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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].
Translated by Audrey Morabito
Tadoussac, March 2017. I was in the only bistro of the village that still offered drinks and comfort this time of year. It was during a long silence between two folk notes that a friend began to tell me about her life as a polyamorous woman. Interested in all things related to human sexuality, I fell silent to listen to all that she had to tell me.
As she unboxed her stories and dreams, the neophyte in me had a good time fantasizing about what polyamory could be. I suddenly found myself on a Greek island like Lesbos, surrounded by divine bodies. I was immersed in an excess of pleasure. Cherubs softened the scene by playing the harp, it was per-fec-tion!
Then I left the island. As I picked up the threads of her words, all my values were shaken. Reason anchored me to reality. I was questioning everything I had once defended: relationships, family, fidelity. These dreams I had built over the years, were they mine or those society had imposed? I couldn't see clearly anymore.
The sfumato had just been cleared up by bitter jealousy. The idyllic image that surrounded me took a sadistic turn. At once I was in Guernica with the potential polyamorous lovers of my boyfriend. “Poly”, as a prefix, gives a taste of equity which differentiates it from infidelity. This disturbing little suffix gave him the right to let other people in between us. I decided to shelve the concept of polyamory, for the Disney princess in me was in shock. Because Cinderella had always had just one prince and that prince had always had just one Cinderella. I was lost.
I decided to contact my colleague, who is also a sexologist, for her to guide me concerning this misunderstood, unconventional, and sometimes stigmatized concept (Easton and Hardy, 2013). Together, we searched the literature in order to be better informed about this relationship model.
The word polyamory first appeared in everyday vocabulary in 1992 (Veaux, 2012). Before the advent of this concept, people who adhered to these types of relationships were perceived as having open relationships (Veaux, 2012). Etymologically speaking, polyamory, deriving from Greek and Latin origins, refers to having “multiple loves” (Keener, 2004). Polyamory, then, is the will, the practice, or the acceptance of experiencing loving, romantic, or sexual relationships that involve more than two people who engage in the relationship with full knowledge of the terms (Veaux, 2012; Matsick et al., 2014; Veaux et al., 2014). This implies that all partners involved have given their informed consent to the terms of the relationship and all that it envelops (Veaux, 2012; Veaux et al., 2014). To summarize, polyamory is characterized by the refusal of obligatory exclusivity, through complete honesty, and unavoidable and full disclosure to all those involved in the relationships (Sheff, 2006).
Careful not to adhere to popular beliefs! Polyamory is not a synonym of polygyny or promiscuity (Veaux, 2012).
Through the diversity of possible combinations, it is almost simpler to define polyamory by what it is not; these are not one night stands on repeat and not for those who refuse to commit.
Polyamory is the freedom to be able to love and pursue multiple loving relationships simultaneously with the consent of all involved (Crooks, 2009; Veaux et al., 2014).
Assuming that humans have multiple needs, the polyamorous person believes that these needs cannot be met by just one person (Mitchell et al., 2014; Veaux, 2012). This type of relationship offers the possibility of choosing different people in order to fulfill different needs (Veaux, 2012).
An Outsider’s View
Polyamory is still, to this day, marginalized (Easton et Hardy, 2013). It remains relatively unknown to the general public despite the growing literature on the topic (Klesse, 2014; Matsick et al., 2014; Easton and Hardy, 2013; Mitchell et al., 2014). However, since it is based on honesty, transparency, respect, and responsibility, public opinion is more tolerant towards polyamory than those who have sexual adventures or affairs (Matsick et al., 2014).
The ideal of the monogamous lifelong partnership is so deeply rooted in mentalities that it is omnipresent in Western society (Easton and Hardy, 2013).
These ingrained beliefs concerning idyllic dyadic love, in turn, tint the values, sexual and romantic desires, and social expectations of individuals (Easton and Hardy, 2013).
Extra-marital relationships and swinging are often seen as uniquely sexual, which makes these behaviors even more prone to societal criticism (Matsick et al., 2014). On the other hand, polyamorous relationships require more romance and emotional commitment, which renders them less targeted by such criticism (Matsick et al., 2014). It goes without saying that polyamory shakes two major pillars of Western romantic relationships: each person has just one true love and that sex is better when explored within a romantic relationship (Matsick et al., 2014; Easton and Hardy, 2013). These pillars imply that having multiple loving relationships is impossible and that sex without love is meaningless.
In order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to distinguish polyamory from swinging. Swinging is a behavior while polyamory is a way of life (Crooks, 2009). The philosophy is different because when we talk about polyamory, we are talking about loving relationships that may or may not include sexuality. Contrary to popular belief, polyamorous people are not corrupt (Veaux, 2012).
They can have casual sex and they can decide not to. It all depends on the agreement amongst partners. Keep in mind that this type of relationship model is not synonymous with swinger behavior (Easton and Hardy, 2013).
Research has shown that there are as many ways of being polyamorous as there are polyamorous people (Klesse, 2014; Veaux, 2012). Each person chooses the way in which they develop their loving relationships. Through the freedom it grants its practitioners, polyamory can take various forms (Klesse, 2014).
A variety of mechanisms and words used by the community make it a living and evolving entity. For example, it is possible to talk about “compersion”, which is the joy felt regarding your partner's new partner (Veaux, 2012). They also speak of “metamour”, which designates the partners of our partners or even “polyfidelity” to speak of a relationship that involves multiple partners and is closed to new partners (Veaux, 2012).
When we speak of the different mechanisms, polyamory offers different forms modeled after the various needs and degrees of intimacy required. It is common to find hierarchical terminology (Easton and Hardy, 2013). Specifically, a primary relationship is formed between two partners in which they can then develop secondary relationships (Labriola, 1999). There is also a model of multiple secondary relationships (where the protagonists are free to have more than one consensual secondary relationship). Secondary relationships require less commitment and work well for those who have less time to invest in their relationships (Easton and Hardy, 2013). They can be in relationships with other people who are just as busy or as a secondary partner of someone who is already in a primary relationship (Easton and Hardy, 2013).
People who are in multiple secondary relationships benefit from a lot of autonomy and freedom (Labriola, 1999).
We don’t speak of an inability to commit because sexual exclusivity is not a point of reference (as in monogamous couples); rather the ability to create and nourish bonds that stand the test of time becomes the reference point (Veaux, 2012).
A Marginalized Community
According to Rubin (2011), sexuality is a social construct that takes root in a specific historical and cultural context. The author frames his approach in response to essentialist philosophers who state that sexuality is a human domain without any significant historical or cultural value.
On the contrary, he adds that the value judgments about sexuality are far from being innate. Sexuality, rather, is the product of human activities constituting an act with a political role (Rubin, 2011).
The principals of the Victorian era concerning sexuality are still felt in society today (Rubin, 2011). Over time, there is the hierarchization of sexual acts which, depending on the era, are considered commendable or not (Rubin, 2011). Thus, the author explains that multiple relationships are situated outside of what is considered to be commendable because they include more than one partner at a time (i.e. non-monogamous). A polyamorous relationship is automatically considered immoral and unhealthy (Rubin, 2011).
As a result, individuals from marginalized communities often have fewer rights (i.e. marriage rights, child custody) or social recognition. To escape discrimination, some polyamorous people prefer to keep their emotional and sexual lives secret (Rubin, 2011).
As polyamory is a prevalent phenomenon, professionals will have to be made more aware of this new reality (Graham, 2014). In order to be able to respond adequately to the needs of this clientele, education, health, and social services professionals will benefit from learning more about polyamory and the potential problems that may be encountered (Graham, 2014).
The main interrogation that emerges from our research is about the actual ability of North American professionals to openly welcome people in non-monogamous romantic relationships. Despite the will of many, does the cultural and historical baggage they carry allow them to intervene in a neutral, open, and non-judgmental context?
Are we too ingrained in monogamy to intervene without prejudice with people in marginal relationships? Certainly, some workers are able to and offer the possibility to help those in non-traditional relationship models such as polyamory. A poly-friendly directory (1 & 2) that brings together professionals who work with polyamorous people and are interested in polyamory is in circulation. Its accessibility is currently limited, it is necessary for it to be regularly updated and shared in order for it to become a known and well-used reference.
Crooks, R., Baur, K. and Munger, P. (2009). Nos sexualités. Modulo.
Easton, D. and J. W., Hardy. (2013). La salope éthique. Guide pratique pour des relations libres sereines. Tabou édition.
Graham, N. (2014). Polyamory: A Call for Increased Mental Health Professional Awareness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(6) 1031-1034. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0321-3.
Klesse, C. (2014). Polyamory: Intimate practice, identity or sexual orientation?. Sexualities, 17(1-2), 81-99. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460713511096
Keener, M. C. (2004). A phenomenology of polyamorous persons [Doctoral Dissertation]. The University of Utah. https://user.xmission.com/~mkeener/thesis.pdf
Labriola, K. (1999). Models of Open Relationships. Journal of lesbian studies, 3(1-2), 217-225. https://doi.org/10.1300/J155v03n01_25
Matsick, J.L., Congley, T.D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A.C. and Rubin, J.D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perveived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychologie & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2013.832934
Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K. and Cobb, R.J. (2014). Need Fulfillment in Polyamorous Relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 51(3), 329-339. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2012.742998
Rubin, G. (2011). Blood under the bridge : Reflections on “Thinking Sex”. GLQ : A Journal of Lesbian and Gay, Studies, 17(1), 15-48. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-2010-015
Sheff, E. (2006). Poly-Hegemonic Masculinities. Sexualities, 9(5), 621–642. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460706070004
Veaux, F., Hardy, J. and Gill, T. (2014). More than two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory. Thorntree Press, LLC.
Veaux, F. (2012). What is polyamory? Edited by Eve Ricket. https://www.morethantwo.com/whatispolyamory.pdf