Some further thoughts on the distinction between orientation and polyamory.

So, I read the comments on reddit.  I know, I know, comments are the realm of trolls and other unpleasant beings, but when we post things there, I’m curious what people have to say.

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

Click on over if you want to read the comments there at reddit, as some of them are not terrible, but what I want to highlight was my latest reply to one commenter, which I think is worth posting on its own.

The issue is whether polyamory can be thought of as a choice or not.  Many people feel like polyamory is an orientation; they feel compelled to be polyamorous (to not be exclusively sexual/romantic).  This was my comment:

Of course, my opinion may differ from that of Wes (the author of the OP, but we both write for that blog), but I can address some of this.

I think that the hard distinction between choice and orientation is not the best model to use here, and I don’t think Wes meant it as a digital relationship. My post, which is linked to in his, claims that the orientation part comes in either being interested in intimacy (sexual, emotional, etc) with varying kinds and quantities of people. Who, and how many, people you are interested in maintaining relationships with is not something you choose, and can be described as an orientation.

But you have some choice about how to act on your inclinations. So, you can choose to have a mono relationship and cheat (or not), stay single and sleep around (or not), maintain multiple relationships with sexual contact with many people (or not), etc. The distinction is between the inclination, the desire, and the deciding how to act on it. For people who want to live authentically, the desire leads to an act (done ethically), and so they don’t really see the distinction because it flows so naturally.

I get that for many people what distinguishes poly from mono is the inclusion of sexuality in relationships. I get that some people simply cannot imagine being exclusively sexual with one person. I get that it feels like an orientation. It feels that way to me too. But when I examine the idea of what polyamory is, I have to recognize that there is a difference between my inclination (my ability to love many people, including sexually) and my acting on it. Polyamory is not coterminous with the desire (the orientation) itself, but is an expression of that desire.

The desire is the orientation. The distinction here is that when I willingly enter into relationships with people to express this desire; that’s polyamory. Now in some ways this is not really a choice; we feel compelled to do so, but it is an act, based upon a related orientation.

That feeling of being oriented towards sexuality, emotional intimacy, etc with many people, the thing that makes being mono seem impossible, is not the polyamory part per se. The polyamory comes in when we decide, or are compelled, to act of our inclinations openly, transparently, etc.

I think that Wes agrees with this distinction, and whether he does or not, I think the distinction is important.  I am not sure that people who “reddit” always read closely enough to pick up such ideas.

Which is why I think it should be….



Getting Oriented

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.