Les Hart talks about how she handles holidays as a relationship anarchist.
Marriage and Significant Relationships
When I first came to the polyamory community, I didn’t understand relationship anarchy and I didn’t understand egalitarian vs hierarchical poly. I didn’t understand what people meant when they advocated that romantic relationships not be more important than friendships. I believed in traditional monogamy and that the same ideas could be applied to non-monogamy. I believed that true love is defined by a relationship on the escalator that becomes more significant with time.
Growing up, we are taught that a man should leave his family of origin and cleave to his wife, creating his own family. It has been the rite of passage into adulthood for centuries. It is a social norm, what we are taught to desire and what we are told will make our lives complete. This marriage thereby creates a hierarchy where every other relationship is less important, except for possibly the relationship with one’s dependent children. The couples vow to remain together committed to their love, in sickness and in health, until death.
So upon transitioning from monogamy to polyamory, the idea is that relationships will progress in the same way with the same conclusion…that true, undying romantic love is symbolized by this commitment to be together forever. The more of the commitment, sacrifice, and longevity, the stronger the love or at least the evidence of it. This can be problematic for many different populations. For example, many LGBTQ people, especially questioning or closeted individuals have intimate relationships that might not follow the traditional progression. So based on these ideals, romantic relationships that don’t fall into this or that category or that are not on escalator progression are seen as less than valid.
Holidays and How to Measure Love
People have many ways to say I love you and show that someone is special to them. For example, holidays are those designated days that we use to show people we love them, ex. Valentine’s Day, Christmas. In the past, if my partner wasn’t available on a holiday, I did not feel like a priority to them. I felt that maybe I was “settling” or being used. I felt ashamed to care about someone who obviously didn’t care about me. I felt ashamed that my relationship had failed to meet societal expectations about what love should be. I felt ashamed for not asking for more, and with this it seemed that I was admitting to the universe that I was deserving of less.
Today, holidays are still important to me and I want to spend them with people I love. Therefore, as a single adult, I have found community that I can spend holidays with when I can’t make it home to be with my family of origin or when I don’t have a significant other.
That brings me to my question: If romantic love could be measured, how would we measure it? If we could write the love actions down and put them in a jar how would we know that our jar was full? Would we see holidays as optional, if we so desire, or as obligations to those we love?
Hierarchy and Anarchy
But if our relationships are seen on this hierarchy, where we judge their level of significance by things such as holidays, etc., what does that say about relationships where we don’t see our partners that often or where the connection may be primarily sexual? Or what about friends that sometimes have casual sex? These relationships are often seen as lacking in comparison to marriage and other committed relationships. But is it fair to judge the significance of these relationships based on longevity, milestones reached, time together on holidays, etc.? Relationship anarchists believe that the love they share cannot be quantified by how they spend holidays or anniversaries, because the absence of these things doesn’t make their love less.
You have a right to be poly. The official word of the courts, though, is “ugh, whatever.”
On the bright side, there’s no risk of getting prosecuted. As long as no more than two people try to get married, what you do is your own business. It’s privacy, the same logic that struck down laws against same-sex relationships.
The drawback is that the government’s inability to interfere isn’t quite the same thing as cheering for alternative lifestyles. The only modern case on the subject was brought by the stars of the reality TV show Sister Wives, and a religious freedom claim about polygamy as practiced by a fundamentalist Mormon splinter sect isn’t very representative of modern polyamory.
Luckily, there’s a simple way to get polyamorous relationships enshrined in constitutional law.
A few laws still directly discriminate. Most obviously, some city and county zoning laws say that no more than five unrelated individuals may live together in certain places. Or three, or two. These are common enough that for most places in the United States, some city nearby probably has one.
Why does this matter? Occupancy limits aren’t very high-stakes discrimination. They’re definitely not as bad as declaring a relationship illegal. And even if a group of partners did want to live together somewhere it wouldn’t be allowed, enforcement is spotty enough that they’d have a good chance at being ignored. But it is discriminatory. And that means it’s a chance to make a judge say that polyamorous relationships are protected, even against small-scale discrimination like this.
There’s a case to make that polyamory should be explicitly protected, just like sexual orientation. But that would be asking a court to invent new law. It is far easier to use an obscure but already existing branch of the First Amendment, which protects the fundamental right to choose who you live with and what your family structure is.
Two types of association count as a fundamental right: expressive association, where you’re forming a group with a message, and intimate association. Intimate association includes marriage, child-raising, and living with relatives, but courts have said these are examples, not a full list. A group of poly partners would have a strong case that they should be included. There aren’t many associations that are more intimate than romantic ones.
“Intimate,” as it’s defined here, means a small, selective group, that exists for personal reasons. It’s the type of personal relationship that everyone has with at most a few other people and that helps define personal identity. This would unavoidably include polyamory. Even the largest polycule is small by these standards; when courts have said that a group is too large they’ve meant the Rotary Club International. And romantic relationships are always selective and personal. A stable group of long-term partners would have the strongest possible case that the First Amendment protects their relationship.
Why does this matter for people who don’t live with their partners? Or who see poly as being like monogamy but open, instead of being about multiple specific relationships? There’s no shortage of ways to be poly, and not everyone has any reason to care about random occupancy laws. But the goal isn’t just “people can live with their partners.” It’s “people can live with their partners because this is an important type of relationship that deserves protecting.”
So suppose a handful of partners, or partners and metamours, wanted to move in together. They ask the city for permission, and the city refuses. If they sue, whether they win would depend on whether their intimate association rights were violated. The court wouldn’t be able to find some other way to answer the question like in the Sister Wives case, where since it’s half about religious freedom any plausible argument in the other half gets treated like a real right. It would have to go further and actually decide whether polyamorous relationships are a protected form of intimate association.
The end result would be to make the law more inclusive. There would be a precedent that polyamorous relationships are a form of intimate association that some people prefer, and that the law cannot discriminate against poly relationships without a good reason. It would change the law from grudging acknowledgement that there are rights to affirmatively describing why this type of relationship is valuable and deserves protection. It would strike down the odd few laws that do discriminate. And it would give polyamorous relationships some better representation than a white fundamentalist polygamist.
I think this would be an improvement. Before Lawrence v. Texas said that gay relationships are legal because of privacy rights, advocates were talking about making progress through freedom of intimate association. The fact that there are still laws on the books defining what counts as a family means there is an opportunity to get legal recognition as just another type of relationship.
If this sounds like a step up, all it needs is a plaintiff. A group of partners and metamours who want to form a household together, or who already do and wouldn’t mind looking into moving. The bigger the group, the better. Not everywhere has these laws, and the more unrelated individuals there are the more likely it is to be illegal somewhere nearby. The stakes are the first solid positive precedent about polyamory anywhere in constitutional law.
Nathaniel Maranwe is a lawyer in the Washington, DC area. If you are interested in trying to make progress this way, want to suggest another way to improve the law, or want to talk for any other reason, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I learned about this concept from my partner M last night. We were talking about processing emotions and how to talk to about them with our partners. M said he’d learned a concept early on in his poly journey and it was emotional currency. He said emotional currency is having enough emotional energy stored up to deal with emotional or difficult situations. That hit me square in the face because I generally have emotional currency when I talk and deal with emotions with my partners, but several times I’ve discussed really difficult situations and I literally had zero dollars in my emotional bank.
On a personal level dealing with hard situations and arguing with a partner depletes all of my emotional currency. Talking with M last night made me realize how many times I’ve done this and just how harmful it can be to me and my psyche. On the flip side, I can say that there are a few things that fill up my emotional bank. For instance, when a partner shares with me and shows vulnerability it increases my emotional currency bank or when my partners remember my love languages and does something in response to them such as spending quality time with me All these things fill me up on an emotional level.
I can also say that I fill up my emotional bank by processing old situations that I may not have gotten over. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have past issues that I have yet to address. Of course I do! Processing those emotions surrounding those situations can take away from my emotional currency as well “credit” my emotional account. I didn’t like my accounting classes while I was in college, but the idea of debits and credits when talking about an emotional bank rings true for me. I’ve been “debiting” from my emotional bank account and very little “credits” have been deposited. My emotional account has been in the negative for awhile and now I have to do a bit of bookkeeping to figure out where I went wrong and how I can get back into good standing. So far,writing in my journal and being good to myself has been what has been helping me.
Writing in my journal gives me the opportunity to write without the fear of judgement or the fear of having to explain myself or my actions to anyone. Being good to myself is a concept that’s a bit more hard to describe. Being good to myself means being a bit more understanding and not so hard on myself constantly. Not blaming myself for everything, and realizing that I’m human and that I make mistakes is a way that I’m being good to myself. I also have to accept that relationships, just like life, has it’s ups and downs and it’s not the end of the world if I have a disagreement with my partner(s). How do you feel about emotional currency as a poly concept? Are you adding to your bank or are you depleting it?
Dating is hard! Dating while poly can be even harder. I’m autistic, so dating for me is hard to navigate without knowing the rules. So how do you talk about your identity, negotiate consent, and build quality relationships in the brave new swiping world? I’ve got you covered.
Step 1: Know Yourself
Why are you dating? Do you want emotional and physical connection, someone to have sex with, and/or a hiking buddy? Start the process by thinking about the wants and needs that motivate you to date. Do you have a list of ideal qualities? Deal breakers? Know what type of things you want in a person and the things that you would find unacceptable in a partner.
If you’re already partnered, think about what you like and dislike about that person. How are they meeting your needs? What’s missing? Are there any potential issues between you two that might interfere with you dating others? Do you have your partner’s consent to be non-monogamous, and have you discussed what that means for both of you?
Step 2: Check Your Presentation
If it’s been a while since you went out, think about your appearance and habits. Your current partner may be ok with bedhead, but what about a new person? Do you take pride in your concert tees, or should they go to the thrift store? Are you dressing and presenting yourself in a way that is flattering to your shape? Do you feel good about yourself, inside and out? (If no, consider reaching out to some professionals.)
Presentation applies to your social media presence as well. No one swipes right on photos of your torso, nether regions, or your dog. (Well, maybe your dog if he’s cute.) Take some time to compose quality pictures of yourself and make a good first impression. (Pro tip from a mom: never use pictures of children in a dating app.)
Step 3: Make Your Approach
Whether online or off, how you approach people is key to your success in dating. Just because we live in a world full of abbreviations and memes, doesn’t mean you can skimp on communicating your interest. That’s right: forget about copy and paste and take time to write a quality opening message. When you send private messages, talk about what interested you. Be upfront about why you’re connecting. Don’t start with “hi” and expect the other person to carry the conversation. You’re initiating, so you move the conversation toward a date in the real world.
Offline, approaching people must be done with care. Not everyone going about their business wants to flirt in public. Before you shoot your shot, observe their situation and determine if it’s an appropriate time and place. Are they at work? Do they have earphones in? Don’t engage. Are they smiling at you and making a lot of eye contact? Did they move seats to get a better view? Go!
Pay attention to how your potential partner responds. If someone is interested, they’ll keep talking even if they need to be somewhere else. People who are not interested will give a lot of one word answers or look at their phone. Don’t force it. If things look like they’re going downhill, exit gracefully. Offer your phone number and walk away when they say no. Why offer your number? If they are interested, they will call. It’s much more pleasant knowing that someone wants to get in touch than to keep calling and texting with no response.
But why would you spend all that time approaching someone to get rejected? It happens. The sparks you feel aren’t always reciprocated. People don’t owe you a response or the time of day. Just remember that their response is a reflection on you, not them. Have confidence that you will find people who are a good fit for you and get back out there.
Step 4: Tailor the Ask
Don’t be coy about interacting with someone. Be upfront (and polite) about what you’re looking for in a partner. It “no strings attached” sex is on your mind, say so. Everyone can see through you when you say, “looking for friends or more,” and it’s not appealing. It takes courage to ask for what you want, and you may get rejected. Guess what? You’re going to get rejected the majority of the time anyway. You might as well practice open and honest communication from the beginning, and that includes talking about your polyamorous orientation.
When should you let someone know you’re polyamorous? Right away. Non-monogamy is practiced by a small part of the US population, and not everyone is open to it. Your potential partners deserve a chance to opt out, and that should happen before either of you get too entangled with feelings. Whether you put it in your profile or save it for the first date, be prepared to explain what polyamory is and what your relationships look like. Correct misconceptions, but don’t try to convert anyone. Polyamory takes work, and it’s OK if people aren’t ready to try it.
What if the date goes really well, and you want to get physical? Get ready to exercise one vital organ–your mouth. Consent is more important than ever before, and I wrote a comprehensive guide about how to go about it. Here’s the short version: Use your words. Ask before you initiate touching or sexual activity. Pay attention to verbal AND nonverbal cues. Recognize if you are in a position of power over your partner (are they at your house? are you bigger? will they lose money/face/privileges if they don’t go along?). Know if you or your partner have the agency to consent (as an autistic person, I didn’t realize asking to have a sleepover as an adult meant you were OK with having sex. Spell these things out!)
Step 5: Know When to Fold ‘Em
No single interaction is worth losing your life, property, or freedom over. It may feel like the end of the world when a potential relationship doesn’t work out, but it’s not. Even if the first few dates go well, dating is a process of constantly reevaluating your compatibility. Everyone has the right to change their mind at any time. When it’s time to end it, do it gracefully (and not over text). If you’re interested in some kind of interaction in the future, say so–if it’s really true. One of the best things about being polyamorous is understanding that relationships have ups and downs, some people are only compatible on a few things, and communication makes everything easier.
So what would you add? How do you manage dating in the modern world?
Consent is an agreement between two people about how to move forward in a sexual relationship. While it’s easy to assume that obtaining consent is easy, American society has never created a space for people to learn how to obtain consent. What appears to be a simple issue of “yes” and “no” to sex often turns into “he said, she said” when someone makes an accusation of sexual assault.
So how do we improve our knowledge of how to handle consent? The sex positive community has not been a good example. In January 2018, Reid Mihalko, a well-known sex educator and cofounder of Cuddle Parties, was accused of of sexual harassment by a colleague. Though he later apologized and entered into a restorative justice process with other colleagues, his initial decision to not take responsibility shows a huge gap between his preaching about obtaining consent versus his actions.
Milhalko created an model for consent called the “safer sex elevator speech,” a way to establish boundaries and agreements before sexual activity. If a person who taught others how to obtain consent made a potential partner feel pressured, how can a regular person know what to do when consent gets messy?
I used to promote the safer sex elevator speech to people that want to know how to communicate about sex before the act. Once I learned about Mihalko’s behavior and his response, I started working on my own model. Who am I? I’m the website editor of Black & Poly, a community for black people transitioning to polyamory. I have been an assistant organizer for my local polyamory group and I am part of the sex-positive New Culture movement. I’ve taught others about consent and I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I identify as a womanist and I believe everyone wants to get this right.
This consent model expands the elevator speech beyond the basics of who, what, and how. It starts with the recognition of agency and power balances and ends with specific communication about sexual acts. This model has the form of a triangle in equal relationship to each other. If one part is missing or abbreviated, it will affect the entire experience of giving and obtaining consent. Here are the three legs: agency, power, and communication. I’ll break down each leg in detail.
The first leg is agency, which is the recognition that we all have the ability to make choices for ourselves. We make those choices based on available information and our own judgment. When we’re in a relationship, disclosing relevant information is the way we recognize our partner’s agency.
For instance, a person in the dating scene may tell a potential partner that they are seeing others. For those currently in a relationship, it may mean telling a partner that they have acquired an STI. This information usually affects the partner’s future actions, which is why it’s difficult and sometimes embarrassing to talk about. When we withhold information, we are taking away some of our partner’s agency. When a partner has the right information, they can respond in a way that will protect their own safety and peace of mind.
Another part of agency is cognition, or each person’s ability to understand the situation. Children, teenagers, and even young adults do not have the brain development of mature adults; it’s why we restrict drugs, alcohol, and driving by age. In the same way, neurodiverse people often lack the social awareness that will give them the information needed to give or obtain consent. For all people, impairment due to drugs and alcohol means people may make different decisions than if they were sober.
When determining if your partner has agency, compare their individual development against what is expected of people the same age and disability status. If they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are they cognizant of the decision they are making and its possible effects? Recognizing our partner’s agency is a critical part of obtaining consent. We must also acknowledge that even when consent is asked for and given, their actions could cross legal and/or moral boundaries.
The second leg of the consent triangle is the awareness of power. It’s no accident that the majority of celebrities called out for sexual assault and harassment in the #MeToo have been powerful white men. Men born in the US have been brought up in a culture of toxic masculinity that values aggressiveness, manipulation, and dishonesty in order to “get the girl.” When a potential partner refuses to consent, a man’s response of disappointment and even anger is seen as socially appropriate.
Men are not always the bad guys, though. Any relationship between two people is subject to a power imbalance when someone has more seniority, wealth, status, or social support than their partner. Women who pressure men into sex by using their “feminine wiles” are just as guilty of manipulation. The power dynamics of each relationship is not fixed, and it’s always subjective. If someone believes they have less power, that will impact their ability to give consent.
In order to move forward with consent, people should acknowledge the power they hold in the situation. Have they considered the reasons their partner might say yes besides an actual desire to engage? Are they using their position or cultural privilege to get the sex they want? Can they give their partner the space to say no without fearing the consequences?
The fear of rejection is a powerful motivator during consent conversations. Saying or hearing “no” can be painful no matter how justified they are. In fact, many people go through with sex they are not sure about because the idea of hurting their partner seems to be worse than grinning and bearing it. To counter this, sex educators have asked people to ask for enthusiastic consent: it’s either a “Hell, yes!” or it’s a “no.”
Consent is almost meaningless when one partner has created a power imbalance through coercion and violence. People evaluating consent from the outside cannot use someone’s failure to stand up to or leave their abuser as a sign of consent. In the same way, it can be difficult to tell if a situation is sexual harassment or not. We can only start by believing the accuser and looking for patterns in each person’s behavior as it relates to the power balance.
The final leg of consent is the actual communication. Even in romantic comedies where the couple is falling over each other to get in a bed, consent has to be asked for and given. In an ideal world, progressively more intimate activities are verbally consented to by each partner. In the real world, it looks more like shy touches, smiles, and other nonverbal communication. The problem is that some people will look back on those activities and know that at some point they were unwilling to continue.
The moment bad sex becomes something worse is when this unwillingness is glossed over, when one partner notices that something is wrong but continues anyway. We have all experienced the feeling of powerlessness when we give up our agency to another. Our consent is half-hearted, and the guilt can be overwhelming. If you’ve ever had that experience in a non-sexual situation, then try to act with compassion when you see your partner hesitating to give consent.
So what does a conversation about sex look like? It starts with the truth. “I want to be intimate with you.” Even if the phrase sounds awkward and perhaps unauthentic, I encourage you to go into even more detail. The initial yes should be followed up with a checklist of sorts to cover the entire spectrum of sexual activity. Consider the following areas:
Touching genitalia and erogenous zones
Penetration (genitals, fingers, toys)
BDSM activities such as spanking and fetishes
In the spirit of recognizing agency, both partners should discuss any potential barriers to consensual sex. This includes:
STIs and date of last testing
Use of barriers (such as condoms or dental dams), what kind and where
Current relationships and agreements
Past sexual history
Use of birth control or medical sterilization
Medical conditions and other physical limitations
Psychological limitations, history of abuse, and triggers
Attitude towards sex and how it will affect the relationship moving forward
Practice communicating consent before you and your partner get to the bedroom. Over time, these conversations will become commonplace and easier. It’s understandable that not everyone can talk about these things without feeling embarrassed or nervous, but sex is not something to be done in the proverbial dark. The more openness you bring to the conversation, the less shame you will feel about doing one of the most human acts.
At the end of the day, consent is just one part of navigating relationships. Due to the legal and social change in the world, it’s more important than ever to find a way to give and obtain consent without shame and guilt. Recognizing each other’s agency, addressing power imbalances, and communicating consent is a great way to create space for the pleasurable experience that sex should be.
Now that we have a model of consent, let’s apply it to different situations.
Situation 1: A heterosexual couple has gone out on their first date and are now at the man’s house for a nightcap. The man, recognizing his power in this situation (it’s his house and his alcohol) tries to make the woman as comfortable as possible. He may offer her a drink and sit beside her, almost touching her in a way that is intimate but not forceful. Either may initiate sex by engaging in touching and other nonverbal signs.
In order to bring the triangle of consent into balance, they can do things differently. Either partner could demonstrate agency by speaking the truth about the situation: “I’m at your house and excited about connecting more with you.” “I know I invited you over, but I understand if you want to leave without us having sex.” They can also turn touching into communication by saying, “Can I give you a hug or kiss?” Creating an opening for communication gives both partners the space and time to get in touch with their desires and act from a place of enthusiastic consent.
Situation 2: Gay acquaintances have been drinking at a bar, and one partner is interested in making out. Both partners have been using their agency by flirting and talking during the night. They have the social skills to be able to interpret when their attention is no longer reciprocated. Either one can gain consent by verbally asking for a kiss.
No matter how encouraging a partner has been, direct communication establishes a starting point for consent that they can both point to later. It’s true that alcohol can interfere with judgment, and that people can still regret activities they consent to. The more time they spend talking about what they both want, they more likely they will look back on the situation with confidence.
Situation 3: A woman at a higher level in a company is flirting with a colleague. The woman can acknowledge her position of power by saying, “I know I’m in upper management at work, but I want us to be equals outside.” She can clarify what she wants by saying, “I’m flirting with you because I’m interested in a sexual relationship.” It is vital that she gives her partner space to say yes or no and to follow up with details. Instead of depending on innuendo and creating a potentially dangerous “he said, she said” situation, both people can consent to the interaction in a way that feels good. (It’s still possible that their relationship could violate company guidelines.)
The world of dating is often murky, and misunderstandings can be played up as humorous or treacherous. By incorporating the triangle of consent into your interactions, you can create a container of safety and awareness around sexual activity.
Believe it or not, a children’s show has created a perfect scenario for talking about consent. In the show Steven Universe, Steven is a half-alien who has a human friend named Connie. In this episode, they realize that they can fuse together like the aliens can. Fusion is an analog of sex for the aliens, and the episode is a great representation about how consent works.
In this episode, Steven and Connie are enjoying themselves at the beach. They start dancing, which is how the aliens initiate a fusion. Steven recognizes his power and covers his eyes before asking Connie to dance. They both allows themselves to be vulnerable with awkward dance moves and giggles. When they fuse, they are able to enjoy the pleasure of being in sync with each other while recognizing that sometimes they are uncomfortable. After interacting with other characters in the show, they stop to check in. “Are you ok?” This simple question opens up space for both people to communicate their willingness to continue.
Later, at a dance party, Steven and Connie’s togetherness becomes downright uncomfortable. They stop dancing and wonder why it’s not fun. They are both willing to say that something is wrong, even if they can’t explain why. Whether we express it or not, we know what a no feels like. Many of us have also experienced the negative consequences of saying no. In the episode, the response to no included aggressive shaming and attempts to convince them that their no is not a real no. We can create a better consent culture when we recognize a no, stop, and enjoy our time with a partner at a level where we are both comfortable.
H/T to Gregory Avery-Weir for their breakdown of Alone Together.
When people start exploring polyamory, their reasons for doing so lay out the initial map for the journey. But what happens when your partner tries to convince you to explore polyamory and you’re not ready? Should you ignore them? End the relationship? Acquiesce? Experienced poly people have tried all of them with mixed results. Continue reading “I Do it For You”
My grandfather died when I was in middle school. As with all funerals, there are a multitude of family members I’d never met or barely talked to. But hearing about one woman caught me completely by surprise: my mother’s half-sister.
My grandparents on my mother’s side had six children, and I knew them all well (they lived in Gastonia and surrounding towns). I had met their spouses, played with their children, and attended weddings and funerals with them. They’d never mentioned a seventh child, the daughter of my grandfather. My grandmother was reluctant to talk about her. My grandfather was dead. My mother doesn’t want me to talk about it online. But she exists, and the fact that she exists highlights an important part of black culture.
We are not monogamous.
If you’ve read Sex at Dawn, you’re aware of the historical underpinnings of marriage and how it is tied to property and birthright. It’s part of the reason polygyny (a man married to multiple women) is still acceptable across the world. As a black American, I don’t feel much connection with the African women in polygamous marriages. I do feel a connection with my great grandmother, who decided, after having five children, that she would have the next two with a different man. Was she a cheater? Most definitely. Did she have any other models of love and relationship other than monogamy and polygamy? Probably not.
During the slave trade, economic interest was stronger than marital bonds. Black families were routinely separated and sold to different owners whether they were married or single. A woman could not expect to stay on the same plantation with her father or her husband. She often could not decide who would be the father of her own children. Naturally, when freedom came, black families tried to create homes and communities that looked like white families’. They joined a culture that had decided monogamy was best, no matter how often the model citizens failed at it. But consistently up until the modern era, black families have looked more like single parent families, extended support systems, and skipped generation rearing.
Modern critics call it “the breakdown of family structures.” I call it the irreparable damage of white supremacy.
Research shows that, despite the fact that black Americans are less likely to be married than white Americans, black Americans still want and have romantic relationships. They just don’t always end with marriage. The stereotypical lower-income black mother with multiple “baby daddies” has a kernel of truth–black culture, in general, is accepting of serial monogamy and blended families. It’s acceptable to end a relationship when it no longer meets our needs, and it’s just as acceptable to ask that the ex participate in co-parenting along with or instead of a new partner.
Compared to the cultural standard, our way of doing relationships looks dysfunctional and unhealthy. Often times it is dysfunctional and unhealthy, but sometimes it works. Polyamory, a word invented in 1991, is about openness and honesty around our wants and needs. In polyamory, it’s normal to decide whether to live together or not, who participates in co-parenting, and who contributes financially. Black culture does not have to make a giant leap into polyamory–it just has to bring our current practices to the light. Not everyone is built for non-monogamy, and there is still work to be done around removing religion-based shame. At the end of the day, people will be healthier by having more options with which to live authentic lives.
Seriously, if I hear one more person say the reason they became polyamorous is because they “no longer wanted to be a cheater,” I’m going to scream. And yeah, OK, no one really cares about me screaming, but come on.
I’ll be transparent and say that early on I was that guy.
More than a hundred times I’m sure I’ve introduced myself or, worse, the idea of polyamory, under the notion that I was once a cheater, and, to cure myself, I began practicing this lovestyle. In retrospective let me definitively say, Nah Son.
The error in this line of thinking is threefold.
On a personal level, while polyamory did allow me to develop myself as a husband, father, and man, changing my lovestyle did nothing to correct the flawed thinking that allowed me to lie, cheat, and not honor my relationships.
That was work I had to do on myself. Period. At best, I can say that these holes in my own character were exposed by the increased emphasis poly brings to personal accountability/responsibility. If I wasn’t brave enough to be honest with one person about my actions, thoughts, or wants, then there was no way I was going to be honest with two or more just because I have the poly flag tatted on my arm.
This leads us to the second problem with this line of thinking.
2) I was setting others up for failure. Directly or indirectly, I was suggesting to a person that, instead of working on themselves or their relationship, they could escape to the comfort of Polyville, where infidelity was a thing of past, and everyone got along holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Again let me say, Nah Son.
This is something to be studied. This is something to prepare for. This is something to be intentional about. This is NOT a reaction to one’s own shortcomings or growing you have to do in your current relationship. To make it plain: get your house in order before you cross this threshold, because these Black & Poly folks WILL CALL YOU OUT!
Which brings to my final point.
3) Spreading such a sentiment only serves to damage the image and culture of the Black & Poly community. As polyamory creeps from the shadows, it is vital that we control the narrative about our own community. This has been a life giving, family oriented, freeing process for many of us, and to conflate polyamory with cheating is irresponsible and discouraging for those seeking the same freedom and peace we have been granted. Dishonesty, lying, and cheating have no home here.
We are a community that holds ourselves and each other accountable. We are a community rooted in standing against every kind of abuse. We are a community that is about far more than sex or even romantic relationships. We ARE about freedom. Freedom is something you can’t cheat your way to.