Loving More Nonprofit

“Polyamory”: What’s IN and What’s OUT?

Cover Loving More Magazine 2005

The meaning of the word "polyamory" has been debated since the moment of--or perhaps before!--its entry into the standard English-speaking lexicon in the early 1990's: Polyamory vs. Swinging; Polyamory vs. Cheating; is Don't Ask/Don't Tell Polyamory or not? All of these have been discussed nearly innumerable times on lists across the US and in some cases internationally. As a relatively new movement,  gaining more and more exposure through  broadcast media, news casting, and the internet, the debate has only been increasing in intensity, as "we"--whoever we are--struggle to understand ourselves, to help others to understand us, and to create a culture to support this new/old relationship paradigm.

Last month on one of the lists I participate in, quite a few poly organizers and leaders had a particularly "spirited" debate on this topic. In amongst a torrent of words from a lot of thoughtful people, I wrote something I thought might be helpful to share.

One thing I've noticed is that whenever you define something, it creates a space where something is IN, and other things are OUT. A lot of folks seem uncomfortable with this necessity, preferring as inclusive an umbrella as possible; the  "Big Tent" of non-monogamous relationships, if you will. However, it isn't possible to have a definition that includes everything; that's useless. The important point in my opinion is where we focus our attention. As others have said, we want to create our definitions and spaces through defining what we are, not what we are not. We can let other people decide whether they fit the definition we're promoting, at the same time we continue to repeat our message of what we are.

I was particularly appreciative of Matthew Bobbu's post in that thread [on the PLN list, Nov. 10, 2011], and I'd like to repeat a bit of it here:

"I define polyamory as 'the belief in and/or practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of those involved.' I don't define the sort of relationship anyone has to have, how they have to structure their relationships, what kind of sex they can have, or what sort of love need be involved. For me, to do otherwise will strengthen the cause of a vocal minority at the expense of the quieter majority, who may not even realize that we're fighting for their freedoms too.

Much as Martin Luther King didn't fight for black rights, he fought for racial equality; I don't fight for poly rights, I fight for the freedom to participate in any consensual relationship one might wish to – with the exclusion of none."

Thanks, Matthew. *Raises glass.*

That's the definition of polyamory I use as well. The key points are:

•             Multiple

•             Loving

•             Relationships (of the romantic adult human variety)

•             Full knowledge (aka open/honest)

•             Consent of all

If it isn't those things, it isn't polyamory. If it is those things, it is. Swinging can be polyamory, therefore, but cheating cannot. One night stands could be polyamory if they meet all of those criteria. So can long term committed polyfidelitous triads, or newly established tribes. True lifelong monogamy is not polyamory, because it fails on "multiple." Serial monogamy might be, depending on the other factors. Gay non-monogamy arrangements could be polyamorous, but anonymous bathhouse sex in particular isn't (not a "relationship.") A sexless marriage that includes other partners could still be polyamory, even if no one ever has sex. Tiger Woods' outside relationships weren't polyamorous, because his wife didn't consent. To take an extreme example, gang rape is not polyamory even though it involves multiple people, because it isn't loving OR consensual. And in my opinion, both the common "slippery slope" argument of bestiality and the specter of child abuse can easily be eliminated as potentially "polyamorous" because neither animals nor children are able to consent. However, if beating more than one person with a flogger is everyone's idea of loving, and everyone consents, then that can be polyamory, too. Intimate networks and open marriages can definitely be called polyamorous, if that's what the people involved want to call their relationships.  

This definition doesn't talk about sex. It doesn't not talk about it either. It just focuses our conversation on the salient points, in my opinion. We don't need to say what polyamory isn't. We just need to say what it is.  

Polyamory = poly (derived from the Greek for 'many') + amory (derived from the Latin for 'love')  

In other words, Polyamory is the belief in and/or practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of those involved.  

Proud to be polyamorous, ~♥ Dawn


  1. Interesting and agreed, mostly, since I question (from my own pov) the integrity of a loving relationship when it is under certain restraints. For example, veto power, no emotional attachments but only sex etc. I realise that my viewpoint is coloured by my anti-hierarchical beliefs and not everyone will agree but I still find it hard to reconcile ‘Loving’ whilst imposing limits.

  2. A footnote off of the “Key Point” of “Relationships”:


    † Further discussion on the PLN list involved the question of how to distinguish familial relationships from polyamory. After all, they’re certainly (or they should be!) “loving” relationships amongst multiple people. No one asks the older brother to break up with his sister when a third child comes along, nor do parents need to end their relationship with their first-born to accommodate her brother. So why wouldn’t these “count” as polyamorous? The general assumption of most polyamorous people seems to be that we’re talking about adult romantic/sexual relationships, not, for instance, your familial relationship with your children or your grandparents, nor your platonic relationship between you and your aunt, or you and your cousins. “Kissing cousins” could be involved in a polyamorous relationship, though, if there were three or more of them! They wouldn’t be polyamorous just because they’re cousins; it would take more than a platonic peck to move the relationship over into potentially polyamorous territory.

  3. Thank you.

    I wrote a reply before but it must have been lost so anyway, I just wanted to say I have been debating on my blog the use of defining Polyamory and whether limits in Polyamory restrict our ability to love!

    Thank you again for posting, you have given me a lot to think about.

  4. Natja: Looks like both your comments eventually came through… and eventually I even saw them! sorry for the delay!

    I understand your trepidation about “imposing certain restraints” and the effect that can have on love. For me, the issue of “consent” is key. I’ve been writing about Agreements in my blog (though I’ve been on hiatus on that topic for a few months), and one of the key points is that for it to be an Agreement, both partners need to AGREE. I find that people who want to make “rules” that are inflexible, and impose them (rather than collaboratively agree upon them), tend to create an atmosphere of distrust, which as you have alluded to, is pretty antithetical to love.

    Agreements don’t have to be rigid rules however; they CAN be a co-created structure for success, so long as both parties freely consent. We do this all the time in “the outside world,” for instance when we agree to show up to work every weekday at 9, and our employer agrees to pay us every 2 weeks. Agreements between lovers can be similar, in that they can help to codify roles, responses to repeated situations, and help ensure that both parties are using the same definitions. As long as they remain “at will,” are freely entered-into, and can be renegotiated (at some interval agreed upon by the “signatories”) then they can be used to build a sense of safety that will help *foster* love.

    How does that compare with your conversation in your blog? (http://natjasnatterings.blogspot.com/2012/01/is-this-monogamish-thing-polyamory.html) Does that resonate with what you and others discussed there?

    Best wishes! ~Dawn

  5. I don’t know Dawn, you know, on one hand I am a realist, we all live in a dyadic supporting environment and most people can count themselves as pretty lucky if they even find one person who they feel they want to spend the rest of their lives with and so, why not follow the current framework?
    As an unmarried person I am pretty sensitive to this as I am very personally aware of the ‘otherness’ that can arise from being outside this cultural framework and cannot help but think that the framework does hinder the full and complete giving of love if one is always aware of protecting the dyad.
    I do have strong opinions and know how I want ‘my’ polyamory to be practised and it is not for everyone but I personally would like to see an end to Polyamory with self and outside imposed hierarchies like wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/primary/secondary.

  6. Natja: OK, I think what you are saying is that you are a believer in NO hierarchies, even those chosen by the participants? You’d prefer to see an end to polyamory of the sort that includes hierarchies, whether imposed by others, or even if self-imposed. Is that a correct restatement?

    I originally come from a dyadic model (since I am married and now separated). but now I’m more like a “poly single” in some ways. My “primary partnership” is with myself now. I am the final arbiter of what sorts of agreements I’ll make, and with whom.

    I know what you mean about “protecting the dyad” — that’s a common way for people to do ‘couple-centric” non-monogamy, and I definitely practiced that in the past. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m discussing that keeping one’s agreements — to self, to partner/s, to friends, family, work, etc.. — is supportive of relationships of all sorts. Being careful with one’s word is important, even if the agreements aren’t written or codified.

    To bring it back to this particular post here, I strongly believe that ALL sorts of polyamory (and ethical non-monogamy) should be allowed to exist and be practiced without persecution, so long as people are in agreement with each other about the basis for their relationships, and are being honest and ethical in how they conduct those relationships. Whether or not you and I would want to be in relationship with each other doesn’t affect whether I think we should both get to practice our respective relationships hassle-free. 🙂

  7. Yes Dawn, I don’t like the barriers of couple-centric forms of Poly and personally do not want to conduct my relationships like that, but I believe all forms of Poly should be respected as long as everyone is on the same page and in agreement.

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