In the shadow of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there lie questions in the U.S. concerning the populist demonization of particular relationship styles, sexual orientations, and social choices, restricting types of family formation and reproduction. The impact of Roe on family formations suggests that the next few years will be critical to determining who can form families, what those families will look like, and the socioeconomic and political conditions of such units.
The overturning of Roe suggests uncertain restrictions on abortion rights but also the uncertain future of same-sex marriage and the role of nuclear family in contemporary politics and discourse. The placement of heterosexual nuclear family units as the basis of American society is an age-old association between family formation, economic viability, and citizenship. Such cultural logics argue that these family units are the basis of a productive and economically self-sufficient populace. In addition to the morals of Victorian spirituality, these ideas suggest the regulation of sexual behaviors to protect the interests of a healthy, moral citizenry.
These ideals suggest normative constructions, where children are reared in two-parent households and given proper love and care. However, what happens when households are nontraditional or contain a “deviant” dynamic? What if the father is not a part of the household? The mother? Neither? If the child is adopted? Or “God forbid” the parents practice consensual non-monogamy?
Amid all these questions and debates, this current inquiry explores polyamorous relationships, as they increase in popularity and significance. It seeks to understand attempts to create alternative worlds of love, sex, and intimacy that reflect a different worldview regarding parenting, child rearing, romance, and friendship. Furthermore, personal experiences and research shows that poly dynamics often reflect socio political experiences framed in the context of liberation.
Moors et al (2021) argues that the popularity and practice of polyamory is more common than discussed in popular media and discourse. In fact, they argue that one in six people located in the United States and Canada favor some form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM). Of those people, a little more than eleven percent have practiced some form of CNM. One interesting finding in the study was that polyamory was more favorable amongst LGTBQ-identified people, especially younger participants (6). Considering the work of Moors et al and other researchers of polyamory, I argue that polyamory presents new realms of examining the meanings of intimacy, demonstrating ways in which normative constructions of love, sex, and intimacy can be limiting and unfulfilling.
Motivations For Poly Life
As a practitioner or believer in polyamory as a natural way of forming romantic relationships, I have believed that intimacy and love should never be restricted in couplings. Polyamorous relationships also allow people to think about relationships and intimacy beyond the systems of control that we learn in American society. While mainstream society promotes heteronormative monogamous relationships and nuclear families, polyamorous relationships present, for some, a liberating way of expressing love and intimacy. However, the lifestyle is not without its opponents.
Similar to queer identities and sexualities, poly-oriented people resist the label of deviancy. There are various stigmas against dating/having romantic relationships with multiple people. However, I argue that polyamory also presents innovative and beautiful aspects of family formation. Poly people often must navigate dynamics that people normally avoid. For instance, blended families and the complexities of such relationships are important for poly people.
My fiancé has two daughters who are not biologically mine. However, biological paternity does not render one a parent, and although those beautiful girls have a father who loves and cares for them, I feel that I could not help but to function as a second one. They are my children as well, simply because I am with their mother, and we have formed a family unit. Therefore, strategies of co-parenting with their father are just as important to me as they are to their mother, although there is no sexual relationship or even real relationship between their father and me.
Polyamory therefore disrupts normative constructions of intimacy, even with platonic relations and family dynamics. Within these challenges, they disrupt the Victorian belief that sex must be repressed, condemned, and savored for monogamous, romantic unions, and love means sacrificial loyalty to one person to whom you have pledged allegiance and vows to in holy matrimony. Such dynamics place limitations on all forms of intimacy, including platonic and familial love. In these mainstream constructions of intimacy, it is expected that emotions, sexual desire, and affection be controlled, limited, and censored when necessary. However, polyamorous relationships are not perfect either.
Issues in Poly Life
All relationships take time and nourishment. Regardless of the dynamic, they take work, and the parties involved have to decide what kind of work they are willing to do. I was recently at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and attended a panel discussion on stress management and psychological coping strategies in uncertain times. One of the panelists presented a paper on polyamory and some of the psychosocial stressors that it involves. She discussed participant’s journeys with shifting relationship styles and their stress levels as they attempted to adapt to changes.
While the study was narrative based, it did provide insights into key stress factors that polyamorous relationships add to romantic encounters and intimacy overall. She argued that polyamorous relationships often force people to confront feelings of jealousy and insecurity that monogamous relationships enable them to avoid. Instead of confronting jealousy, people argue that it is a natural issue, one that can only be overcome with the setting of rules and preventive measures to reduce the jealousy and insecurity of one’s partner. Monogamous relationships promise faithfulness and commitment in exchange for a sense of security. In these dynamics, people often believe that jealousy is either evidence of insecurity or the instinctual indicator that something is wrong in a partnership.
Polyamory presents its own problems. Trust and comfortability within a polyamorous relationship is difficult to navigate. Not only is polyamory equated with sexual deviancy, but popular discourse also renders it antithetical to the functioning of society (Jordan et al 2016). Such stigma often leaves people isolated from their families and other loved ones. Children of poly families experience stigma in school and other activities (4). In addition to these issues, polyamorous dynamics can repeat aspects of gender, class, and racial inequality found in monogamous unions.
In fact, Jordan et al report that polyamorous relationships sometimes restrict women to the roles of caregivers and child-rearers as men have multiple partners to care for children. The social acceptability of men in polyamorous relationships is more common than it is for women. With women, polyamory is often viewed as promiscuity. Added to the unique dynamic of maintaining multiple relationships, couples often navigate these gendered boundaries, while simultaneously negotiating several other factors: who gets to be intimate amongst partners, whether all relationships and connections should be regarded equally, and the roles of each partner in the relationship.
In addition to these gendered dynamics, there are some racial barriers to polyamory as well. As a Black man, the practice of polyamory often invites stereotypical responses and ideas about sexuality. In fact, Roodsaz (2022) argues that polyamory, often perceived as sexual promiscuity, is often equated with Black masculine identity and racist depictions of Black people.
Roodsaz describes the experience of Edgar, a Black gentleman with locked hair and a practitioner of polyamory. When admitting that he was polyamorous, Edgar was accosted by people claiming that Rasta men are whores and prone to polyamory. Edgar was not Rastafarian. He was just assumed as such because he was a Black man with locs. This is due to a process Roodsaz refers to as ‘racework.’ Racework describes the process by which Black people and people of color must defend their social practices or reject assumed practices associated with their race.
Racework is often an additional aspect of being polyamorous, as conservative perspectives on romantic relationships and the institutions of monogamy manifest normative constructions of intimacy. While navigating the general stigmas, Black poly people have to also uproot and resist racial stereotyping, due to their identities as Black and polyamorous. In fact, similar comments have been made in my experiences when discussing my orientation to polyamory and my commitment to ethical non-monogamy. My monogamous friends and family members have often performed some form of slut-shaming, referring to me as a whore or a “hoe.” Over time, I even learned to claim this as a part of my identity and sexuality to offset and embrace the good and bad elements of being deemed promiscuous. Even in my platonic endeavors, I have been rendered “too friendly” or “too accepting” of others.
Constructing New Realities
Foucault (1990) argues that the Victorian period restructured the boundaries between sex, the power of the state, and religious conservative ideals, creating a social standard that made sex a thing for the matrimonial chamber and the spirit and direction of intimacy a private act that had to be publicly sanctioned. Prior to this period, sexual privacy was limited, and some intimate acts, such as a consummation of marriage, were public, needing to be witnessed and confirmed by parents and other witnesses to ensure the legitimacy of a union. Following the Victorian era, strict boundaries between sex, intimacy, and public life were formed, in addition to ethical norms of sexual behavior. However, in the contemporary period, sexual liberationists argue that such thinking reproduces systems of oppression, and, in fact, polyamory is liberating.
From 2016-18, when I was conducting my dissertation research, I spent a significant amount of time with some New Age activists, many of whom were polyamorous or identified that way because it seemed to be trendy at the time. The attraction to polyamory was also connected to liberation and the 1960s political framework of the Free Love movement, a social period when activists and LGTBQ-identified people campaigned for love unabated by the politics of the state. Sexual liberation was the theme of Free Love: everyone deserved to love whomever however they wished, and the government or institutions of civil society had no rights in those decisions. Love, therefore, was a personal choice to be examined and negotiated between the parties involved.
Despite the dedication to free love, activists and supporters of the movement had to contend with the implications of reproduction and power that such freedom advocated. While advocating for a “reform movement that espoused that emotional and physical romantic relations should be governed by mutual love alone without interference, from legal or religious authority” (Gutierrez 2005, 187), they attempted to reject the Victorian standards of relationships set in motion during the 19th century. For my participants, polyamory or ethical nonmonogamy became an aspect of human liberation. Ethical nonmonogamy suggested polyamory relationships in which there is complete knowledge, agency, and awareness between partners, whereas general polyamory describes any relationship where multiple partners are involved. However, such definitions are debated in polyamorous communities (Moors et al 2021).
One of my participants, Hope, argued that ethical nonmonogamy freed people from the religious and heteronormative constrictions of modern monogamy, “allowing us to be free to love whoever we want or how many people we want.” For Hope, monogamy was unnatural, for no person could or should love one person forever. Placing these kinds of restrictions on romantic relationships also hindered other relationships. “We are taught to think of love as a limited emotion. But, it’s only limited because the world constructs it in this way. At one point and time, we were allowed to freely love and engage with people and then we started limiting the amount of people we could love and ultimately interact with.”
Hope believed that monogamy, in its attempts to place moral standards on love, reduces the meanings and significance of relationships outside of immediate loved ones. For instance, when discussing relationships between parents and children, she argues “a lot of time it seems like love is a competition. Parents compete for their children’s love. ‘Who’s your favorite, mommy or daddy?’ Children compete for their parents’ love, trying to figure out who their favorite is. Sometimes partners compete with their children for their person’s [significant other] love. None of that is right. Love should be free and abundant.”
Somé (2000) discusses love and intimacy as a communal process. As is often said with child-rearing, it takes a village. Love is better and more abundant when it comes from multiple sources. A wide range of support is healthy. Children are safer and more secure when they receive love from many sources, and healthy attachments outside of romantic relationships, like family, friends, and community, produce social experiences that allow people to form healthy partnerships and strong support systems. Therefore, it is arguable that polyamory and communal love practices are more human and realistic, but what about jealousy? What about the time demands of such relationships?
While living the polyamorous life, which I currently identify as a healthy relationship style for myself and many like me, I experienced much of the joy and freedom that many describe as part of poly life. However, the downside is just as relevant. When there are more people involved, things can be exhausting and overwhelming. I sometimes struggle with some of the constraints of isolated intimacy and monogamy, as well as the psychosocial demands of polyamory and a healthy friend network. As a poly-oriented man, I naturally embrace the freedoms that come with unfounded human interaction, but the demand and difficulty of maintaining multiple, healthy consensual relations can seem taxing and potentially harmful, if not handled with respect and honesty. Yet, poly activists often advocate that it is the best form of intimacy. If I was to tell many of my friends that I am now engaged, they would be appalled and concerned.
Such arguments ring a familiar bell, reminding me of the utopian age of spiritualism and the goals of antebellum social movements. In fact, Gutierrez mentions the Oneida community’s commitment to group marriage as a strong example of what commitment to unlimited expression of love and adoration looks like. Oneida, a New England utopian society, was formed on the idea of collective marriage and family, an intimate structure where adults collectively engaged in sexual relations as well as childrearing and socioeconomic sustainability. All members of the society were allowed to engage in consensual sexual encounters with viable adult partners. Monogamy was not the norm. Instead, poly love was the normative frame of intimate relationships, encouraging an almost spiritual devotion to collective or community love.
In fact, for Oneida, this construction of love was God given. “Noyes saw monogamy as logically and theologically antithetical to the Christian injunction to love all community members equally” (191). In order to uphold such beliefs, the Oneida community attempted to prevent monogamous unions, or “exclusive attachments.” However, such restrictions also contradict the concept of free love, as group love becomes, among the Oneida community, the only acceptable form of relationships. In free love, however, the parameters of intimacy remain unrestricted.
Similarly, many of my participants frowned and turned their noses up whenever they were confronted with the image of a happy monogamous couple. “Yeah. They’re just oppressing themselves,” purported Sade, a mid-thirties state worker and ethical non-monogamous woman. It was difficult for many who had found freedom in polyamory to see monogamy as anything beyond self-repression or external oppression. Ironically, such arguments are problematic in similar ways as the pseudo-religious and moralist stance of the nativist thinkers who see sexual expression as the equivalent of faithful, non-promiscuous, heterosexual, monogamous unions. Therefore, while polyamory was liberating for some, it was not suited for others. Nonetheless, I have argued that polyamory places an interesting challenge to the institutions of monogamy and the current discussions on family formation.
Meanwhile, the populist construction of state claims that changes in society to suit human diversity – such as abortion rights, freedom in family formation, poly intimacy, and other non-normative structures – represent a form of political favoritism, as well as perversions.
In actuality, the reverse is true. Equitable rights for family formation rejects favoritism or strict boundaries of sex and sexuality by allowing people the freedoms to form families and build intimacy in whatever ways best suit them. This position asserts that the state has no right to get involved in the personal lives of its citizens, which includes their pregnancies, queer identities, and expressions of love.
Foucault, Michel (1990 ). The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books.
Gutierrez, Cathy (2005). “Sex in the City of God” in Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 15(2):187-208
Jordan, Lorien S.; Grogan, Cathy; Muruthi, Bertranna; and Mermudez, J. Maria (2016). “Polyamory: Experiences of Power from Without, from Within, and In Between” Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy 0(0): 1-19
Moors, Amy C.; Gesselman, Amanda N.; and Garcia, Justin R. (2021). “Desire, Familiarity, and Engagement in Polyamory: Results From a National Sample of Single Adults in the United States” in Frontiers in Psychology 12: 1-12
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick (1965). “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (1965) The Moynihan Report: The Negro Family, the Case for National Action • (blackpast.org)
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
Roodsaz, Rahil (2022). “The Hard Work of Polyamory: Ethnographic Accounts of Intimacy and Difference in the Netherlands” Journal of Gender Studies 31(7): 274-887
Somé, Sonbonfu (2000). The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships. New York: William Morrow Publishing