Just like regular physical exercise and a diet rich with fruits and vegetables, I believe that (for most of us), maintaining fulfilling sexual relationships is part of a well-balanced and healthy lifestyle. Physical intimacy has a laundry list of health benefits for the participants: it can lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart attack, boost your immune system, lessen pain and improve sleep.
Seriously, sex has more uses than coconut oil! Sex is also great for the brain; the psychological benefits of having a safe space to explore emotional vulnerability cannot be overstated. I think it’s important to point out that each person gets to define fulfillment in their own terms. Personal satisfaction looks different to everyone and everyone has a unique relationship to intimacy and the many forms it takes. Some people are perfectly content to be having vanilla sex with one person at a time; I’m just not one of them.
The Appeal Of Polyamory
One of the most exciting aspects of a polyamorous lifestyle is that you don’t have to choose between people that you like! In monogamy, people whittle down their romantic interests until they find The One. “The One” is a term monogamous folks use to refer to their unicorn of a life partner. A mythical creature, The One is the love of one’s life: the most passionate lover, the sweetest caregiver, the funniest comedian, the best home-maker/provider, the kindest parent, and (simply) the best life-long companion one could ask for. That is a lot of pressure to put on any single person!
This means individuals are often choosing between people who are better at satisfying different needs in their life (perhaps Jose shares your love of home cooking, but Jack shares your sense of adventure) or they’re having to measure people with similar characteristics against each other to determine who will be the best partner, not just now, but forever (Jessie is funny but is Jasmine funnier? Who will better appreciate your sweet dad puns when you’re 90?). Since polyamory is a relationship model that values the differences in people and having multiple partners, you wouldn’t have to choose between Jose or Jack, and you could grow old with both Jessie and Jasmine – so long as they don’t tire of your dad puns before then.
Another benefit is that you can tailor your relationships to fit your life. In our mono-centered culture, we are all presumably on the “relationship escalator”: the social script which outlines how our intimate relationships are supposed to play out. This script says that you can date around if you want but, eventually, you must “find the right one and settle down”, which most likely involves living together, getting married and having children as part of the ultimate goal. Many people find that the traditional relationship escalator unappealing and, instead, jump off.
Polyamorous folks can create their own families and support-system networks instead of defaulting to the nuclear family model. Some families have lots of kids where everyone shares responsibility, some people have lots of partners but no kids, some people travel and maintain a lot of long-distance relationships, some are A-sexual and their relationships don’t contain physical intimacy, some practice nesting/family poly while some are solo-poly and others continue to create new and unique systems that work just for them.
Dating in a pool of polyamorous folks also increases your chances of selecting people with good communication skills and higher emotional intelligence! This isn’t to say that you can’t find a poly jerk – it’s a well-known fact that jerks exist literally everywhere – but people in successful poly relationships tend to be more self-aware and understand the importance of introspection and communication better than your average bear. Occasional jealousy is perfectly normal in all relationships but in polyamory, the focus is on personal autonomy and (as we poly folks love to say) owning our shit. When I get jealous, I ask myself the following questions: “Why do I feel jealous? What am I missing? Is it something my partner hasn’t done for me or is this a personal issue? What do I need, from my partner or myself, to stop feeling jealous?”
Common Misconceptions About Polyamory
As with any counterculture movement, rumors regarding polyamorists identities, intentions and practices are plentiful. It’s actually quite common for someone to have never even heard of polyamory and confuse it with polygamy: the practice or condition of having multiple spouses. This misunderstanding is annoying but understandable since polygamist families have been opening up their lives on reality TV shows like Sister Wives; Three Wives, One Husband; Big Love; and My Five Wives for over a decade; subsequently turning “polygamy” into a household name.
Here’s a fun fact: even though it’s common to use “polygamy” to reference a single husband with multiple wives (usually in accordance with a religious practice), it’s actually an umbrella term for all multiple marriages! Sociologists use the term “polygyny” when referring to that specific arrangement while “polyandry”, the practice of a single wife having many husbands, is much less common than its patriarchal counterpart. For the sake of simplicity, I will continue to use the familiar moniker “polygamy” when referring to the single husband/multiple wives model in this interview.
Since modern polygamy tends to exist almost exclusively in fundamentalist religious communities, the relationships are heterosexual, patriarchal and come with a strict set of rules. Polyamory, on the other hand, is egalitarian, flexible, and a lot of times queer as fuck. Poly communities stress the importance of personal autonomy, that each individual person has the right to decide how many relationships they’re involved in and to what level of intimacy those relationships reach.
Okay, now that you’ve had a crash course in polyamory vs polygamy and you’ve got a pretty good handle on the difference between the big Ps, let me guess: you think it’s all about the sex.
How tragic! Polyamorists are sex-crazed maniacs! Unable to commit to any single person, incapable of truly falling in love, leaving a trail of sad, broken hearts in their wake…right?
I hate to be the bearer of disappointment but that couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, I would argue that polyamorists are commitment enthusiasts! The problem is that we live in a mono-centered culture where for a majority of people, polyamory isn’t even presented as an option. Poly folks don’t grow up with alternative relationship role models; we aren’t taught the emotional skills to manage multiple emotional commitments; often, we don’t even have the language to describe our feelings or desires. Many of us only discover polyamorist communities in our quest to understand why we don’t seem to fit the monogamous happily-ever-after narrative: some come to poly after having been through a series of failed monogamous relationships and others come because they’re already in a happy mono relationship but still feeling the desire to explore other people (something that is apparently supposed to melt away once you’ve found “The One”).
Sex is an important part of many relationships but it’s no more important in a poly relationship than a monogamous one, by which I mean it’s completely subjective to the people within the relationship. Not everyone is having crazy orgies just because they have multiple partners…but some of us are.
How Does One Know If polyamory Is For Them?
Polyamory is different for everyone, but it’s generally viewed as a spectrum. At one end, polyamory is a relationship orientation: an inherent, unchangeable aspect of one’s identity. To live monogamously is a painful experience that prevents the individual from living life as their most authentic self. At the other, polyamory is more of a lifestyle choice. The individual may prefer polyamory to monogamy or may be able to move between poly and mono relationships depending on the preference of their partner(s). It’s quite common to fall somewhere in the middle or for one’s position on the spectrum to shift with time and experience.
If the idea of multiple romantic relationships is appealing to you, I would suggest starting your research! There are many books, blogs and podcasts dedicated to polyamory introduction which can help you determine if it’s something you want to explore.
How Important Is It To Set Rules?
This may come as a surprise to you but when opening up an existing relationship to polyamory, the fewer rules you put in place, the better off you and your partner will be. It’s a common mistake for members of an existing couple to put restrictions on each other and themselves in an attempt to protect the relationship as they begin seeing other people. These restrictions often involve a hierarchy (making the original couple the “primary” and all other relationships “secondary”) and require the couple to make promises to each other that are hard to truly keep, like, “If one of us needs the other, the secondary partner will have to wait,” or, “We promise to never love anyone else as much, or more, than our primary partner.”
These rules can seem, at a glance, normal, but what they truly do is prevent any new relationship from growing organically. If you enter into polyamory with fear and insecurity, you’ll miss out on all the wonderful opportunities it can offer. Adding other partners will not fix an already broken relationship, only add more heartache to the mix.
Are There Complications From Being Polyamorous?
Since polyamory is not a well-known relationship style, navigating this new territory can be difficult. Logistically speaking, you are promising more of your time to other people. Now, that may not be a big deal when figuring out date nights (Raven has Tuesdays and Jack has Fridays) but working out holidays and major events can be trickier. Emotionally speaking, not only do you now have to consider more points of view, you have a whole new set of emotions to learn to handle. How do you respond the first time your husband goes on a date? What about the first time you see him holding hands with his girlfriend? How do you know whether you enjoy having relationships with your metamours (partners of your partner) or if you prefer a less involved style of poly? Unfortunately, a lot of it is trial and error. Having the emotional maturity and communication skills to work through these issues with your partner(s) is key to having successful polyamorous relationships.
Telling family and friends can also be hard and, for many people, coming out is a journey. Hiding your romantic partners can cause feelings of shame and anger, even resentment towards another partner if there’s a formal or informal hierarchy (for example, you may love your wife and girlfriend equally, but only your spouse is going to Christmas dinner at your parents). Because polyamory is still so misunderstood, dealing with the social and cultural stigma can be exhausting; I’ve particularly found this to be true for men dating multiple women where uneducated people have accused them of fulfilling a “harem fantasy”.
There are also very few states with current legal protections for polyamorous families so for many polyamorists who are not self-employed, there could be incredible consequences to asking your boss if both of your girlfriends can come to the company picnic.
As polyamory becomes more mainstream, it’s my sincere hope that future generations will be free and feel empowered to craft the relationships that work best for them. We live in a time where information is accessible – the internet is an endless pool of resources for the poly-curious – and nothing in this world is certain but change.
Ivy Quill – A second-generation sex worker. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where she works today as a professional companion, writer and entrepreneur. She has toured nationally and enjoys a bicoastal following. She has also conducted academic sociological research on sex worker communities and is actively engaged in sex worker outreach projects.
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