Trouble with Polyamory

Hanna had recently met a guy. “Oh no”, we despaired with friends, as there seemed to be no end to the stories about him. But then again, the excitement seemed justified. Hanna is a feminist with a degree in political science. Which makes dating hard even in a place like Berlin, which is filled with artists and intellectuals. People, who think that a gender pay gap is a female conspiracy, can easily be found even here. But things seemed different this time. “He attends regularly feminist events”, said Hanna. “And he’s mainly posting on Facebook about human rights!”

Within half a year, the affair grew into regular meetings. The guy’s time resources seemed relatively limited, but Hanna didn’t make a problem out of it. That is, until it became clear that the time limitation had a fairly logical reason: the man was in a steady relationship for a couple of years already. The big human rights supporter didn’t see a problem in not mentioning that little fact. Nor did he mind continuing to meet Hanna behind his girlfriend’s back. “Polyamory isn’t still a norm in this world?” he sighed seeing Hanna’s surprised expression. Hanna felt a bit old-fashioned but tried to keep an open mind. “Would you be interested in a polyamorous relationship?” she asked. “No, I’m too possessive. If I like someone, I wouldn’t want this person to mess around”, answered the guy.

Polyamory to the masses

As a single female feminist, there is no escape from dating, and it would be nice to share your time with someone who has roughly similar beliefs. Which doesn’t seem to be that difficult. Being an uber-macho has gone out of style. Men are not afraid to grow their hair long, paint their fingernails, and wear t-shirts with feminist slogans. Even more, some subculture concepts, that challenge heteronormativity, for example BDSM or polyamory, have started to reach the masses. The last one seems to be gaining especially a lot of ground. Often though, unfortunately, in a quite misinterpreted form.

Examples can be found a plenty. Maria was a frequent visitor to feminist events, until suddenly she refused to set foot there. It turned out that one of those evenings Maria had met a well-known “feminist” professor. They got involved shortly after. It also turned out that the man had a wife in Austria, and that Maria was not the only woman he was spending his time with. Polyamory came along again, however, this did not extend to the man’s spouse in Austria, who knew nothing of the situation.

Astrid and Richard had been dating for a year when Richard, in his own words, a big supporter of gender equality, announced that he wants to have a polyamorous relationship. Astrid went along with it. Richard set up a date and disappeared on it for twenty four hours. When Astrid felt insecure at the beginning, then with time passing, only worried. Richard minded that and ended the relationship. Karl defined himself as well as someone polyamorous. Only for him this meant relationships with minors, to whom he presented his abundant relationships as polyamory.

What is polyamory again?

Polyamory is a relatively new term that gained wider exposure in the early 1990s.  Probably the novelty of the concept explains why the word is thrown around so freely. Widely speaking, polyamory is a practice where individuals have more than one partner, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Polyamory emerged as an ethical alternative to monogamous relationships that are often prone to secrecy and deception.

There is no single way to be polyamorous, which makes possible very different kinds of unions. If some live with one partner and other relations take place out of home (that might be the most understandable version for monogamous people), then others live as one polyamorous family. Main partner and hierarchies between people can be as well as absent.

In other words, polyamory is in many ways a constant negotiation and a process. Instead of concrete rules pervading values are stressed. “The 12 Pillars” of Polyamory” mentions, among others, keywords like honesty, communication, trust and equality. When thinking of the original cause (why polyamory came to be) for polyamory, it is understandable why honesty and equality are stressed. And when considered how many people are involved in the situation alone on the logistical level, it is understandable why the emphasis is on communication. Not in vain, there is a saying among polyamorous people that they do not have time for sex because they are too busy communicating.

But what’s the problem then? If the above mentioned keywords are not roughly followed, things can turn problematic. If there is no previous agreement about having a polyamorous relationship, then you’re not practicing polyamory, you’re a just a common cheater. A situation where one of the parties goes along with a situation out of fear of losing a partner, but at least is aware of the situation, stands a bit more in the gray zone. But even then, it is far from fair play. And if there are minors involved, who are not yet mature enough to make major decisions, there is no longer any talk of equality.

Misuse and arbitrary use of polyamory, as well as BDSM and other similar concepts, does a major disservice to those, who truly identify themselves through it. And these communities who are apart from the mainstream face stigmatization already.

Potential solutions

What then could be potential solutions? To date someone who is openly misogynistic? At least you know what to expect? Hopefully not.

In all previous stories it was men who were the assholes and women the victims. Surely opposite stories exist. And I probably reflect, as a woman, the experiences of my fellow gender as a social group. But certainly in stories like the ones above, the fact that genders are taught to socialize differently comes to play. We women are constantly diverted to be nice and accommodating. “Do not cause trouble”, we are taught in both the private and public spheres. But keeping our mouths shut only strengthens those harmful structures. Our voice gives us power, among other things, to create situations where we feel actually comfortable.

To talk about speaking is often easier than to actually speak. As the previous stories showed, these are often respectable men, who have a lot of social capital. Faux feminist guys tend to have many female friends, because after all, in social situations they are pleasant and intelligent people who know how to say the “right” things. This, however, deepens even more the feeling that “I must have misunderstood something”.

Faux feminist men should remember that feminism is not a robe to put on when it’s useful. Which, incidentally, applies to all genders. T-shirts with feminist slogans can be nicely placed back to a shelf. Feminism is a real practice that includes self-reflection, hard work and all these uncomfortable feelings that you get when you are forced to notice, and sometimes give up, some of your privileges. And men indeed have a bunch of those. A person can be a feminist only if he or she lives a feminist daily life and feminism must extend to his or her personal life. And if someone wants to try polyamory, then why not. But first, it’s necessary to make yourself aware of what it is exactly.

In fact, it’s great that being a macho has gone out of style. This is clearly a development towards a better, more equal future. Rigid gender roles are not useful to anyone. Moreover, many men from distant past, and as well from today, have contributed significantly to the feminist movement. This great work has been discredited precisely by those faux feminists.

Proofreading: Renee Carmichael