“That’s Not Poly”: Polyamorous Sex Negativity and the Relationship Escalator

a rainbow escalator (used to signify the diversity of relationships that are possible if we get away from sex negativity in polyamory)
Image by Graham C99 / CC BY

Polyamorous Controversy Over “Benefits”

As readers responded to our recent post 7 Common Myths About Being Polyamorous on social media, one debunked myth quickly emerged as the most controversial:

4. If you have flings, you’re not polyamorous.

Some other folks may feel differently about this, but for me polyamory is about radical openness to whatever happens to develop. And it’s okay if whatever develops stays very casual. I differentiate it from other open relationship styles in that polyamory is not scared of developing multiple emotional connections. But that doesn’t mean that every person you start up with has to become a Relationship.

Sometimes? A connection stays strictly physical. So long as everyone is treated with respect and honesty, it’s still polyamory in my book.

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Now, it didn’t say “if you only have flings.”  The crux of the argument: A polyamorous person can have a fling every once in a while without having their Poly Card revoked.

We did not mean a situation in which a person has one emotional connection and has a rule/expectation that all other outside relationships will be purely sexual. That’s not polyamory.

But even after we clarified this and stressed multiple relationships that stayed casual out of circumstance and not by design, some folks insisted that if you have any “with benefits” situations in your poly web that you are polysexual and not polyamorous.

However, Many of You Agreed that Casual Can Happen in Poly

We also heard from a number of readers thanking Poly Land for the piece. And especially point #4. Some expressed frustration with reactions they’d gotten from other polyamorous folks when they had incidentally ended up with casual connections. As one reader wrote:

 Just because I have a friends with benefits (and a husband AND a serious girlfriend, mind you), it doesn’t mean I’m not polyamorous. Not everyone has to end up an anchor. I’m sick and tired of other poly folks smugly christening me a “swinger” or “polysexual” or whatever the “less pure” non-mono label of the week is.  

It’s curious. And not the first time we’ve run into this (for example, in this advice letter).

And while Poly-er Than Thou behavior is always in play, there is another potential culprit.

Sex negativity.

Sex Negativity

One of my favorite definitions of sex positivity comes from Allena Gabosch: “An attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.”

Or, as Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy write in The Ethical Slut: “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you!”

Sex negativity, predictably, boasts different premises. Criticisms of sex vary depending on the source, but here are a few very common ones:

  • A person cannot actually consent to sexual play that is fundamentally exploitative.
  • Simply consenting to something does not purge an act of its problematic cultural trappings.
  • The sex-positive narrative ignores those people who simply do not find sex pleasurable.
  • Sex is an inherently oppressive act, especially so for women.
  • Teachings from the Abrahamic religions take strikingly sex-negative stances.

The last point predisposes many people to sex negativity by default. Slut shaming is a cultural expectation.

Love to Make It Clean

When sex starts out as dirty or unseemly (e.g.,”bumping uglies”), it has one path to purity: A loving, committed relationship.

And even then, that love and commitment must take a certain form. After all, shacking up as an unmarried couple means you’re “living in sin.”

It’s only through a a socially sanctioned formal commitment (i.e., marriage) that you cast off the stain of your sin and become clean.

I see a similar logic at work with many folks who enter polyamory.

“Yes, I may have multiple relationships, but they’re all loving and committed. I’m not some swinger.”

Part of this is natural defensiveness that stems from being part of a larger culture that views polyamorous relationships with suspicion and disgust. And in this spirit, it’s important to establish polyamory’s respectability to a largely monogamous culture. Commitment is a powerful signal to advocate for polyamory and polyamorous relationships.

But there’s also a case to be made that commitment isn’t what makes non-monogamy ethical (or unethical). Instead, it’s respect and honesty.

And you can absolutely exercise respect and honesty in a friends with benefits, tertiary relationship. No monogrammed towels required.

Taking the Escalator with You in the Move

It’s possible to have someone you love intensely that you don’t marry. For a variety of reasons. And you might come in and out of each other’s lives. Fluid attachment that reads friends with benefits to the rest of the world. Love doesn’t always look like one thing. There’s a reason that the Greeks had so many words for love.

And a big problem with polyamorous folks asserting “you must have a serious relationship or nothing, else it’s not poly,” is that in doing so we create another kind of relationship escalator, i.e., a standard template of what relationships are supposed to be. A belief that when you start a relationship, you step on an escalator and magically progress to the top. And the way that relationships unfold are uniform.

But the trouble is: The escalator isn’t our only option. There’s a dizzying variety to the types of connections we can actually forge with people.

Part of what I love about poly is feeling like relationships are custom jobs and we don’t have to follow some kind of formula.

And those non-escalator relationships? They are just as real and as meaningful.

However, many folks approach polyamory like it’s mono x 2, 3, or more.

Me? I think it’s about time we left the escalator behind. It’s a lot of weight to carry.

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2 Comments

  1. Great post, it echoes much of my own thinking. As a solo poly person who has relationships of a variety of depths, I’ve been told I’m “not really poly” because I don’t want a nesting relationship with any of my partners. Yeah, right.

    I highlighted your post on the Facebook page for my book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator.” Thanks for linking to my website!

    1. Awww thanks for sharing the article, Aggie! We’re happy your first book came out and are really looking forward to seeing what you do next. 🙂

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