So, yesterday I went to New York to do some upstart talk show by a former Catholic (and present Episcopalian) priest called Father Albert. While we were prepping to go into the studio, the production staff, after asking many questions, interviewing us, and making a video introduction for the show, coached us to not use the word “polyamory” while on camera or in studio. They wanted us to use the more commonly accepted term of “open relationship.”
Now, I understand their reasons. For one, they had a guest who was formerly the 6th wife of a FLDS polygamist (who ended up having 10 wives), and people don’t understand (nor would they likely hear) a difference between the words polyamory and polygamy. If we are being strictly technical, polygamy can be a sub-set of polyamory, except in most polygamist situations their is little to no love going around. To distinguish between what Ginny and I are doing and what that women experienced in the environment of a talk show would be a herculean task. The more general reason is that the term simply is not known widely enough to not be distracting from talking about what are relationship is like.
This is somewhat frustrating from the point of view of someone who is trying to educate people about responsible non-monogamy. I agreed to not use the term because I realized that my time on the show would be short, and that I would likely be facing some hostility to the nature of my relationship with Ginny from an audience that is more likely to be conservative in their views about sex and relationships. And that turned out to be a safe assumption, as they were pretty unfriendly to us in general. I was glad to see one woman stand up and support us, even if she was likely the minority opinion there.
Father Albert himself, the host, was not supportive of us either. He just didn’t get it, he said. He talked about counseling couples towards a strong monogamous marriage, and that adding people to our relationship is only dangerous in terms of STDs (which is a real issue) and ultimately destructive to any real intimacy. My retort was that we have rules of safety about safe sex, our intimacy is enhanced by true openness and honesty about everything, and also that fact that our relationship is constructive; “what can be more constructive than adding value and quality to our lives” (or something very similar to that).
Had we more time, I would have liked to make distinctions between polygamy of the kind that one of the other guests experienced and the polyamory–the loving, open, and honest relationship–that Ginny and I have. The other people I have in my life that I am interested in pursuing some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship (they are few, and I think they know who they are), are not being told that this is some divine command, they are not 15 years old, and I am not their superior. We are equals; adults deciding to pursue relationships which mean something to us.
The bottom line, I think, is that our culture understands what monogamy is. Even if it is serial monogamy, the idea is simple, feels comfortable, and is usually assumed by most of Americans. Our culture is becoming more familiar with what polygamy is (at least in terms of the FLDS churches). And even when they have a more positive model, say like in the show Big Love (which I have seen and like, to some extent), there are still problems such as the fact that it is always men with multiple women, and never the other way around. Even when you have a Bill Henrickson who genuinely cares for his wives (Big Love), none of them are allowed other lovers. This is an inequality borne of religious patriarchal thinking, not of genuine open-mindedness and desire to add love and joy to your life without social constraints which are ultimately based upon a relationship model borne out of a property relationship. So, in our culture non-monogamy is probably associated with male domination of women, even if we can point out the occasional (even if only sometimes fictional) loving counter-example of such.
Polyamory is about treating all adults as, well, adults. It is about deciding how you want to live your life, with whom, and being open and honest about our desires. We, as a culture, are so far from understanding the implications of this that a term like “polyamory” just does not have a mental category in which to sit for most people. Yes, if I had been given a 20 minute segment on the show to talk about polyamory, define it, and give examples and have other people, women and men, talk about the freedom, care, and rewards of living such a life then at least some people would begin to see what it is all about. But that is not what happened yesterday.
When he introduced us, it was in terms of “here is a man who may want to get married, but he will still want to date other women.” And not “here are two people who are in love, are committed to each other, have a healthy relationship, and who may have other lovers, boyfriends, and girlfriends.” The former is based upon tropes common to our culture, the latter is not.
That idea is just too far removed from talk-show America. And just like the term atheist, which is getting more press and is becoming more accepted (slowly), polyamory is a term that many think we just can’t use right now. But with time, effort, and some patience (but not too much patience) that will change.