Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.
**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?