A few years ago, my then-wife and I decided to more openly embrace an element of our relationship that had been acknowledged since we got together in college: We liked seeing, and sleeping with, other people. Until we arrived at that choice, the outside dating had remained off-radar, and we didn’t much discuss it at home, let alone with friends — though some were aware of this behavior. When we “came out,” so to speak (I don’t believe the phrase applies in the way it does for LGBTQ individuals), we set up OkCupid profiles, coordinated time spent together vs. evenings with new crushes, and fielded questions from anyone curious about how it all worked. In looking for women to meet, I of course had an eye out for those who identified as “poly,” or polyamorous.
At one point I was invited to a happy hour in Lower Manhattan for the local poly community. If you hadn’t known the party’s theme, you never would’ve realized what the attendees had in common: It was as eclectic and stimulating a crowd as I’ve seen, and the conversations touched on everything but sex and dating. Don’t get me wrong, folks definitely got their flirt on, and plenty went home together. But the night drove home my intuition that there was nothing too radical in polyamory. If anything, it seemed to appeal to gentle, sensitive, somewhat geeky types — white-collar hipsters (myself included) of many pleasant backgrounds. This did not strike me as a group that faced significant oppression. No poly friend or partner of mine has noted a genuine hardship.
Online, though, where extremism and hyperbole thrive, the polyamorous scene has a rather different texture. Whereas the poly people I’ve known personally just think of the lifestyle as an arrangement that works for them, the internet’s poly-vangelists are consumed with making it an identity, even claiming it as their sexual orientation, which, again, draws an improper comparison to the struggle for gay rights. They also continue to alienate monogamists, minorities, LGBTQ groups and their fellow polyamorists by indulging in fantasies of persecution. Most recently, this nuclear take made the rounds:
On the one hand, this is an ill-considered comment from a young woman who may not realize the depth of the slur she’s invoking — it’s not as if poly people have been historically targeted on the scale of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, mass incarceration and police violence against unarmed black Americans. The statement also curiously overlooks polyamorists of color. (She later apologized for the “offensive” aspects of the tweet.) But almost as worrisome as the dreadful racism analogy is the thought experiment it serves. Who else adheres to its faulty reasoning? Does the scene really believe that the stigma against polyamory is that strong, or bound to get worse?
Are Polyamorists Second-Class Citizens?
“While I take 100% back what I said, I feel like poly people see a constant undermining of their lifestyle,” the author of that offensive tweet tells me in a Twitter DM. “‘When will you get in a real couple?’ I face this kind of hostility all the time. And we don’t have a legal recognition of our relationships since marriage only happens between two people.” This concern with protections for polygamy, or plural marriage, is in no way shared across the poly spectrum. But she isn’t alone in describing poly individuals as second-class citizens.
A ‘Very First-World Problem’
Anti-poly discrimination is “a very first-world problem to complain about,” says Sarah-Louise, a solo poly woman in New York. She and I dated there, and she has the most poly connections of anyone I know. She once sublet a room in a Bushwick building expressly renovated for and rented to polyamorous tenants — a building, I will note, with a stylish kitchen and beautiful outdoor fire pit. “Of course there is prejudice against polyamory, with a lot of the general population equating it with swinging, cheating or playing the field before settling down,” she clarifies. “But it extends no further than casual disdain in a social setting. No one��s rights are being trampled the vast majority of the time, unless there is already an intersectional issue with LGBTQIA+ folks.”
Even so, certain poly individuals nurse a sense of victimhood surrounding their romantic life. I was guilty of this when my parents discovered — by an accident of gossip — that my wife and I existed in this mold. I fought with my family a lot, which was unusual, and imagined, for the first and only time, that Mom and Dad were old, recoiling conservatives. I went on a dumb little Twitter tirade, which was aggregated into an embarrassing post on Jezebel. (The tweets are now deleted, but to my credit, I never would have sued the company into oblivion.) I wish I could take the whole episode back, not because I think my parents were right — they were dead wrong — but because I acted as if my tantrum were a righteous cause. It was the byproduct of the polyamorist logic whereby you cast yourself as cutting-edge, extra-smart, disruptive and futuristic. That’s how Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist and associate professor at the University of New Mexico who co-authored a book with Tucker Max on “what women want,” tweets in regard to the practice of developing multiple loves:
Evangelists Believe Polyamory Is a ‘Superior Way of Being’
This sense of poly supremacy, to no genuine surprise, is a widespread source of irritation. And while some monogamists rudely dismiss poly life, it’s often due to sorry ambassadors. “I think a lot of what is experienced as discrimination comes from people becoming poly evangelists and wanting others to ‘see the light,’ believing that polyamory is a superior way of being,” Sarah-Louise says. “But that’s trash. And no one is ever going to agree on a single relationship model, and that’s healthy. Some poly evangelists both want to be special and superior by being poly, but also want to convert everyone. It’s a double-bind.” Smugness, anyone would agree, is always a turn-off:
‘It’s Not Different From Being a Democrat in a Republican Context’
I started a thread on a poly subreddit, r/polyamory, to solicit further opinions on the state of bias against the demographic — and found more disagreement. No matter what somebody said, somebody else was ready to contradict it. Where one person had no experience being victimized for being poly, another saw “systemic” forms of harm.
Downthread were accounts from queer and bisexual polyamorists who said that in contrast to the threats, harassment, and violence they dealt with in revealing that side of their identity, the response to their poly status is fairly negligible. “I have been physically assaulted multiple times for being bisexual, or even just hanging around out gay men,” said one. “So, no, it’s not the same.” Another recalled almost getting run down by classmates in cars after coming out as queer. “At worst, people have been judgmental about me being poly,” they said. In the thread as well as in my own experience, polyamorists agree, at least, on that: the puritanical blowback. Some are chafed that non-poly acquaintances see them as oversexed. “Women are low-value sluts, men are misogynist harem builders, etc.,” as one redditor put it. As a result, poly promoters will go out of their way to defend what some would consider mere promiscuity.
Your average straight white poly person, Sarah-Louise argues, is “just living a life that is ever so slightly outside of the norm, and experiencing the consequences of that. It’s not different from being a Democrat in a Republican context or an atheist in a Christian community.”
The Custody Issue
Nevertheless, she and many polyamorists point out one of the more severe repercussions of the lifestyle: In isolated cases, poly parents stand to lose custody of children, with their various partners taken into consideration of the home environment. But these family court judgments, being highly specific to individual circumstances, can be tricky to parse.
In the late 1990s, when a Memphis mom named April Divilbliss appeared on an MTV show that documented her polyamorist home, her young daughter’s paternal grandparents successfully filed for emergency custody of the kid. Back then, Divilbliss — a self-described Wiccan — said her religious and moral freedoms had been infringed. But years later, she had a much different view, writing that she hadn’t been able to materially care for her daughter, that “polyamory was never really the issue with my child’s custody,” and that the decision to leave her in the care of the grandparents was “the best I’ve ever made” as a parent.” And more recently, judges have proven willing to assess polyamorist families as stable and loving units that deserve appropriate custody arrangements — even when divorce is involved.
Then there are those who worry that being outed as poly could mean losing a job, especially if they work in a conservative area or industry. The fear is not unfounded; polyamory has made for career setbacks and obstacles, up to and including firing, and generally speaking, there are no legal protections against this. A few states, like Colorado, have legislation that prevents workplace discrimination based on an employee’s lawful conduct outside the office — but in other states, adultery is illegal, opening the possibility of termination over polyamorous marriage. In Australia, a poly woman’s lawsuit against the Catholic social services organization that sacked her was rejected by a federal judge who said the country’s Sex Discrimination Act applied no more to polyamory than to necrophilia or pedophilia — a rather unfair association.
Don’t Mistake Social Stigmas for Discrimination
But, on balance, poly professionals may occasionally overstate the risks. Asked whether she’s known any who fret about this kind of firing, Sarah-Louise says she has. “And they’re all white and straight,” she adds. “And upwardly mobile young professionals. I know several people who really believe that they’ll lose their jobs in advertising/graphic design/whatever in NYC if people know they’re poly.”
This, in my opinion, falls closer to a poly persecution complex than realistic issue. I didn’t lose my digital media gig when I went public with my non-monogamous marriage, and my boss, to his credit, even checked in after the related Twitter meltdown to see how I was holding up. (If anything, he was more alarmed that I was going apeshit on social media.)
Perhaps it’s inevitable, though, that people who subscribe to the notion of their polyamory as a special, select and enlightened movement — and bear the social burdens of no other minority status — will seize any chance to play up the potential cost of their romantic philosophy.
“I genuinely believe that people think they are discriminated against for wanting to be sex-positive,” Sarah-Louise says. “But again, they’re conflating social opprobrium with discrimination that has real consequences. [The backlash] isn’t nice or utopian, but it’s relatively trivial in the broader sense and most often legally irrelevant.”
I agree, and I’d encourage Polyworld to understand this nuance. Poly enthusiasts can be so eager to adopt the mantle of LGBT causes and the like that they fail to reckon with the many degrees of prejudice — even when black, brown, queer and bisexual poly advocates are there to remind them of these. Thankfully, even some poly individuals who have suffered for the lifestyle are aware of how to situate themselves in a wider context. When I reached out to a poly Tumblr user for this piece, they began by affirming that there “are many [poly people] who do exaggerate the discrimination.”
Yet, they said, “I personally have experienced quite a bit of discrimination against the relationships I’ve been in. I’ve been beaten once because I was in a closed triad with two males. My current boyfriend and I will have to hide any polyamorous relationship we may enter into due to our extremely Christian families, and due to the stigma for those around us. With the laws in place, we will never be able to marry a partner we may find even if we were out to our families.” Despite all that, they resist identifying as someone denied human rights: “I know that I am not as oppressed as others, and I know that I am not in as much danger as others should anyone find out about my relationships. I try not to exaggerate the discrimination that I face, but I know that many, unfortunately, do.”
I can’t say polyamory didn’t complicate my own life. To make a long story incredibly short, I’m now separated from my wife and living with a partner I met during the marriage — and I know that to some people, that will sound as unsavory as the poly relationship I left. I don’t particularly care, because love is messy however you approach it, and I’ve tried, if not always with success, to be ethical, honest and kind in matters of the heart.
My hope is that poly people can assert their dignity and happiness without pretending that polyamory obviates the privilege that comes with whiteness, maleness, cisgender status or heterosexuality. Because when they leap from sex-positive, open-minded allyship to describing polyamory as an essentialist and structurally oppressed orientation, they undermine their vision, insult truly vulnerable minorities and collapse the fluidity of all human desire. In the broader perspective, the Western world’s position on polyamory isn’t hostile, it’s indifferent — although maybe a bit curious, too. If you’re poly, all you need to do to alter negative perceptions of the lifestyle is live it well.
The rest should take care of itself.