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Polyamory is Not a Sexual Orientation June 26, 2012

Posted by wfenza in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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**WARNING! DISCUSSION OF SEMANTICS AHEAD!**

Yesterday, in response to my challenge, Alex wrote a post about polyamory and orientation. Shaun followed up with his own post. I disagree with both of them, as they both make use of the term “orientation” to describe polyamory.

What is Polyamory?

First, what is this polyamory thing? Polyamory is notoriously difficult to define:

Webster’s Dictionary defines polyamory as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”

Wikapedia defines polyamory as “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”

The Loving More Nonprofit website, defines polyamory as “romantic love with more than one person, honestly, ethically, and with the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.”

However, there is some agreement in the community about what polyamory is, and what polyamory isn’t. The spectrum looks something like this:

1. A couple (or more) who each engage in multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved
2. A couple who are each open and looking for multiple loving relationship (with knowledge & consent of both), but are currently only seeing each other
3. A couple who are each open to multiple loving relationships, but are not actively looking
4. A single person who intends to have only polyamorous relationships in the future
5. A couple who have no rule against multiple loving relationships, but only desire each other.
6. A couple who have sexual relationships with others, but not emotional relationships (i.e. swingers)
7. A couple, one or both of which are cheating
8. A couple who agree to be monogamous, although one or both have sexual desires outside of the relationship.

Obviously, there are a lot more types of relationships that may or may not fit into the poly framework. I’m just using these for illustrative purposes. The community mostly agrees that #1 and #2 are polyamorous, and #6, #7, and #8 are not. 3-5 are a gray area, although I favor an understanding of the term which encompasses at least #3 and #4. However, I (and the vast majority of the poly community) disfavor any definition that includes #7 or #8.

Is Polyamory a Sexual Orientation?

The term sexual orientation, on the other hand, until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted. It occasionally gets used to describe a person’s kinks or some other aspect of their sexuality, but by and large it’s used to describe the direction (i.e. orientation) of a person’s sexual desire.

There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.

Secondly, polyamory is not an orientation. Polyamory is not a physical desire or a feeling. While there is not complete agreement on what polyamory is, there is clear agreement about it isn’t. And it isn’t just an attraction to multiple people. As Shaun pointed out, if you define polyamory as a feeling or an inclination, then half of the country is polyamorous, which is an absurd result. Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time. This does not make them polyamorous.

A third problem with describing poly as a sexual orientation is that being poly is nothing like being GLB. Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted. Being polyamorous is about the amount of people you love. Describing polyamory as a sexual orientation suggests a false equivalence between the groups, and seems like an attempt to coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.

Why Does it Matter?

In short, because words matter. The term “polyamory” is important. It’s the only word we have to identify ourselves. Despite it’s less than clear definition, people generally know what I mean when I say it, in a way that they wouldn’t if I described myself as “nonmonogamous” or “open.” Polyamory is the best word we have to describe our “lovestyle,” as Alex put it. If we allow it to mean something else, we risk losing one of our best rhetorical tools, and making it even more difficult to explain to people what this whole thing is all about.

What do you think? Is polyamory a sexual orientation? Does it matter?

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Comments»

1. Ash - June 26, 2012

After reading the last few posts, I think it would be really difficult to pinpoint one specific definition for polyamory. The most obvious way to ‘define’ it would be to literally break down the word itself, and you’ve said the same in that wording matters.

I could see the possibility of labeling polyamory as an orientation for the purpose of making it more socially acceptable; however, I don’t think that that’s the angle anyone here is going for (although I know there is a desire for polyamory to be more socially acceptable!) Whether for religious reasons or social mores, one man and one woman is the ‘popular’ setup for relationships.

What’s got me thinking now, though, is when exactly did relationships become defined as “one man and one woman, mutually exclusive to one another”?

2. shaunphilly - June 27, 2012

Perhaps you read my post wrong, because I can’t see where we disagree (you said you disagreed with my post, but your points didn’t seem to contradict my post. Perhaps there was some minor points where we disagree…).

I agree with your analysis. But remember, I was making a distinction between the orientation towards being honest with what desires we do have and deciding to pursue multiple relationships as a result of that introspective truth.

Thus, I don’t think polyamory, per se, is an orientation, although I think that the desire (both sexual and emotional) for multiple relationships is probably universal. Thus I think most people probably would want to be polyamorous if they were properly honest with themselves and willing to do the relevant work.

3. wfenza - June 27, 2012

@Ash –

I could see the possibility of labeling polyamory as an orientation for the purpose of making it more socially acceptable

I suspect that is most people’s motivation for labeling poly a sexual orientation. I strenuously resist that, as I don’t think bullshitting people is the best way to obtain acceptance (and even if it was, I wouldn’t want to).

@Shaun – our disagreement is semantic. You used the word “orientation” often, which is one that I specifically avoid when discussing poly.

4. Hey You Guys! I Have an Opinion about Orientation Too!!! « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - June 27, 2012

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6. wfenza - June 27, 2012

FYI – there’s a big discussion happening on Fetlife:

https://fetlife.com/groups/107/group_posts/2660157

7. Some further thoughts on the distinction between orientation and polyamory. « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - June 27, 2012

[…] tends to get a number of comments there (I wish they would just comment here, but alas…), and his last post is no […]

8. Ash - June 27, 2012

“I suspect that is most people’s motivation for labeling poly a sexual orientation. I strenuously resist that, as I don’t think bullshitting people is the best way to obtain acceptance (and even if it was, I wouldn’t want to).”

Very good point!

9. Jackson Warlock - July 7, 2012

While I see the value in what you are writing here and do not disagree, I do take issue with the following statement:

“There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.”

Homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality are also about relationships, honesty, and intimacy and not just about sex.

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14. Uplift - November 26, 2012

@9++. The statement “polyamory is not sexual” just seems wicked overbroad. If there were no sexual component, at all – including sexual potential – then we wouldn’t be talking about greater societal acceptance, or at least not in the same way. People freak out about polyamory exactly because it *is* sexual – even if not *exclusively* sexual. The sexual component is incredibly critical to the fact that polyamory is *not* well-accepted in society.

15. Uplift - November 26, 2012

Sorry! Meant to add: Or at least that’s my take. What’s yours?

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19. Saul of Hearts (@saulofhearts) - December 13, 2013

I’m poly, and I completely view it as an orientation. Not a sexual orientation, but a sliding scale on the monogamy spectrum. My inclinations toward polyamory didn’t arise after I learned what it was all about or met people who introduced me to the lifestyle. I’ve always gravitated toward books, movies, songs, that took an unconventional view on relationships, and once I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, all those previous feelings finally clicked.

As for the notion of being “attracted to multiple people at the same time,” I think it’s more complex than that. Sure, half the country can be attracted to two separate individuals at the same time — but could they be attracted, without jealousy, to a polyamorous couple? Or be open to their lover dating someone else?

I think some people are more inclined to jealousy in these kinds of situations, and would prefer a monogamous lifestyle, and others are “oriented” toward open relationships and compersion.


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