In the comments section of an earlier post here, I mentioned that I see polyamory as an orientation. Wes exhorted me to elaborate on that concept, so I will attempt to do so now. But first, I should mention that another commenter (Jessica) referred us all to law professor Ann Tweedy’s excellent article on the subject. I’m going to build on several of Tweedy’s ideas in this discussion, and I suggest you read the article in full.
Tweedy points out that the term “sexual orientation” is a modern invention, and that the words, taken separately, seem to suggest a slippery, almost vague concept:
Rather, based on the ordinary meanings of its two constitutive words, the term “sexual orientation” should refer to any type of settled “sense of direction or relationship” or “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions” that relates to “libidinal gratification.”
Of course, that’s not exactly how we use the term in our daily lives, but it’s fairly close. One of the problems of thinking of sex and love in terms of orientation (i.e. innate condition, quirk of birth, etc.), however, is that we immediately run into the “problem” of whether to distinguish between who we are and what we do. Can a person be polyamorous and single, for example? That may sound like a deliberately stupid question, but if being polyamorous means “having multiple loving relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all parties,” a single person may not necessarily qualify. If, instead, one has a polyamorous identity (i.e. a preference for such relationships, even while single), the answer changes.
All people who practice non-normative lovestyles face the dilemma imposed by the who we are vs. what we do distinction. There is debate in the LGBT community, for example, about whether it is acceptable for a gay person to say he/she is gay “by choice.” Earlier this year, actress Cynthia Nixon did just that and was criticized harshly for it. After all, when minority groups fight for civil rights, they often take the position that they’re the same as everyone else (i.e. born a certain way). We all remember 19th century “scientists” who tried to prove that people of African descent were literally a different species as Caucasians. Today, the claim that gay people are different in an essential (and therefore “correctable”) way are used to justify discrimination against them.
The problem, as I see it, with this line of reasoning is that granting civil rights based solely on biological determinism seems to be a dangerous precedent to set. So what if someone is gay by choice? Why should that affect their ability to be protected by anti-discrimination laws, to visit a partner in the hospital, to obtain medical insurance, etc.? If homosexuality (or heterosexuality) is innate, should we test people for it? What, if any, value should we assign to people’s self-identification? Should we require “proof” of sexual orientation? These are all complicated questions, but I tend to advocate a society in which we place as many people, and as many choices as people consensually and nonviolently make, as possible under the umbrella of civil rights.
Which brings us back to polyamory as an orientation. I suppose I could claim that I’ve been polyamorous since birth (or at least since adolescence). We’ve all heard stories of people who became polyamorous in high school or college. I like to tell an anecdote from my own life in which I dated two women at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties, back when I still considered myself monogamous. Of course, the way we all justified this arrangement was the same way many single, monogamous people justify dating multiple other people: eventually I was going to have to choose one of them, and I was just getting as much information as possible before making my choice. Nonetheless, the fact that I wanted to date them both (and didn’t want to have to choose, though I told myself back then that I would eventually have to), and that it was very important to me that everyone knew what was happening (i.e. no one was cheating on anyone) makes me think that the conceptual framework of polyamory has been part of my way of thinking for a long time. The anecdote happened almost 20 years ago, and I’ve only identified as polyamorous for 4 years.
I’ve talked to many poly people with similar stories of their pre-poly life. So perhaps some of us “naturally” gravitate to this lovestyle and some do not. The problem, however, is that very little of what I’m saying here sounds like the way people usually talk about sexual orientation. If I were only interested in living in triads, or quads, etc.–i.e. if my erotic imagination always, and only, involved more than two people, or always involved people of more than one gender–that would sound more like the way sexual minorities tend to talk about orientation. In many ways, when I say that polyamory as an orientation for me, what I mean is that the philosophy/ideology of non-monogamy makes sense to me in a way that suggests to me that it’s not merely an idea I like but rather that I’m drawn to it constitutionally (or, as Heinlein might say, I “grok” it). This is why I like Canadian sexuality theorist Nathan Patrick Rambukkana’s statement:
“I believe that though my sexual orientation is straight, my ideological and political orientation towards sex is queer.”
For me–all these years later and you still can’t take the Hegelian/Marxist out of me–ideology and what we tend to call personality are inextricably linked. I’m not going to get into the debate here of which comes first–if you’re interested in a very long discussion on this subject I recommend this episode of Reasonable Doubts–but I think that many of the beliefs/philosophies we hold most dear appeal to us both because they make logical sense and because we have an intuitive sense that they’re right. The skeptical thing to do, of course, is to examine whether one’s “intuitive” response to an idea is reasonable, comports with the facts of the world, etc., but nonetheless some studies are now showing us that ways of seeing the world might be more hardwired than we’d originally thought, and I think that’s interesting (if inconclusive so far).
The question of whether any sexual orientation is chosen or if we are “born this way,” then, may be a false dilemma. We may chose it because we were born that way, for instance. Making a distinction only seems useful if we’re fighting for equal civil rights. Of course, that’s an important thing to do, which makes the question relevant in many aspects of our civil life. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as the Cynthia Nixon example demonstrates. I don’t want to have to pass a polyamory “truth” test, and if a polyamorous gene were detected, I wouldn’t line up to be tested. It doesn’t matter very much to me why anyone’s “libidinal gratification” desires (including my own) tend to lead him/her toward one or another “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” Just don’t try to stop me from associating freely.