My piece on polyamory appears in this week's WE.
participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships
— Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary
Other “kinks” have come and gone as the primary target of “polite” society’s moral outrage — homosexuality, orgies, swinging — and forged, in some people’s homes, an uneasy truce. Polyamory, then, might be the last taboo — possibly because many people can barely navigate the obstacles of one relationship, let alone several.
But, contrary to popular belief, people who engage in “poly” say they aren’t just in it for the sex — although that doesn’t hurt. True to their name, polyamorists have a whole lot of love to give (and take).
According to John Ince, co-owner of Vancouver sex shop the Art of Loving, poly people might just be the world’s biggest romantics. “Poly is really about relationships, an ongoing experience rather than a sexual connection,” he says. “I’ve done long-term monogamous relationships and long-term polyamorous relationship, and the poly ones are conducive to more intimacy... but it’s a lot of relational time. Time and work.”
Jillian Deri, a PhD candidate writing about polyamory and jealousy within the queer community, is also involved in poly relationships, and acknowledges the common misconceptions people have about it. “[People think] we’re just dating around until we find the right person,” she says, “or that we’re just promiscuous and can’t decide, or that we’re not committed. But, actually, poly people are usually more committed because they commit to more than one person.”
Pervading notions about polyamory label its practitioners as sluts or perverts. Internet culture does nothing to subvert that belief either: simply Googling the phrase “polyamory Vancouver” calls up sites devoted to BDSM, fetish nights, and a smattering of other kinky topics that might send potential polyamorists right back into the closet. And there’s precious little information available to those looking for a safe place to explore this type of relationship.
Ince, who published a book called The Politics of Lust, believes polyamorists are simply seeking a variety of intimacy, much the same way people favour variety in friends, food, and entertainment. “We encourage multi-loving in every area except the sexual dimension,” he says. “In our culture, the model is one romantic relationship at a time, otherwise you’re cheating. Huge numbers of people are practicing unethical [secretive] polyamory.”
Ince has been involved in poly relationships of various configurations for over 30 years. He’s currently involved with two women, and he says the key to a successful poly relationship is open communication. “It takes a lot of emotional sophistication to practice polyamory in a healthy way. That’s perhaps why relatively few people can do it. Most people don’t have high self-esteem and would interpret their partner’s interest in someone else as a rejection of them. The fact that I love having two women in my life does not say anything about my lack of attraction to one. It just says that I’m a very complex character and need a whole variety of stimulation to be excited and passionate and fulfilled.”
For Deri, polyamory is an affair of the heart, though she admits it’s sometimes easier said than done. “I feel that it’s definitely not for everyone, but I find it easier to give my heart when there’s an open aspect to the relationship, being more true to what I actually want.
“I believe we have this dichotomy between friends and lovers: only one lover and all the rest are friends. I find that having that boundary broken allows for more intimacy — a whole range of different ways to be with people.”
Deri admits an open relationship does force people to have to deal with jealousy head-on, but poly people, she says, choose to “work around it.”
“Poly people realize it’s not inevitable, it’s not intolerable, but in the culture we grow up in, there’s this idea that if your lover is with someone else, you’re going to be jealous, and the jealousy should stop whatever you’re doing,” Deri says. “Poly people tend to see jealousy as something you could feel, but you can get over it and move on. It doesn’t have to change your behaviour.”
In a world where hate, rancour and loneliness permeate all aspects of society, one could say that polyamorists are, in their own way, forging a path where love is all around. For those looking to venture into the world of poly, Deri suggests honesty as your best tactic for success.
“Find someone you can communicate well with and who you feel safe to explore with,” Deri advises, “and ask yourself a lot of questions about what you really want, and be honest. As soon as you’re really honest with yourself you can be honest with other people. Communication is the biggest key to making it work.”