I began writing a response in the comments section of Wes’ recent post, and it fairly quickly spiraled out of control and into something that probably should be a post in its own right, so I’ve decided just to post it. But I have a couple of caveats:
1) I’m a bit concerned that we’re overloading the blog with one discussion. While I think it’s an important discussion to have, and one that is not being had much in the polyamory community, I know we also like to write (and you, dear reader, like to read) about other topics.
2) I don’t want to create (or perpetuate) the kind of rhetorical cycle of assertion, counter-assertion, attack, and defense that can sometimes sidetrack discussions, especially on the interwebs. On the other hand, Wes’ post (for me at least) further problematized this issue, and I’d like to explore how/why I think it did so.
3) I disagree with a lot of what Wes said, and I’d like to be clear on where, and more importantly why, I think his argument could be stronger. The problem with arguments about semantics is that they tend to devolve into arguments over definitions. This can be interesting as a purely rhetorical exercise, but I’m not sure it always leads to greater understanding. I have challenged some of Wes’ definitions, just as he challenged some of mine, Shaun’s, Loving More’s, etc. And if Wes wanted to respond to this post, he could certainly parse the definitions of my definitions. This can go on reductio ad absurdum. I really don’t want that to happen.
At the core of Wes’ criticism is his three part statement:
Polyamory is not sexual….polyamory is not an orientation….being poly is nothing like being GLB.
I think he is wrong on all three counts here.
1a) It’s a mistake to disqualify “sexual” because the definitions of polyamory do not mention sex. Isn’t sex implicit in the terms “romantic” and “intimate”? I’m not saying that all intimate/romantic relationships must be sexual, but sex is one of the things that tends to differentiate what we call romantic/intimate relationships from other relationships. If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need the word “polyamory” to describe a different class of relationships than, say, intimate but platonic friendships.
Under Wes’ definition of polyamory (“relationships, honesty, and intimacy”), all but the most closed relationships would essentially be polyamorous, thus rendering the word nearly meaningless. Or, to put it slightly differently, monogamous people also have multiple loves. They love their siblings, for example. or their children. We all acknowledge that “loving” is the proper word to use for these relationships. The type of love that is not permitted in monogamous relationships is “romantic” love, which is usually erotic/sexual in nature. If we’re going to have a separate category to describe polyamory, it has to describe something other than relationships that already exist.
1b) The other problem with focusing on the word “sexual” in “sexual orientation”–and now I’m taking the opposite position to the position I took in 1a (which is a problem with semantic arguments, as I said in my introduction)–is that many people object to the idea that one’s orientation/preference be described primarily in terms of sex. Wes said that sexual orientation “until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted.” The “until recently” part is important. One of the reasons the term “sexual orientation” has ceased being primarily a description of sexual (i.e. libidinal) desire is that focusing exclusively on the sex (i.e. what we do) neglects other important elements of the state of being the term “sexual orientation” sought to define (i.e. who we are). The APA’s definition clearly considers both “sense of identity” and “membership in a community of others” as important elements of sexual identity.
This cuts both ways. If we can’t qualify people for a certain sexual orientation for not having certain libidinal desires, we can’t disqualify people for having them. In other words, we can’t say polyamory is not an orientation because it’s not about the sex.
2) Wes’ analysis used one definition of “orientation” to the exclusion of others. As I pointed out, one definition of the word is “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” That has nothing to do with “physical desire.” But I’d also argue that for some people, polyamory is a physical desire. How would we categorize someone who was only attracted to couples, or groups of people, for example? They wouldn’t fit our usual definitions of hetero, homo, or bisexual, and even pansexual wouldn’t exactly fit. We would have a different way to describe their sexual desire, and polyamorous might fit well there. I realize, of course, that this is an extreme example, and such attraction is probably exceedingly rare, but wouldn’t we have to say that such a person had a poly orientation?
Or what about someone who wants a d/s relationship? They may not have a gender preference for their partner, and they may not want a sexual relationship (or not a primarily sexual one anyway), but they absolutely need their partner to be dominant and they want to be submissive. I think it would be correct to call this an orientation, even a sexual orientation, even though one’s “object” of desire does not fit into our traditional models (hetero, homo, bi, pan, etc.). I realize that I may be stretching the definition of “orientation” nearly to its breaking point, as I did with “sexual” above, but that’s essentially my point. These definitions are slippery precisely because their constituent parts are not easy to define clearly, and because romance, intimacy, and sexuality are extremely complicated ideas that resist easy categorization.
3a) I don’t think it’s a good idea to say that “Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted.” LGBT people have worked very hard over the few decades to dispel the perception that it’s all about “teh gay sex.” Surely for many people it’s partially (or even mostly) about the gay sex, but I think we all pretty universally agree now that when we say someone is heterosexual, homosexual, etc. we’re not just talking about the people with whom they have sex (or want to have sex). So while it may be true that polyamory is not the same as sexual orientation when we consider the number of partners polys seek, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that polyamory is similar in kind to what we’ve traditionally called sexual orientation when it comes to disposition toward those partners. Wes said that using the language of the LGBT community implied a false equivalence. I disagree. I don’t think poly and other orientations are exactly equivalent, but I think it’s fruitful to examine the ways in which they may be similar.
3b) If socio-political gain is polyamorists’ primary goal, I really don’t think aligning ourselves with the LBGT community could fairly be described as an attempt to “coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.” How much sympathy is that? Is it really politically useful? Discrimination against LGBT people is still rampant in the U.S. And to the extent that we practice non-normative lovestyles, I think that we ought to align ourselves with the LGBT movement, not because it’s politically expedient but because we have affinity with them. Polyamory queers relationships norms in much the same way that being gay, pansexual, transsexual, etc. queers gender/sex norms. I don’t think that’s a false equivalence at all.
I’m not sure anyone would say that polyamory is absolutely a sexual orientation in exactly the same way being LGBT is an orientation. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dismiss poly as categorically not an orientation. I tend to describe poly as an orientation for me because I find that the concept of sexual orientation most closely describes the way I feel about my own sense of polyamory’s role in my life. I suppose we could try to invent a new word to describe how polyamory operates as a description of “who we are” rather than an explanation of “what we do,” but that would take more time, and chutzpah, than I have right now (or may ever have).
I also disagree that broadening our definition of the term “polyamory” weakens it. Having too narrow a definition can be just as problematic. For example, polyamorists often exclude swingers from the proverbial club (pun intended) because swingers don’t have multiple “loving” relationships. But that categorization privileges certain kinds of “love” relationships (actually, it privileges one kind whose definition is nebulous but which nonetheless one is supposed to know when one sees it) over others. Most swingers I’ve known develop intimate relationships with play partners that I would consider “loving,” even if the putative definition of “swinging” requires that the relationships be strictly sexual. The truth is that a lot of swingers (and some self-identified polys) exist in a liminal space between the strict definitions of “swinging” and “polyamory.” Perhaps the umbrella term “open relationships” is useful here, but that can open an entirely new Pandora’s box.
As with so many things, our lives and loves cause us to color outside the lines. I say we should embrace the ambiguity.