One polyamory relationship may blur the lines exploring as a triad or quad with everyone involved romantically or sexually in a custom made bed for four, while another couple is strictly interchanging partners one at a time in separate homes. Some people will all hang out together in a big network of lovers and friends, while others date separately and have minimal contact with each other’s partners. Given the diversity of men, women, trans, gay, straight, pansexual, polyamorous, polyfidelitous, singles, couples, triads, networks, etc. it is not surprising the media interprets through their own filter and tries to simplify.
At times I wish I could convey to the media the richness and joy of polyamory, at least the way I experience it. Polyamory has allowed me to commit to those I love in a real way. As I contemplated marriage in my twenties, the thought that screamed in my head was, “how do I not ever love, touch, or connect to another person sexually or romantically for the rest of my life? How do I shut off those feelings I have for people I still love? How do I not be with someone I feel drawn to? Why does loving this person mean I have to deny all other lovers, feelings or connections I might discover?” It didn’t really make sense to me. Polyamory means I can commit to people I love in ways that work for all of us. Do we want children, to share a home, to build a business or simply to be a lifelong support in each other’s lives? Polyamory allows me a loving stable relationship with multiple people and the opportunity to discover and experience new love and connections should someone special enter my life. We all have a say, we all talk and negotiate. We talk about love, sex, kids and paying the bills. In many ways our lives are not so different from the many monogamous people in our culture and yet it is vastly different.
Now, many years later, I share my love and connections with an ever expanding network of friends, family and lovers. I live with my legal husband on a farm with dogs, cats, chickens, sheep, my horse and my amazing kids. I have a partner who lives in New York with his life partner who I think the world of and consider family. I have another partner that, due to geography, I only see on Skype these days. My desires are fulfilled in many ways; at times it is in the passionate moments with a lover, in other times it is cuddling on the couch with twenty or so good friends and family watching a great movie and the sweetest moments can be waking up between two people I love deeply and feeling their bodies pressed against mine. The love I feel for each person in my life may be different, but the deepness of our connection and intimacy is boundless. I feel a part of each and every one of them; even the many loves both male and female that have gone away. The love I feel for people, whether long term ore short, becomes a part of the fabric of my psyche and who I am.
Being polyamorous means I experience life to its fullest now and tomorrow. I can open my heart, experiment, play, enjoy pleasure, support people I care for, raise kids in a loving home, have support of extended community and be surprised when someone I never met before sends me into a frenzy of twitterpation. It is exhilarating, challenging and full of promise for the future. Yes, polyamory takes work, honesty, respect and communication. It requires personal responsibility, integrity and self-empowerment. At times polyamory can even be lonely.
I imagine many media people have the best of intentions, but understanding polyamory is as challenging as understanding and defining love. Polyamorous relationships are like any other. We have our ups and downs, drama, struggles, bills, kids, exes and grief. Like all relationships, some will be short, some will be painful, some magical and some will last a lifetime. Do we have more sex than the average person? Yes, but it is not quite the salacious free-for-all the media and others imagine and for most poly people not even the reason they are polyamorous.
In the quiet of my house and the day-to-day of my life, I often wonder what the media would think if they followed me around for a month. Most of my days are made up of time alone working, driving kids to activities, cleaning house, cooking dinner, playing with the dogs, taking care of the farm and running or attending various poly events. Nothing too exciting or different from anyone else. Then there are the weeks I am running a conference or event and surrounded by lovers and friends. When my family and I are in “conference mode,” as we call it, my life is flurry of activity; packing, planning and traveling. In these moments I get to really experience being with my lovers/partners in polyamorous bliss. I get to see and spend time with my long distance love in between workshops and parties. Usually I stay a day or two after, both to wrap up the event and to get some quality time with my sweeties. But my kids are a priority, as is Loving More, so often I am I simply don’t have time to go out on dates all the time the way many people imagine polyamorists do.
For me, I am polyamorous because I fell in love again and again. Falling in love with one, two or three people is just part of who I am. Polyamory is not about spicing up my relationship, having sex on the side or to overcome boredom in my relationship, as is often implied in many media stories. Polyamory, for me, is being able to commit to love and connection with special people while remaining open to new possibilities that might spark my interest. It allows me to be true to my loves and to myself and define the relationships with each of them in a way that works for all the wonderful people that may be involved. I do like the sexual variety and the ever changing landscape of relationship dynamics that keep us all engaged in life, but for me it is the love I feel for people that drives my polyamorous nature, and that I won’t compromise.
I do dream of sharing a home with multiple loving adults as a family, but right now that is not my reality. I know many polyamorists who share that dream, I know some who are living that dream, I know many who are part of a strong couple wanting variety and I know many who are avidly single and never want to live with anyone. Most are defining and navigating love and relationships in a way that fits who they are. The many faces of polyamory are hard even for many polyamorists to grasp because it is different for everyone. I think it will take a while for the media to really get this as well.
At the heart of it all though, most polyamorists are people who just don’t fit into the mono-centric, hetero-normative culture they were given and are striving to make something different work. They are straight and gay, male and female, trans and bi and everything in between. Most live very normal lives with normal struggles and in truth it is not very sensational. It is however extraordinary to openly love and be in love with people who know and care for each other deeply and are elated we all have each other. In the quiet of my home, with the dogs at my feet, I feel the joy and expanding of my heart as I realize how lucky I am to have a life with no limits on love. It really doesn’t matter that the media and many in the world just don’t get it because I do, and many more people get it each day.
Robyn is the Executive Director of Loving More Non-Profit, a national leader for polyamory awareness, polyamory counselor, workshop facilitator and writer. Since 2004 Robyn has worked to expand media awareness of polyamory appearing in numerous articles, radio shows and TV. Robyn and Loving More were instrumental in the formation of Polyamory Leadership Network. A national speaker and advocate for polyamory she has been a speaker at conferences, taught at universities and been a featured keynote speaker. Robyn has been openly polyamorous for 23 years, raising three children in a polyamorous family. Robyn has been running polyamory support groups, teaching and facilitating relationship and sexuality workshop since 1999. In addition she counsels polyamorous individuals and families. Currently Robyn is working on two polyamory related books.