Polyamory literally means "many loves" and is generally defined as the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. This seems like a pretty easy definition to understand -- with added room for interpretation. But as we explored in this week's Westword cover story, "Big, Big Love," polyamory is a frequently misunderstood relationship style which often leads to strange, eyebrow-raising and completely false ideas about what it is -- and what it isn't.
Here's a list of five pervasive myths about polyamory -- and why they persist. No prairie dresses were harmed during the making of this list.
5. Polyamory is always one man -- and multiple women. Ah, yes, gentlemen, you are imagining the joys of having a harem of hot, bisexual women ready to please you at any moment -- or please each other for your pleasure. All of the ladies are sweet-tempered, live to make you happy and get along with each other all of the time. Then you wake up and smell the sweet aroma of "bitch, please!"
Polyamory isn't always one man and more women -- in fact, it rarely is in real, actual life. There are many, many different relationship styles and dynamics possible with polyamory: one woman with multiple men, multiple men with multiple women, multiple men with multiple men, and multiple women with multiple women, and more. The beauty part of poly is that the people involved get to write their own ticket, so to speak, and choose whatever dynamic works for them and their partners, and there is not solid, definable right or wrong way to do it, so long as everyone is consenting.
Still, we're sure that harems of beautiful, complacent females who are willing and eager to serve a single, solitary male may exist somewhere -- probably on the same island where the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and inexpensive downtown high-rise apartments are found.
Why does this myth persist? Residual vestiges of historical and ingrained societal patriarchal structures.
4. Polyamorous people get more sex than monogamous people. There is an old saying among veteran poly folks: "Swingers have sex -- poly people have conversations." That's not to say that polyamorous people don't ever get mattress bumpers, just that creating, having and maintaining multiple healthy, happy relationships at the same time means more openness and honesty, more time management, and above all -- more communication. A poly relationship is no different from a monogamous one in that communication is a key factor in not breaking up, not committing assault or homicide and all that, but with more people comes more talking, and sometimes the talky-talky takes up time that could be used for sexy-sexy, but people who effectively maintain poly relationships take the rough with the smooth.
And if more sex and less chatter is what you are after, then swinging is always an option, which leads us to the next myth on the list.
Why does this myth persist? Since monogamy is the default relationship style in our culture, anything other than that has a rep for being exotic, unfamiliar and motivated by erm...prurient interests.
3. Polyamory is the same as swinging. The idea of having sex with more than one partner is pretty cool. The idea of having relationship conversations with more than partner...not as cool. Polyamory and swinging are similar in that they are both forms of open relationships, but different in that poly people tend to have more long-term commitments and deeper emotional connections, while swingers are more likely to keep their relationships short, light on the emo, and heavy on the fucking.
This is by no means a judgment call, and there's nothing to say that poly people can't get their naughty bits mashed frequently or that swingers can't genuinely care about their partners, but there is usually a great deal of disagreement within both poly and swinger communities about the definitions, and this is a big reason why monogamous folks have a hard time grokking the parameters.
Why does this myth persist? In part because there is overlap with the definitions -- which aren't exactly ironclad by nature -- and in part because when sex is involved, people tend to focus on that to the detriment of the other things like affection and emotional ties.
2. Poly people are religious nutters with prairie dresses and tons of kids. Watching fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sects on the telly -- either on a reality show like Sister Wives or on the nine o'clock news -- is a lot like picking at a big scab; it's painful, but you can't stop doing it. Polygamists -- or more accurately, polygynists -- who practice a one-man-multiple-spiritual-wife dynamic for religious reasons is not the same as people who have polyamorous relationships because there is a distinct lack of godliness and long, gingham dresses -- and a distinct surplus of personal choices, sexual orientations and freedoms from default hierarchical structures.
Why does this myth persist? Because some major media outlets choose to portray the more salacious aspects of everything, including multiple-partner relationships because the everyday lives of poly folks aren't all that interesting.
1. Polyamory is unnatural; humans are meant to be monogamous. Monogamy is the current default relationship setting in our culture, but this wasn't always the case. Relationships and marriage have both changed in significant ways since the dawn of humanity, and those nutty hominids getting all freaky-deeky back in the stone ages didn't seem to be hurting anyone; after all, homo sapiens survived and thrived, right? Humans are naturally inclined toward pair-bonding for survival and procreation, but sexual fidelity is a fairly contemporary concept based on parentage, property and inheritance laws. Genetically speaking, monogamy isn't any more natural than polyamory, and feelings of love and sexual desire aren't finite resources, despite current social mores.
If there is a case to be made that monogamy is natural and right, then it seems to be purely theoretical at this point since divorce rates so high and everyone knows someone who has been effected by infidelity either directly or indirectly -- and usually not for the better. Perhaps it's a logic-defying feat to consider that it's possible to love or have booty-bangs with more than one person at the same time and be honest and upfront about it with everyone involved and not have to hire an attorney, screw your partner and your kids, but having polyamory as a valid lifestyle option couldn't possibly fuck up relationships and marriages any more than the constraints and expectations of monogamy already have.
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Why does this myth persist? Because when people are taught from an early age that monogamy is what is expected, then it's difficult to put that idea aside and explore other options to get your needs met, and taking more emotional risks is scary. It can be argued that no one gets all of their needs met all of the time, but getting more of them met more of the time has risks--and rewards.